I am among those who are working from home. Granted, it is part-time as a consultant, which is easier than full-time. Still, I have observed some shifts in myself and others that I think are worth highlighting, especially as this feels like a longer term arrangement than we initially thought as organizations eagerly divest of office space to save costs.
First, and most importantly, most people working from home are so grateful to have a job they can do from home and may even feel a bit guilty about it. Adjusting has been challenging but minor compared to so many who are contending with job loss or having to work with a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19.
Second, it is sometimes difficult to focus. Laundry needs doing, groceries need buying and kids need watching (or teaching!). What the neighbors are doing seems infinitely more interesting than the work. And your pets are either cuter or more annoying than ever.
Third, it’s hard find work-life balance. We have been conditioned to understand that “home work” is supplemental not primary. It’s been that way since grade school. Keeping your mind “at work” when your body is “at home” is confusing. What does it even mean to “call in sick” or “go on vacation” when you are home no matter your status and your work is staring at you, constantly demanding your attention?
Fourth, working from living rooms, basements and kitchen tables can be lonely, even for those surrounded by the commotion of others in the household doing their own thing. For many, work friends and colleagues are like family and we miss seeing them. We may even find ourselves remembering fondly the office politics and all the drama that we used to find so irritating.
Finally, the greatest challenge of all are the insecurities and self-doubt that continually flood our minds.
When you send an email and you don’t get an immediate response, you question whether they are ignoring or dismissing you. Did I send it to the right person? Have I offended someone? Did they not like the message I sent?
Video meetings are not the same as being there. For years, you have kept tape over your computer camera to avoid the video channel and now you are forced to deal with it. Immediately you are confronted with your own face on the screen which is startling. I don’t look like that in the mirror. I guess I am asymmetrical. When you finally get connected to everyone so they take up the screen, you are still left with the mini-you staring back making you self-conscious the whole time. Do I always tilt my head? Is there something in my teeth? Do I have shaving cream in my ear?
Making a presentation, especially without the ability to see the participants, is the worst. Am I making sense? Are people bored? Are they instant-messaging each other making snide remarks about me? Hello!! anyone still there?
Self-doubt and wondering how others perceive us have always been with us at work. The culture of competition and hierarchy often makes us second-guess ourselves. When we saw each other in person, though, we had more tools and opportunities to combat our doubting demons. We have lost the opportunity for casual encounters which served to keep our insecurities at bay.
When we used to go to work, we would run into each other. We would check-in to see how that stressful meeting went, and give each other encouragement throughout the day. You might even run into your supervisor and casually ask, “Did you see my email?” to which they would respond, “No, I have been so busy in meetings. I’ll take a look later today and get back to you.” Whew!
When you gave a presentation, you could see people and know if they were listening, looked confused or were nodding off, and you could adjust. You wouldn’t just be hanging out there all alone in the ether hoping your message is being understood and well-received.
Working only though the computer you lose the sense from colleagues that “we are all in this together.” The inside jokes, the knowing glances, the nods, the smiles and non-verbal support has vanished.
You cannot go to lunch or grab a coffee when you need to get perspective. Sure, you could set up a virtual lunch or coffee but that feels awkward. You don’t really want another on-line meeting. You want from your colleagues and friends all the little ways they said, “We’ve got you.”
We have to figure this out. The cords of interpersonal connection that held us together six months ago have withered to bare threads. We need to find new ways to connect informally to assure each other that “we’ve got you,” and talk each other out of our self-doubt and insecurities.
Here’s one idea–write emails that sound like 19th century letters among friends, full of kindness, civility and occasional praise for each other.
“Dear Helen, I hope you are well and enjoying the summer. Mine has been a bit stressful with the children “attending” school from home but we are surviving and grateful for the time together. I am writing in response to your inquiry about the new website. I found it to be quite pleasant and engaging. The colors and design are impressive and reflect your creativity. I do also have a few ideas for your consideration….Very Truly Yours,..”
Or, if you are not a writer, try sending a video message to your colleague from the point of view as an athletic coach. “Way to go! You are strong and have natural talent which is evident in the new website. Based on my experience and knowledge of the game, I have some suggestions for you to consider…”
Or, do a skit and enlist your kids or pets as actors. You could write a poem, sing a song or play your clarinet to convey your message. Now, I am pushing you way outside of your comfort zone! The point is, find some way that is comfortable for you to connect with work colleagues that feels less like work and more like play to regain that creative sense of camaraderie you used to share at work.
In the scheme of things, working at home is the best possible scenario during a pandemic. We feel for those who experiencing job loss, illness, grief, racism and fear. For those required to keep working “out there” during these challenging times, let’s honor them by always wearing a mask!!