In early 2020 the world was already discussing the future of remote work, with an ever-growing number of Americans working remotely and even choosing nomadic lifestyles.
In mid-February, when the words “global pandemic” still had yet to make headlines, FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics reported that 3.4% of the US population were remote workers, bookending a severely upward curve that had seen a 91% increase over the last decade.
When springtime rolled around, it became evident that COVID-19 was here to stay. A mass exodus from offices, schools, institutions, and retail locations began. Now what seemed like a short pause for in-office work has now become an indefinite new way of life.
Almost 80% of companies have implemented or expanded existing work from home policies. With nearly everyone posting up in a bedroom, kitchen, or spare hallway, we decided to talk to the largest generation in the American workforce — millennials — about the realities of working from home amidst a pandemic. Across industries from real estate, to higher education, to health care their opinions showcased a common thread for humans working from home: when it comes to going remote, there's no one-size-fits-all solution.
Remote work is a blessing and a curse
For Karla J., a Miami-based public health professional, work thrived on travel and human interaction. “My job was going out to different communities around the United States and talking to people about their life story.” In March, she received a call while on assignment in Puerto Rico that a pandemic was coming. She was flown home immediately and after a week in limbo, her job became fully remote.
The move from being on the road to sitting in front of a computer was jarring, as it was for Taylor R., an admissions counselor at North Carolina Central University whose position in college admissions centered around in-state travel. In a role that requires making personal connections, moving online wasn’t an ideal transition. Despite the challenges, a remote setup was something she and coworkers advocated for.
“I have a younger team in my office and we were very vocal on how this would affect our parents because many of us have parents at home who have existing conditions.” Taylor’s office was receptive to their concerns and sent employees home.
Karla believes those who initially felt relieved or excited about working from home may now have different feelings because not everyone’s home is a stable or nurturing environment in which to work. “I acknowledge that it is absolutely a privilege to even be employed and it also kind of sucks to be in this situation. There are so many shades of gray and we have to be honest about that.”
While American workers ponder the difficulties of remote work, there are many who find themselves thriving. Danielle S. works in real estate, an industry deemed essential during the throes of coronavirus. Although she was eager to work from home, remote work was not a regular part of her office’s previous routine, and transitioning to a virtual setup was far from intuitive.
“It was a pretty easy transition for me, and I already had a home set up because I was in grad school,” Danielle said. She worked remotely for three weeks before being furloughed. Some of her co-workers weren’t called back and retired. Danielle got a callback in July and has been working remotely ever since.
“There's only maybe three or four of us in an office of about 50 people who are millennials, so most of them are older and prefer being in the office.”
Rocio F. works as a Certified Application Counselor for a Chicago-based union health fund. Her previous routine consisted of office work with a few field assignments or opportunities to work from home. She found the move to remote work necessary and favorable.
“I have a few chronic conditions, plus I am a cancer survivor. My husband's working from home too, and my daughter's been home since March. I know people have had challenges being in close quarters and working together, but it's actually kind of brought us closer.” Rocio’s husband helps their daughter with e-learning and they can now eat meals together more frequently and exercise at lunchtime.
Productivity thrives, while motivation and effectiveness come and go
Most of the individuals we talked to share space with relatives, many of whom are also working remotely in residences that do not have dedicated workspaces. Living and working with other individuals presents a different set of challenges than you might find in the workplace.
Rocio: “We have a very small house. My daughter's hanging out in the bedroom. I'm in the kitchen. [My husband’s] over here in the hallway.”
Taylor: “My father, the only other person in my house, has also been working from home and basically just works in the living room. I work in my room and keep the door closed cause he does a lot of conference calls and sometimes gets a little loud.”
Karla: “When [my family] passes by my room and I’m in front of a computer, they're like, 'Oh, she's just hanging out.' If I was in video conference meetings, for them that made it seem like okay, she's interacting with other people therefore we're going to leave her alone. So I ended up saying I was in meetings all day.”
Skeptics might be concerned that with the move home is the temptation to...well, not work. Sending workers home could lead to employees who spend their days binging-watching Netflix, taking excessive naps and becoming consumed with household chores, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. More than three-quarters of founders surveyed this year reported that productivity during remote work has actually increased or remained the same, something that our participants attest to.
“I like not feeling like I have to fill idle time with busy work,” tech professional Tyler J. said. “I like not feeling like I always have to be perceived as busy. I do my work and when I'm done, I walk away from the screen.” While her productivity has remained high, Tyler did observe “I had less motivation to get up and be ready at 8:30 AM.”
