Home Alone: When Remote Work Is a New Normal
Misty Guinn’s experience of working remotely and supporting her employees during the COVID-19 pandemic mirrors those of middle managers everywhere.
Like most office professionals, Guinn had to help her team shift to working from home full time in March when Benefitfocus, a cloud-based benefits management platform, closed its Charleston, South Carolina, office to comply with state recommendations. The director of benefits and wellness quickly recognized that the transition to this new world of work would come with tradeoffs for herself and her four direct reports.
The top benefit? The time at home means she’s become closer to her 12- and 14-year-old kids. “I love working from home, in the sense that it allows me to have more flexibility with my work–life balance,” Guinn says. Other plusses for her and team members who usually work on the company’s Charleston campus include saving commuting time (for Guinn, an estimated 70 minutes each day) and reduced expenses on such things as gas, lunches out, new clothes, and other incidentals. When these benefits started adding up, she sensed her team’s stress levels declining.
As the COVID-19 shutdown went from weeks to months, the biggest downside her team experienced was a feeling of social isolation from the lack of in-person interaction with colleagues, Guinn says. No smiling greetings. No walk-by water cooler chats. None of the spontaneous conversations or nonverbal encouragements that can help generate a positive work culture.
As an HR professional at a benefits management company, Guinn was aware that she and her coworkers felt disconnected. As a middle manager, she was aware of employees fearing that since they were out of their bosses’ sight, they were also out of their minds.
And that idea of work–life balance? It’s fragile when everyone works remotely and the boundaries between professional and personal have blurred. In Guinn’s case, her laptop became another appendage as she carried it everywhere in the house. She doesn’t have exact data, but she said she feels like everyone was working more hours.
It’s not an illusion. The lines between work and family time are blurring for the at-home workforce. Microsoft studied its newly remote employees and found that people were working an average of four more hours a week. A new night shift emerged in which employees would catch up on work, and the number of instant messages sent between 6 p.m. and midnight increased by 52%, suggesting this trend applied to entire teams.
There’s also a sense that many people feel trapped. In a separate survey of 1,251 Americans in May 2020, 51% told job-search company Monster that they were experiencing burnout working at home during the pandemic, and 52% said they were not planning to take time off despite the stress. It is difficult to determine the degree to which this stress is a function of remote work or a result of the broader social pressures and strains employees have experienced since moving to remote work. Working from home might be more stressful for some people, but so is working during a pandemic. Nevertheless, employee stress has become a much more significant issue.
A virtual office at the kitchen table
People have worked at home for years, but never at the scale we’ve seen during the pandemic. The World Economic Forum estimates that approximately 7% of U.S. workers traditionally did their jobs from home. That has now dramatically increased. Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford economist who has studied remote working patterns, notes that an estimated 42% of the U.S. labor force shifted to full-time at-home work during the social distancing and shutdowns occurring across the country.
Before this crisis, work-from-home policies were a fringe benefit managers reserved for special situations. Businesses made few, if any, accommodations for remote workers, with some offering flexible shifts or paying for a laptop. Many did not, however. And even before COVID-19, remote working wasn’t for everyone. In a 2014 study, Bloom found that half of the volunteers in a remote work experiment at a Chinese travel company asked to return to the office after nine months. Why? They reported feeling lonely and depressed doing their jobs at home.
Abandoning the traditional office space means that employees lose out on networking opportunities and sporadic interactions with fellow colleagues on other teams. Office perks, even superficial ones such as sleeping pods and Foosball tables, will no longer be a selling point for new talent. And while people may be tired of video meetings, they’re craving the chance to connect in engaging, stress-free ways. The challenge for leaders lies in creating opportunities for meaningful interaction, because having a digital presence simply isn’t enough to sustain work from home for many people during a pandemic.
While the shift to at-home work went smoothly for many, the stress associated with the ongoing changes means that managing this new environment is not just a job for HR. Managers will need to step up their empathy game, increasing the amount of time and effort they spend checking in with their teams. They need to acknowledge their capacity to deal with change as they listen – and listen more – to demonstrate their appreciation of their teams’ work and their commitment to support it and the company’s purpose. Because when people feel cared about and have the right tools and technologies, they can contribute their strongest efforts.
Organizations overall will need to manage a range of issues that could be impacting their employees’ ability to work from home, including:
- Fostering a strong organizational culture, even though they can’t meet in person. Organizations should re-emphasize employee engagement efforts while many continue to perform their jobs remotely.
