Many of us are now working from home. As I described in my previous column, we are experiencing a new wave of mass experimentation in virtual work: working with (and around) virtual technologies, learning how best to relate to virtual colleagues, and experimenting with virtual collaboration and the new distribution of tasks.
For working parents, virtual work has specific challenging pain points. In a London Business School webinar on virtual working I ran on March 14, 10% of the nearly 3,000 people polled said they were distracted by their families.
Many weeks later under lockdown, this distraction is becoming ever more salient. This is true for people with a variety of caring responsibilities — for children, older relatives, or people with disabilities.
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I believe that the family distraction presented by the new work-from-home reality is one of the most pressing management issues of the COVID-19 crisis. It’s one that, if unchecked, could lead to a significant drop in productivity and creativity. We — both leaders and companies — need to move rapidly to gain quick wins to help employees manage their work lives. We also need to prepare the ground for long-term changes.
The Challenge: Dissolving Boundaries
On April 9, I ran another webinar focusing specifically on the challenges and opportunities of balancing work and family to find out what strategies are working. Executives joined from more than 30 companies in Europe, the U.S., Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, and more than 60% of them were working from home with family responsibilities. (That percentage is about the norm for many countries.) To understand their circumstances more deeply, we held a seven-day open platform hackathon afterward, where executives could talk to one another about their experiences and brainstorm solutions.
What these intensive home-based ways of working are revealing with absolute clarity is something psychologists have known for some time — that boundaries matter. One of the ways executives typically manage their working lives, particularly when their identities of, let’s say, hard-hitting salesperson and caring father are distinct, is by creating boundaries between these two domains. They build mental fences between the two spheres, often facilitated by clear transitions and “rite of passage” activities. These could include props such as putting on a suit, or activities like getting on the commuter train, having a pre-meeting coffee, or catching up with The New York Times. People who have been working from home for years typically create similar boundaries and rituals, such as moving into a study and maintaining a schedule that separates work life from family life.
These transitions help to separate and preserve our distinct selves and provide the means for temporal, cognitive, and relational shifts. Maintaining boundaries instead of blurring the line between when you are “on” for one role and “off” for the other means that distraction is minimized. Creativity and flow can happen more quickly.
With whole families quarantined, the boundaries for workers are dissolving. In place of two transitions (home to work, work to home), there are now multiple transitions (work, look after a child, work, prepare lunch, work, play with infant, etc.). Each transition adversely affects concentration and productivity and, ultimately, creativity.
A Veil of Ignorance Is Lifted
Based on what I am hearing, executives are becoming more empathetic to these challenges than ever before. Issues of tensions around work-home have, of course, existed for decades, but what has been lacking is the willpower to do much about this tension. That is beginning to change as executives experience these tensions firsthand.
It’s not that a senior executive in a large house with a garden has the same experience as a single mother in a small apartment lacking outside space. But in the past, there has been a veil of ignorance about the challenges, in the sense that the executive could well have had a team of support people (a nanny, a housekeeper, a cleaner, a gardener).
Now shorn of this team, thanks to varieties of quarantines, lockdowns, and work-from-home orders, executives are experiencing more viscerally the stresses and strains of the work-home challenge. That’s creating a sense of understanding and empathy that many executives had previously lacked.
My projection is that executives are now much more likely to put their shoulders behind both quick wins and long-term changes.
Three Quick-Win Ideas to Adopt Now
Business leaders have a new clarity that normal boundary management is not working, and they are newly highly sensitized to work-from-home challenges. In our hackathon, three ideas stood out that fall into the category of quick wins — meaning they are fast to implement with few barriers or costs:
Empathize with each employee’s context. Some companies are creating deeper insights into the specific situations their workforces face by surveying home workers. When they do so, they uncover a wide variety of circumstances and stresses. Being a single person living and working under quarantine is a very different experience than being a member of a working family with young children. One global professional company, for instance, found that over 60% of its employees were single and either living on their own or with a parent or partner and feeling the pain of social isolation. An immediate quick win was to create daily virtual coffee breaks at 11:30 a.m. Another company found that over 60% of employees were caring for children; their issues were exhaustion and the challenge of focusing during normal work hours. Leadership signaling that working unorthodox hours is OK could make a real difference to their stress levels.