“There's the assumption that you work from home, therefore you have your own schedule,” Karla said, which is not true for many workers who still maintain regular hours for meetings or to staff phone queues, like Rocio, who has characterized remote work as a largely “seamless transition” although working remotely in a field with lots of paperwork has led to delays. “A lot of printing needs to be done, and there are checks coming in so someone reports to the office a couple of times a week to handle that stuff. Now it's a lag time of seven to 10 days where before you could just put something in the mail that same day.”
Danny noticed a significant increase in productivity since the change. She communicates with coworkers through email and Microsoft Teams and admits there are always a few tasks left undone when 5 o’clock rolls around. Still, while her teammates “are awesome, if I was in a room with them all day, I don't think I'd get nearly as much done.”
Taylor has found that while technical productivity is the same, her overall effectiveness has declined. She’s been able to host town halls and present the same information to families over Zoom, but certain events like college fairs suffer from lack of in-person exchange. She works with many special education kids who may not thrive in virtual environments.
Without nonverbal communication like body language that she relies on at in-person events, she’s unable to sense if a student has a question and can’t pull them aside to engage one-on-one. “It's very difficult for me to make other people feel comfortable in this virtual environment," she noted, "so that is a way that I feel inadequate in my job, and it's creating a whole different type of imposter syndrome for me.”
For individuals like Taylor who pursued their careers because they “love being around people” what is the future of work when over half of CEOs are considering making remote work a permanent solution or option after the pandemic, with notable tech giants like Twitter and Facebook leading the charge?
The expectations for employee satisfaction are changing
FlexJobs found that a whopping 80% of US workers would reject a job that doesn’t have flexible working options. Danielle falls into that larger category. “It makes me think about the ideal company I want to work for. What are their plans as far as employee satisfaction and how supportive are they to families and individuals? It will be interesting to see what demands we make of companies now or what changes they implement to retain talent.”
For some, a move to remote work options will not be enticing. “I quit my job last week mostly because it became fully remote,” Karla said. “If this was the job at the very beginning, I wouldn't have taken it because I knew that it wouldn't be good for me mentally.”
Karla’s new position is on the West Coast and while she’s getting acclimated to the new organization online, she’s expected to join the in-person office within the next few months. Although the logistics of the move are tricky during the pandemic, she feels it’s worth it and wonders what the long-term effects of remote work will be in the happiness and satisfaction of people, suggesting the implementation of more co-working spaces.
“I think the model of being forced to go into the office even without the pandemic is silly — if you're able to do your job, not in an office, it's fine. That said, there's a lot of value in face-to-face interaction and richness in the development of relationships that you just can't get from working from home and not seeing people.”
Rocio hopes for a hybrid set-up when the pandemic ends. “It's fine working from home, but I get along really well with my coworkers. To maintain community, I think I would want to be in the office a few days a week.”
The loss of social interaction through remote work is exacerbated by the pandemic, which has removed virtually all social options that individuals have outside of work, such as Taylor’s routine of boxing classes, visits to a therapist, and day trips with friends.
Tyler’s employer encouraged those who chose not to work remotely to re-enter the office. “They started to cater lunch for workers who came in and made sure cleaners were extra diligent with wiping down surfaces each day.” Masks and other PPE were also required.
Across industries, businesses need to prioritize employee happiness
The nature of work itself prevents any single remote work strategy from becoming a one-size-fits all solution across industries. Despite the hurdles remote work creates, there are many ways that employers can make life better for employees:
Don’t forget to go outside! Working from home during a pandemic can effectively end your need to go outdoors daily, but sunshine is still essential! Lead teams through light stretches at the start of a meeting, or create a challenge of sharing an iPhone pic of something you saw during your daily walk.
Adapt schedules. Considering individuals are sharing workspaces with relatives and juggling childcare with work, it’s a good idea to adapt hours. Consider holding meetings earlier or later in the day. Account for several break periods and send reminders to employees to take lunch or stop in time for dinner.
Interact – without work in mind. Every Zoom meeting doesn’t have to be all business. Consider creating a virtual “break room” where employees can enter and exit during designated hours to socialize and share stories. Try some virtual games to get the team to bond.
Stay flexible. Employees like to move around the house – suggest different locations for employees to work if possible, such as porches, living rooms, etc. Have employees share their favorite playlists or podcasts to inspire a stimulating work environment.
Provide opportunities for feedback. Whether it's an email address or a Google Survey, provide your employees with ways to give you feedback while remote.
Written by Candace Howze
Originally Published: 22 September 2020