Just a few months ago, pre-pandemic, we were putting in our hours at work and then heading home. We lived with more tangible boundaries between our family lives and our professional lives. For some of us, these demarcations were shaped by a drive into the office…each morning and back in the evening, it was a time, which we sometimes acknowledged as decompressive. It allowed an opportunity to transition between two significant components of our 24-hour cycle.
In a car seat, disagreements with family were slowly processed before entering the office, and workplace victories and failures were quietly digested before arriving home. A drive in many ways, was an emotional reset that bridged more than just a distant commute. With this nasty, mysterious virus completely unending all facets of daily life, one thing that seemed poised to bring positive, and lasting change beyond the pandemic was working from home. Now you must be wondering, is the work-life balance an impossible feat in pandemic era? The ride is now replaced by a ten-step walk to a spare bedroom or a quick shuffled exit from the patio door to the deck outside.
We now log into Zoom and Webex, even as children sit down at the kitchen table to eat their breakfast and the morning coffee is no longer an easy pick up at the local drive-through. For others, even pre-work rituals at home like a change into work clothing signaled a disposition shift, that eased the transition from home to work. Deciding on a collared shirt or pencil skirt was an entry point to work that has faded. Work clothing came with its own supply chains of effort and emotion: shopping for office wear, flashy vs elegant looks, cool vs grungy decisions of course… Monday to Thursday vs casual Friday. Now, these are far from one’s mind, and the lines between work-personal become blurred.
As countries went into lockdown and mandated people work remotely, experts wrote about how this would bring change in the way we approach work. It would bring about flexible work arrangements, and in productivity, some even claimed better work-life balance. Depending on where you are, you would be at least several months into this new normal. But, in that time, it seems people have been burning out more. I have seen friends lament in conversations, social media, etc., about how they are working more than ever before, and articles have popped up how work-life balance is not anything more than a boundless ‘fusion-life’.
Having these conversations, it made me stop to think about work, was things really any better before? Has working from home just exposed how little of the balance we truly had? I do not think anyone expected the shift to remote work would be easy. It was thrust upon many individuals unexpectedly and companies lacked the time to effectively prepare. Many choose instead to just carry on as per usual, just now from home.
Parents, who have full time positions, have a hard time balancing between the two worlds. From one position, many feel guilty if they neglect their children and guilty if they neglect work. Things are further exacerbated by bosses who demand that employees are available twenty-four hours/seven days a week. A friend of mine was threatened to be reprimanded for not answering her phone. At the time, her child was having an emotional breakdown, and required comfort. Such intrusions in life by work is not new for anyone, and probably has resulted in stricter processes within companies. However, this takes a bigger toll on employees’ mental health, due to constant demands from their employers. It varies from Zoom being on in the background to keep watch on you, to mandating you to reply to messages and emails within 15 minutes and downloading software that watches what you do on the computer. These are just some of the few work from home measures that have been shared with me. But I believe this speaks more of the company’s work culture than anything else. If you wouldn’t keep such a close watch on your employees in the office, why do so now? With a looming recession and worries over job security, employees feel pressured to comply with every measure that comes their way, no matter how intrusive.
As much as employees are expected to do their part, employers should also do what they can to help make remote work as seamless as possible. Breathing down the neck of your employees is not way to treat them in a time when empathy should be king. Organizational culture helps us find what we love, love what we do and overcoming many barriers including social distancing with our colleagues from our work teams. What can be done to engage remote workers more fully in their work? Go, “from providing a living to providing a life,” to promote a positive work culture, so as to ensure employees love what they do.
I am of the opinion, the elephant in the room, remote work has not annihilated work-life balance, rather, it has made it impossible to ignore toxic work environments. This crisis accelerates the adoption of distance work as an urgent necessity, and without much time for adaptation. However, companies’ structures, procedures and culture have not tailored to the new normal. This situation requires flexible organizations with a strong infrastructure, coherence and support to employees working in virtual teams. The technology more or less exists today, what we don’t have yet (in many cases) is the new mindset.