“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt
“Now that companies have built the framework – and experienced the cost and time savings associated with it – there’s no real reason to turn back.” – Mark Lobosco, VP of Talent Solutions at LinkedIn
“In a two-parent home where both parents are working remotely, the father is much more likely to be able to carve out that private space to get work done.” ~ Kathleen Gerson, Professor of Sociology at New York University
Welcome back! If you missed any previous posts in this series, you may read them here: Part Two: The Lifesaving Brilliance Of WWW-IQ, Part One: Vaccines, Testing & Treatments, Part One: Vaccines, Testing and Treatments.
One of the best-practice components to slow the spread of COVID-19 mentioned in Part Two was social distancing, which included working from home (WFH) and for many parents, schooling from home (SFH).
Before the Pandemic
Prior to 2020, no more than seven percent of the American workforce had the option or opportunity to WFH. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates about a quarter of the workforce actually did so — but it included as remote work anyone who merely checked their work email at home! Yes, we can all have a good laugh about that, because who by 2019 had not?
Even before the turn of the 21st century, companies were beginning to realize that allowing some employees, especially new mothers, to WFH, was a smart move that would attract the talent they wanted, especially women. By 2009, when we had to deal with the much milder H1N1 pandemic, companies with disaster recovery units were looking even more seriously at WFH policies to mitigate the damage to their businesses from a pandemic.
And, yet, a decade later, the COVID-19 pandemic caught too many businesses off guard, thrusting employers and employees into the most radical transformational work-based event in nearly a century. Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents and, even some of us grappled with 20th century monumental life-altering events — the Stock Market Crash, Great Depression, WWII and the Holocaust, Korean War, Cold War, Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam Conflict. We have now added to our 21st century upheavals — the September 11 attacks, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the January 6 Insurrection — the COVID-19 pandemic, its latest variant, Omicron and its recently discovered subvariant.
Transition to WFH
It hit like a ton of bricks. In March 2020, millions of Americans were sent home to work fulltime for an unspecified timeframe. Employers and employees scrambled to figure out appropriate home spaces, equipment, supplies and technology. May workers engaged in a learning curve to access company systems and attend meetings and appointments on Zoom and Google Meet. People shuffled their schedules, removed kitten from keyboards, dogs from their laps and perhaps threw covers over noisy bird cages. For online meetings, rooms were frantically cleaned or computer virtual backgrounds were selected. With some exceptions, folks learned how to dress appropriately for online meetings and interviews (partnering with my daughter, Lyn Leis,” we provided training in that area).
One very important lesson learned by many was tolerance of the challenges people faced working from home. Mishaps and mistakes were forgiven because staff and team members empathized with each other. Coworkers, managers, business associates, customers, viewers, and the like laughed at the kids and the pets that interrupted and entertained. We took with good humor the wardrobe bloopers; the numerous technical malfunctions, comical camera angles and embarrassing clutter in the background. We were all in the same boat, after all. We weren’t just working from home, we were also in people’s homes, and we learned to respect, empathize and understand.
Through all of the adjustment glitches, the work got done. So, while many employers worried that the WFH model would result in decreased productivity, studies have shown that productivity actually increased. Other studies showed that many managers had to learn how to manage remote staff properly, and not make matters worse by micromanaging.
Hence, we learned about the benefits and COVID curveballs of working from home:
- No commute: The stress and time involved in commuting (bad weather, heavy traffic, delays due to accidents or road construction) was removed. Working from home gave that time back and reduced stress. (Depending on one’s particular job, however, that bonus time was eaten up quickly).
- Money saved: Savings on commutation tickets and gas, clothing, lunches, luncheons and after-work drinks or dinner out, and even WFH tax deductions (check with your accountant) out helped those working from home with finances.
- More sleep: Sleeping a bit later or getting in some exercise before starting work due to no commute helped to improve overall health. For example, one administrative professional with whom I spoke said because she no longer had to rise hours before dawn to get to her job for an early start; she could now fit in an exercise routine and breakfast before starting her day. In addition, short power naps are easier to slip in when WFH.
