2020: What I learned about working remotely. Part 2 – Lessons Learned in the Pandemic
With the changes to the workplace wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, almost no one’s work life was unaffected. Although the situation continues, the changes were most significant nearly a year ago, and so we can take the time now to review and learn from those experiences to help ensure we continue to work well and consider how to apply those lessons to our future working world.
A biggest takeaway for me* from the working from home (WFH) experience in 2020 is that roles that I used to think required co-location to be effective really do not, at least not all the time. Some are likely better when co-located – for the employee, for the organization, or for colleagues – but they are not impossible to do remotely some of the time. Remote working also brings some advantages that perhaps off-set the lost elements of onsite work.
And while WFH changed things significantly and directly for many, those who continued to work onsite experienced different but also significant changes, including new rules and restrictions, as well as new choices and concerns.
This is Part 2 of my reflections and learnings from 2020 and specifically the transition to WFH as part of our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Part 1 considered our transition to remote work due to COVID-19. Part 3 will re-examine the four original arguments about working remotely to see if or how they apply now.
* This essay represents my own experiences and perspectives, and it not intended to represent the experiences and opinions of anyone else, or any team or organization.
Also, I am not a graduate student or a graduate student supervisor, so am not commenting here on the effects or impact that the pandemic situation has had on these roles or relationships. I understand that those experiences have been quite different than what I describe here, and this essay is not intended to represent or diminish anyone’s individual personal experience.
I’ve written previously about change, including about this quote:
“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis.' One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger--but recognize the opportunity.” JF Kennedy.
While the origin of this is incorrect, there is truth in the idea – every challenge is also an opportunity. It would be unfortunate if we ignored opportunities that the challenges of the pandemic situation presented, and indeed many challenges that were previously seen as insurmountable have been addressed quickly and effectively in the past year. Vaccine development used to require years of work and research and trials, but multiple vaccines were developed and made available in quantity in less than a year. Telehealth – doctor/patient consultations by phone or videolink – was previously either scorned or deemed impossible, and it’s now the norm. None of these advancements was without challenge on several fronts – technical, ethical, social – but crisis forced solutions along with changes in the assessment and acceptance of risks, with the result that advances happened on several fronts. One could even argue that the new rules of social engagement – especially distancing, masks, and improved hand hygiene – have resulted in positive changes in other seasonal diseases, in a way that no previous marketing or education campaign has been able to achieve.
In all areas that changed due to the pandemic, there were gains and losses that are worth reviewing so that, when the crisis eventually comes to an end, we can keep the best of what we’ve learned and also plan to do better next time. Let’s look now at WFH, and the gains and losses of those who moved quickly from the office to the dining room.
From my perspective as a leader, worker, colleague, and friend, there are several positive changes with WFH for many people and roles:
Focus: in pre-COVID times, some employees had the option to WFH occasionally, especially when they need to be away from others in order to focus on a task or project. WFH means that that opportunity to focus is more available more often, without requiring special arrangements.
Flexibility of hours: WFH means that the available hours in the day for work is increased, if for no other reason due to the lack of commuting and the attendant requirements to get ready in the morning. People are more in control of their schedule and work time, and so can adjust as required. Instead of having to put their full day into the hours that they were in the office, and then rushing at the beginning and end of day to get to and from work, the workday can now be spread out across the day, with breaks and other activities in between. And if you forget your lunch? No worries just head into the kitchen.
Reduced costs: for work-related expenses such as commuting, lunches, and clothing, those in a WFH situation would be experiencing reduced costs. These may be off-set by other increased costs such as enhanced Wi-Fi needed for the family at home and home office essentials for set-up, but some of these can be recovered through new income tax deduction opportunities.
Balance: with this flexibility, several people have reported to me that they feel they have more balance in their lives, primarily through the control over their work time and the elimination of the commute. I’ve also heard (and experienced myself) that letting others at home see into what occupies your workday allows for greater understanding and support from those at home, contributing to greater balance with family members.
Level playing field: the rapid and sudden switch to WFH affected many people and did not discriminate for or against roles or levels. While some senior leaders were already set-up for working from home, even they were mostly unprepared for it to be an everyday thing. The WFH curve hit everyone, thus creating an opportunity for camaraderie in that shared learning experience.
And what did we lose? If challenges can lead to opportunity, the reverse can also happen – opportunities can have an unplanned dark side that we need to be aware of.
