Embracing a work-from-home future

August 5th, 2020


Is the office outdated? Some people think so. Remote work had been steadily increasing among workers in the tech industry for years, but, since the pandemic began, it’s become the new normal for large swaths of the working public. Many companies see their current remote setups as temporary stopgap measures to keep employees safe, but others, including Facebook, Shopify, Twitter and Zillow, are rolling out plans to make remote work a permanent option for more workers.

In the Internet Age, it would seem simple enough to do the same work in a different location. Even people whose jobs are highly collaborative can use instant messaging and videoconferencing tools to stay in touch throughout the day. Yet many people are discovering that the shift to remote work changes more than just geography.

No matter how easily technology allows co-workers to communicate with one another, one of the biggest struggles of working from home remains the simple feeling of loneliness. Office banter and gossip may be the butt of decades’ worth of jokes, but a sense of community and teamwork is still easily lost when co-workers disperse. Team creativity and serendipitous inspiration are much harder to foster when workers are in isolation. There’s often no way to duplicate a chance meeting by the water cooler or a quick peek into someone’s office for a two-minute chat.

Meanwhile, the very tools meant to connect people can make jobs even more draining. “Zoom fatigue” — exhaustion from videoconferencing — results from the increased focus required to interact on a video call. Our brains may have difficulty processing the fact that our friends or coworkers are “there, but not there.” Video chats can be awkward even for seasoned technology pros, ultimately reminding us of what we’re missing: office camaraderie.

When work and home suddenly collide, we may also discover that we can’t define “work” as well as we thought. With jobs potentially under threat from economic uncertainty, people feel even more pressure to be “productive” — even under the extreme circumstances of the pandemic — but how do we define productivity? Is work an activity we do for a certain amount of time? Is it the effort we put into producing specific outcomes? Or is it an identity? When “work” is no longer a place to physically go, it can become a state of mind — and one that’s hard to escape.


For most of the people who’ve shifted to remote work since the beginning of the pandemic, home was never meant to serve as a workplace. Even for those who worked from home before, being on “lockdown” is different from their normal routine where they had the option to go to a coffee shop or have lunch with a friend during the workday. But when your “home office” is crammed into a bedroom or kitchen table — where your housemate, partner or child also has a workspace — ”working from home” can feel more like work is invading your home.

For people with children, working from home during the pandemic also means working around children’s needs. Some are juggling work responsibilities with homeschooling tasks, while others keep odd work hours to accommodate children’s and other caregivers’ schedules. In terms of stress and mental health, parents have pandemic-related anxieties and needs to contend with like everyone else, but they also carry their children’s burdens.

The childcare situation is likely to prove especially disastrous for working mothers. One May 2020 study revealed that working mothers were finding one uninterrupted hour of work for every three hours working fathers got. Women who lose or quit jobs and stay out of the workforce to care for children have always faced barriers to reentering the workforce and climbing career ladders. Now they will likely be trying to make up for lost time in the context of a global recession.

Space and time

For some, working from home offers welcome flexibility and relief from office distractions or the hassles of commuting. Some parents enjoy having more time with their children and are able to share caregiving or make their work fit into their home life. If most or all workers at a company are trying to strike a remote-work balance, employers may become more accepting of these flexible schedules. This kind of cultural change could help people shift the traditional conversation around work-life balance to something more like worklife integration, which suits some careers better than a strict separation.

Even so, a physical office creates a literal boundary around when we work and we don’t. Workers and employers who succeed at working productively and happily from home will find ways to recreate boundaries around work to protect personal space and personal time. Even with the most fulfilling job or the best integration of work and life habits, every worker needs to be able to take off their professional hat and fully focus on their personal and family life.

Employers and managers who value their employees’ mental health should invite conversations around those boundaries, either by creating company-wide policies (e.g. no email between 6 PM and 7 AM) or asking managers to discuss needs on an individual level. Workers whose employers don’t take the lead may need to state their own limits, perhaps alongside other co-workers, in order to be clear about what they need to be productive, stay healthy and care for their families.

The changes to come

Even if a vaccine for COVID-19 were released today and administered to the world’s population, we would still reemerge into a world vastly different than the one we hastily shuttered in March. The significant rise in remote work could be one of the shifts to have largest and most long-lasting effects.

One survey found that over half of large businesses and more than a third of small businesses whose workers were remote at least some of the time reported no productivity loss; in fact, over a quarter reported productivity gains. For some positions, workers and employers are learning they only need to meet face-to-face once a week to be maximally productive; others only need to be in the office once a month, once a year or not at all.

Many of these remote-friendly positions are in high-paying fields like finance or information technology. Traditionally these jobs have been centered in expensive cities like New York or San Francisco. If some of these jobs shift to remote work full-time, those workers may move out of the high-density, high-rent city centers and into the suburbs — or even to smaller cities in other states. On a large enough scale, this trend could lower rents in the most expensive cities and begin to geographically diffuse the talent fields in traditionally highly concentrated industries. 

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

comments powered by Disqus