The spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) is a defining moment in world history as the Internet economy’s first real pandemic. 2020 will be the year we transitioned from the PC world (Pre-COVID) to an AC world (After-COVID). Its impact on how we live and work will reverberate for years to come. With physical distancing and self-isolation required to flatten the curve, one change seeming to taking root today is WFH (aka. work from home).
Before we get to what Derek Thompson of the Atlantic appropriately describes as “an anxious trial run for remote work at grand scale,” it is essential to remind ourselves of one fundamental point: working from home is a luxury. There are 82 million hourly workers in the US, the majority of whom working in services sectors, including retail, hospitality, and food and beverage, most of whom do not have the option to work from home. They are the most vulnerable among us, facing uncertainty around their pay in addition to being concerned about the health and safety of their families. Working from home is also not an option for our healthcare professionals, who run toward the sound of danger time and time again. They are at the front lines combating the spread, without no option to work from the comforts of their own homes. They deserve our ongoing gratitude and support.
Responding to the outbreak and subsequent government mandates, most employers have instituted work from home policies for their employees able to work remotely. This is a major change, for while many have been espousing the value of work from home for years, the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests only 29% of US employees have the flexibility to do so. As a friend of mine put it, “Coronavirus will leave a permanent aftereffect of more people working from home. The challenge in changing behavior is always taking the first step, and this will force people to do just that.”
However, this grand WFH experiment is not truly representative of what distributed work looks like at scale. There is a big difference between working from home under normal circumstances and working from home during a global pandemic. The coronavirus has forced schools to close, public spaces to shut down, for all of us to maintain a safe 6ft distance away from others. Most people are cooped up inside, and as any parent will tell you, working with kids at home is an entirely different proposition than when they are out. Most corporate employees have experience bringing some work home. Now we’re bringing it all home, and then some.
For better or worse, most people maintain different identities at home versus at work. We project confidence despite debilitating impostor syndrome. We pretend emotions don’t exist. We take on more than we can manage and put up walls to separate our home lives from our personal lives.
As we all adjust to the new ‘After COVID’ normal, keeping these walls up, maintaining our work personas, is going to be increasingly difficult. This is going to create a new sense of unfamiliarity and vulnerability during already difficult times. Therefore, we must remember old work norms — when people get work done, when we hold team check-ins and regularly scheduled meetings — need to be recalibrated to account for everyone’s unique situation. Some have kids at home, without any backup care options available. Some are concerned about elderly parents. All of us feel stress with uncertainty before us. The way we move forward needs to be considerate and deliberate.
My suggestions for WFH going forward are as follows:
- Prioritize: Trying to maintain the same level of productive work output in between shifts of homeschooling your kids, figuring out grocery runs, and dealing with all the other uncertainty is a Sisyphean task. Now more than ever, ruthless prioritization is critical. Not everything is a P0, so try to focus on what matters.
- Over-communicate: Create a system to check in with your team daily, both about work and in general. In the event team members’ schedules don’t accommodate a set time of day meeting, check-in asynchronously via a team email, or Slack message. Being informed is a good thing, so try to keep people up to date as much as you can.
- Keep videos on: During Zoom meetings, keep the video on (unless in the car). Seeing faces builds connections, ensures focus, and maintains attention. Sure, kids or pets might interrupt, or you may have to step away to take care of something in the house, but that’s part of life (and should be considered alright). Keeping videos on also provides a reason to maintain routine (aka. a good excuse to force you out of PJs) and a reminder, both for you and your family, that it’s still time for work.
- 1:1s matter more than ever: Make sure 1:1s are happening, even if at odd or random times. The uncertainty, coupled with the potentially new distributed nature of the team, makes getting the pulse of everyone at least weekly essential to ensure company unity and cohesion.
- Take regular breaks: It’s easy to get wrapped up in the work when you don’t have the natural pauses in the day to move to a conference room for a meeting, step outside for lunch, or make a cup of coffee. Just like when you’re on a plane, make sure you’re taking breaks every few hours! Exercise, stay hydrated and make sure to find some “me time” during the day.
- Make it fun: Just because your teams don’t all occupy the same space doesn’t mean you can’t have fun and build camaraderie together. Send jokes or memes in Slack. Have lunch on video conference and send the link out into the team in #General to invite others to join you. Do a work “happy hour”, and cheers over video. Use virtual backgrounds if they’re available. Levity matters more now than ever, so use any chance you can to lighten the mood.
As the walls between work life and home life begin to come down, my hope is we treat each other with compassion, empathy, and, perhaps most importantly, trust. Trust that we will manage our schedules as best we can. Trust that we will (over)communicate with one another. Trust that we will speak up when we feel overwhelmed and that our teams will be there to help us through. It is our responsibility to support one another, and collectively bear the burden of this turbulence. This new normal will persist for some time. That said, this too shall pass. The history of the United States is a history of overcoming disease, and the coronavirus will be no different.
Now, do I believe the future of work in an AC world is entirely remote and distributed? No. When the mandates lift and people can go back to the office, even if the opportunity is available to WFH more regularly, I believe most employees will return to their desks. However, the possibility exists to emerge with a deeper understanding of our colleagues, and perhaps even ourselves, not merely talented and hard-working employees, but whole humans. The ties that bind during a shared experience like this are more durable than any normal circumstance could ever create. We should take advantage where we can.
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This piece was originally published at https://rishitaparia.com.