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Monday 30 August 2021 9:49am

The shift to working from home was relatively easy this lockdown, but some people are not coping as well as others, preliminary results from a University of Otago study reveal.

The Work Futures Otago team, made up of Dr Paula O'Kane, Associate Professor Sara Walton, Dr Diane Ruwhiu and Dr Dana Ott, of the Otago Business School, is undertaking a five-question pulse survey to understand the current experiences of people able to work from home during this second national lockdown.

Paula O'Kane image
Dr Paula O'Kane.

To date, more than 2000 people have responded, and Dr O'Kane says the participants' optional qualitative comments have revealed some intriguing experiences.

“One particular quote: 'Kids! Want them?' made us both laugh and groan in empathy,” she says.

Although 63 per cent of respondents reportedly found it easy or extremely easy to work effectively, 30 per cent found it somewhat or extremely difficult.

“Much of this relates to the 'balance' needed to work from home during the Delta lockdown, particularly for those with caring responsibilities. Although many also enjoy what remote working enables.

“Our key message to employers echoes the Prime Minister's kindness mantra, be flexible and understanding of individual needs,” Dr O'Kane says.

Many participants stressed that remote working in lockdown is not the same as remote working through choice, as put succinctly: “I'd like to note that working from home is very easy but that working from home during level 4 lockdown is different”.

Respondents were also positive about productivity, with 71 per cent agreeing or strongly agreeing they would be productive during this lockdown. However, the researchers could see productivity in and of itself was not the issue, rather that there is potential for people to be stressed, and ultimately experience burnout, while trying to balance work and life and the inherent uncertainty and worry caused by Delta.

This is echoed in these comments: “Working remotely doesn't reduce quality or efficiency of work in itself. What makes it hard is combining childcare with remote work” and “Others are anxious and depressed and feeling isolated and not as productive as usual which leads to feelings of guilt. Others are working enormous hours to ensure work gets done”.

“Employers need to understand that some employees are only just coping,” Dr O'Kane says.

Many participants discussed ways they or their organisations are, or could, support people, including enabling flexible hours (but ensuring people did not over-work); encouraging employees to switch off, and lead by example; defer non-essential projects and meetings; check in regularly with staff; instigate opportunities for formal and informal communication; and prioritise mental health.

On the surface the shift to working from home appeared relatively easy, with 84 per cent finding it easy or somewhat easy. However, many people still have technology issues such as slow wi-fi and inadequate equipment, exacerbated by the speedy lockdown, leaving many with little chance to bring resources home.

Organisations do appear to have learnt from previous alert level changes, with 43 per cent suggesting their organisation was very proactive, while only 8 per cent suggested their organisation was not.

“There is still a strong need to create and embed connectedness when working from home. Although many now understand and enact online meeting etiquette and stronger communication, there was still evidence that people needed more support.”

The survey also asked how happy people felt to be working from home, with 64 per cent of respondents saying they were happy or somewhat happy. Others spoke of a lack of motivation, which could be linked to uncertainty in lockdown length or more general COVID fatigue.

“This really provides an opening for organisations to discuss with their employees how remote, and flexible working, can support them in the future. Lockdowns do have an impact on business and organisational operations and, importantly, on the people who work in them. Being kind extends to everything that we do.”

The Work Futures Otago group explored attitudes to remote working in the future, during the 2020 lockdown:
Remote Working during COVID‑19 – New Zealand National Survey: Initial Report July 2020.
It will conduct a follow-up study when New Zealand is out of lockdown, exploring the productivity and wellbeing aspects of remote work and, more importantly, flexibility.
The current Pulse Survey is still open and can be completed here:
AotearoaNZ Remote Working Pulse Survey

For more information, contact:

Dr Paula O'Kane
Department of Management
Otago Business School
University of Otago

Ellie Rowley
Communications Adviser
University of Otago
Mob +64 21 278 8200

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