European Agency for Safety and Health at Work EU-OSHA and the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health press release 11 October 2023
The rise in the popularity of remote work during the COVID-19 crisis was a major digital revolution in work life and it does not seem likely that we will fully return to our past practices. The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health is carrying out a research project to provide information on the good practices, opportunities, risks and ways to prevent these risks related to in-office and remote work.
“The majority of employees want to hold on to the opportunity to work remotely they have been presented. Meanwhile, organizations are justifiably concerned how this will affect the sense of community, exchanging tacit knowledge and the organization’s ability to reform. Workplaces are now feverishly looking for optimal solutions to this conflict,” says Research Professor Tuomo Alasoini from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health.
“We do not know yet which of the various suggested solutions is the best. Most likely, different alternatives work the best in different organizations. Roughly speaking, organizations can either make electronic communications work better or establish ways to meet in person more often,” Alasoini continues.
Specialist Researcher Hilpi Kangas says that working in a digital environment makes the work even more condensed when random interactions are absent. However, digitalization also offers new ways to interact and communicate.
Alasoini and Kangas have identified four cornerstones on which the leadership of multi-location work can be established.
Interviews carried out by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health researchers at Finnish workplaces indicate that organizations that force their employees to work at the office instead of working remotely will lose employees. This is particularly true for sectors that have a labour shortage. The threshold for changing jobs has become lower in recent years. This may be partly due to the fact that the sense of community or belonging may deteriorate in hybrid work.
“Supervisors need to appreciate people’s needs related to the location and time of working as a uniform model for working is not suitable for everyone and all kinds of jobs. For example, families with children need more flexibility in their daily lives and different types of boundaries between work and free time than those who live alone. On the other hand, people who live alone need their supervisor’s support in setting work apart from free time,” says Kangas.
Individual working models can signify a complete turnaround for workplaces that have so far considered equal treatment to mean that everyone needs to work an equal amount of days remotely and at the office.
“The work of team leaders and immediate supervisors is further challenged by the fact that, in multi-location work, the short and long-term goals can often be in conflict with each other. Remote work may be beneficial in the short term as it provides peaceful working conditions and supports life outside work. However, the poor exchange of information and sense of community remote work may lead to can only be seen in the long term. Supervisors need to be able to look to the future and highlight this aspect,” Kangas continues.
Multi-location work requires self-management, which has been proven to improve employees’ motivation, work engagement and recovery. This is not without problems, however.
“Organizations have misunderstood the concept of self-management if they think it means that people can decide on everything themselves. Even in an autonomous organization, supervisors need to ensure that people recognize the organization’s shared goals, they are supported in accomplishing these goals and problems are solved together. Removing middle management from an autonomous organization is a big mistake,” says Alasoini.
“Managing Directors cannot solve the everyday problems of 150 people alone. If there are no immediate supervisors available, employees mull over work-related matters with their colleagues or mentors. Someone may, even involuntarily, assume the role of a supervisor without an official status,” Alasoini continues.
According to Alasoini, staying home is a risk for the well-being of both the individual and the community.
“In remote work, it is easy to have a narrow view that encompasses only your own performance and team while the engagement to the workplace’s shared goals deteriorates. This may lead to burnout and problems with motivation, which are typically difficult to identify in multi-location work. This does not serve to benefit the organization,” Alasoini says.
Autonomous multi-location work is the smoothest if interaction with the supervisor is fruitful and common ground rules have been set. Alasoini calls this the paradox of autonomy as it may sound weird to say that self-management requires leadership.
“The supervisor’s behaviour is easily replicated, so if a leader wants their team at the office, they should be present as well,” says Kangas.
“If no one will be at the office, no one will want to go there either. For this reason, some of the workplaces we studied had a policy in place that the team should be present at the office on certain weekdays,” says Alasoini.
Alasoini and Kangas estimate that building a sense of community is also possible in multi-location work, but it requires more effort. The supervisor must enable interaction and provide everyone a reason to come to the office. It is also worth remembering that building a sense of community is a shared task and that supervisors cannot do it alone.
4. Careful communications and digital tools to support the community
Remote communication is more difficult than face-to-face communication as it is impossible to sense the atmosphere and interpret small gestures. Interactions are more limited and typically focus on the matter at hand, which makes it more difficult to get to know new people and build trust. Giving and receiving feedback is also more difficult. It is only possible to mention difficult topics offhand.
“Because of this, supervisors need to be more accurate in their communications and ensure that everyone understands the message correctly. Many things that could have been implied and read between the lines before need to be put into words now. In particular, the support given to employees must be made more visible,” says Kangas.
Kangas encourages providing supervisors with training on how new digital tools can be used in going over ideas, requesting and giving support and reinforcing the work community through informal communications.
“If someone asks a question on a shared channel, everyone can see the answer and learn from it. Discussions are also recorded and they can be checked later if you need the information provided in them. Some people even say that it is easier to ask dumb questions with instant messaging services than in an open-plan office where there are plenty of people unintentionally eavesdropping,” Kangas says.
- Specialist Researcher Hilpi Kangas, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, hilpi.kangas [at] ttl.fi, +358 (0)30 474 3394
- Research Professor Tuomo Alasoini, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, tuomo.alasoini [at] ttl.fi, +358 (0)30 474 2577
- Additional information and interview requests related to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work: Toni Perez, toni.perez [at] osg.fi, +358 (0)400 630 063
- The mission of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) is to promote occupational safety, occupational health and productivity in Europe.
- EU-OSHA is launching the new Safe and Healthy Work in the Digital Age campaign in October. The campaign will run from 2023 to 2025 with an aim to stir up debate over the effects of digitalization on work life and occupational health and safety. The first theme of the campaign is remote and hybrid work.
- The Agency’s national partner in Finland is the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, who will provide tips on safe and healthy work in the digital age by sharing information in webinars, for example.
- The campaign will be launched in Finland with an opening webinar open to the general public.