During the last recession, I was in the middle of a three-year study of how people were working differently with the release of new mobile technology. At the time, working from home was being sold as the solution to all manner of ills: women’s participation in the workforce, increased work-life balance, improved well-being without the drain of commuting, and more. Although the majority of those working from home today aren’t doing so by choice, the takeaways from my research carry just as much relevance—if not more—for our present circumstances.
As many of us enter an indefinite and prolonged experience of working from home, the deeper, underlying factors shaping our fundamental relationship with jobs and devices are now coming into focus.
Technology advancements over the last two decades have created new expectations for productivity, leading to increased anxiety among the 9-to-5 workforce that they should always be “on.” Modern employees feel responsible to self-manage while they’re reminded that productivity is the default measure of accomplishment—and you can imagine how things might spiral when you add economic uncertainties to the mix.
Successfully navigating remote work for the long run requires a starkly different approach than the occasional work-from-home days of yesterday. Here are a few guidelines to help you get through it with your health and sanity.
Fight the pressure to overcompensate
By now, the novelty of having to work from home is gone. The happy hours have been tried; the bandwidth may or may not have survived a growing appetite for data in the home. Over the course of the last few months, we grew to understand and adapt as much as we could, based on sometimes limited information.
However, there is much more to learn from peeling back the layers on what the traditional office setting offers us. The physical ritual of going into an office each day contributes to people’s sense of providing value and having job security. Its absence can create a subconscious concern of being “out of sight, out of mind” to your employer, leading to insecurities about how essential you are.
To compensate, it’s easy to unknowingly fall into a pattern of working longer hours—a fast track to burnout.
Career self-doubts are heightened during economic crises as job security is threatened. During the 2008 financial crisis, I was working in Australia as a research fellow at a university, focusing on the impact of mobile and smartphones in the workplace. Over the course of this study, a numbfer of remarkable social changes occurred at once, including the widespread introduction of Facebook and Twitter, as well as the increased presence of the email inbox.
The collision of social, technological, and economic factors amplified their individual impacts. I watched as heightened anxiety led workers to extreme lengths to demonstrate to demonstrate proactive performance and responsiveness in their jobs.
In the climate we find ourselves in today, it is critical to find a balance between meeting job expectations and caring for our loved ones and ourselves. Don’t carry guilt over personal priorities. It’s evident that working from home won’t be the short-term adjustment many anticipated. As a result, we have to recognize circumstances that are outside our control and forge a new relationship to our work, instead of letting misguided feelings of inadequacy drive us to overextend ourselves.
Remember your body
The introduction of the typewriter to the workplace in the late 19th century was quickly followed by a wave of litigation. Receptionists began experiencing the physical repercussions of a vastly new way of working—one that didn’t account for their bodies. This would become a defining argument for ergonomics in the workplace.
As America’s workforce was abruptly forced into telecommuting by the coronavirus pandemic, there was no time for consideration of physical well-being. Many workers likely went right into spending long, uninterrupted periods of time staring down at their laptops or phones. As a result, workers are now feeling the effects of these changes in their arms, wrists, shoulders, or neck. Moving forward, the best thing we can do in the absence of a proper ergonomic setup is pay attention to our bodies.
The traditional office offers a public setting that naturally breaks up our work. We move regularly between workstations, offices, meeting rooms, and more. Working from home, it’s critical to find substitutes for these elements, such as going for a midday walk, as well as allowing people boundaries. Don’t be that person who schedules a lunchtime meeting because it’s “the only time everyone can attend.”
Additionally, while many of us have taken to extensive videoconferencing in the last several weeks, it’s also time that we acknowledge the limits of using screen time to fulfill all of our needs. So many interactions that happened in-person previously now occur through screens. While we can appreciate what technology enables during isolated times, moderating screen time remains key to our physical health.
Establish new rules of engagement
For those who took an ad hoc or loosely structured approach to working from home, the experience has likely included some friction and feelings of disorganization. By thoughtfully juxtaposing our office environment with our work-from-home environment, we can better identify ways to create needed order to work effectively in the months ahead. For example, before interrupting someone at the office, you may typically pause and assess your colleague’s willingness to listen. That same courtesy may be harder to apply at home: You may think, naturally, your partner wants to hear your thought as soon as it pops in your mind. But just because your partner is present, doesn’t mean he or she is available. We have to learn to moderate the expectations around the availability of our partners and housemates.
Setting up ground rules can help you avoid the pitfalls of undefined expectations. To the best of your ability, establish windows where you can focus on work without being disturbed. Create shifts with your living partners to manage responsibilities such as doing housework or walking the dog.
These new rules should extend beyond your physically present company, too. Signal your status to friends and family to ensure they exercise some digital boundaries during your work hours, such as logging off from chat platforms or informing them beforehand of a particularly busy day. Furthermore, make it clear to coworkers that you are taking breaks, to promote mutual care.
Working from home fundamentally reframes our notion of collegial presence. At times, it can feel as though you are the only witness to your own lengthening hours and efforts. Muted audio mics and virtual invites abound. Feedback loops are missing due to the loss of basic pleasantries. Furthermore, isolation can breed self-doubt, spiraling into overwork and hyper-monitoring. It can also keep you from seeing the bright side of this historic situation.
Notably, the way we socialize and interact with each other has a chance to become much more authentic. A regular office allows for chance encounters with your colleagues, but it also provides a “stage” with shared “props.” Now, all of our communications are more varied and unpredictable. The distance between us offers the opportunity to learn more about each other and to appreciate the breadth of our lives outside work. The result may be finding the best synchrony between our professional and personal lives.
Connect in a mindful manner
The former 9-to-5 office structure provided set expectations for contact between workers and employers. As my research has shown over many years, this routine is fundamentally disrupted when connected devices bring the office, home. Now, our devices are the primary window to the outside world while we operate in isolation. Give yourself permission to disconnect as you would during a normal office-dwelling day.
In our personal lives, we must monitor our exposure to the news cycle along with communication channels, made only more accessible with high-speed internet and multiple devices. For instance, we don’t know yet what impact the “Zoom Boom” will have on us; many are already noting the sense of exhaustion that can come with back-to-back meetings. To work sustainably for the months to come, we must put a different set of expectations through out minds.
If we can be intentional in our interactions with our tools, professionally and personally, we can reduce the lasting impact this work-from-home experience has on our lives post-COVID-19.
Melissa Gregg is the author of Work’s Intimacy and Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy. She serves as chief technologist, User Experience and Sustainability for Client Computing, at Intel.