- More relaxed environment: People discovered the new business casual — such as the aforementioned business jacket over pajamas or jeans — but also learned that doesn’t work well when it might be necessary to stand up while Zooming.
- More time for yourself and with family – Whether married or cohabitating, a single parent, or part of a nuclear family, many have found a better work-life balance, a better integration of one’s work and personal lives could be found by some.
- Contracting COVID-19 or other illness: Having to quarantine or isolate while WFH, schooling and caring for children added to the challenges.
- Shortages of basic household supplies: Caught off-guard, panicked consumers overwhelmed unprepared stores, clearing their shelves of toilet paper, disinfectant cleaning wipes and other household goods; manufacturers were forced to cut back to protect employees or because their employees were out ill with COVID-19. To make matters worse, the medical community found itself short on masks and other PPE and life-saving medical equipment and asked that consumers not purchase or hoard N95 masks.
- Lack of or problems with technology: The pandemic revealed the deep problems with the lack of internet in rural areas and the problems with technology where it is available. We’ll always have the latter, but the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which ensures that “every American has access to high-speed internet,” will address the former.
- Technical glitches: These were so commonplace that they became the norm. And some were hilarious, such as the….okay, did the manager really turn into a potato on their kid’s computer and not know how to return to human form?? If so, I commend anyone continuing on in a meeting as a potato or run by a potato! Mainly because they would have eyes in the back of their head and would catch me not paying attention…okay, sorry…sorry.
- Unreasonable employer expectations and demands: Many managers decided that they could not trust the same employees that worked onsite when they worked remotely at home, micromanaging them and creating more stress to an already fraught situation (more on this in a later installment).
- Babies and younger children: Having babies, toddlers and preschoolers to care for and have underfoot can be a drawback to WFH, especially due to sheltering, quarantining and isolating it was not practical to have a babysitter or even a relative helping out. Parents had to figure out how to juggle getting their work done, attending online meetings or in some cases — such as sales and customer service workers — being on the telephone all day with hungry, bored, fussy, ill or attention-seeking little ones. As we can see from the video links in this section, some parents have figured out how to manage WFH and balance young childcare, and others are still working on it.
- Domestic abuse: In the U.S., domestic abuse rose by at least eight percent, but this has been a worldwide problem. Help is available; the U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800-799-7233. For more information and resources, go to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence website.
- Weight gain and loss: Stress and other factors caused weight gains and losses. (Getting back in shape can be a struggle — it is for me! — but I’m trying with a diet and exercise routine.)
- Children schooling from home: A major whammy to parents forced to work from home was that their kids were forced to SFH at the same time. You might recall that very funny Staples commercial that celebrated the kids going back to school: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year? Parents understand the upsetting reversal of having the kids being sent home at the same time that they are trying to WFH.
The Kids Come Home From — And To — School
That last curveball, emergency distance learning at home, or SFH, during a pandemic (different from home schooling in the U.S.) hit parents, students and teachers hard. Its success depended on so many variables: the quality or even existence of home technology; support of the respective school district; cooperation from all family members to share work, manage time, keep spirits up and attitudes positive and ability of parents and teachers to manage expectations as well as the learning abilities and interest levels of the students, who ranged in age from K-12.
Of course, the challenges with distance learning for a five-year-old, an elementary school student and a teenager were obviously different. As for the teachers, I especially like the comment by Lauren Brown, a teacher from Oak Park, Illinois: “My students are eighth graders. They may not be learning as much history as my former students, or writing as many essays, but they are LIVING history right now…they’re learning so much — resilience, time management and how to be responsible for their own learning.” New York Times, April 23, 2020. For a student to realize that what they are experiencing in the moment will be written about in future history books could make distance learning a bit more interesting.
There are lots of opinions on distance learning, but it’s something for which we must be prepared in case of another emergency that sends the kids home to learn. Let’s look at what we learned about those benefits and curveballs:
- More/better sleep: Sleeping later and napping can counter traditional school schedules that are out of synch with older students’ shifting circadian patterns.
