Writing in the Financial Times on 3 April 2020 the novelist Arundhati Roy said: ‘Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next’.
Since the arrival of COVID-19 the world of work has been re-imagined in ways that would have seemed unthinkable before. The necessity for social distancing to curb the spread of the virus has propelled many workers into the uncharted waters of remote working.
Anecdotally, remote workers report that the benefits include greater flexibility, autonomy and the opportunity to fit in household tasks during the working day. The stresses and expenses of the daily commute are avoided and this is seen as another advantage of working from home. The drawbacks include reduced social interaction and burnout.
Few people will miss the daily commute and dealing with traffic, adverse weather, public transport problems and the sheer drain on their time and energy before they even sit down at their desks. Not having to travel to the office eliminates the stresses of commuting and allows more control over the timetable of the working day. Remote workers report that they can schedule their working day in a way that suits them, which might mean getting tasks done outside the normal office hours. Also there can be a sense of autonomy and being one’s own boss which can lead to increased confidence.
Among the drawbacks reported by remote workers are isolation and burnout.
1. Isolation and loneliness
A 2013 Coventry University study of the psychological effects of remote working found that well-being is impacted by reduced social interaction. Interviewees reported that relationship building can be more difficult in the remote setting. The office grapevine may be missed and important information not communicated. Also while video conferencing is helpful in this area, most workers become exhausted by dealing with endless Zoom meetings. And the normal social cues such as body language are less obvious online. Not being able to ask a colleague for their input is seen as another drawback to remote working.
A review of remote working published in February 2020, using data collected in November 2019, reported that 20% of respondents cited loneliness as their biggest struggle with remote working. In April 2020 an analysis of the challenges facing work-from-home employees during the Coronavirus pandemic found that ‘87% of those living alone and working from home are now struggling with loneliness and social isolation’. The American Psychological Association published research in 2019 indicating that perceived social isolation is linked with adverse consequences including depression, poor sleep quality and cardiovascular function, as well as impaired immunity. The authors state that lack of social connection heightens health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having an alcohol use disorder. (https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/05/ce-corner-isolation)
Remote workers may find a blurring of boundaries between work and home life so that there is less restorative effect from their downtime. The 2013 Coventry research noted some potential drawbacks of remote working. They include logging on to work past normal hours and preferring to work instead of engaging with the family. 11 full-time and part-time workers were interviewed about their experiences of working from home. Several interviewees said they had become ‘addicted’ to switching on the computer and working in the evening, with one saying she can be still working at 2am. Also late e-mails and a ‘non-stop’ work culture were found to add to the pressure on remote workers. The carryover of work was found to limit the amount of time available for respite from work activities.
Also remote workers often find that the level of technology they enjoyed in the office including printers, large screens and internet connectivity is not readily available to them at home. This can add considerably to their stress response.
Dr Stephen Porges is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina and the founding director of the Traumatic Stress Research Consortium. At the start of the pandemic Dr Porges spoke about the challenge of balancing the need for social isolation in the pandemic against our nervous system’s need to interact and connect with other people. He says that when we reach out to connect we’re ‘ creating a capacity to co-regulate each other’s physiological and emotional and behavioral state. As we co-regulate each other, we feel safer in the space and time that we’re in. We become more generous to others, more welcoming and more accessible’.
He noted that connecting via video chatting allows us to access both the intonation of voice and facial expressions, which helps to communicate a sense of ‘ I’m present. I’m here with you’. While this is not the same as being in the same room as the other person he states that it is a lot better than not having any contact (https://relationalimplicit.com/porges-social/).
Michael Stallard, president and co-founder of the Connection Culture Group, is a recognised expert on leadership, team and organisation culture, and employee engagement. In March 2020 he and his wife Katie contributed to a podcast on maintaining social connection while working remotely. (Society for Human Resource Management – All Things Work podcast). They assert that we are hard-wired to connect and when that need is not met there is a higher probability that our body will go into a stress response state and we experience will loneliness. They emphasise the value of reaching out to someone when we feel stressed. They recommend being intentional about reaching out to connect and one option they propose is virtual coffee breaks which can be scheduled regularly with friends and colleagues. They advise ‘Never worry alone’.
In response to the pandemic the NHS published 7 simple tips to limit the negative effects of working from home. They are:
1. Set and stick to a routine.
This means following normal sleep and work patterns as much as possible. They recommend getting up at your usual time and scheduling the ‘commute time’ for exercising, reading or listening to music. When the workday ends it is important to log out and avoid checking e-mails in order to focus on home life.
2. Make a dedicated workspace.
Find a quiet space away from people and distractions, get everything you need in one place and get comfortable, preferably at a table or desk. To help posture – support your back, adjust your chair, rest your feet on the floor and place your screen at eye level.
3. Give yourself a break
Taking lunch and regular screen breaks will help to manage feelings of stress. Working from home means you might be spending a lot more time without moving your body. So taking regular short breaks for stretching or exercise can reduce stiffness and tension, as well as improving focus when you return.
4. Stay connected
Human interaction matters, so keeping in touch with colleagues boosts their mental wellbeing as well as your own. Speak to your colleagues or manager if you’re struggling with working from home.
5. Set boundaries
Remind other members of your household that you need a quiet space free from distractions when you are working. You may need to explain to children that you are not on holiday. Similarly, when your work day is over, make time to enjoy time with the family at home. Some remote workers who have to use their bedroom as their workspace may designate their living room as leisure space. This can help to create a boundary between work and downtime.
6. Think longer term
Since you may be working from home for a while, think about ways to improve how you work, such as better ways to work with others.
7. Be kind to yourself
Acknowledge that this is an unusual situation and you may not be as productive as normal. Be realistic about what you can achieve and relax when your work is done.
In conclusion, the current situation is compelling us to break with our usual routines and find new ways of responding to the demands of a different way of working. Perhaps we will grow and discover personal resources and skills that were previously unknown and unavailable to us.
‘When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves’ (Viktor Frankl)
Remote Working: The Benefits, Challenges and Unintended Consequences by Derek McKay Accountancy Plus June Issue 2020
Grant, C. A., Wallace, L. M. and Spurgeon, P. C. (2013) An exploration of the psychological factors affecting remote e-worker’s job effectiveness, well-being and work-life balance Employee Relations DOI: 10.1108/ER-08-2012-0059