Amidst a worldwide pandemic where stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and self-quarantine are the new normal, employers have had to suddenly shift workforces from business worksites to work from home. Many workers who have never had this option have been sent home with minimal preparation or expectations and have to get up to speed on staying productive remotely for the first time in their work history. This presents some pretty big challenges for workers and employers alike, including grief over loss, feelings of isolation and loneliness, and how best to communicate during disorienting work and worldwide conditions.
While email, instant messaging, videoconferencing, and phone calls can keep lines of communication open, they can’t really take the place of a cup of coffee in the break room with a co-worker or a potluck team lunch for a special occasion. They don’t equal a pat on the back for a job well-done or a hearty round of applause at a weekly work meeting for a completed project. Face-to-face interactions in a shared workspace are integral to working relationships and losing them creates unique challenges.
1. Loss of Routine and Work Environment
Licensed social worker Sharon Coyle Saeed says the sudden life changes people are having to make because of the COVID-19 crisis come at the cost of grief from the loss of routine, loss of work environment, and forced adaptation to mandatory changes such as stay at home orders. Switching from going to an employer’s place of business to perform work duties to performing those duties at home in a make-shift workspace amid home and family who may also be home from work and school creates feelings of loss and grief.
Saeed explains that people need to address the grief from this sudden shifting of work and home life or risk falling into “maladaptive coping mechanisms like sleeping too much, overeating, depression.” She recommends creating structure as similar as possible to when working at the employer’s place of business by dedicating a space for work to be done and keeping a rise from sleep/shower and dress/eat breakfast routine before starting work. Things like watching how much TV is watched, making sure to get outside and get exercise regularly, and reaching out to friends regularly and professionals if needed all help to mitigate feelings of loss.
2. Feelings of isolation and Loneliness
In his discussion of how coronavirus has forced a huge shift to work from home, Derek Thompson, staff writer at The Atlantic, describes the results of Ctrip’s company-wide shift to work from home. A 16,000-employee Chinese travel agency, Ctrip was able to realize more than $1,000 savings per employee by converting their workforce to work from home, but Ctrip’s employees cited loneliness as their biggest complaint about remote work. Thompson goes on to explain that breaking social bonds with remote work leads to lost creativity and companionship, the very bonds that create productive teamwork.
BBC Worklife’s features editor Bryan Lufkin explains that the sudden mandatory shift to work from home because of the COVID-19 crisis is a difficult change. Loss of daily face-to-face interactions with co-workers and bosses, adapting to working from home with family members around and ill-prepared work space, and the uncertainty of the term of working from home (temporary, long-term, or permanent) has people reeling and feeling isolated. Experts suggest keeping up office social activities virtually as much as possible, such as celebrating birthdays and work anniversaries in videoconferencing.
The COVID-19 crisis has forced rapid changes to how employers do business and manage their workers, with many sending entire workforces to work from home. This disruption has created the need to pay more attention than ever to strong, clear communication to maintain and improve productivity and working relationships. Jana Reserva, content manager for Workforce.com, says effective communications mean acting fast to address issues, using consistent messaging, use diverse ways to deliver messages and information, and stay open to feedback.
Good conversations are always important, but may not always be possible face-to-face. Clear communications are vitally important for a workforce newly working from home during a worldwide health crisis. Reserva says to communicate information, expectations, support, schedules, and resources clearly and to all involved, using all means available, such as email, chat platforms, videoconferencing, FAQs, instant messaging, and text. Additionally, include personal messages of care and concern for workers experiencing new work processes and coronavirus crisis restrictions.
Managers and workers can stay connected and on-track by keeping regular communication routines, such as daily check-ins with workers and work groups, weekly project status meetings, COVID-19 updates, coaching, and productivity reports. Company intranets with chat rooms or comments sections give people an outlet to connect and express concerns and support through difficulties. Corporate messaging to calm and focus everyone through work and crisis issues creates a support line for all.
These are some of the biggest obstacles facing businesses and their workforces in 2020, as well as schools and colleges. Finding the right strategy to work through them will be tough but will help with day to day and future outcomes, for work and home.