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Shifting at Home

The following post is submitted by Joyce Maroney, Executive Director of the Workforce Institute. Here, she checks in with colleagues whose work lives are shifting at home and offers a few recommendations about managing the new normal for those who can work from home.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused so much chaos so quickly that most workers have been thrust into a "new normal" for which they are woefully unprepared. Whether they are working from home or deemed essential and working on the front lines of healing, protecting and feeding their fellow citizens, nobody is working the same way that they were two months ago when the public response began in earnest. With stay at home advisories in place for non-essential workers, many employers have been allowing work from home arrangements for the first time ever.

They may need to be supporting those arrangements for some time to come. Numerous polls show that the majority of Americans believe it's too soon to lift restrictions on social distancing, even as their employers try to figure out how to make social distancing and other precautions feasible. From mom and pop operations to international firms operating out of skyscrapers, leaders are navigating a maze of federal, state and local rules to figure out when - and if - people will return, either as employees or consumers.

I've done my own informal polling of friends, family and coworkers who are shifting at home; i.e. figuring out how to blend home and work obligations when the workplace is not available. Some have been working from home full time for years. Others are remote work newbies. I offer the following three recommendations for making work from home work for people and their employers as we all create the new normal.

Working from home is a personal choice.

There won't be a singular solution for most organizations regarding how they reintroduce people to the workplace. Even workers who'd normally prefer to be in the office will be wary of returning until they are confident they'll be safe.

When I ask folks about the upsides of continuing to work from home, the responses range from "Tremendous upside! This new normal works quite well for me!" to "While I very much appreciate the opportunity to work from home, I tend to come into the office more because I feel I get more done." I don't think it's a surprise that not everybody prefers to work from home. That many do, though, will help employers who'll need to empty real estate in order to ensure safe distancing between workers.

Technology support is critical to successfully working from home.

Communications technologies for videoconferencing, chatting and sharing information are more functional and affordable than ever. Although everybody seems to have taken to Zoom to stay in touch, this is new territory for plenty of workers. One of my colleagues said, "I was a little resistant to connect over mobile before and now I realize it's a very valuable way to engage with my teams and stay on top of things."

Of course, these technologies rely on available and stable internet connections. If people are going to be looking at screens all day, they need space, seating and lighting, not to mention the screens themselves. Organizations can't create home offices out of thin air, but they can help people with both advice and stipends to create adequate workspaces within their living quarters.

Care for each other.

One of my colleagues reflected that "Keeping the lines of communication open is important and very easy to do, especially with a company that trusts you to get your work done from anywhere." But some organizations take a very different approach, investing in software to monitor their workers' productivity or demanding accounting for their time.

Everybody is afraid for themselves and those they hold dear. This is a tough enough time for everybody without feeling like Big Brother is looming. If you don't already, behave in a way that lets your people know that their welfare and that of their families comes first.

Many workers are sharing space and internet bandwidth with others in their home who are also working remotely. Working parents have always performed an intricate tango of task management. With schools closed, many now have their kids' education heaped on their plates as well. Many are helping elder relatives or neighbors in order to limit their exposure to the virus.

The upside?

"Before all this I didn't necessarily dislike my morning routine, never complained about my commute. But knowing how great mornings are now, I will be a little disappointed when we have to all fall back to the prior routine."

As much as we miss many things we used to take for granted, from haircuts to family gatherings, we are also finding rewards in our home-bound world. Waffles for breakfast because there is no rush to daycare and a long commute. Board games, musical instruments and books are dusted off. Cooking, so much cooking! The pace of family life is slower, and for many the connections between each other are deepening, even if only over virtual channels.

Some day we'll be beyond the fear and losses of this disease. Wouldn't it be great if we can hold onto the care we are feeling for each other?

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