Office vs home – what is the ideal working environment?
While employee’s physical health has been a concern for as long as most can remember, it has only been in more recent years that discussions around the mental health of employees have become louder. The Government’s Health and Safety Executive states that one in four people in the UK will suffer with a mental health problem at some point during their lives .
Personal circumstances are not the only causes of these problems, work-related stress and unsuitable working environments can contribute to conditions such as anxiety and depression.
COVID-19 changed the way many of us now live, both at work and at home. During the national lockdowns many industries shut down while others moved to working from home, the actuarial field being one of the latter. Each person you speak to will have had a different experience of working from home during this time – some will have preferred it, others eager to get back to office life. Fast forward to the present, free of lockdowns, and large parts of the working world have continued with these changed working practices. Many formerly traditional office-based roles have now moved to offering flexible working, both in terms of location and hours, with some even going further and offering fully remote positions.
One main concern that follows is the effect this has on employee wellbeing, both mental and physical. During the lockdowns there were many concerns over the wellbeing of those ordered to stay at home with the WHO reporting a 25% increase in anxiety and depression cases . The changing circumstances lead to one important question – what is the link between working practices and employee wellbeing?
There have been various studies looking into the impact of remote working across a range of industries with varying results. Some studies show improvements in the mental and physical wellbeing of those working remotely with benefits such as more time spent with family and lower levels of exhaustion. Meanwhile, other studies show a concerning decline, with drawbacks such as long working hours and a blur between the work and home life, or inconclusive results. While it appears that there is no clear answer, LSE conducted a business review  that concluded the potential for positive or negative impacts from remote working depends on the personality traits of the individual. Some traits lead to people having improved wellbeing working remotely whereas other traits lead to improved wellbeing working within an office environment.
APR believes that the wellbeing of our employees should be a priority and that we all should be able to work in an environment that we feel safe and comfortable in. This is at the core of what we do, as demonstrated by the choice of ‘We Care’ as one of our main values. As part of the work being done to achieve this, we published a working practices policy allowing employees to have more freedom to work in a way that they feel is more suited to their personality and needs, which we believe is important so that everyone can excel in the work they do.
Cristian and Hannah both selected the working practices that they believed were best for them, with Cristian regularly attending the office and Hannah working fully remotely. Here, they explain the circumstances and reasoning for their different choices.
I first moved to London for university at 18 years old and, despite the initial homesickness, fell in love with the city life. However, with London being as multicultural as it is, all the friends I had made during my Uni years were international students who would be going back to their home countries after they received their degree. In my final year I accepted my graduate offer from APR and was excited to be in London as a working professional, meet new people and explore more of what the city had to offer.
Then COVID hit. I was a few months away from finishing my degree and found myself, as most students did, having to go back home early to finish my studies. The abrupt ending meant that I didn’t get to properly say goodbye to my friends who I knew I most likely wouldn’t see for a long time. I didn’t expect that, six months down the line, I would also find myself starting my graduate job while still in lockdown and unable to meet my new colleagues in person. I decided to still move into my new flat in London so that I was ready to get into the office as soon as restrictions were lifted.
This didn’t happen as quickly as I had thought it would and I ended up spending months trapped in the same four walls, unable to get out and meet new people. I began to feel very isolated and lonely, being away from all my family and friends and spending most of my time alone caused my mental wellbeing to decline. This then trickled into my physical wellbeing too – I wasn’t motivated to do anything so spent most evenings on my sofa and would have very little sleep. As time went on, I continued to feel worse, and I began to withdraw into myself which was a stark contrast from the person I used to be. Instead of being excited to go back to the city that I used to love, I would dread retuning after each home visit, often trying to find excuses as to why I should delay for a few more days. It felt like all my happy memories of London from my Uni years were being overshadowed with the negative connotations I now had.