Encourage employees to communicate their new norms. Some companies are actively cocreating new schedules with employees. For example, executives from one global technology company are working with employees to identify blocks of time when they will be “on” and blocks when they will be “off.” These schedules are then being shared with team members to manage expectations about when to expect timely responses to communications. While signaling new work norms, these blocks of time also limit the number of work-home transitions for individuals. Executives told us that both benefits have helped reduce employee anxiety.
Convene like-minded communities. Because home lives come in many forms, people’s needs and the support they require are idiosyncratic. One-size-fits-all responses will not work. That’s why some companies have created collaborative platforms that enable employees in similar situations to find each other, to mentor and coach each other, and to share ideas and interesting experiments. Just as important, the platforms enable communities to channel their specific needs and ideas to management. The results can be really creative: For example, an executive from a global insurer described how a community of parents of young children had spurred the company to provide resources on the company’s intranet to support their home schooling.
Four Long-Term Changes to Work Toward
One of the important topics of conversation during the hackathon was how the future of working practices will change because of the COVID-19 work experience. With the potential of months of home working, people will inevitably develop new habits and expectations. Some of these habits will be dropped as soon as social distancing is removed, but others will have such obvious virtues that they are destined to be adopted into everyday working life.
This is a good time to prepare for those resilient habits. Here are the four that seem most likely to last:
Recognize that virtual meetings are here to stay. The shift to bringing together 10 or more people from across the world into a virtual meeting — both with team members and clients — has happened with extraordinary speed and dexterity. This is a habit that is unlikely to be dropped. Executives need to prepare for more virtual technology and less commuting and traveling.
Embrace flexibility around time. Managing multiple boundaries at home has proved both tricky and stressful. But short-term fixes (like creating blocks of time) are easing the strain and are becoming the foundation for crafting new ways of working. In doing so, they are breaking the norm of working eight hours a day, five days a week. Will we move swiftly back to this traditional time model? I doubt it, and executives should be preparing now to understand and learn how best to manage time more flexibly. They should be prepared to experiment with four-day workweeks and to accommodate more employees who ask to work late in the evening (or very early in the morning) instead of 9 to 5.
Be strategic about the wonder of face-to-face working. It’s clear that many people working from home are really missing their colleagues. It is unlikely that in a post-pandemic world, they will want to stay exclusively at home. Consider a study by Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom that followed the experiences of call center employees of a Chinese travel company who were allowed to do their jobs at home in 2010-11 for nine months. At the end of the experiment, half wanted to go back to working in the office, even with an average daily commute of 80 minutes. They missed the social interaction. Executives need to be a great deal more thoughtful about what it is that face-to-face interaction brings to their organizations and seek to maximize these benefits.
Expect more men to be newly engaged in parenting. In working families, it’s still typically mothers who take on the majority of childcare responsibilities. Numerous studies have shown that although the amount of domestic labor and caring duties shouldered by fathers has increased, working women still do more of both. In our hackathon discussions, we heard some passionate conversations about how parents are experimenting with a more equal sharing of duties and how some fathers are cherishing the family time with their children. The positive caring emotions they are experiencing may well be something they want to hold on to. This has profound implications for executives regarding how issues such as paternity leave and flexible working are tackled.
These long-term changes raise a number of questions that will be debated over the coming months. What does high performance mean in a post-pandemic world when working long hours used to be the proxy? If people are working more flexibly, should their pay be more closely tied to the projects they complete rather than the hours they work? (Bloom found in his China study, for instance, that people working from home were 13% more productive.) And how do we ensure that high-performing people who also want to be caring parents are not penalized?
These next few months are critical. We have an opportunity right now to create more resilient organizations and to push ahead with an agenda of change.