Under today’s pandemic conditions, working from home has transformed from a perk enjoyed by some to a daily requirement for millions of people across the world.
“The current COVID-19 crisis is really a watershed moment for telework,” says Dr. Timothy Golden, of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a management expert who has studied the subject for over 20 years.
This level of remote work is unprecedented both in the U.S. and globally, with many employees and managers surprised to see that working from home full-time isn’t what they imagined. In fact, what workers think they know about working from home can sometimes get in the way of the work itself — reducing productivity and efficiency, while increasing avoidable frustrations. So how can newly remote workers and managers separate fact from fiction?
Here, Dr. Golden delves into some of the biggest myths about remote work and offers research-based advice to help workers develop positive habits and practices — during COVID-19 and in the future.
Productivity and oversight remain strong even on remote teams
For employers, one of the biggest myths surrounding working from home involves management: Can people who aren’t in the office actually be supervised? According to Golden, this is a misplaced worry: “The fact that you’re not there within physical eyesight doesn’t mean that you cannot oversee from an electronic standpoint.”
Communication is crucial for maintaining close relationships and productivity during this crisis. Golden suggests regular check-ins with employees throughout the day via email, instant messenger or short video meetings. The key is to be strategic about the methods of communication: consider your goals for the encounter, as well as the information that needs to be shared.
Just as individual workers need to feel connected to one another, it’s important for managers to continue building relationships with those on their teams. Golden recommends scheduling a few minutes at the beginning or end of team meetings for people to have the same types of casual conversations that they would in person.
Productivity is another top concern among employers, as managers have long worried that remote workers can’t accomplish as much or be as fully engaged as their in-office counterparts. However, research indicates the opposite. When working from home, “people tend to work longer hours and work longer periods that are uninterrupted,” Golden says. Not only are they more engaged and focused when away from the distractions of the office, but people also tend to continue working past their usual stop time.
Contrary to what some have long thought, managers should focus less on their productivity fears and more on supporting workers who, if left to their own devices, might not know how and where to draw boundaries. Golden suggests encouraging teams to be mindful about not stretching themselves too thin, to “[make] sure that people don’t get burned out or emotionally or mentally exhausted by work.”
It’s also important to log off — for good — at a reasonable hour. People working from home “need to think about having schedules and sticking to a disciplined routine and schedule, so that they can maintain balance in their work and in their home life,” he explains.
Carve out a separate workspace to improve focus
Remote work skeptics aren’t the only ones with misconceptions. For proponents, it’s common to overestimate the ease of working from home. COVID-19 has created additional complications, since many employees now share their home workspaces with partners, children and roommates. Golden notes that different circumstances bring different challenges, but recommends some tried and true strategies that can apply no matter your situation.
First, don’t assume it’s possible or advisable to work from anywhere in the home. Instead, Golden advises designating a specific workspace.
“Research shows that if you have space within your home for a separate room…you can physically, emotionally and psychologically isolate yourself away from the household demands and distractions,” says Golden.
Even if a separate room isn’t an option, it’s still important for people to have a dedicated area, such as the dining room table, for regular work — and communicating these needs to roommates, partners or family members is a necessary part of the equation. As with other aspects of relationships, challenges are best handled through clear, open dialogue, especially under the current COVID-19 conditions.
“One of the very practical things that people can do is to have some honest, sincere, straightforward conversations with their family members in terms of working out agreements or arrangements for juggling the need to work at home and how to do that best,” Golden advises.
Isolation is the biggest pitfall of working from home, but creative strategies can help
It’s true that humans are social creatures, but do people need to be together in-person to feel connected and do their best work? It’s a little more complicated than that, Golden says, and this assumption doesn’t necessarily translate in the real world. While remote work can lead to social and professional isolation, Golden suggests several useful strategies to keep people connected, collaborative and working as a team — from the safety and comfort of their home office.
First, it’s important to be proactive about reaching out. Rather than waiting to hear from coworkers, don’t be afraid to make the first move — be proactive and take the initiative to connect. Golden also points out that in an office setting, coworkers don’t talk only about work tasks or deadlines, so try to nurture that natural flow in remote conversations.
“Schedule some time where there’s informal discussions — chit chat, if you will — so that people can really feel a sense of attachment to others and to maintain the strength of their relationships,” he suggests.
These might include virtual lunches or coffees with coworkers. No matter the activity, the goal is to create pleasant, casual exchanges like the ones that occur naturally in office settings.
“If you were in the office, you might have the opportunity to bump into a colleague in the hallway or by the coffee,” says Golden. “Those natural informal interactions don’t occur [at home], so you need to structure them within your day so that they can occur.”
COVID-19 provides a window into the future of work
No one could have predicted that millions of Americans would suddenly be working from home, yet the COVID-19 pandemic will surely leave a lasting impact on the future of work. Like other experts, Golden predicts seeing “a fairly radical shift in the mindset, in terms of the acceptability of remote work and how we can do it effectively.”
This profound transition is a work in progress, and today’s employees and managers are still learning the ropes. By dispelling some dominant myths about what working from home is and isn’t, Golden provides important guidelines for these strange times.
Employers should rest assured that their newly remote teams can be successfully supervised and appropriately productive. Strong communication helps maintain crucial connections and collaborations between managers and their teams, and can even stave off isolation. And workers and managers should be mindful that carving out necessary space — both physical and mental — is key to working from home successfully.
Based on his two decades of research, Golden encourages managers and employees to “craft a path forward where they can really harness the advantages of remote work while minimizing some of the challenges.” The world of work will change for many after COVID-19, but we can start preparing for this new future now.