- Helping employees manage work–life boundaries. Just because teams can be online after regular business hours doesn’t mean they should be.
- Providing support for employees who have others at home that they care for, especially those with children. Companies need to address, in louder tones, that employees have other people in their lives.
- Encouraging employees to take advantage of the benefits remote work offers. Organizations should encourage such things as taking breaks during the day to exercise or spend time with family.
These efforts may read like pandemic-specific considerations, but they are valid anytime someone works at home and they remain critical to an organization’s long-term success. People working at home during the pandemic are asking questions every week about how they might work in the future. If they don’t need to live near an office for an easy commute, should they move? If they see another organization offering better supports, can they switch employers? The questions and their answers alter the calculus for a talented person’s work and life decisions. To retain valued employees, employers must let their people know that they are cared for. That they are valued. That they are supported. And that they will be safe when they return to the office.
Developing a strong esprit de corps from afar
It’s natural for any employee working from home to feel isolated and need new ways of maintaining their collegial relationships. Multiply that potential alienation by the number of employees in any organization, and it’s easy to see the challenge that leaders are facing. Boosting employee engagement efforts must become the priority.
Among the ways to achieve increased engagement are recognizing strong performance; granting employees more autonomy, now and in the future; and providing new ways for them to connect with managers and each other.
Recognition. In a period when it’s not possible to applaud a colleague’s achievement in person, organizations must continue to recognize and reward employees’ accomplishments. Recognition can counter employees’ feelings of being invisible and forgotten in their home offices. It can assure those workers that they are remembered and valued.
For example, a leader can cultivate what Gallup calls recognition rituals, such as regularly taking time out of videoconferences to point out someone on the call who did exceptional work. A fully remote team can set up meetings specifically for recognizing members. And a manager could mail a paper thank-you note to show appreciation.
Managers accustomed to in-person interactions may benefit from training in supervising a partially or largely remote team, including best practices for rewards and recognition. Such training will build on other efforts to support employees’ learning and career advancement, as well.
Autonomy. People always want to feel a measure of control about their work lives. Supporting a flexible workforce is key for employee engagement now, says Ben Granger, senior principal and experience management catalyst at the Qualtrics XM Institute. “Things like flexibility and autonomy are strong drivers of how engaged someone is in their job and the attitudes they hold about their company.”
There’s evidence that executives are picking up these signals. A recent PwC survey of 1,200 U.S. office workers found that 83% want to work remotely at least one day a week in the future; 72% said they hoped for two days. In a concurrent survey of 120 executives, 55% said they expected most of their employees would work remotely at least one day a week after the COVID-19 crisis ends.
Facilitate new connections. The prospect of endless videoconferences may be a renewable resource for New Yorker cartoonists, but there’s a truth buried in the humor: the switch to remote work has gone as well as it has because of the virtual meeting and collaboration technologies that enable workers and teams to connect.
At the same time, not being able to interact with one another in person means we’re missing important elements of social interaction, such as nonverbal cues, eye contact, and emotional connections that form important bonds on a team. While virtual communication can never fully simulate in-person interaction, it can enable new ways of connecting.
It helps if organizations enable their employees to find unique ways to create a digital presence despite their Zoom fatigue, says James Christie, experience design director at Mad*Pow, a strategic design consultancy. For example, a company could encourage its employees to create an avatar or digital presence that eliminates the need for them to be on camera for every interaction.
Another way to mix things up: include alternative formats, such as voice calls and other digital channels, into the schedule of videoconferences to provide people screen breaks. “A delightful example comes from Johns Hopkins University, which is encouraging undergrads to interact and learn via Minecraft environments – a great antidote to Zoom,” Christie says.
Strengthening each employee’s work–life barrier
The lines between work and family demands have blurred. Work hours can stretch well into the evening, interrupted by numerous family or personal demands throughout the traditional 9-to-5 workday. And while there’s evidence that companies are listening, such as with offering greater leeway on work schedules, flex time alone may not be enough to prevent burnout.
Practicing active empathy with employees is good management in any environment. Investing time in getting to know individual employees, their personal situations, and challenges and devoting resources to helping them can increase engagement, strengthen working relationships, and ultimately benefit the team’s performance. During a crisis like a pandemic, that kind of management is even more important.
