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Rethinking Experience | Supporting Women in a Work from Home World

The need for working from home programs has risen in the last couple of months not only in Kenya but also globally due to the Coronavirus health pandemic. The outbreak of Covid-19 was just one of the factors that have driven work-from-home programs. The study used multiple case studies design to explore the impacts of WFH (Working from Home) programs on the employee experience of female HR practitioners in 6 Kenyan companies. Most scholarly studies have focused on the impacts of WFH programs on the productivity of employees. The researcher has found that the employees who work from home have poor productivity levels compared to those who work from the office as they are usually not offered collaboration opportunities. Workplace isolation is an important factor that can lead to lower employee engagement. However, employer support of the employees on the WFH can lead to positive organizational attachment instead of alienation. The current study found that the employees report limited workplace isolation and no negative impacts on the employee experience; thus, the study findings are contrary to the studies. The main conclusion from the study is that WFH programs should support the employees and ensure proper communication to ensure that the benefits are achieved. 

Introduction

Working from home (WFH) is becoming a common practice globally. The statistics from the US indicate that approximately 10% of the workforce work from home at least one day a week, with 61% of employers adopting a variant of WFH between 2005 and 2010 (Mamaghani, 2010). The need for working from home programs has risen in the last couple of months not only in Kenya but also globally due to the Coronavirus health pandemic. The outbreak of Covid-19 was just one of the factors that have driven work-from-home programs. As noted in the work of Murphy (2020), the Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, announced that nearly 50% of all employees of Facebook would WFH in the next 5-10 years. WFH programs have been seen as a way of not only reducing the costs but also some of the negative impacts of the workplace, such as work-life balance, and improving the employee experience. However, Yahoo, which had implemented WFH programs, had to stop the program as it led to lower productivity at the firm, according to Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer (Wright, 2013).

Over the years, there have been efforts made to reduce gender inequality across the globe. Achieving equality in the leadership and career journey of women has been the goal of many organizations today. However, as much as impacts of any form of crisis are never gender-neutral, the pandemic heightened the inequalities that women face in the career space. The impact of COVID on women has been in most cases negative, especially for working mothers. Burnout has become a real issue as women are not only forced to focus on work but also to run their household and care for their children at the same time. This has had a near-immediate effect on the females working with the majority of them leaving the workforce or downshifting their career in comparison to men (McKinsey, 2021). As much as the challenges have intensified, organizations have an opportunity to make significant efforts to create better work experiences to retain their female talent pipeline.

Source: Women in Workplace, LeanIn.Org, and McKinsey (2020)

As employees worldwide report a myriad of challenges during the pandemic, there is a need to understand how WFH programs are impacting women, particularly in Kenya. Currently, there is mixed evidence with regards to the impacts of WFH on productivity and other elements of the workplace, such as the employee experience, which has been linked to higher organizational and employee performance. The study, therefore, used multiple case studies design to explore the impacts of WFH programs on the employee experience of female HR practitioners in 6 Kenyan companies. The research questions of the study included:

  1. Does workplace isolation, because of WFH, have an impact on the employee experience of women in the workplace?
  2. What approaches can managers adopt to improve the employee’s experience of the women who work from home?  

Theoretical Background

According to Bao et al. (2020), working from home is a work arrangement where the employees of an organization do not work in a centralized office, warehouse, or store. Most scholarly studies have focused on the impacts of WFH programs on the productivity of employees. The researcher has found that the employees who work from home have poor productivity levels compared to those who work from the office as they are usually not offered collaboration opportunities (Boell et al., 2016). Other studies have also indicated that firms, such as Google, Yahoo, and HP have made attempts to reduce the WFH based on the view that it reduces the output and quality of work of the employees (Felstead & Henseke, 2017). It is important to note that such studies have not considered the employee experience with the focus of such studies on the performance levels of the employees. 

As noted by Morgan (2017), employee experience is linked to improved employee performance. Singh et al. (2017) explored the link between the WFH programs and the employee experience, which brought about positive employee experience advantages, such as lower stress levels, better health, and greater flexibility, higher levels of innovation and creativity as well as better life balance. On the contrary, the study also noted that based on the design of the WFH program, it could also bring about negative impacts, such as feelings of alienation as the employee is very far away from the office. Employee experience is based on the understanding and empathizing with the employees; both as individuals and as a group and taking into consideration the entirety of the employee experience in terms of their needs for purpose, autonomy, mastery, development, trust, relationships, innovation, engagement, and feelings of worth. 

Workplace isolation is an important factor that can lead to lower employee engagement. Therefore, even though most of the literature focuses on productivity. However, employer support of the employees on the WFH can lead to positive organizational attachment instead of alienation (Onken-Menke et al., 2017). However, the studies by Anderson et al. (2014) and Bentley et al. (2016) noted that WFH leads to isolation, psychological stress and had negative impacts on the wellbeing of the employees. There are significant gaps in the literature, as some of the studies indicate positive outcomes, while others indicate negative outcomes. 

Methodology

Due to the gaps in the literature, the study explored the impacts of WFH on the employee experience of female HR managers in Kenyan companies. Since most of the studies have been undertaken in European and Western contexts, there is limited research on developing countries, such as Kenya. The research design applied is the multiple case study strategy of 6 firms listed in the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE). The qualitative approach was used in the study as it allows for a rich exploration of the experiences of the subjects (Yin, 2014). Purposive sampling was used with a sample size of 9 women HR professionals currently working from home. Patton (2016) noted that a sample of between 6-15 participants is sufficient for a qualitative exploratory study to reach the saturation level. 

