One enormous, if tangential, effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been businesses’ wholesale embrace of remote work. Perhaps embrace is the wrong word—most of the many thousands of organizations that have sent their employees home have had little choice in the matter. But even for those for whom at least a portion of their workforce has long telecommuted, or worked remotely full-time, this time things are different.
To paraphrase a famous question from the Passover seder, “Why is this remote work different from all other remote work?”
Telecommuting has never been as easy as opening up a laptop in the dining room. Experts have talked for years about the need for training both telecommuting employees and their managers; providing appropriate technical support and resources; having a process for regular check-ins and evaluation of the arrangement (with the option to terminate it, if necessary). It has always been clear that working from home is not for everyone, that it is no substitute for child care, and that it requires careful planning and oversight.
Yet suddenly, within a matter of weeks, all of these provisions and truisms have been tossed aside, as millions of workers have abruptly been told just to grab a laptop and go. (I speak, of course, of those workers fortunate to work in a job that can at least theoretically be done from home.) But the lack of planning, training, and resources that characterizes most COVID-19-inspired telecommuting is only one small way in which it bears no resemblance to the telecommuting of yesteryear (i.e., last month). Here’s why:
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- In normal times, telecommuters are generally expected to have a dedicated office space at home. Some companies even require employees to complete checklists or otherwise demonstrate that they have a place to work which is both sufficiently private and meets safety standards. Telecommuting can also sometimes encompass alternative options, such as co-working spaces or even—let’s be honest—cafes. Now, however, among the legions who are suddenly working from home, very few are likely to have a dedicated workspace (and co-working spaces are, of course, out). This is especially true in New York City, currently one of the areas under tightest lockdown, where most people are accustomed to living in very small spaces.
- In normal times, most telecommuters, private office space or not, can expect to work in a relatively distraction-free environment, with other household-members out pursuing their own education and livelihoods. Now, however, employees are likely to be sharing their days with spouses, children, roommates or others, all with their own work to do—or, maybe worse, with very little to do. And this isn’t just about sharing space and resources. In some cases it might mean dealing with an ill family member, or someone who is having a particularly bad psychological reaction to the crisis.
- In normal times, caregiving while working is a serious no-no. Nearly every telecommuting policy in existence includes language to the effect that working from home is not a substitute for child care—and for good reason: child care is a full-time job, in itself. Now, as schools and child care programs across the nation close, millions of employees are being asked not only to supervise their kids, but often to home-school them, as well. (While many schools have instituted remote learning, this generally requires a lot of support from parents—pretty much full-time support when it comes to the youngest children.)
- In normal times, employers don’t have to worry too much about telecommuting employees feeling isolated. Yes, if they are smart they will put effort into ensuring remote employees don’t feel forgotten or left out. But now they also need to consider the psychological toll social isolation might take on employees who are not only working from home but spending nearly every other minute of their days and nights at home, as well, often physically separated from family and friends. And with their entire workforce working apart, they may have to find creative ways of maintaining a sense of community.
- In normal times, most telecommuting employees are generally able to focus on their work. Now, frankly, all bets are off. Employees have every reason to be distracted by the news and constant buzz of social media, by fear about their own health and the health of friends and loved ones, by new challenges to daily living—from procuring necessities to hand-washing and sanitizing. Any one of these things can make the regular daily tasks of work seem, for the moment, less than relevant or urgent.
I’ve heard some commentators talking about how after this—our mass forced experiment in remote working—businesses will never be the same. As if, even when we are all cleared to go back to our workplaces, many companies will embrace telecommuting like never before. And maybe that is the case. But the telecommuting going on right now is anything but business-as-usual telecommuting, and I find it hard to imagine it will be an inspiring model for employers in healthier days to come.