Since BP scaled up the use of remote working software during the coronavirus lockdown, Richard Heron has focused on mitigating the downsides. As chief medical officer at the oil major, he has tracked a three-fold growth in the past three months in the volume of online meetings using the Microsoft Teams platform and instant messages across the business.

“The conundrum is harnessing the power of technology while not becoming a slave to it,” Mr Heron says. “We should be helping people to take a break from their workstation rather than facilitating them spending more time on the laptop.”

Video conferencing, electronic messaging and remote access to data have helped many people to work from home, and in some ways to be more in touch with their customers and colleagues, supervisors and senior executives. Yet Mr Heron cautions that more managers should be tracking their use to limit the impact on physical and mental health.

His warnings reflect wider concern. Technology has offered the means to maintain and even boost productivity and is providing new tools to improve staff welfare. But it also brings untested and potentially negative consequences, many of which are only now becoming apparent.

Neil Greenberg, a professor of mental health specialising in the military at King’s College London, jokes that technology has transformed remote working lives to the point that “people are now questioning whether they are working from home or sleeping in the office”.

“Coronavirus has brought forward two years of technological change in two weeks,” he says. “From a mental health viewpoint, what hasn’t worked is understanding how to use it properly. We’ve got used to the technology; now we have to adapt to psychologically sound ways of working.”

The first problem is tackling the pressures on physical health from makeshift home working. A survey by the UK’s Institute for Employment Studies of more than 700 employees since the start of the lockdown found that over a third reported extra aches, pains or discomfort in their neck or back than usual.

“People are often working on a laptop at their kitchen table,” says Will Ponsonby, president of the UK’s Society of Occupational Medicine. “That brings lots of challenges: laptops were not designed to be worked on for eight hours a day.”

Tired woman massaging rubbing stiff sore neck tensed muscles fatigued from computer work in incorrect posture feeling hurt joint shoulder back pain ache, fibromyalgia concept, close up rear view; Shutterstock ID 1492613306; Department: -; Job/Project: -; Employee Name: -
In one survey more than a third of respondents reported extra aches, pains or discomfort in their neck or back than usual since lockdown © Shutterstock / fizkes

He recommends that employers provide staff with — or let them claim for — suitable equipment, from computer keyboards, screens and mice to ergonomically designed desks and office chairs.

Medical specialists point out that physical complaints such as musculoskeletal conditions are often both a contributor to, and a proxy for, underlying mental health conditions. They point to the need for screen breaks and exercise to change posture and interrupt intense computer-based work.

London-based Pinky Lilani, who campaigns for diversity and kindness in the workplace, argues that working remotely has further increased the need for demonstrations of kindness. “I make five calls to people every day to find out how they really are,” says the founder and chair of Women of the Future. “Technology can be so impersonal.”

Emma Russell, senior lecturer in occupational and organisational psychology at the University of Sussex, stresses that online video conferencing tools like Zoom impose additional stressful “emotional labour” on employees as they concentrate on their own on-screen reactions and those of colleagues.

She recommends establishing clearly defined times during the day — and ideally in different places at home — to separate work and personal life; regular screen breaks; and new codes of “social etiquette” that may include turning off video during conferences “so people don’t feel the need to constantly regulate their behaviour”.

Work by Ms Russell’s colleague Chidiebere Ogbonnaya suggests that the impact of home working varies widely. Some people may welcome it, including many with introverted personalities. However others, such as those who are less well organised, report higher degrees of mental health stress than with office-based supervision.

Digital tools can help those working from home, with a growing range of apps offering mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy and resources such as the Big White Wall, which provides online support for anxiety, depression and mental health problems.

Yet Jim Woods, the founder of Better Space, which offers online employee wellbeing resources, stresses that “there is no one-size-fits-all solution”. He says that most individual tools, such as meditation apps, will appeal to a relatively small proportion of staff and that use typically declines over time. Mr Woods suggests companies should give employees budgets to draw on a wider range of options from which they can choose over time.

Dr Ponsonby warns that apps cannot be a substitute for better workplace relations. “The most important thing for wellbeing is people’s relationships with their manager: a feeling of being valued, treated well and of fairness,” he says. “Managers are disappointed because they want a quick fix.”

He and others point out that while technology may have eased the difficulties of home working in the short term, the long-term consequences are unclear. As Octavius Black, chief executive of the Mind Gym, a performance management consultancy, says: “There is a risk of productivity collapse as people burn out, can’t cope, feel exhausted, and opt out. Companies won’t notice until quite far down the road, and will find it hard to recover.”

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Coronavirus has changed the way we work in a few weeks — perhaps forever. What are the implications of mass remote working and the technology that enables it and how should businesses respond?

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