Lack of structure: for many, the structure of the day - of going to work and then going home - gave a structure to the day that is now missing. The flexibility of organizing your day may be a boon to many, but some find that flexibility challenging and miss the imposed structure of a regular workday. Sometimes, having the flexibility to structure your own day is not a blessing, and the ability to focus can lead to tunnel-vision or hyper-focus, to the detriment of other responsibilities. (See also “Oversight”.)
Separation of work and home: for many, the WFH set-up and experience is not quite settled, and the line between working-at-home and life-at-home is still blurry (or in some cases, blurrier than in used to be). While there are many resources and articles online about approaches to making the separation clearer and cleaner, the realities of people’s lives and living spaces can make this difficult if not impossible.
For myself, this continues to be a struggle, as our small space means that my workspace occupies a central location in our living space, in our peripheral or direct view all the time. In addition, my presence at home while working can interfere with others’ much-deserved down time. We’re figuring it out, and we have it relatively easy; there are no children here, and only one of us can work from home, so there are no conflicts with Zoom calls or Wi-Fi or school requirements or childcare. I know that these other issues (and many more) are real and constant, and often difficult, for others. The flexibility offered in the WFH set-up currently can help address this, but while it still is and feels like a temporary situation, with the attendant disruptions and constraints of pandemic requirements like lockdowns, getting to more permanent and settled solutions can still feel like a ways away.
Sparks: a feature of a research department like ours is the spontaneous innovations and collaborations that arise from co-location. There is a long-standing understanding that one of the most essential tools for these interactions is the coffee machine (in fact, the first labelled piece of equipment at our centre was a drip coffee maker) and the casual conversations in the lunchroom that lead to breakthroughs in discovery and research, or at least steps in those directions. With so many people now working at home and on their own, those serendipitous ideas and conversations no longer take place, and email, Zoom, and Slack cannot replicate the spontaneity of coffee chit-chat. While there’s no real way to quantitate the value and benefit of those interactions, their absence is keenly felt.
Social connection: even without the spark of innovation, those connections and conversations are an essential part of our teams and department. Even if more people were onsite, the distancing requirements and other restrictions have changed much about social interactions in the workplace. For those onsite, the need to minimize numbers in lunchrooms (or even not use them at all but each a solitary meal at your desk) has made the workplace quiet and lonely. Again, while virtual channels are used and encouraged, and everyone is keeping an eye on the mental health of their colleagues, those channels cannot replace the cheering sound of overheard laughter or chatter, the quick catchups in the hallways or elevators, or the handshakes or occasional hugs that make the workplace meaningful, warm, and special.
Oversight: for leaders and supervisors, gaps in oversight of the work of others are a real concern. The flipside of flexibility is challenges to motivation and progress. Employees may see the flexibility as an opportunity to work less (or less well), and the lack of direct supervision means this might go unchecked. Supervisors need to be active in providing oversight and leadership to their teams and staff in ways other than dropping by someone’s desk to see how they’re doing. A WFH set-up doesn’t mean more work for supervisors, but certainly a requirement for different approaches to supervision to ensure staff are supported and guided with sufficient oversight.
When there are challenges now, many are quick to point to WFH as the culprit, but it is important for everyone to consider if and how WFH has created the situation, or if performance issues were present before. While I’ve heard proposals to have some people return to the office for better oversight of their work, but without their supervisor and colleagues also onsite (something which cannot be accomplished with current density restrictions), making someone return to the worksite is treated more as a punishment than as an approach to performance management.
Communication: both the origin and the sentiment of this quote are correct:
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
George Bernard Shaw
There is no doubt that communications have been disrupted, but from my perspective that is a transition rather than something completely broken. Adjusting to a greater reliance on virtual meetings and technologies has certainly meant some communication gaps, as people adjust to their new way of working. However, like with performance issues mentioned above, communication issues are exacerbated but not created by WFH. I know for me, other than in person (and even then, I’m in the office twice a week) I’m as reachable as I was pre-COVID. It’s the same level of effort to maintain communications, just different tools and approaches are needed.
hile the day-to-day tasks are mostly unchanged, for those who continue to work onsite there are additional challenges, such as increased PPE and engineering control requirements, concerns about safety when commuting and challenges when public transit was reduced, and new and modified procedures for many basic things. Safety for all continues to be a priority for leadership, and so ensuring that onsite staff have access to the tools and materials they need as well as to the people and resources that support their work has been essential. It hasn’t been perfect, but communication channels are open, and resources are available.
So, with all of these lessons learned, how can we design a hybrid approach to WFH that capitalizes on the opportunities and addresses the challenges? What pieces can we take forward and what can we leave behind? I’ll conclude with a look ahead in Part 3.
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Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.