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May 8, 2020

“Can’t we just work from home?” Overwork & Burnout for First-Time Remote Workers in Quarantine | COVID-19

Photo of a woman in a blue face mask, with a graphical representation of disease particles floating in the air in front of her.
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If there’s ONE good thing that has come out of this quarantine, it’s the lesson that COVID-19 has taught even the eldest of business organizations about remote work, and how productive employees can still be, without the need for an office. However, in this new, digital-first world, companies are navigating uncharted territory by going fully remote and inadvertently causing overwork and burnout at your organization.

The New Normal for Corporate Workers

For many companies, this is their first foray into having full-time employees working from home -- and if not their first, then certainly their first to this degree of totality. Forbes actually reported on a survey conducted at MIT of 25,000 American workers just in April which found that “34% of those who’d been employed four weeks earlier said they’re currently working from home.” That’s about a third of the US population and when you combine this with what Forbes also cited: 15% of Americans who were already working-from-home before the pandemic, that’s just over half the country’s workforce! The other half may be employed in essential roles that can’t be performed at home.

Work from Home Guilt Puts Pressure to Perform

Conference calls while cooking, wireframes with wine, and business meetings at the beach are no longer the mystical and exclusive work perks enjoyed only by the millennial artists of your organization’s design agency. Rather, these are the perks afforded to everyone now, as companies turn their offices loose to comply with the world’s governments’ safer-at-home orders.

However, it’s these very stereotypes that have wreaked havoc on the work-life balance of first-time remote workers everywhere; misconceptions that remote employees are generally less focused on work because of the abounding leisurely activities available to them at home. With an entire global workforce now learning to cope with the pressures of at-home work, these same stereotypes may be putting the heat on employees now struggling to manage their new schedules in the face of expectant managers and bosses.

The issue is twofold: colleagues viewing each other with skepticism over their productivity while working from home, and remote workers themselves feeling guilty about taking 30-minutes for a personal task. Both concepts are at the center of “work from home guilt” that is triggering overwork among first-timers; sending more emails, answering more pings, and being more available than they were at the physical office. This is because our new, virtual work environments don’t provide the same social proof that our physical offices once did; the tangible evidence that Simon showed up to work today, or the confirmation that despite not hearing from Sally over email, she’s certainly busy.

Every email or ping that each of us sends, in an attempt to prove we are in fact working, only adds to the recipient’s growing pile of to-dos, and also elicits responses that add to yours. It’s a vicious cycle spawning not more productivity, but more stress. Take a moment to consider whether your correspondence is truly value-add, or if you’re simply grasping at straws to appear busy.

These Are Not Remote Roles; These Are Roles Rendered Remote

Next, remote work in quarantine is quite different from remote work in a typical context. Traditionally remote roles factor in the nuances associated with teams working apart from one another; they are already streamlined to eliminate superfluous meetings, and there is a common understanding among team members on appropriate email hours, and when it’s necessary to get someone on the phone.

However, roles now rendered remote as a result of the coronavirus quarantine are not built for it. Although many parts of the job are indeed still possible in a digital-first context, these roles are functionally at odds with business processes meant to stimulate in-person synergy.

Not Every Meeting Should Go Virtual

Consider those 10+ person “ideation” meetings and “alignment” meetings. These are forums in Socratic format, meant to draw out new ideas and solutions by allowing members of the group to feed off of each other’s thoughts and energies, and it works! It’s certainly one of my favorite parts of the in-office environment. In a work-from-home world, though, these meetings with 10 or even 20 people fail to spark the same flames over Zoom, as voices quite literally get lost in the noise.

Granted, there are functions built into tools like Zoom such as the “Raise Hand” feature, which allow administrators to control the flow of conversation; however, this is a watered down form of the in-person format that quite literally restricts the mantle of conversation. As a result, these meetings which functioned so well in person, and have simply “transferred over” to an online format, often end up being the meetings where open-ended questions for the group are met with crickets, and awkward silence.

These meetings therefore become an ineffective use of the team’s energy, and only serve to eat up valuable time that is becoming more and more limited amid other responsibilities thrown at workers operating under quarantine duress.