Benefitfocus, for example, has prioritized supporting employees’ mental well-being. Guinn says the company has sought to communicate its plans often during the pandemic. It has created a “connect group” that enables workers to share their feelings and concerns as a way to foster trusting relationships and make people feel safe. That’s especially important at a time when U.S. states have different approaches to fighting the pandemic.
The group also sends “the message that the organization, and management in particular, understands that everybody is fearful,” says Guinn. “Everybody’s worried about whether it is safe to return to the office. Has the company done everything its power to make it a safe environment? A lot of communication has to take place. And there needs to be a lot of empathy on the part of the company. It needs to do what it can to ease those fears as much as possible.”
Additionally, larger organizations can provide mental health services or referrals to those services, says Guinn.
Companies can also engage employees by enabling them to select the benefits that are best suited to their at-home work lives, in addition to the regular benefits packages for on-site workers. That may mean creating flexible benefit plans that provide a spending or value limit per worker to be applied to the services most needed, such as childcare, elder care support, or transportation reimbursement.
These programs are in addition to the value that comes with managers and employees all getting to know each other better. Maybe that regular chat about what happened last weekend will yield insights about a colleague’s child, aging parent, or themselves needing help and understanding. The organization has an opportunity to both receive the information and offer programs and support.
Remember the children
Remote work has presented additional challenges for families. While spending time at home with the kids at the start of the pandemic may have been a treat, for many families it has turned into a frustrating siege. As the fall began, many schools maintained distance-learning setups or reopened with a hybrid of in-school and at-home time. Childcare options are limited in cities where daycare centers remain closed or are operating at limited capacity, which has already forced some parents to leave the workforce to take on full-time childcare duties.
For all the resilience companies and their workers have shown in pivoting to remote work arrangements as a team, individuals can find it difficult to make progress on a project if their children need help paying attention to their lessons. Similar challenges hold for people caring for other family members.
In addition to providing childcare services and enabling home-based workers, companies should support their employees during the pandemic by allowing them to take paid family leave, a report by the International Finance Corporation and the Canadian government suggests.
Individual companies’ responses to this need are emerging. Bank of America began reimbursing eligible employees up to $100 a day for childcare for kids under 12, for example. And a group of firms led by Accenture and Bright Horizons, a childcare center operator, are offering subsidized, part-time school-day supervision and tutoring.
Parents of young children were dealing with long workdays before COVID-19. Days have now gotten even longer, with parenting tasks blending in with professional projects and meetings. The collective experience marks a cultural change in which thoughtful leaders and strong companies explicitly acknowledge that their employees have responsibilities outside of work. The message should be that it’s OK to balance those needs. Employees shouldn’t have to hide them.
It takes a village to employ the best people
Clearly organizations need to do much more to understand and address the needs of employees, whether it involves flexible work schedules and locations, health and childcare support, or workplace safety measures. These moves will not only help employees manage their work–life balance but also help retain key workers and prevent the loss of valuable knowledge and skills, says J. D. Norman, a customer experience strategy consultant at Perficient.
This last point can be easily lost in discussions about the pandemic’s impact, Norman believes. “The thing being sacrificed by many firms is people, which I think will have a more negative, long-term effect than almost anything else. Companies are not just losing competencies with staff cuts; they’re also losing valuable resident knowledge, experience, and relationships that will take time, effort, and investment to find, rebuild, and/or replace,” Norman says.
Even so, the pandemic has created a lasting shift in the dynamic of worker–company relationships. At many organizations, both sides have seen the remarkable resilience of people adapting to changing circumstances while getting their jobs done. It underscores the truism that workers are an organization’s most versatile and adaptable resource.
Workers are also realizing this. As the PwC survey indicates, people like some of the work-at-home benefits that the pandemic has wrought. More than 80% want to keep working remotely at least one day a week even after COVID-19 wanes. And that may now be considered a very reasonable request, since another lesson of the pandemic is that not every job has to be done on-site.
Others will begin returning to the office in increments or staggered phases. That’s the situation that Benefitfocus’s Guinn found herself in. When her state’s work-from-home advisory eased in June 2020, the company’s Charleston office allowed employees to return in a very limited capacity. She says this arrangement makes her feel safe while allowing employees plenty of flexibility and the opportunity to bolster a sense of connection to their employer.
Guinn says her company has figured out how to make the best use of their virtual work tools, as well. “In meetings, we are able to collaborate and brainstorm no matter where we are sitting,” Guinn says. “But when we all work remotely, we gain more of that flexibility with an even playing field.”