After six months of working from home, many of us have settled into new routines and accepted that remote work is here to stay for a while. In speaking with employees located in the U.S., Australia/New Zealand, and Europe at my company, I found that many are experiencing a vast range of emotions when it comes to unexpectedly working remotely, which shouldn’t be too surprising given our varied circumstances at home.
I’ve discovered that many of the challenges of our new work environments aren’t a result of the shift to remote work. The challenges employees were already facing have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The opportunity here is for organization leaders and managers to use this unique moment to better understand their workforces and direct reports, working to create a more supportive work environment based on individual needs.
What we love about working from home
Not surprisingly, many employees have expressed how much they love working from home, a perk previously extended only to about 4% of the workforce.
- Better work/life balance: Without a commute, employees are spending more time with their families, cooking, exercising, reading, and enjoying the outdoors. More flexible schedules allow them to take meaningful breaks throughout the day. Many have started taking midday walks: One VP-level associate even told me they had no idea how nice it was outside this time of year.
- Increased productivity: Some employees simply prefer the comfort and convenience of their own homes. And without the distractions of working in an open-office setting, many have increased their productivity. According to McKinsey research, 41% of people currently working from home report they’re actually more productive than they were before the pandemic.
- New opportunities: The shift to remote work has opened up new opportunities for some employees and personality types. Introverts who were often overlooked in office environments have found they’re now judged on the quality of their work—not the volume of their voices.
- Finding hope: Many have found ways to practice gratitude and imagine a better future, resulting in a positive focus and hopeful outlook. Now that we’re not spending the majority of our waking hours in an office, we have the time and energy to do good. For example, adult children are offering support for their parents, spending more time caring for their needs and helping with household duties. Working parents are spending more time with their children, often assisting them with homework and serving as IT support for their school’s newfound remote learning practices. Time-pressed employees are establishing better exercise and mental health routines, and city dwellers are finding ways to support local businesses.
What we hate about working from home
Of course, there have been some drawbacks to working from home. Most are related to the pandemic—not necessarily the transition to remote work—but they’re still important for employers to take into account.
- Extra pressure and responsibility: Working parents are struggling with the demands of work and unexpected, full-time childcare. Many adults are taking on added responsibility to care for their aging parents—those in the age group most at risk for COVID-19—including grocery shopping, scheduling and attending doctor visits (often virtual) and procuring prescription medications, housekeeping, etc.
- Other people—either too many of them or not enough: As of 2019, 36 million Americans (28% of households) are living alone. Not surprisingly, many of these solo dwellers are feeling lonely and isolated under prolonged quarantine. On the other end of the spectrum, working parents and employees with roommates are feeling overwhelmed and distracted by all the activity in their homes.
- Coping with external events: Although we’ve had time to adjust to the reality of quarantine, most of us still sometimes feel overwhelmed by the scope and scale of the virus—and the changes it’s made to our daily lives. Additional external stressors, like social unrest and natural disasters from floods to wildfires, haven’t helped. It’s a complex range of emotions that can be hard to navigate, leading to an overwhelmed feeling that can be taxing on mental health.
What employers can do to help
In general, most employees love working from home but dislike the sudden changes to work and life that have been experienced by so many in 2020, as well as the underlying issues the pandemic has brought to light. While employers can’t control the pandemic, they can use this opportunity to address many of the problems their employees face.
- Provide real flexibility. Working from home might appear to offer flexibility, but that’s not the case for everyone. Connect with working parents and other employees struggling to juggle additional responsibilities during traditional office hours. Explore solutions together that work for them and the team.
- Listen to your employees. Many employees are wary of sharing their current struggles—whether it’s feelings of isolation or being stretched too thin from the demands of childcare—for fear of losing their WFH perks or underdelivering in a time of economic hardship and job uncertainty. Anonymous surveys are a great way to gather candid feedback and ask employees specifically what they need from you.
- Acknowledge mental health. Continuously engage in mental health conversations with all of your employees and make support resources available. Additionally, encourage employees to take time off to rest and recharge. They may not be able to travel anywhere, but we all need breaks from work. Be sure to lead by example by taking mental health days off yourself.
Before focusing on the future of work, address the present problems your employees face. We’ll be working outside the traditional office environment for some time. And the employers that use this time to better support their employees will establish stronger workplaces for years to come.
Jacqueline Anderson has 13 years’ experience in human resources. Since joining Nintex she has taken on a key adviser role for engineering and R&D teams and runs an innovative HR and facilities department across seven countries. She plays an active role in helping Nintex integrate acquisitions mindfully and successfully. Anderson has a passion for the role HR plays in the fast-paced software industry, with a strong interest in the future of work and how HR can be the driving force behind it.