The Workplace Whisperer

Keeping Your Job and Your Sanity in the Time of Covid-19

The key to working through the pandemic is in maintaining work boundaries

Shot of a young woman suffering from a headache while using a laptop at home.
Shot of a young woman suffering from a headache while using a laptop at home.
Photo: katleho Seisa/Getty Images

“Local candidates only.”

“We don’t allow remote work.”

“You need to be in the office to foster collaboration on your team.”

Three months ago, companies were at liberty to enforce the conditions listed above. However, since the first stay-at-home orders were issued, some of these same companies have suddenly figured out how to support employees working from home. Concerns about employees prioritizing household tasks over work have all but dissipated as leaders finally accept that remote workers are actually very productive and typically put in more hours than in-office employees as a result of not having to commute. That said, without the routine changes in physical locations that signal the beginning and end of the workday, it is important to set some boundaries so that you aren’t spending all of your time on work.

Every industry and organization has had to adapt to this new environment and in doing so, the true nature of corporate cultures and leaders has been revealed. Jobs that had to be done from an office location are now being performed at home, and leaders are having to face the fact that their previous justifications for why employees couldn’t work remotely might not hold water anymore. Micromanagers who need to “see” employees working in order to know that they are working are having to quickly adjust to the fact that at some point, you have to trust that you are hiring responsible adults who know how to get their work done. Open-plan offices are (hopefully) being reconsidered as it is difficult to maintain social distance when employees are jammed together with four or five feet of desk space and no barriers between workstations.

Amid the staggering unemployment figures and economic instability, some of us are privileged just to still have jobs. Of those of us still working, another privileged few are fortunate enough to still collect full salaries and be able to work from home. At first glance, this might seem like an ideal situation. “I can avoid the commute, save money on daily expenses, and still get a paycheck? Cool. Sign me up!” But everyone can’t be expected to thrive under these circumstances. Just because technology makes it possible to work remotely doesn’t mean that every job type or industry could shift to decentralized work with no interruptions to regular business. That said, here are a few tips to help protect your sanity and foster a productive, work-from-home environment.

Try to stick to your routines as much as you possibly can

Human beings require some measure of control over our lives. When that control is threatened or removed completely, our psyches drive us to search for some high ground to reestablish our positions of power over our day-to-day lives. While sleeping in is a nice luxury, try to keep in mind that at some point in the future, some of us will have to return to work at a physical location, which will mean going back to the routines of getting prepared for the workday and commuting to the office. If those routines are altered or not followed at all for a sustained period of time, it can be very difficult to retrain your mind and body to behave as you did before. It’s why some parents try to keep their kids on a normal schedule in the summer. That way, when it is time to go back to school, it isn’t as much of a battle for kids to observe bedtimes and the necessary morning routines that facilitate their return to the classroom. Continuing to observe regular meal times is also critical to maintaining productivity and overall well-being.

If you have a home office, use that space for work during typical work hours

I’m privileged to have dedicated home office space, so in order to enforce work-life boundaries, I wake up and get dressed at my usual time and head downstairs to “go to work.” I try to confine my work-related activities to this space so that when I leave it at the end of the day, I’m not “taking my work with me,” so to speak. If you don’t have an entire room or sizable space to use as a home office, it’s still possible to set up a dedicated space in your home. The previous owners of my first house converted the closet in the guest room to office space by installing a long piece of wood that served as a desktop. I’ve also seen space underneath or adjacent to stairs or part or all of a garage utilized as workspace.

Extend some grace to your colleagues and to yourselves as we all try to make sense of what is happening to the world around us

Working parents are having to navigate additional challenges with respect to maintaining a sense of normalcy during this time. They are not only responsible for their own physical and mental health, but that of their children as well. On top of that, the education system has had to drastically alter how students can continue to learn, be intellectually stimulated, and advance their knowledge. As if trying to find the perfect Zoom backdrop for a plethora of video conference calls each day wasn’t hard enough, parents are having to keep their children engaged in school work and assuage fears that their little ones may be unable to articulate, let alone cope with on their own.

This all assumes that these families have reliable internet access and the technology required to support distance learning. But while all of these things are important, they do not and cannot replace the need for social interaction as a part of the growth and maturation process. Children don’t go to school just for education; they go to school in part to learn how to get along with others and function as part of a greater whole. Additionally, children who require specialized instruction and other school-related wraparound services may be put at a severe disadvantage by being confined to their homes. Some counseling and learning sessions can be facilitated online while others cannot. Likewise, parents are also having to play the roles of social workers, school counselors, and other personnel who would normally provide this kind of support to their children. And this all assumes that parents are able to retain health insurance and/or continue to have the financial means to support their families.

The last thing anyone needs is to be shamed for not remaining at peak productivity or ingenuity because they have “all this free time” to do other things.

Don’t beat yourself up if you are unable to finally finish that lingering project or utilize this time to acquire new skills

This is a tough one. I personally lament the fact that having to work a 9-to-5 hampers my ability to do other things with my time that could also yield an income. But I can tell you from experience that predates the pandemic that it’s damn near impossible to concentrate on entrepreneurial endeavors while being preoccupied with how the bills will get paid. It’s perfectly fine to use this time to do things you might not otherwise be able to commit to. However, if it takes all of your time and energy just to maintain your employment and daily routines, it’s okay if you don’t emerge from this pandemic with new foreign language skills or having started an LLC. What we are experiencing right now was unfathomable and a lot of people are having to focus on satisfying their most basic needs at the bottom of Maslov’s hierarchy. The last thing anyone needs is to be shamed for not remaining at peak productivity or ingenuity because they have “all this free time” to do other things.

If necessary, negotiate a work-from-home stipend to help defray internet and other costs you need to successfully work from home

Some companies are providing stipends to offset internet costs and/or to provide continued support for other perks, i.e. company-sponsored lunches. Organizations that prioritize the well-being of their employees are using this time to shine by not losing sight of the fact that when employees feel they are being adequately compensated and rewarded for their efforts, they are able to focus more fully on the work. In contrast, organizations that have been in the habit of exploiting workers are continuing to make decisions that alienate employees at the worst possible time. It is absolutely reasonable to ask your manager or other leaders in the company to pitch in and help facilitate remote work. While office rent is still being paid, other fixed costs impacted by having people report to a physical location are likely lower right now, so it behooves employers to reinvest those savings into supporting the people on the front lines, doing the work to keep the business humming along.

Continue to take scheduled time off and take advantage of company holidays by unplugging

Great leaders know that the key to retaining good employees is to provide optimal working conditions. This includes recognizing that while people may be unable to travel and take vacations as they normally would, they still need to be able to take breaks from work. To bully employees into putting themselves and their families at risk by forcing them to continue reporting to a physical work location or demand that they spend the time they would normally be commuting, on work is not a good look right now. All work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy.

This pandemic feels more like 1820 or 1920 rather than in 2020. I mean, shouldn’t our society be advanced enough by now that we are able to better protect ourselves from this bug? Were all those sci-fi movies and shows that boasted of immortality in the future and advanced intelligence just a bunch of bullshit? I hope not, but the longer this drags on, the more surreal it becomes, and that won’t change until we have some idea of when it will truly be safe for us to resume our daily activities.

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