What will working-from-home mean for our mind, body and productivity?

27 May 2021

With an estimated 32 per cent of people now regularly working-from-home for some part of their week, employers are wondering what this 21st century development will ultimately mean for long-term productivity.

Many of us have re-jigged our home environments to accommodate work duties, but how well are we managing the transition?

Under the dramatically different circumstances of a societal lockdown, many of us experienced what was essentially an overnight revolution in workplace behaviour.

But what will increased hours at home mean for our collective futures, and what effect will so-called hybrid workplaces have on workers and employers?

Will we be more (or less) productive? Are home environments destined to become an extension of the modern workplace? What is working-from-home (WFH) likely to mean for our mental and physical health?

working from home

What are the risks?

These are just some of the many important questions tasked to a group of UQ researchers investigating the human impacts of working-from-home. The group is part of the Next-generation workspaces research network established by the Global Change Institute.

UQ Research Fellow Dr Elise Gane has gathered a team of specialist colleagues in areas such as ergonomics, biostatistics, musculoskeletal health, public health and organisational psychology to unpick answers to these important questions.

Their research project: ‘Evaluating changing environmental, psychological, and organisational characteristics of working from home and their impact on work and health outcomes of employees’ has been commissioned by the USA-based ‘Office Ergonomics Research Committee’ (OERC), a consortium of companies that work together to advance ergonomic research in the design and management of knowledge workplaces, systems, processes, and products.

People tend to lead complex inter-connected lives that are notoriously difficult for researchers to study or model, let alone make long-term predictions about how we are likely to react to radically new working conditions.

For obvious ethical reasons, researchers sometimes rely on animal models to infer or predict human behaviours. Imagine, for example, how difficult it would be to unilaterally increase the commute time across an entire floor of office workers, just to see how that one factor impacted productivity?

Relationship between work and health

As a research physiotherapist Dr Gane has long had a keen interest in the relationship between work and health.

“Working from home has been an option since the 1970s but that increased in practicality with the growth in home computer use since the late 1990s,” she says.

“Knowledge workers have been the key employee type to make the shift to working from home, being defined as workers who deal with knowledge, data and ideas.

“Prior research tells us that working from home can have benefits for the employer, including: increased employee work performance, and reduced costs for office space and reduced staff turnover.

“Employees have also reported increased job satisfaction, work-life balance, fewer interruptions and more autonomy in their work tasks when working from home.

“There are potential disadvantages to working from home for both the employee and employer, which must be acknowledged.

“Employees may experience an increased risk of musculoskeletal disorders from long hours seated without breaks, feelings of isolation and depression from a lack of face-to-face interaction with colleagues or customers, higher levels of stress from the blurring of the work-home boundary, and an increased risk of slips, trips or falls in their home environment.

“There is a risk for the employer that the quality of the work may be affected – perhaps as a result of the reduced ability to monitor the work being performed, or as a result of reduced team collaboration.

“Using a specially designed online survey, we will be measuring the impact of working-from-home across key areas such as mental health, work productivity and physical health, Dr Gane says.

“To help us measure whether these relationships change over time, we’ll also be offering follow-up surveys with participants after three and six months.”

Survey participants can expect to gain useful insights into how to design better working-from-home guidelines for all parties.

GCI Innovation Broker Alex Blauensteiner says Dr Gane’s investigations are an excellent example of the type of transdisciplinary research the Global Change institute is enabling through its bespoke research networks.

Dr Gane is from the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at UQ.

Get involved

If your organisation would like to participate in Dr Gane’s research or you'd would like more information about the Next-generation Research Network, please contact: a.blauensteiner@uq.edu.au


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