Op-Ed:

Remote Work

Too Much of a Good Thing?

My mother always said, ‘Be careful of too much of a good thing!’ She certainly knew what she was talking about when it comes to working from home.

What started as a surreal, seemingly short-term shelter-in-place order set by many countries in the wake of the COVID-19, has become months of major and unexpected change for people all over the world.

The speed with which COVID-19 spread throughout the world is staggering. Taking quick and decisive action to control the spread of the virus slowed its spread. Our lives have been disrupted by the change in work, the shutdown of shops, restaurants and many of the services we used to take for granted.

The biggest adjustment for many was how work and school had infiltrated their homes. For some people with young children especially, the burden of extra work and extra care has been overwhelming.

I surveyed my network to learn more about how they are dealing with working from home and over 100 people responded. I’ve included some of their responses in this piece, with attribution when given permission.

Skipping the Commute

For most people who work from home, the best part is skipping the commute. Who wouldn’t rather sleep that extra hour? It’s time to catch up on your zzz’s, get in that morning run or yoga practice, and actually sit and have breakfast as opposed to scarfing something down on your way. Work from home has also meant time saved from putting on makeup, shaving, ironing clothes and, for some, even showering.

A few of my respondents have perfected the shortest commute imaginable by not even bothering to get out of bed while reaching for the laptop at 8:59 for that 9:00 a.m. call.

But while looking at the pros and cons of the circa 100 people I surveyed, the surprising part is that what is a pro or a con depends drastically on where you live and with whom you live.

Those commuting across huge metropolises were thrilled to miss the strain and hassle of their commute: ‘2-5 hours per day in the car, being stressed out and p#$&*d off!’ said Sabrina Wistain, a case manager for a health facility in Los Angeles, a city notorious for its traffic.

For others, not having their daily commute is a loss. This is particularly true of those who walk or ride a bike to work or enjoy reading on their morning commute with a fresh cup of java.

‘Surprisingly, I miss my commute. A half-hour of child-free coffee and NPR [National Public Radio] on either side of my workday? Yes, please,’ said Ed Crowder, a media relations manager and journalism professor based in Orange, Connecticut. Although he joked that he hadn’t tucked in his shirt in over two and a half months, which was definitely a pro for him.

10,000 Steps and Ergonomics

More time to exercise, cook and even clean was definitely seen as a pro for most people. People are using their lunch breaks or found commuting time to walk, run, do yoga or virtual exercise classes. Some say they are feeling even better than usual. But others have become extremely sedentary and stuck in the house all day.

In addition, many respondents stated that their home set up wasn’t comfortable for work. Many are working hunched over laptops with no proper chair or desk, leading to sore backs, necks and elbows. With more meetings and less walking, a lot of people are feeling the pain.

The Best is the Worst

‘The best thing about working from home is being around your kids all day,’ said Dan Soldner, a Senior Print Production Manager. ‘The worst thing about working from home is being around your kids all day.’

When working from home, singles talk about peace, quiet, efficiency and extra free time to learn something new or clean out their closet. Parents, on the other hand, have the additional task of caring for children who would normally be in school and hanging out with their peers. As one joke goes:

“2020 quarantine goals without kids: do yoga every day, learn a new language, read five books, watch documentaries, exercise, learn how to code/ program, help the community, spend time with partner, unwind and relax, learn about wine, etc… 2020 quarantine goals with kids: go to the bath room with the door closed.* (*At least once during quarantine.)”

According to Nathalie, a French graphic designer, the pressure on parents has been immense. ‘If you have a child that needs special attention, it’s nearly impossible to help him with his schoolwork and do your own work at the same time.’ As a freelancer, she is accustomed to working at home, but the constant interruptions make it impossible to finish projects for clients, so she finds herself working nearly round the clock to try to make up for it. ‘I just spent three hours checking my son’s homework,’ she said.

Lauriane Mercier, a Sales Manager in air transportation says, ‘The “school from home” has been quite challenging for many parents. As a single parent, you can’t fall back on your partner to share tasks or do rotation. My kid needed guidance and help with school and of course care and attention. I just could not tell her to go and play outside. There are barely any kids out. How would I keep an eye on her?’

Do You Have a Minute?

That pervasive sense of work cutting into home hours doesn’t just extend to the parents. Setting work boundaries has proven extremely hard. ‘Work tempo is more intense because the usual routine is out of the window,’ said Mercier. ‘There is less human touch but tons of phone calls and meetings. My time tracking is off the chart, I’m still shooting emails at midnight.’

