What COVID has taught us about working from home

woman working from home

By Shelia Hyde, PhD

In the spring of 2020, employees virtually everywhere experienced a collision of work and family responsibilities when the pandemic forced them to work from home. We already knew from earlier research that working involuntarily from home was linked to work-family conflict. Now, new findings show remote workers not accustomed to working from home experienced more than space challenges and technology issues. On top of those obstacles, parents had to overcome the challenges of their school-aged children: finding room to work, managing parental tasks during work hours and parsing time to respond to school-related needs. Keep in mind, many parents of preschoolers lost access to childcare—creating yet another set of unique challenges.

Our qualitative research studies in the summer of 2020 included surveying 103 people online and interviewing 27 others who were working from home for the first time and living with at least one other person. Despite the challenges, it seemed thriving at work—the joint experience of learning and vitality in the work role—was taking place, as well as thriving in nonwork roles. The responses led to valuable takeaways for employees and managers.

Positive outcomes

The positives experienced by our participants included work-related development and well-being outcomes. Some subjects reported benefitting from new job skills, career planning, positive feelings about their organization or work and quality-of-work output. Others reported experiencing physical and mental wellness, personal development, work-life balance and increased energy. When developmental outcomes combine with energy-related outcomes in the same role, a person thrives.

Work-family boundaries

Most of our participants said they managed boundaries between work and home. People organize their work and nonwork lives by creating boundaries between them in a variety of ways. For example, a physical boundary might involve using a dedicated home office for work-related tasks. A temporal boundary could be performing work tasks only between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. And there is a cognitive boundary, which limits thoughts about work during nonwork hours. Keeping strong boundaries between work and nonwork is segmenting while combining or blending work and nonwork is integrating. While prior research findings have varied on whether integration or segmentation is best for reducing outcomes such as work-family conflict, our findings suggest that some boundary management is better than none. Further, those who practiced cycling between integration and segmentation tended to experience more positive outcomes. If, for example, an employee has small children who nap during the day, they might preserve nap hours to completely segment and focus on more challenging work tasks, saving integration for times during the day when it is necessary to be present in both roles.

Management tips

Here are five tips for helping employees thrive, whether in continued remote working conditions or returning to the office:

  1. Provide as much time flexibility as possible. Managers need to meet each individual employee where they are. If possible, adjust start and end times to help the employee meet responsibilities. It may require splitting shifts.
  2. Relax “image” expectations. Many employees in our study mentioned work demands concerning image management, which involved appearance and performance expectations. Working from home meant enjoying more relaxed work attire for many employees. With that in mind, managers should consider more relaxed attire when possible. Additionally, working from home increased some employees’ pressure to portray an image of constant visibility to the team. Designating some meetings as “cameras on” and others as “cameras off” during remote interactions and creating a culture of meaningful dialogue may help alleviate the energy drain that is often associated with “Zoom fatigue.”
  3. Evaluate the necessity and length of each meeting. An hour-long meeting that could have been an email is a drain on employee energy and time. Managers should make an effort to keep meetings—both face-to-face and virtual—meaningful and efficient.
  4. Reduce distractions. Many participants experienced a relief in time pressure working from home due to reduced day-to-day office distractions, such as ambient noise, loud conversations and unplanned co-worker visits. An operational approach that facilitates uninterrupted work periods may be an experiment worth trying. While this advice is primarily suited for face-to-face workers, managers could apply it to virtual settings as well. One study participant noted his company designated one day of the week as a “no meeting” day.
  5. Encourage employee development opportunities. Finally, initiate learning opportunities that help employees preserve and restore energy to foster employee thriving. These include boundary management strategies as previously reported, wellness initiatives, career development programs and programs supporting social awareness.

Shelia Hyde, PhD, is a visiting assistant professor with the Texas Woman’s University College of Business.

Page last updated 11:36 AM, August 30, 2021