Data collection was undertaken by semi-structured interviews with HR professionals. Data analysis was undertaken through thematic analysis. Confidentiality was ensured using the anonymity of the data collected and that the data would be analyzed by the researcher and used only for the purposes of the study and not shared with any organization. Finally, the study did not cause any discomfort, pain, stress, harassment, or harm to the participants of the study as the data was processed lawfully and fairly, data was obtained in an explicit manner and for lawful purposes. Informed consent was provided before gaining access.

Findings

The study included 9 HR professionals from 8 organizations listed in the NSE. All the participants were female. One of the most important findings was the need for clear role expectations as HR5 noted that “with a clear role and expectation from my managers I’m able to work effectively.” This was a common theme amongst the participants. The study found that with clear communication, the women who work from home have a great experience. The other theme from the study was that there was no impact on the peer-to-peer relationship as they remained in contact with their colleagues through various technologies, such as Zoom and WhatsApp. HR9 stated that “I still interact with my colleagues just as if I’m in the office … plus having my baby close to me … has really led to greater focus on my end as I’m not worried about him”. The third important theme is that the employees did not feel any isolation as they can physically attend the meetings, walk into the office if they needed to see someone, and generally had all the help they require at their fingertips. HR2 stated that “I have never missed any office gossip, event or anything of that sort. I’m always in the loop”. Most of the participants supported the view that they are not isolated. Support from the office was also an important theme. Approximately 86% of the respondents indicated that they were offered training and other support and communication. HR7 captured the sentiments of the participants by indicating that “I get support, training as well as all communications as if I was in the office… I have loved the experience of working from home”. 

Source: Author, 2021

Discussion and Conclusion

Considering that the existing literature has indicated that workplace isolation can be a major result of WFH programs, leading to lower employee experience and lower productivity, the current study found that the employees report limited workplace isolation and no negative impacts on the employee experience. Thus, the study findings are contrary to the studies by Singh et al. (2017), Gozukara et al. (2017), and Onken-Menke et al. (2017), which indicated that WFH programs could lead to alienation and thus lower employee experience.

 Most companies in Kenya have adopted Working from Home Programs due to the prolonged pandemic. The findings of the interview suggest there are a couple of factors that contributed to a positive experience while working remotely. Employees especially women are not ready to resume working in the office anytime soon.

Support System: In most African homes, the role of a support system provides women with an opportunity to pursue their careers and provide for their families at the same time. Traditionally, women relied on their extended family, close neighbors to support them with childcare and housework support. Today, the career woman in Kenya cannot do without a support staff in the form of drivers, cleaners, and nannies. For these women to enjoy working from home was the fact that they had a strong household support system. Women with young children enjoyed working from home as they had someone taking of their children and were able to supervise this while working from home. This enabled the interviewees to achieve a great work-life balance, as they were much more flexible than with fixed hours in the office.

As a career woman, working from home has been a positive experience for me as well. I employed domestic help with my little kids as I concentrated on my work. At the same time, during breaks, I got the opportunity to bond with the children through play and other activities. The flexibility to work at different times, together with a good support system has made Home Office a remarkable opportunity to be productive and improve personal relationships.

Less Commuting strain: Nairobi, the capital city in Kenya, is notorious for traffic jams and a big contributor as to why a WFH program is a better option for organizations. Home Office has greatly reduced the amount of time and energy spent on a daily commute. Depending on location, employees can spend one to two hours commuting to work. Recently, commuters heading home were stranded overnight on the city’s main highway, Mombasa Road for more than 11 hours (Onyango, 2021). The whole strain of commuting increases the anxiety and stress levels of most employees who must commute daily. For this reason, WFH programs have been introduced to reduce the time and cost of commuting. This way, the interviewees felt that their organization supported their physical and mental health. For this reason, they were able to increase their work performance and productivity while working from home. Remote employees tend to be happier and healthier according to the feedback provided by the HR managers.

Communication: WFH programs require the amplification of organizational culture through communication. During the interview, communication was a key factor to reduce the negative impacts of remote working. When communication breaks down in the organization, then productivity suffers, and engagement drops. As an experienced working from home employee, there is great satisfaction in knowing that I am still an integral part of the business and that my efforts are cherished, and I am respected. Communication is critical whether one is working in a team or individually. Being open and transparent with the teams through monthly or weekly calls enables one to maintain their position as an integral part of the business. Internal company communication or announcements via email also ensures that employees are up to date with changes happening in the business. During the interviews, it was clear that Information technology contributed highly to the communication and collaboration of remote workers and satisfied the need for interaction with colleagues.

Managerial Support: Even in the most uncertain times, managers are crucial in offering support to their employees. As much as employees are happy about working from home, it is essential for managers to build a culture of connection through check-ins. Managers' focus on their employee’s well-being meant that they offered flexibility for working and ensured that there is proactive communication to ensure are not making assumptions about their employees. Managers could be supportive by for example organizing virtual coffee sessions, lunches, wine & cheers nights, pulse surveys, and so on. This facilities connection and collaboration within the team. Investing in training for leaders, managers, and individual employees is paramount to ensure they are gaining skills to adapt to the current changes. Additionally, modification of policies and practices has played a major role in supporting the workers at home. The adoption of continuous performance reviews for compassionate feedback and learning instead of evaluations against strict objectives and goals increased the employee experience of the interviewees. 

Given the stated findings, women working from home had a positive experience working from home as they were able to achieve greater productivity, attain work-life balance, and enjoyed mental wellness. If not for the factors mentioned above, there would be negative impacts on the employee experience and, by extension, productivity, as indicated in Singh et al. (2017) and other studies. 

Author: Juliet Shambi

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