Surviving ‘work from home’ 

The office wasn’t invited into the house during the pandemic. It turned up like an unexpected guest... and is likely to stay on.

By Sian Beilock

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Published: Wed 16 Dec 2020, 8:25 PM

Last updated: Wed 16 Dec 2020, 8:27 PM

Many managers are treating the pandemic-induced shift to work from home as though it were standard telecommuting. But it’s not, and operating under that assumption can harm employees’ morale. While office workers are typically faring better than essential workers during the pandemic, the abrupt shift to remote work was jarring, and its effects should not be overlooked.

There’s a big difference between choosing to telecommute and suddenly being forced to work from home. While eliminating the daily commute has been nice, the average office worker simply wasn’t mentally or financially prepared to turn their home into a makeshift WeWork location while also taking on previously outsourced teaching, childcare, and eldercare duties. Many families do not live in homes that can easily accommodate telecommuting, and some employees’ domestic arrangements are not conducive to success. So what can managers do to ease the burden?

Set reasonable expectations: Many employees are bearing new burdens and facing pressure from multiple sources. Managers can avoid overwhelming them by eliminating unnecessary reports and redundant procedures, and by being as transparent as possible about deadlines. For example, if an important client meeting is postponed, managers should inform everyone who is preparing materials for it immediately, so they can reprioritise the day’s tasks. Likewise, managers shouldn’t expect immediate replies to emails — a constant sense of urgency contributes to employee burnout. Sending emails outside of working hours should be avoided, or staff shouldn’t be expected to answer after-hours messages immediately.

Don’t force employees to be “on” all the time: Zoom fatigue is sky high, and employees may have to manage quiet space so that all household members can participate in their respective work calls and video meetings. Women usually get the short end of the stick, with one author dubbing them “reluctant nomads” in the “battle for space”. For example, an employee might find herself perched on the edge of the bathtub, balancing a computer on her knees, so that her partner and children can conduct their business or school work from the living room, bedroom, and kitchen.

Celebrate accomplishments: While it’s always a good idea to strike a balance between criticism and praise, employees now face a constant flood of terrible news related to the pandemic, and are likely starved for wins. Managers should look for small successes that can be publicly recognised to boost morale, and thank employees for their hard work when they see a job well done.

Capitalise on accessible resources: Managers should look for ways to create more win-win scenarios while leveraging the assets they already have. At Barnard College, for example, we are paying our students to tutor the children of our staff. Our undergraduates gain part-time work at a time when internships and entry-level jobs are scarce, and our full-time employees can outsource one task among their many responsibilities. Managers who are unclear about where employees need some help could ask them in an anonymous survey about the biggest challenges they face and allocate resources accordingly.

Adjusting to sudden change requires effort on everyone’s part. Managers owe it to their employees to stop treating work from home like a luxury. The office wasn’t invited into the home. It turned up like an unexpected guest — and it shows few signs of leaving soon.

Beilock, a cognitive scientist, is President of Barnard College at Columbia University

— Project Syndicate

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