Organizations must fundamentally reconsider the value of some business meetings in a virtual context. Large meetings with 10s of people may not have the same problem-solving juice when administered via Zoom. More so, in the context of a quarantine where things as simple as grabbing lunch for the day may elicit anxiety and paranoia about life-threatening illness, on top of the responsibilities of caring for children or loved ones in the daytime (without the help of a school or a nanny), another meeting of unproductive silence but necessary attendance is completely tone deaf. Simply converting in-person meetings to online ones by the click of a button, isn’t enough.

First-Time Remote Workers Weren’t Planning On It

Consider that traditionally remote workers have the luxury of already knowing what to expect of the responsibility, and can plan their lives accordingly. They do this by planning out dedicated at-home workspace, designated quiet-hours for focus, and apportioned schedules to balance personal and professional responsibilities. Working from home successfully, and effectively, is not something you simply “switch on.” There is planning and preparation needed to ensure success, and a lot of it has to do with how you fundamentally live your life. Here’s an example from my own experience:

I spent the first part of my career with my current employer in a remote, E-Commerce Analytics role. This was a position designed uniquely to serve the needs of dozens of teams across the United States; a responsibility that would have been done remotely despite being in a physical office environment. Further, by the nature of e-commerce as a field of business, my former role was already an exception to the rule that my colleagues in the organization had to abide; servicing brick-and-mortar retail clients in face-to-face interactions. 

I was able to succeed in this role because I was given the flexibility to set my own hours to navigate other responsibilities I had at the time, and was also working within a broader e-commerce team that thought carefully about each meeting put on the calendar, as they recognized each team member’s function and where certain input was critical. This saved me time that I was able to dedicate to key projects. More so, being on a broader team that was also working remotely, rendered any work-from-home skepticism and guilt non-existent, as we knew of each other’s contributions and were able to plan ahead for meetings requiring input; there were no gaps. It’s by design.

Now consider that first-time remote workers have been thrown into this style of working as a result of a global health crisis. The structure needed to succeed isn’t there, and so you’ve got associates, and managers, and directors working from bedroom closets, dining room tables, and laundry rooms. Many, with not so much as a wireless mouse, let alone an expanded screen setup, or gigabit internet connection as you could expect at a physical office -- and those are just the physical parts of the job. When you layer in the fact that children, roommates, and family members are now quarantined with them; things like designated quiet-hours go out the window, and a clear line between personal and professional responsibilities starts to blur.

Companies Are Doing Their Best; Employees Are Burning Out

Now, none of this is to say that companies aren’t trying their best in quarantine. Many of the missteps I’ve cited on part of how companies are inadvertently causing overwork and burn out are out of good intentions -- to keep people working however possible. Being overworked or burnt out in quarantine is certainly a good problem to have when you consider the mass layoffs many other organizations are going through. 

However, consider a recent study published by USA Today and conducted in partnership with LinkedIn, which found that 54% of professionals surveyed between the ages of 18 and 74 reported that the pandemic has actually had a positive effect on their productivity. This is primarily attributed to eliminated commutes, fewer distractions, and fewer meetings -- all facets of an in-person office environment that many workers might feel they “owe,” resulting in much of the work-from-home guilt previously mentioned.

The Pandemic Will Ultimately Expand Remote Work

Ultimately, this new work-from-home paradigm has taught us as individuals a little something about our own habits, but more importantly, it has allowed for the most agile of organizations to reposition and stand out in this crisis. Moving forward, the option for remote work at organizations around the world will no longer be doubted, and it may even be preferred for some roles in the future. These future jobs will, however, have the benefit of being designed for remote capabilities and use this experience in the pandemic as a lesson in best practices.

Photo of Omaralexis Ochoa, host of The Gay Pro, and author of this blog post.

Omaralexis Ochoa

Data analyst, podcaster, pasta-lover... I'm many things, but above all, I'm a creator. I created The Gay Pro because I love sharing stories of queer success, with the intention of empowering and inspiring other queer leaders.