Confronting the Challenges of Working at Home
Working from home, though appealing to many workers, has long presented a special set of challenges. Those challenges were magnified in the sudden boom of remote workers who took to their homes during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Added to the burden of home workers has been, in many cases, is responsibility for the care and schooling of children during normal working hours, and the difficulty in finding respite outside the home because everything’s closed down. This article looks at how some newly remote workers are experiencing the common work-at-home issues that Biospace identified in its Workplace Survey: Impact of COVID-19 Spring 2020, as well as techniques for addressing those challenges.
Communication issues/response times/getting answers when needed:
“I’m hamstrung in waiting for up-line reviews and approvals,” laments Karen Mobley, senior accountant at Amentum in Richland, WA, who began working at home following statewide stay-at-home orders. “I would normally go to the offices of each person to remind them or touch base. A 5-second reminder is now an email that gets lost in the inbox due to sheer volume we receive,” she explains. One work-at-home veteran suggests overcommunication in Karen’s situation – not just that email in the inbox, but also a text, and perhaps yet an additional form of communication.
Natalie Palmer, an IT trainer for a healthcare system in Denver, CO, attempts to head off these issues of disseminating needed information by scheduling “short, weekly check-ins to make sure people are getting information in a timely manner.” (Some experts suggest more frequent – even daily – meetings). The meetings provide “much needed structure and contact to our weeks,” she notes. The virtual gatherings are also a time for sharing short personal- and professional-development topics, as well as celebrations. “I make everyone sing ‘happy birthday,’ and it's awful, but wonderful,” Palmer said.
Those working at home for organizations with a broad national or international reach often find that widely divergent timezones play havoc with the need for timely communication. But sometimes, timezones work in the remote-worker’s favor. Erin Kutner, a teacher for VIPKid, teaches English to children in China from her home in Winter Springs, FL. “I’m done for the day at 9 a.m., when the rest of the house is waking up! So no distractions,” Kutner says.
Effective Productivity. Many aspects of the work-at home environment can impede productivity. Here we look at managing time, maintaining focus, optimizing the workspace, and taking care of ourselves:
Time Management: Part of mastering time management while working at home means setting boundaries between work and home life. For many, that translates into a regular schedule of working only during “normal” work hours and taking regular breaks, including time for stretching and walking around, as well as a real lunchbreak away from your workspace. A daily to-do or checklist can help keep you on track.
Maintaining focus, avoiding distractions: A challenge for publication editor Darlene Marquardt is “staying focused on the task at hand when there are so many distractions and personal tasks beckoning (like working in the garden).” Most of us can muster the self-discipline to not wander out into the garden but may be more susceptible to distractions – like social media – that are closer to our workspaces. Close all apps and browser windows that might entice you. If you must take “scrolling time,” do it over lunch. Negotiate with family members so that all who need stretches of distraction-free time can get it.
Workspace issues: Sometimes productivity is hampered by an inadequate or in-demand workspace. That’s the case for Tamara Arrington, a college professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX: “We do not have any home office space, per se,” Arrington notes. She describes a living-room scene of permanent and makeshift desks for Arrington and her husband, plus all three daughters doing schoolwork in the same room. ”It is often five people and two cats all in one living-room trying to work and get along as peacefully as possible. There is no peace and quiet,” she says. “There is no alone time.” One expert tip that might work for those in the Arrington’s situation is switching off parental responsibilities for the kids, giving the other parent some relatively peaceful time.
The flip side of the dysfunctional home workspace is one that’s been optimized. “I make sure to do little things to help me love my workspace,” Kutner says. “I keep it clean, tidy, smelling nice, and decorated in a way that makes me happy.” Optimization for comfort is also important, as Mobley advises: “Make sure your office chair is comfortable enough to use for 40+ hours a week for months on end,” she says. “If not, get one that is.” Sometimes a home workspace offers advantages not found in the external office. “Closing the door is a nice perk for conference calls that I don't have at the work office,” Mobley says. ”I can play music or an audiobook and not use headphones.”
Self-care issues: Despite many Internet memes suggesting everyone is working at home in their pajamas, several newly remote workers advise getting dressed each day as you normally would if going to work externally to put you into a professional mindset. Self-care includes fitness, which is part of many workplace routines. Workers like Mobley are accustomed to getting “steps” in at work. “At the office, my goal was 5,000 steps; at home, I find that I'm lucky to make 1,500 steps. Fortunately, Mobley says she’s lost a few pounds despite the fewer steps because she is no longer eating restaurant lunches. Taking a mid-work walk around the neighborhood (with appropriate social distancing) is a good way to address the fitness need.
Lack of collaboration; feeling disconnected.
Palmer feels disconnected from her co-workers but has come up with a way to actually boost the connection and build trust among team members. “I miss the people I work with,” Palmer says, “and experience a feeling of isolation from what used to be everyday conversations in passing about their lives, families, hobbies, and more.” Here’s Palmer’s technique to mitigate this sense of isolation, not only for herself, but for the rest of the team:
“I’ve worked hard to intentionally create connections in ways that are ‘non-transactional.’ A ‘transactional’ encounter is when I call you and I need something from you: ‘Hello, I need a report or information.’ Instead, I call with no agenda greater than ‘How are you?’ I listen; I pay attention. But it’s not casual on my part – I have an actual schedule to make sure I’m reaching everyone. Sometimes it’s just a nice, short conversation. Sometimes they ask me for resources or help or information. Because I have been persistent, it’s built trust in this odd, new situation – and I’ve actually become aware of some issues that might otherwise never have been voiced.”
While newly remote workers may miss the folks they usually work with, they are sometimes compensated by new-found closeness with family members and pets. “I like being able to talk to my family, address issues, or go out as weather permits,” Mobley says. “Petting the cat when stressed also helps,” she adds. “If you don’t have pets or family members to engage with as “co-workers,” Mobley suggests, “reach out to your real co-workers and others to maintain social connections.”
“My biggest challenge is frustratingly unstable Internet, so Zoom meetings are always a crapshoot,” laments Liz Sumner, a life coach living in Pergola, Italy. ”Will it fail? Will we have to take precious time to deal with tech difficulties?” For Mobley, an extra step in the printing process because of her home setup is annoying. Because of security protocols and other factors, she can't print directly to her home computer. Mobley has developed a workaround, but it takes a few minutes longer than it would at her office. Tech shortcomings can seem insurmountable, especially if your employer can’t solve them for you. We may decide we can live with short-term inconveniences like Mobley’s printer workaround but seek to pursue longer-term fixes for issues like Sumner’s that can impede job performance. Try to come up with a backup plan for any technical issues that could keep you from executing your work.
A huge wave of newly remote workers have had to adapt not only to having to work at home with family members around, but in many cases, spending part of their workdays involved with their children’s schoolwork. “My challenge has been to effectively balance my job with helping my children with their distance learning,” says Kate Jacobs, communication-center manager for Modern Pest Services in Brunswick, ME. “I have been pretty successful at managing things by taking meetings only in the morning, while remaining accessible to my teams through Microsoft Teams chat or email throughout the rest of the day,” Jacobs says.
If nothing else, the pandemic has created a global community of workers in similar situations. Empathy and help are available. “If you are struggling and need help, ask for it and leverage all the resources available to you via work and your local community,” Mobley advises.