The pandemic was supposed to be done by now. We were supposed to support one another, wear masks, keep distance, and move from spring to summer and fall with cases dropping each season. Instead we are living in a divided country that has contributed to what feels like a dystopian version of The Neverending Story. Back to school, government support, hoaxes? Ah, young one, those are another story.
We are still in the thick of COVID-19 adjustments, because cases and deaths are still on the rise. States have opened up, and many service employees have returned to physical spaces, but many folks are still working from home and will do so indefinitely. For some folks, working from home has always been a full-time situation or at least an option they could take advantage of if necessary. Since the pandemic forced non-essential workers into their homes, working remotely has become the only choice for many employees. Working from home does have benefits, but it’s not great for everyone — and for some, the long term effects are damaging.
According to a study done by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, about 34% of U.S. jobs can be done from home. But just because they can, doesn’t mean folks want to work from home. To be clear: no one wants any of whatever this new normal is, but some have struggled more than others with the switch from office space to working at the kitchen table. A survey by the Society of Human Resource Management showed 70% of employers are struggling with shifting to remote work. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, half of companies believe they are seeing a drop in productivity with this shift from office to home work environments.
At first it was kind of nice to skip the morning rush and commute. Business casual became very casual; pants became optional. There were Zoom meetings and emails but no bosses or co-workers looking over our shoulders. Then the novelty wore off and anxiety and loneliness settled in, and working from home became a source of volatility. One of the hardest aspects of this pandemic is all of the dominoes that may or may not fall because of it. It creates a constant sense of unpredictability.
Will my kid wander into the room while I am trying to focus? Will my internet become “unstable” when I’m on a call? Will a coworker or client be dealing with the same interruptions? When will this end? Will there even be office space to go back to when the pandemic is over?
A friend told me that her company decided to get rid of all physical locations and have employees work from home because it’s cheaper. She hopes this budget cut saves her job, but that too is uncertain. We never know what the future holds, but at the moment we can’t even make short-term plans much less long-term goals. All of this uncertainty creates anxiety, and when we’re anxious we don’t focus well and our productivity declines. I’m used to working from home because I did it before COVID-19, but since the kids have invaded my home work space I’ve become slower about checking items off of my to-do list.
My kids’ constant presence over the last six months has definitely impacted my ability to work efficiently from home. I spend more time convincing myself to get started and am easily distracted. The pandemic turned what was once a perk into a problem. Part of the joy of working remotely means I can travel and still get my work done. This allows me to visit my long distance partner or attend a conference and still and not miss any writing assignments. When I was home in the “before times” and struggled to focus, I could pick up and work at a coffee shop or library if I needed a change of scenery to boost my productivity. I can’t do that now.
Being around people helps many of us too. Some of us are extroverts and relish the drop-ins by co-workers and office friends. Our energy and moods are suffering without the external stimulation of other humans. Even introverts can get lonely during these stretches of work-at-home solitude. And most of us need those face-to-face interactions to brainstorm ideas, vent, or hold us accountable. Zoom meetings add to the mental drain and are not a comparable replacement to real contact.
The good news is that humans are resilient and (fingers crossed) all of this is temporary. The pandemic won’t last forever (right??), the economy will improve, and our work-life balance and locations will find equilibrium again. Until then, there are some things we can do to make our remote work better.
Ingrid Fetell Lee reminds us that we need to take care of our bodies first. Move, stretch, and find new spots to work if possible to ease aches and pains from sitting all day. Even if it’s from the couch to the counter, it’s important to give our bodies a break. I have benefited from taking an hour in the middle of each day to work out. It gives me something to look forward to, eliminates stiffness, and gives me energy to pull focus from the depths of my very tired, totally-over-this-shit soul.
Fetell Lee suggests adding plants to your workspace, making an effort to get sunshine, and if you can, putting your workstation away at the end of each workday. Throw a blanket over the mess or pile everything into a basket and tuck it away. We now live where we work. It’s important to set some boundaries so that we can recharge to do it all again the next day.
Another tip (one I am personally struggling with) is that we need to embrace some of this uncertainty. I do my best to control what I can, but the reality is that so much is out of my hands. I know I would benefit from letting go of the idea that I can problem-solve my way out of this situation.
If you are feeling frustrated and sick and tired of working from home, you aren’t alone. I am grateful I can still work from the safety of my home, but being forced to do so has created negative side effects that make me feel sluggish and disconnected. It’s okay to hold these two truths at the same time. It’s okay for you to give yourself a break too.