Office workers in the United States are now seven months into working from home, which is a far cry from the few weeks they might've expected at the start of the pandemic. As the weeks turned to months, many companies have been forced to convert to an entirely different work culture, figuring out what works and what doesn't as they went along.
Now that many companies have extended full-time remote operations until at least January 2021, they are faced with transitioning their workers effectively into working from home for the long term.
"One thing is clear: Our workplace is changing and won't be the same after this global pandemic," Rorie Devine, founder and CEO of GRO, told business.com. "Companies must now shift their focus towards a more agile work environment and limit their dependency on physical workplaces."
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How to transition to long-term or permanent work from home
If your company has decided to make telework a long-term or permanent situation, there are many things you can do to help make the transition smooth.
1. Use the proper communication tools.
Howard Sublett, co-CEO and chief product owner at Scrum Alliance, said you should invest in the necessary tools for asynchronous communication. He said businesses need to find the online tools and software that will allow their employees to stay connected and get insights into various projects in real time.
2. Only hold video meetings with a clear purpose.
One of the most common remote work complaints is video call fatigue – also referred to as "Zoom burnout." To avoid this problem, try to limit your video meetings, and make sure every meeting has a defined purpose and agenda that is shared with everyone involved with the call.
3. Have a dedicated workspace.
Going from commuting to an office to walking a few steps from the bedroom to the kitchen is a difficult transition. The best way to trick your mind into thinking you have entered a workspace is to create a true working environment as best you can – even if it's just a computer monitor on your kitchen table or a desk in your bedroom corner. Only use that space for work, and walk away from it when your work is done for the day.
4. Create boundaries between your work and personal life.
Another common complaint from remote employees is the difficulty of drawing boundaries between work and home life – after all, work is now home. Blurred lines between work and home life can lead to burnout, so do your best to create firm working hours and stick to them. Communicate your boundaries to family members and co-workers, and commit yourself to walking away from work when your day ends.
When you're used to communicating in person with team members, it can be difficult to move that same level of communication to a digital format. Significant nuance and nonverbal communication are lost when communication is virtual, which can cause rifts when something is assumed or tone is misread. Commit to overcommunicating and making things as clear as possible, and avoid assumptions.
6. Set a schedule.
The structure of your day is a lot more flexible with a remote job, so it might be helpful to create a schedule that you follow each day. "Have a plan and use your time wisely," said Lucy Reyes, a full-time blogger. "Working from home can make you much more productive and enable you to get more things done at home. However, the opposite can happen as well, so make a plan around how your time will be used so you can stay successful and productive all around."
COVID-19 and its effect on working from home
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March and the country shut down, many companies assumed that mandatory remote work would be a short-term issue, with workers coming back after a month or so. However, working from home has turned into a long haul for most American office employees, with no clear end in sight.
As such, there has been a herculean shift in how all types of employees, including managers, work. Employees have had to create workspaces in their homes, balance work tasks with child care and adjust to collaboration via Zoom. However, many studies have shown that productivity has increased as a result of people working from home. [Looking for new video conferencing software to help with your remote team? Check out our best picks.]
In a study by YouGov, in partnership with USA Today and LinkedIn, 54% of respondents said working from home had positively affected their productivity, and many respondents had positive reactions to the lack of commute, fewer distractions from co-workers, and the ability to create a more flexible work schedule.
On the other hand, the sudden switch to working from home full time has created a slew of mental health issues, including burnout, increased stress and anxiety, loneliness, and social isolation. A global study conducted by Qualtrics, SAP and Mind Share Partners found that over 40% of respondents said their mental health has declined since the outbreak of COVID-19, with more workers reporting high levels of anxiety and stress.
A study by Twingate found that full-time remote work is diminishing work-life balance and increasing burnout and mental exhaustion in respondents. The research shows that 45% of respondents reported having to attend more meetings as remote workers than they did in the office, and 40% of employees have experienced mental exhaustion as a result of more video calls.
Many companies are now considering either making remote work a permanent situation or creating a flexible work schedule that lets employees can choose when they work from home. Google, Zillow and Mercedes-Benz recently announced that they will not be returning to in-person work until 2021, leading many other companies to follow suit.
Pros and cons of working from home
There are many factors at play when you're considering whether to transition your company to long-term or permanent work from home. First and foremost, you must think about what will work best for your company and employees. Here are some of the main pros and cons of remote work.
- Greater schedule flexibility: One of the biggest benefits of working from home is the greater ability to mold your schedule into one that works for you, rather than adjusting yourself to suit the office schedule. With remote work, you can structure your day to best suit your workload and meetings, as well as your non-work obligations, such as medical appointments or child care.
- No commute: With the average American spending 225 hours commuting in 2018, it's clear that the loss of a commute is a major benefit of working from home. Eliminating a commute can also decrease stress and save money on gas or public transportation.
- Increased productivity: Working from home increases productivity for many workers, due in part to the ability to create their own schedule and decrease distractions. Working from home also allows employees to take breaks as they need them, which reduces stress and can help keep burnout at bay.
- Fewer workplace distractions: How many times did you complain about the co-worker who always seems to be on the phone, or the manager who stopped by your desk every 10 minutes? Working from home means fewer such distractions, which can help you focus on your work for longer.
- Improved communication skills: The sudden transition to working remotely meant that companies around the world had to quickly adjust how they communicated with each other. This has resulted in many workers gaining various new communication skills. Remote work has encouraged employees to build skills in overcommunicating to avoid misunderstandings, effectively running video meetings, and writing clear, effective emails to co-workers. "[Working from home] has taught many companies just how flexible and capable they can be in extreme situations, and brought teams closer together," said Adam Korbl, CEO and founder of iFax.
- Isolation: One of the greatest drawbacks to being at home every day is feelings of isolation and loneliness. Many workers enjoyed the social aspect of working in an office, so an abrupt transition to full-time independent work can be a difficult adjustment. "Not having a commute or face-to-face interaction does have a negative effect on socialization and overall happiness," said Paul Burke, vice president of private brands for Sidekick Digital Media. "There are things you get at the office that you just can't replicate working from home."
- Home office costs: Most office workers did not have a designated working space in their homes before the pandemic, so many employees had to buy desks, chairs, faster Wi-Fi or computer equipment to do their jobs effectively from home.
- Poor work-life balance: When you're working where you live, it can be difficult to draw a line between your work and personal life. Many remote employees struggle to designate firm work hours and find themselves working all the time – or constantly thinking about work. Try to set strict working hours and boundaries with your co-workers and family members to maintain the separation.
- Loss of productivity: While working from home might increase productivity for some workers, it may have the opposite effect on others. Working in your living room might tempt you to take frequent breaks, and having family members around can be distracting.
- Disconnect from co-workers: When you're used to seeing co-workers in the office every day and working together face to face, it can be difficult to transition to video calls and emails. It may take longer to get answers to your questions, and some nuance may be lost in communication. "Company culture is hard to build and maintain, even for teams under the same roof," said Sahin Boydas, founder and CEO of RemoteTeam.com. "Create an environment for [remote] employee engagement to thrive."