- No heavy backpacks: I am perplexed why in the digital age students still lug heavy backpacks when we’ve known for decades that they are bad, bad, bad for our kids.
- More study time and more down time: Schooling from home might provide fewer distractions and more quiet time, depending on the home.
- Break from bullying and peer pressure: Some students might actually find relief in distancing from in-person bullying and other schoolhouse drama. But students and parents should continue to be on the lookout for cyber-bullies, who will be looking for new ways to inflict harm.
- Increased parent-child time / brought families closer: Some families report that forced togetherness strengthened bonds and increased knowledge and understanding about each other.
- Decreased in-person social and academic engagement: While it is true that in-person interactions decreased during the COVID-19, young people are resilient, and it’s important to remember that social isolation was a problem for our youth prior to pandemic. The smartphone seems to be the culprit, on which perhaps we should be focused now, as well as after the pandemic. That said, some parents got together and created learning pods. One mother with whom I spoke early on in the pandemic told me her child was in a social pod, where a small group of neighboring parents and kids met regularly outdoors to play, socially distanced, for short periods.
- Over-burdening of some parents and families: Burnout was not uncommon among parents, which affected the whole family.
- Emotional and mental problems: Before the pandemic, students of all ages were showing signs of anxiety, depression and worse. Several factors were — and are — in play, and must be addressed, but economic status has been a major factor; higher income families have had more outlets to relieve stress, and lower income families had more financial worries that added to the stress.
- Lack of structure and support from schools: Not all schools and school districts were prepared to provide adequate support or structure to parents and students.
- Technology inequality: Like WFH, SFH became even more challenging for low-income and rural families due to a lack of computer equipment and broadband access. This is being addressed through the recently passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which ensures that “every American has access to high-speed internet.” The other part of the problem — ensuring that every family can afford a computer — could be solved through the Child Tax Credit, which ended last year but could be renewed if passed under newly constructed Build Back Better legislation.
The College Challenges
“My mental health is in shambles.” That was one response to UCLA Professor Dr. Emily Hotez’s June 2020 health research class’s study of 242 of their student peers. We know that college students have faced many challenges, including academic (getting into college and staying there until graduation), financial (affording college); emotional (leaving home and / or stepping onto campus for the first time and facing isolation and social anxiety). Add to that homesickness, general anxiety and stress over a multitude of issues, from struggles with studies and difficult instructors to discrimination and assault. That’s a lot to have on one’s plate without a pandemic further complicating a student’s life.
But while many think of typical college students as teenagers or young adults who attend four-year colleges and live on campus, according to Inside Higher Ed, a surprising 85 percent of students of all ages are commuter students — students who live off campus and commute to college. Moreover, students who attend classes exclusively online rose during the pandemic from roughly 18 to 23 percent, and half of all students now take some courses online. And then there is the popular two-year community college, which, sadly, has suffered during the pandemic.
That said, students experienced the various ups and downs of government and campus mandates and policies in different ways; many found creative paths forward. Following are links to articles and websites that document some of those experiences:
- Josie Chen – Harvard
- Nicole Hadler – University of Michigan Medical School (and her paper)
- Sophia Leveque – Eastern Michigan University – My experience as a commuter student
- Three Ways to be a COVID Student: On Campus, Remote or Commuting – DePauw University
- In a Dark Year on Campus, Some Surprising Glimmers of Light – New York Times
What The Future Holds
It would appear that both WFH and SFH are here to stay. Much has been learned how to make both K-12 and college distance learning work, as a supplement to in-person learning and in case of another emergency.
Businesses and employees have learned how to make working remotely function productively, if not perfectly. U.S. businesses were largely unprepared for the pandemic. When I was a member of my former company’s disaster recovery team, more than a decade before COVID-19, I was equipped and prepared to WFH full-time. Today, that should be routine for most workers.
Until next time,
Related past posts: