A (nice) room of one’s own
At the beginning of the pandemic, the advice from the government was that anyone who can work from home must do so. Eighteen month on, while we have moved beyond Level 0, the Scottish Government has made clear that ‘home working will continue to be an important mitigation for controlling the virus’ and has asked for employers’ support to continue making this option available wherever possible.
From the first lockdown, it’s clear that not all jobs can be done from home. Working from home (WFH), therefore, is as much a COVID-curbing strategy as a privilege, which I along with thousands of staff members at the University are fortunate enough to have. Nevertheless, the move to WFH was an experiment that we were forced to partake, for better or worse. But exactly how much better or worse? The Research Insights team of the University’s Hybrid Working Programme was tasked to find out.
Led by Dr. Lila Skountridaki from the Business School, we interviewed more than 200 members of the academic and professional services staff through 18 focus groups in March and April this year about their experiences working from home, their pre-pandemic work space, and their thoughts on hybrid working. These in-depth conversations helped inform the 2021 version of the University-wide Home and Hybrid Work Survey, which was sent out in mid-May and over 40% of you responded (5500+).
As expected, even though we all work for the same organisation, the WFH experience runs the gamut. The extent WFH has positively or negatively impacted on the various aspects of teaching, research, and support also differs by our roles. But on average, WFH has had a generally positive impact on our overall working experience. You can find details of the findings at the Hybrid Working Framework Research Insights SharePoint site.
Understanding the findings
More interesting are the reasons that made us prefer working either from home or from the campus. You may have remembered that in the survey, we asked you to read a series of statements – such as ‘I can focus better’ – and indicate where (at home, on campus; or somewhere in between) it is most true for you. The diagram below is a graphical summary of what you have told us. Although not all statements are positive, there are many more statements that are true, or truer when working from home than on campus.
As a building researcher focusing on occupant wellbeing, I was most interested in understanding the impact of indoor environmental conditions and people’s interactions with the space they occupy. This is why we asked you about room temperatures, lighting, noise, and views, in addition to the workspace itself; these are highlighted with a red arrow in the diagram.
The question about space
Unsurprisingly, space to work is an important issue when WFH. From the focus group study, most colleagues work out of a room in their home that serves a double purpose on a daily basis such as the dining room or bedroom, especially for those living in flats or in the city where space is limited. The result is a choice between an added chore of setting up and putting away work-related items every weekday, or letting work spill into life by leaving everything out. Depending on the role, the work setup may not be so easily assembled and dismantled. Some colleagues also require equipment that take up additional floor space. Only a minority of colleagues have a dedicated home office or an actual spare room that can create a physical boundary to cordon work in when off the clock.
Interestingly, space to work also seems to be a common issue when working on campus, particularly for colleagues who shared their office with others pre-pandemic. In fact, about just as many people said they had more workspace on campus as at home (hence the average score was in the middle of the scale in the diagram.) More illuminating is that more of you told us that you have better physical environmental conditions at home, such as ‘better lighting’ and ‘less noise’. Worth noting is the ability to control the room temperature, which the majority of you said is most true at home. What this tells us is that it’s not so much the amount of space, but rather the quality of space, that matters the most. This finding is corroborated by what colleagues told us in the focus groups.
The things that matter
Being satisfied with your thermal environment (how warm or cool the space is), not having noise (unwanted sounds) whilst you work, and having the right amount of illumination (not too much or too little) to light your work surface may seem to be ‘first world’ issues at best and high-maintenance quibbles at worst. But what decades of research told us is that these environmental conditions are far from trivial and can impact our physical and mental wellbeing, not to mention productivity.
Your preferred room temperature is influenced by physiological, psychological, and behavioural factors, as well as the season and even time of the day. Therefore, a key to thermal comfort is not so much of finding the perfect temperature, but rather being able to effect changes to make yourself thermally comfortable. This can be as simple as adjusting your clothes or altering your posture or having a cold/hot drink, all of which are easier to accomplish at home (as indicated by ‘easier access to amenities’ on the diagram above).
Of course, when at home, you can actually control the room temperature, such as by opening a window or turning up the heating (or simply sit closer to the radiator). These seemingly simple actions, however, are not always possible at work, especially when you share a space with many others such as in an open-plan office. But the trade-off for being able to control the temperature of your workspace at home is more expensive heating bills, which was brought up as a negative in almost every focus groups. With the energy price slated to rise significantly from October, home utility cost is likely to be an important factor to bear in mind when considering the different options of hybrid working.
As expected, the more people you have to share your workspace with the less control you will have over how you want the space to be, not just in terms of the room temperature, but also with respect to other environmental conditions such as noise. Consequently, you may be more dissatisfied with the space. Indeed, our survey shows that colleagues who worked in open-plan offices are more likely to be very dissatisfied with their workspace pre-pandemic and more interested in WFH most of the week going forward, coming to campus only when necessary. On the other hand, colleagues who had single-occupancy offices on campus are more likely to be very satisfied with their pre-pandemic workspace.
Many colleagues also told us in the focus groups that the windows in their office are either too draughty, cannot be open or are too high to be reached. A few said that they don’t have a window in their office. For them, WFH provided a much better quality workspace. One participant told us that since WFH they have ‘noticed a big change in [their]…mental health, just being…able to be in daylight again’. This is not surprising as several studies (including this small case-control study and this questionnaire survey study) have shown that workers in windowless environments have poorer overall health and sleep quality than their counterparts who work in offices with windows.
But windows don’t just provide ventilation and daylight, they also allow view out, which is particularly desirable when that view is of nature. Many colleagues noted ‘view of their garden’ as something they very much enjoy when WFH. Even better is when they can just step out into the garden and take a mini break from the screen. Many studies have shown an association between being in or seeing nature and general wellbeing. Some research, such as this one, also found that the greater the level of exposure to nature in the workspace, the higher the job satisfaction.
As WFH will be with us in some form for some time yet, the desire to have a nice room of one’s own to WFH and a garden may be what’s really driving the house price boom during the pandemic. But even back on campus, we’ve learned from our studies that there can be changes to improve the quality of some existing workspaces. With all that is going on in the world right now, it may feel indulgent to be discussing the amount of daylight or the views we have from our desks. But as they say, it’s the little things that make up life. We spend 90% of our lives indoors (and possibly more since the pandemic). If by paying more attention to the details of our physical surroundings can improve our everyday experience, we would be remiss not to try.