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Working remotely through a pandemic

Since the middle of 2020, folks have been fretting and opining about worker productivity in articles, in blogs, on Twitter. Newly remote workers had barely plugged in and opened their laptops, and yet there was a sudden gnashing of teeth about whether anything would get done in this new environment.

Framing this conversation around the viability of remote work is, to me, pretty deceptive. In reality, what they were asking is, “How productive can we expect our workforce to be in a global or national crisis?” But to ask that would be crude, so instead they’ve attempted to pass some sort of judgement on remote work based on the last year.

If you started working from home in spring 2020, I would like to tell you with my full heart and full voice that your experience as a remote worker is in no way normal based on my experiences as a remote worker for the last decade-plus.

So, let’s break it down: how is working through a pandemic different than working remotely?

Overnight transition

Because this shift to remote work was in response to a health crisis, it was done with a speed that remains shocking:

Within just three weeks (mid-March to early April), the percentage of Americans working from home doubled from 31% to 62% as offices and schools shuttered to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

—Ellyn Maese and Lydia Saad, Gallup Panel Data (April 2020)

No question, this is how things needed to happen, but that speed also came at a cost.

In comparison, when Fractured Atlas was transitioning from a hybrid organization to a fully virtual one, we spent 6-8 months planning and discussing the transition—and that was with a significant number of employees already working remotely.

The speed of the current transition left many scrambling.

Employers had to figure out:

  • how to equip workers at home
  • ways to share information securely and asynchronously
  • how and where to hire folks going forward

Teams were required to do all the same work, but adapt to doing it remotely:

  • communicating and collaborating
  • supporting each other
  • maintaining team culture

Individuals needed to:

  • carve out “office” space in their homes, often a shared resource with the other adults they share the space with and/or kids who also suddenly needed remote classrooms
  • attempt to maintain work-life balance when the two were suddenly right on top of each other

Also, folks were doing all these things on short notice with zero idea of how long they would need these new arrangements for. So, yeah, some folks started out with low-effort solutions like working from the couch or kitchen table because maybe it was just going to be for a couple of weeks. But then, after the second month, maybe they saw the need to recalibrate or at least give themselves a deadline by which they’d want to sort out a better working situation. This means the transition was overnight, but also extended as folks understood their needs for a long-haul of working from home.

While none of these things are insurmountable—existing remote workers showed up quickly with articles and blog posts sharing their best practices—they’re also not trivial, especially in the midst of a global crisis and so many unknowns.

Intense levels of instability

In general, your workforce is always doing their jobs with some amount of background chatter or stress. Maybe it’s something low-grade like if they remembered to sign that permission slip this morning or what color to paint their bathroom. Sometimes it’s deep and personal stress, like waiting for the results of a health exam or caring for a chronically ill loved one. We usually get by and keep getting things done by most of us pushing aside the low-grade stuff during our 9-to-5 and coming together as a team to pick up the slack when one member is going through hard times.

In March 2020, we were all in the hard stuff and full of the unknowns together. So, while the TPS report might be open in one tab, the others were devoted to whether or not this COVID thing was serious and a whole section of our brains were locked up wondering if that cough we or a friend couldn’t shake over the last week was serious. As time went on, we switched our browser tabs to our local and national COVID dashboards; added stress about job insecurity, followed by gun violence and legislative assaults on trans folks; watched incidents of and reactions to police brutality and a violent insurrection attempt in the US Capitol.

Again, folks weren’t and aren’t distracted by working remotely specifically—or, if and when they are, that’s just as manageable as our standard level of distraction. They’re distracted because they’re working remotely through a pandemic and a series of other crises.

All Zoom, all the time

I’ve worked with teams that default to conference calls and those that default to video, and the latter are always better for me because of the addition of visual cues and identifiers for who is speaking. In general, I default to video on in my chats with colleagues and appreciate when they do the same.

Having said that, I’ve still struggled with Zoom fatigue this last year because the overwhelming majority of my interactions have been via video call, which was not at all the case prior to March 2020. While it was the primary way I interacted with my coworkers, it was not how I:

  • chatted with family and friends
  • networked or attended conferences
  • played games
  • went to happy hour

Last year, videoconferencing escaped the confines of my workday and became something I did regularly in the evenings and on weekends, too. This is certainly not the hardest thing about the pandemic (nor was Gwyneth Paltrow eating bread 🙄), but it had a cumulative effect.

Additionally, in the face of all the stress I outlined previously, one of the ways we process those things is in community—which likely puts you back on Zoom, once more.

Extra credit: You’re a parent

While all of the above is a lot , I’d be remiss to not include the experiences of folks who had to handle it all, plus the impact of their kids being home 24/7 and attempting online learning. My brother is older now, so this has not been part of my immediate 2020 experience, but I’ve watched friends, colleagues and students cope with this. While being a remote employee was initially a perk for me as a parent, my brother wasn’t home during the entirety of my working day; I had a set window when I knew I would redirect my energy and attention to him, his day and his homework.

If you started working remotely last year, that was likely not the case for you. Instead, you found yourself balancing being present for work meetings, troubleshooting your kid’s LMS and struggling harder than your wifi…and then had to do it all again, five days a week.

None of this is normal

So, to reiterate, none of this is representative of my past decade-plus of working remotely. Instead, these circumstances are unique to working through a pandemic, wrapped and interspersed with a series of other crises. If you started working remotely in March or April 2020, your successes and struggles this year are only very mildly attributable to working from home because there’s just so much damn else going on and impacting you.

Later this week, I’ll share details about what has worked for me doing my job remotely and how teams can do to improve the experience of working remotely together.

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