The COVID-19 crisis has far reaching effects across different aspects of society, including the way we work. With no end to the pandemic in sight, companies all around the world have requested or mandated that employees stay away from their offices, thereby triggering a work-from-home experiment en masse. If you are a freelancer (as I am), you would be aware of the realities of remote work.
However, what does this mean for the modern day employee? And how do we deal with the psychological impacts of remote work and survive its unknown wilderness?
A Brief History
According to Gartner in their recent webinar snap poll, 91 per cent of attending HR leaders in Asia-Pacific indicated that they have implemented work-from-home arrangements since the outbreak but the biggest challenges lie in the lack of technology, infrastructure and comfort with new ways of working.
It’s no surprise that companies are struggling to implement remote working. For the most part, offices were the heart of work. The rise of managerial capitalism prevailed for the most part of the 20th century in which markets were dominated by large bureaucratic organisations with salaried executives. Think middle management, modern hierarchies and corporate headquarters all coming together to strategize the best way to boost productivity at the office.
The managerial mode of work only began to wane in the late 20th century. Thereafter, the information technology revolution came about in the early 21st century leading to a greater importance of knowledge workers and an emergence of tech-enabled platforms. This shifted our paradigm of work. Near-instant communication freed knowledge workers, who do not have to be on-site, allowing them to avoid the dreary commute or the unaffordable housing in downtown areas to work wherever they want. I’m sure you have heard of the typical digital nomad archetype, fresh from a swim in the Balinese sea and doing work on his laptop as he gazes upon the rice paddy fields through the window of a co-working space.
I took this photo while at an actual co-working space in Bali in 2018
Of course, even at this point in time, offices stubbornly refused to retire. Technology and start-up industries are exceptions to this norm where the bulk of the work can be done online, and the typical start-up culture affords employees degrees of flexibility.
Communicate, communicate, and communicate
Zoom, Slack, Google Hangouts – these are just some of the platforms that have become integral parts of our collective work vocabulary ever since companies implemented business continuity plans. One of the biggest early realisations that you will have, is that all your hour-long meetings truly could have been easily been resolved over a couple of emails or a short call. Perhaps, now you never want to have real-life meetings again.
However, if Murphy’s law applies, as it does to me, your phone or video calls will now be peppered with background noises of crying babies or construction work. This drives me absolutely mad. To make sure that you don’t spend a large chunk of your time repeating yourself or forgetting to unmute when you talk, I recommend you have a stable Wi-Fi and free access to Krisp.ai. It was recommended to me by a HR veteran whereby a magical click of its button removes background noises on both ends of the call.
Understandably, talking to a thumbnail of your colleagues all day may not satisfy your need for social interaction, especially when you used to be able to go over to their desk and have a quick face-to-face chat. This is probably exacerbated by one of the fundamental problems of online communication – it’s really hard to detect emotions in emails and texts. Emojis and exclamation marks can only go so far. I’m sure we’ve all counted the number of “!”to convey the right level of enthusiasm. Being aware of this limitation is important because this will help you avoid misunderstanding and miscommunication. If you find yourself trying to figure out if your colleague is upset with you because of the brevity of his reply (i.e. “Noted.”), do pick up the phone or get on a video call. It will help mitigate the false impression of curtness and insensitivity of a text-based message.
Furthermore, one of the biggest issues of remote working is social isolation. In a Stanford Business study, a team of economists studied a 16,000 employee, NASDAQ-listed Chinese travel agency, Ctrip, to examine the effectiveness of working from home. Initially, in the experiment, it seemed ideal. Employees had better job satisfaction and increased productivity and the company saved money per employee due to reduced office space. However, once the policy to work-from-home was rolled out to the entire company, it caused a giant mess. One complaint triumphed all: loneliness.
One must not forget that an employee is not a mere unit of labour but also a human being who requires meaningful social exchange. Social bonds amongst colleagues are also essential for collaboration and teamwork. However, in the case of the COVID-19 situation, working outside of your home in a café or co-working space and meeting office friends for social gatherings might not be feasible. That said, we must proactively find a way around it. Some of my peers started hosting online Zoom sessions which are open to people to say ‘hi’ or accompany you while you do your work. Although their presence is mediated by pixels, it is still a comforting one. Organise your own Zoom sessions with your friends or colleagues to work together. After that, you can have a Netflix watch party.
Last but not the least, remote work is not for everyone and that’s okay. There may be a proliferation on articles about how remote work is like a dream come true because you can beat the commute, sleep and wear comfy pyjamas while working. On the flipside, there are those who are struggling to adapt to remote work, but that’s okay.
Anthropologist James Cook spent the past four years researching how people adjusted to become digital nomads. According to his research, after an initial honeymoon phase, remote work became too isolating for over 25% of his participants. One of them was cited saying, "Some aren’t naturally self-motivated, and no end of self-help books will change that”."
Accept that you need time to adjust to this new mode of work. I have personally seen my own interns struggle to work remotely because they were not used to a lack of structure. While structure and routine may be a cornerstone of office-based work, that does not mean you cannot create your own routine to rely on. In fact, that is very much encouraged to prevent your work life bleeding into your personal life. I have friends who are new to remote work and have complained to me that they are more tired at home than they are at the office. They feel that there is no separation between work and home.
My suggestion would be to designate your own makeshift work-space at home, preferable outside your bedroom. This could be your living room or your dining table or any space that you do not use or associate for rest and play. Follow a fixed timing of work such as going online at nine and going offline at six. If there’s nothing urgent, turn off your work notifications when you have ended work for the day. With online communications, it is much easier for people to contact you at any time of the day (or night) but that means that it is much harder for you to turn your work brain off even while at home. Help yourself by building your own structure and whatever you need that might help you separate your work life and your personal self at home.
Distance is care
The coronavirus outbreak has been hard on everyone. Long-held patterns of work have been disrupted and remote working is being stressed-test to the extreme. It’s hard to ignore distractions in the house, ideas are being lost in garbled texts on Slack and there will always be someone disconnecting on Skype when something important is said. The mess of it all goes to show that remote working is still in its infancy and the working generation is collectively figuring out how to make remote working work. No one knows when the outbreak will recede and people can start returning to the safe, structured haven of the office.
One thing is for sure – working from home may start to shift from being the exception to the norm. Who knows? Remote working may become the new mode of work in the future. In the meantime, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel had addressed her nation, “At the moment, only distance is an expression of care.” The troubles of remote working are minute compared to the extent of the COVID-19 outbreak. It is okay to take time to adjust to working from home. Know what you are as a person and what you need and do your best to accommodate them. Maybe, it’ll grow on you.