Working From Home in a Time of Coronavirus

Welcome to the remote life, my friends. I’ve been doing it at least part-time for eight years and let me tell you, it is equal parts glorious and an absolute hot mess at the best of times. If you’re being introduced to telework in a time of a national emergency though, it’s probably going to require some adjustments – for you and your company. 

At first you might be relieved to not be sloughing into your germ factory offices everyday, forced to smell your coworkers outrageously stinky lunches, endure an open-concept work environment, and spend two hours commuting home every night. You’ll no longer have to wonder how many unwashed hands have touched the elevator button, pray that no one saw you binge-reading Bachelor recaps, or get caught at the coffee maker by that coworker who wants to tell you he’s convinced his ex-wife has coronavirus and gave it to him out of spite. In comparison, working from the sweet solitude of your home sounds like a dream come true. 

Once the euphoria of not being potentially exposed to a pandemic and the chants of “free at last” pipe down, the reality of remote work begins to set in. And let me tell you, depending on your organization, you’re going to be in for a surprise. 

With a large chunk of the nation having to telework in the next few weeks thanks to the pandemic, this could be a make or break time for the future of work from home options for many employees. On the one hand it can prove that for many jobs, office buildings are an unnecessary hellscape for employees and just as often less productive than working from home. On the other, if companies and employees don’t handle things responsibly, this could be the death knell of remote work. 

There have been studies that show both increased production and decreased production for people working from home. During the Covid-19 global outbreak many companies have no choice but to introduce the means for their employees to continue working from home for as long as the coronavirus crisis lasts. Among the more common issue for the work at home employees are the ability to prioritize tasks, time management skills and learning how to remove distractions. The ability to work from home successfully while self-isolating and social distancing depends on many things. Another determining factor for work at home employees and whether they enjoy an increased level of production or a reduction of efficiency, is whether or not the company has a telework policy. This is especially important for those employees who will work from home, at least for the duration of the global Covid-19 pandemic.

If your company doesn’t have a regular telework policy, chances are the next few weeks are going to be chaotic. Does everyone know how to login to the VPN and have it actually work? Did everyone bring home the hardware they’ll need for a few weeks (that means remembering the damn chargers)? Does your micromanager boss have the ability to trust their employees to do their jobs when they’re not in their line of sight? Do you have an office messenger like Slack? Chances are if this hasn’t been worked out in advance, it’s going to be a stressful transition, and that’s just at the root level. 

Remote work has been on the rise for years, but many companies still deeply distrust it, and their employees. Folks who get the chance to work from home often fall into three categories: overachievers who work from dawn to dusk to prove they’re actually doing things; slackers who see telework as a vacation; and everyone else who gets punished for the first two groups.  You’ll likely see demands for video conferences, messengers, and 24/7 connection under the guise of “uniting the team” as a thinly veiled guise to make sure the workforce is 100% engaged. Bosses that are already prone to hovering will likely be in over-communication mode that can be overtly stressful, especially within the confines of your own home. After all you will literally be bringing work home with you, and all that entails. Your meetings, emails, and catch-up calls will likely be off the charts for a while, especially as businesses go through crises mode to determine how the coronavirus will impact the company. This is not going to be the extended spring break you may have expected.

Aside from the not-so-considerable stress of living through a pandemic, tempers and anxieties will be running high for the next few weeks as people hunker down, fret about the economy, and get progressively more panicked about situations wildly out of their control. We’re all going to be a bit grumpy, a bit selfish, and more than a bit preoccupied. Stress is going to be an even bigger part of the new normal for a while, and most of it is going to concentrate in our homes as we don’t go off to work, the gym, concerts, out to dinner, school, etc…. It’s not unlikely that your home is going to be ground zero for stressing you out.

So how do you juggle your newfound freedom when it feels a bit like a Martha Stewart prison sentence? Boundaries. 

The trick to working from home is to pick a dedicated space that is not the same area that you want to unwind in later. As much fun as PJs and logging in from bed may be, try sleeping in said bed after an extremely stressful work day. If you don’t think you’d be able to relax at your desk at work, then don’t try to force work into your relaxation space. In small apartments it’s easier said than done to clear a designated space, but trust me, choose the kitchen table over your Netflix couch, especially for the bruiser conference calls. 

You also need to stick to your usual work hours. If you have the ability to work all day without the disruption of commuting, picking up kids, etc… your work will likely take advantage of it. Do the job you’re paid to do in the time you’re allotted to do it. While work and life may be colliding for a while, try to stop working and set aside time for leisure as much as possible. And just as importantly, put aside the leisure during work hours and be as dedicated to the job at hand as you would be in the office when the boss is watching. 

Get outside when you can. We’re all supposed to be practicing social isolation as much as we can, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go walk the dog, take a hike, or get some fresh air when and where you can. This isn’t a blizzard or hurricane – you don’t need to stay inside your house unless you’re showing symptoms of being ill and you’re not going to transmit disease to the birds and the bees if you go for a walk through the park. Trust me, your mental health is going to require you to get out of the house from time to time, so be smart about your needs and the health of others. Avoid people, take a walk, clear your head, and if you’re up to the challenge – leave your devices at home. 

Be gentle with yourself and others. You may not have a boss or a nosy coworker looking over your shoulder at home, but that doesn’t mean you should spend all day scouring the internet and freaking yourself out. Stay informed, but don’t dwell in the panic. Every headline you read is about government failures to get ahead of the virus, the stock market tanking, and everything you’ve ever enjoyed in life being cancelled. Make the concerted effort to close those tabs and focus on the task at hand. When possible, get your mind off of what’s going on out there and try to find something worth smiling about. 

While you’re at it, spread some kindness around to others. Try to have a little extra patience for the coworker bogged down at home with a houseful of kids and attempting to work. Remember to check in with your extrovert friends who are going stir crazy. Share your Netflix or Kindle password with your friend who is out of work and doesn’t have paid leave. Taking a little extra time to communicate with people feeling anxious or lost during this time won’t kill you, and might just make a world of difference on their mental health. 

Most importantly, wash your hands, be responsible, set boundaries, and take care of yourself. And please don’t ruin remote work for the rest of us who do this full time and love it. 

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