Homework is starting to fade


The past week brought a grim revelation about working from home.

It came as I was standing in my room, trying to decide what to wear to something I hadn’t been in for almost five months: a working lunch.

As I searched for an outfit, then browsing Google Maps to see how to get to where I was going, I realized that I was feeling anxiously anxious.

I say silly because I came to realize that what worried me was how much time I was going to spend away from the laptop on my kitchen table.

It would take nearly two hours to get dressed; reach the designated meeting place, have lunch and come home.

My pre-Covid self wouldn’t have thought twice because at the time the workday was full of interruptions. The commute to work. The trompe-l’oeil around the office to a meeting room. The need to tell a colleague what had been watched on television the day before.

But working at home since March, I realized, made me feel normal to spend painful hour after hour in front of a screen.

This explains one of the bewildering things about the vast work from home experience that millions of us go through.

Lack of commute and other ailments have made life so much easier that surveys repeatedly show that most of us want to continue working at least a day or two from home once the pandemic sits. ‘will attenuate. However, the longer the remote work, the more it begins to fade.

Many jobs take longer when the person you urgently need to contact is walking the dog. It’s harder to know why emails go unanswered when you can’t get to the non-respondent’s office. No wonder research suggests the workweek has lengthened by up to four more hours. Also, some home offices are terrible.

Thought-provoking 71% of homeworkers reported a new or worsening illness since the outbreak, according to a global study by tech group Lenovo last month. Fatigue, insomnia, and headaches were common from Brazil to Britain, along with back pain and eye problems.

At the same time, most people reported being more productive, which makes sense at a time of skyrocketing unemployment and job insecurity.

But being highly productive isn’t a picnic according to Peakon, an employee analytics company that companies (including the FT) use to measure how their employees think about their work.

When he analyzed 25,000 comments people had made in his surveys, he found that two of the top five words used by employees at the height of the pandemic in March and April were “hours” and “pressure.”

Over time, a large number of managers mentioned their own mental well-being and one of the main phrases they used was “total madness”.

In other words, managers and leaders are starting to feel the tension and for many there is no end in sight.

Google last week became the first major U.S. company to say it would keep staff at home until July of next year. I doubt this will be the last.

So what to do? I have discussed this issue with leaders of many companies and each of them has stressed that it is more important than ever that workers have regular one-on-one conversations with leaders.

This exposes problems before they turn into disasters. This eliminates unnecessary paranoia and, vitally, it helps clarify a company’s priorities.

It can also be difficult to do. Managers are under more pressure and already have more meetings to keep in touch with distant teams. But these group sessions aren’t enough for a parent trying to meet urgent deadlines between home classes or for a new recruit with no idea who to ask about a test assignment.

Giving time to these particular people is, as a senior manager told me the other day, management 101 at a time like this.

Savvy bosses have always tried to understand what their employees are going through at home. Everyone should go this route when home is also work.

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Twitter: @pilitaclark


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