The Coronavirus has propelled nations worldwide into an unprecedented work-from-home experiment. But the boundaries between work and personal life have faded to the point where it has almost entirely dissipated and still there is no indication of when this surreal experiment will end and when we can return to “normal” again. The standard 9-to-5 workday to which we were so accustomed now seem like a relic of an entirely different lifetime and we need to find new ways to create a work-life balance.
It was predicted by some that the work-from-home migration would pilot a new age of flexible work arrangements. As of 2017, a mere 3% of full-time workers in the U.S. “primarily” worked from home. Then what was thought to be a temporary hiatus originated. Many of us were making plans to fill our days by taking up new hobbies, acquiring new skills and undertaking new exercise regimes in order to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Ultimately, we thought we would have more free time due to less time commuting to work.
But weeks into lockdown, people are reporting to be overworked and stressed. Employees feel they now have even less free time than when they wasted hours commuting to their place of work. According to data from NordVPN, employees in the U.S. are working three hours more per day than before lockdown, whilst in France, Spain, and the U.K., employees are clocking an additional two hours daily and Italy saw no change at all.
The biggest problem for most is that there is no escape from work. Living just a few steps away from our makeshift offices with very little else to do and nowhere to go, there is this belief that there is no legitimate excuse for being unavailable to one’s employer or clients, making it almost impossible to disconnect and attain that elusive healthy work-life balance. Employees have also reported feeling pressure from their superiors to prove that they are working and with the prospects of possibly losing one’s job, there is additional pressure to always be available and productive.
There are stereotypes that telecommuting breeds slacking. However, early data suggest that productivity among employees have increased in many instances. The impossibility to disconnect from work as we constantly feel the pressure to work harder than normal could be the largest contributor.
Here are what some companies have reported:
“At JPMorgan, where 70% of the bank’s quarter-million employees are working remotely, productivity has gone up for certain types of jobs as workers spend less time going to meetings, attending town halls or completing training sessions.”
“An internal case study at Publicis Sapient, an IT consulting company that tracked work by 410 employees on roughly 40 tech-focused projects for a large New York-based investment bank also found a productivity bump.”
“When you’re virtual you’re less distracted – nobody’s disappearing for coffee for a while or going and disappearing to socialize,” Dave Donovan, who leads the Americas global financial-services practice for Publicis Sapient, said. “Clients are more reachable too.” Given the early results, Donovan thinks remote work is here to stay. “Once the genie’s out of the bottle it’s not going to go back.”
From the early reports it is clear that remote working can be advantageous but it is imperative to create boundaries very soon to avoid employees from burning out completely. Deadlines need to remain realistic and so does expected response times. It should not be expected of employees to be available 24/7, waking up to emails in the middle of the night. This is not the norm when we’re in the office and is not acceptable as a new form of normal.
But the advantages come at a cost as with everything in life. “By early April, about 45% of workers said they were burned out, according to a survey of 1,001 U.S. employees by Eagle Hill Consulting. Almost half attributed the mental toll to an increased workload, the challenge of juggling personal and professional life, and a lack of communication and support from their employer. Maintaining employee morale has proved difficult, said two-thirds of human resources professionals surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management earlier this month.”
Productivity gains may be short lived if employees burn out. Employers really need to assist their employees insofar as possible in coping with new demands. Employers such as the Goldman Sachs Group Inc. is providing staff with an extra 10 days family leave. Microsoft Corp. is offering an additional 12 weeks parental leave. Starbucks Corp. employees now get 20 free therapy sessions and Salesforce.com Inc. is hosting virtual meditation and workouts to the employees. But it is also up to each employee to implement and maintain a new work-life balance strategy that works for them and learn anew how to disconnect on a regular basis.
I have always been pro-remote working and the time to test and perfect this model is now. It will however require some majour shifts in mindset, not only for employees but largely for employers too. But by applying our minds and the resources available to us in this day and age, it is possible to make the change and I think it will be very rewarding to all willing to adapt.
I’m curious to know what South African employers are doing to support their employees during this time and we’d like to hear what your work-from-home experience has been like.
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