I knew that I needed to do something to get myself back on track before my work started to suffer, so I sat down with my line manager and discussed how I was feeling. I explained that I wanted to move back to my hometown so that I could be around my loved ones again but that I loved working for APR and didn’t want to leave. While some people had begun to work remotely there was no formal policy for this in place yet and so an ad-hoc decision was made to allow me to also move to a remote contract before the new policy was finalised.
I left London in December of 2022 and have already seen huge improvements in my mental wellbeing – I am less anxious, am motivated again and no longer feel isolated or lonely. I started getting full nights’ sleep, being more active and living a healthier lifestyle, all of which meant I became more productive and happier in both my personal and work life. While I knew that I wasn’t in the best place mentally in London, I don’t think I realised the full extent of how bad I had been feeling until I moved back and started to feel more like myself again.
The decision to move back home wasn’t quite as straightforward as I may have made it sound. I was concerned that being remote, along with the project work we do, could lead me to feeling disconnected from APR and my colleagues which I wanted to avoid. As part of my new contract, it was agreed that I would attend the London office once a month. These monthly visits mean that I can interact and collaborate with my colleagues in person and therefore still feel like I am part of APR.
Overall, I believe that my decision to work remotely was the right one for me and my circumstances. I now find myself looking forward to going to London each month rather than dreading it. Remote working has allowed me to be a happier and healthier person which in turn has meant that I have been able to perform to my full potential in my actuarial career.
When I applied for a job in APR, I was expecting to visit multiple client offices during my projects, as well as spending some time away from my Edinburgh base location. But then, when I had only been with the company for four weeks, mandatory WFH started. I don’t think any of us could have expected back then how much the subsequent lockdowns and WFH mandates would disrupt the workplace.
For me, working from home quickly became tedious and isolating. My workplace being a minute away from bed removed all motivation to start the days early. It also made it easier to just finish work and immediately sit on the sofa, basically spending all day in the same space. Rinse and repeat. This was of course an easier trap to fall into during the harshest months of lockdowns, where there was little to do outside, but once the routine sets in it can be difficult to break it.
It didn’t help that my partner has a job that requires in-person attendance, meaning that she was back in the office for 1 or 2 days a week by the time most actuarial employers were still fully remote, and almost every day by the time actuaries were slowly being dragged away from their home desks. While we were both working from home, we always had lunch together, as well as a couple of tea and coffee breaks throughout the day. But working from home all alone makes it easier to just sit in front of the computer all day, with little or no break and basically no human interaction not happening through a screen.
I will also admit that my personal circumstances are probably different from the average office worker. I am old enough that I developed the habit of working from an office full time before the pandemic, while not having any children or other dependents who would benefit from me staying at home. I live in a relatively small city flat where it is not possible to dedicate a whole room to a home office setup, and, as already mentioned, would spend most of the day alone if working from home. I also live very close to APR’s Edinburgh office. My commute into work is a 15-20 minute walk, which is of course much nicer than sitting in a car or public transport for hours every single day. Finally, my whole family lives in a different country, which means I don’t have the chance to spend time visiting them while working remotely!
Due to all of this I find going to the office several times a week is the best option for me. It forces me to go out early in the morning, which helps me start the day with more energy. Having a dedicated workspace also helps me focus, and I find I am more productive when going into the office. I also like interacting with the rest of the staff. Because of the nature of APR’s work, different people visit the office on different days, which means that you get to spend time with different colleagues each time.
This does not mean that I do not appreciate the flexibility that working from home offers. I think the main benefit of the change in office work practices caused by the pandemic is that most employers are happy to offer at least some degree of flexibility to their employees. Juggling work with other commitments, from doctors’ appointments to home repairs, has been made much easier with the widespread introduction of remote work.
Overall, my circumstances made the experience of WFH full time less positive than it was for many people. My work-life balance has definitely improved since I’ve been able to go back to the office regularly, and I’d not want to find myself unable to attend a physical workspace any time soon. And now, three years later, I may even be able to travel for work often and visit multiple client offices after all!
Cristian Redondo Loures and Hannah Merriman