‘There is just more work,’ says Yolanda Mula, a Senior Project Manager in Cybersecurity from Spain. ‘You need to make sure you do small breaks. I had nine meetings in a day without breaks,’ she said. ‘I love it [working from home], but I missed the physical interaction with people. A bit of both worlds (office and home office) is a perfect combination.’

Power Nap, Anyone?

Interruptions are a huge part of work culture in large businesses, especially with open-plan seating that most companies seem to favor. Childless employees have fewer interruptions than earlier.

‘Fewer interruptions, plus access to power nap facilities!’ quips Ian Bardwell, a British financial analyst.

‘The Introverts Love It’

Laetitia Grammatico, a Tribe Leader Engagement & Care for Digital Platforms at Philips is loving the time at home. ‘I’ve found it’s really good for my nervous system,’ she says. ‘I’m in an open office and I’m like a sponge; I pick up on other people’s drama, moods, emotions.’ She admits she is often disturbed by nearby conversations and countless interruptions and it hurts her productivity. Despite being very social and extroverted, she says: ‘I don’t miss the tension or the social pressure.’

Grammatico also shared how eye-opening it has been to see the dynamic in her own team. The team of eight she manages is based in two different locations, which means she’s quite accustomed to online meetings. Since Corona, she now feels the benefit ‘the team in the room’ used to have on a conference call. ‘Now that everyone is online, everyone has the same voice. The people who are usually in the physical room aren’t the loudest anymore, but equal.’ This gives the rest of the team, who are usually virtual, more of a chance to shine, she adds.

While she does miss the coffee catch-ups she used to have in the office, Grammatico has instated informal ‘team coffee’ three times a week. It has helped her entire team get closer. Everyone is working better together than ever before. ‘The introverts love it,’ she adds. ‘They never want to go back!’

Loneliness and Isolation

The continuous stress of worrying about income, the virus and other things can lead to lack of motivation, depression and malaise. The Mayo Clinic explains:

“The long-term activation of the stress-response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follows can disrupt almost all your body's processes.” 1

For those who require a bit more social interaction for their wellbeing the loneliness and isolation can be debilitating. Creative solutions to help people stay connected and support one another have popped up everywhere: virtual drinks, pub-quizzes, Skype sessions, long phone calls, video chats and comical home videos.

Family and friends have found different ways to reach out and stay in touch. Neighbors are getting to know each other. People are saying hello to one another in cities and politely moving over to let someone pass. Strangers are bringing each other groceries and being more patient with one another while waiting in line. Colleagues are concerned about each other’s health and wellbeing.

Sleepless Nights

For those who run businesses, restaurants, or freelance the loss of income is compounding the sense of insecurity and contributing to sleepless nights and intense anxiety.

In addition, unprecedented numbers of people have been furloughed or laid off. This is true even where least expected: in the healthcare industry. My own brother, a licensed nurse practitioner who works in the emergency room of a major Ohio hospital, was put on furlough for several weeks because ER visits were down by 50% due to fear of the novel coronavirus.

‘Getting made redundant via video call is a bit of a con,’ said one Dutch professional. Several others spoke of non-paying clients and sudden job cuts, despite continued financial success at their companies.

The New Normal

For those who can, working from home may be the new normal. BBC reports that many large firms are extending the work at home option until the end of the year, with Twitter extending it indefinitely 2.

This is great news for many immune compromised and disabled people who have been advocating for work from home options for years. As disability advocate Imani Barbarin tweeted

“Requesting to work from home because of the #coronavirus is what’s called a ‘reasonable accommodation.’ You have disabled people to thank for that: remember this moment in history the next time you think accessibility laws are too ‘burdensome’ to be abided.” 3

One thing is for certain, COVID-19 has already changed the way we live, work and interact with each other in significant ways. How will this impact the future of work? That’s a question for another day.

Picture of Andrea A.Dixon/Dixon Media

Andrea A.Dixon/Dixon Media

Andrea Dixon is an American journalist and creative director based in Amsterdam. The first half of her career she worked as a photojournalist for large daily newspapers in the USA before following her dream of living in Paris. The last ten years she’s worked as an independent consultant and owner of Dixon Media, a boutique communication and creative agency specializing in communication strategy, creative concepts, (copy)writing, art direction, branding, photography, and events. Her major clients include Philips, Heineken, CRH, AkzoNobel and Greenpeace.

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