The seismic social and economic shifts brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have seen large numbers of people working from home while juggling multiple other responsibilities and relationships. This new landscape of work has brought its own benefits and challenges, many previously unanticipated on such a tremendous scale.
In particular, there’s the stress that comes with the “new normal” as we try to reconfigure our entire concept of what an optimum work-life balance looks like. So how do experts on this new dining room table workforce think we’re doing? It’s a mixed scorecard, and employers have a number of issues to address.
The dangers of too much connection
The commute, the flexibility, and perks like taking leisurely neighborhood walks during break time have changed many people’s work routines for the better. But plenty of us have also experienced the downsides, and being unable to completely disconnect tops the list. The demarcations between one’s personal and professional lives, already fuzzy in recent years, has become even more fluid.
Some professionals, especially those living in smaller apartments, have constant reminders of their workplace tools in sight 24/7. And, depending on the state of local quarantine regulations, many now feel awkward saying “no” to out-of-hours work, since the previous excuse of prearranged plans isn’t always plausible. The sense of time itself can warp to such an extent that employees and managers now see themselves working late into the night on projects, and often feel they need to remain constantly available to one another.
Technology literally in our faces
Surveillance has become another hot-button issue in this remote work era. Recent media reports of intrusive software surveillance programs indicate that they are contributing to mutual mistrust among employees and employers. Mandatory software installed on employees’ computers can track eye movements in an attempt to gauge their degree of attention, and in some cases have captured images of family interactions within employees’ homes.
Equity issues have also risen to the top of the list of concerns: Some employees of color have found that the facial recognition programs they are required to use when doing sensitive work are unable to recognize them consistently, resulting in the need to log in over and over again, even while under tight deadlines.
A recipe for burnout
The longstanding mindset within parts of Western societies is that work should be the central focus of an adult’s life. Many professionals have internalized the feeling that, in today’s economy, if they’re not concentrating on tasks and screens, and responding instantly to every pinging inquiry, their time is being wasted. You don’t have to be a mental health expert to understand that these expectations contribute to no one’s productivity, and that in fact they play an almost certain role in burnout.
A relaxed take on productivity
On the other hand, a number of studies have shown that working from home—with fewer distractions and in a comfortable location—can actually boost productivity, morale, and overall job satisfaction. For the many whose pre-pandemic commutes ate up two or more hours out of every day, the extra time and feeling of wellbeing created an additional boost to performance.
A new way forward
Studies on the mental health effects of telework during the pandemic bear out the need for employers to establish clear guidelines that help everyone manage workload distribution, roles, performance indicators, and boundaries. It’s also important to have solid training, tech support, and networking policies in place.
Industrial psychologists and other experts offer a number of ways to counteract the unhealthy tendencies that have followed us into remote work, while boosting the effectiveness of healthy strategies:
- Instead of investing in invasive surveillance software that shows a lack of trust in your team, provide better training for managers on how to lead remote workforces.
- Facilitate discussions of appropriate boundaries between managers and teams, allowing individuals to identify what their preferred work-life balance looks like.
- Establish central ground rules—mandatory attendance at key meetings, for example—while building as much nimbleness into everyone’s schedule expectations as possible. And be clear about communication expectations, too: a boss with young children who does his or her best work after 8 pm might need to specify to the team that an email after hours isn’t meant to command instant attention.
- Employees can also be encouraged to turn off Slack, chats, and other work communication platforms when they’re no longer technically working, and when they shouldn’t feel obligated to craft instant responses to messages.
- Help employees structure their time by creating easy-to-follow schedules and routines. A morning check-in for everyone can start the day off on a high note and help everyone stay focused on priorities. This idea is helpful but can be more challenging when working across multiple time zones.
- Pair helpful structures with flexibility. Zone good rule of thumb is that, unless a task is immediately time-sensitive, agree that it can be done at any time and in any sequence, as long as it’s completed by a deadline.
- Make sure that employees know they’re expected to ask for the tools they need to do their jobs remotely. Computers, tech support, mousepads, and the like are all items and services that employers should expect to provide for their remote teams as a matter of course.
- Offer a means for your remote team members to chat and socialize informally with virtual “watercooler” opportunities. These can be enabled through chat, videoconferencing, or other tech-based solutions.
- Closing check-ins and routines can also help everyone end their workday on a positive note when geography aligns, while setting direction for the following day. A similar approach can help teams handing off work if the end of one workday aligns with the start of the day for a team in a complementary geographic region.