Working “With” Home During Crisis
- By Professor Shaun Ruggunan
The largest single experiment in remote working is currently taking place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Never in the history of modern work have so many workers in the formal labour market worked off site. So what are we learning about this practice that is new? Over the past two decades human resource management as a professional and scholarly practice has been preoccupied with the ideas and practice of working from home.
Numerous studies have been undertaken on its organisational impacts and to a lesser extent, its impact on employees’ psycho-social well-being. The latter is often couched in the language of work-life balance, or work-life blending. However, what happens when, as in the current pandemic, there is a work-life bleeding? By this I mean that work and life become one; there is no fixed boundary, balance or blending between work and life. Yet many organisations continue to manage workers during this time of crisis as if there are still clear temporal and spatial boundaries in the workday.
I would suggest that as employers and employees we talk about working “with home” rather than working from home or remote working. I borrow the phrase “working with home” from distinguished psychotherapist Esther Perel. This way of thinking means that we are working WITH all the activities happening in the home simultaneously. There is no spatial or temporal separation of work from life. We should not feel guilty or embarrassed by this. Caring for children, vulnerable family members, partners and pets, doing domestic chores, processing trauma, coping with financially stressed households, care giving and overwhelming anxiety are the realities for most of us during the pandemic. It is within and not separate from this space that we continue to work to fulfill contractual obligations to employers.
For the most part employees are fulfilling contractual obligations, yet reports from around the globe suggest that many are working harder and longer than they did on site. I therefore offer some suggestions for both employers and employees to reflect on as you work “with” home.
This is an unprecedented global crisis and pandemic; it is not a productivity contest.
We have all seen the social media posts about how you should learn a new skill or do all the things you said you never had time for, and the numerous calls to be super productive because the assumption is that you are sitting at home doing nothing. Do NOT feel pressured by this. Depending on your context, you are already homeschooling your children, cooking, cleaning, shopping, managing the anxieties of yourself and others around you and trying to stay healthy and safe. That in itself is exhausting. So your normal work tasks may actually feel more tiring than usual. Give yourself a break from this toxic expectation that a pandemic should make you more productive.
Your priority is self-care, and then care for others. Make sure that your family, health and emotions are fine. Managing stress and anxiety are about the ability to self-regulate your emotions. You are not useful to yourself or others (including employers) if you do not pay attention to your emotions, health and your family. Self-regulating employees that feel safe will offer more value to your organisation.
Women will bear more of the stress and anxiety during this pandemic since patriarchal systems situate them at the forefront as caregivers and “nurturers”. Please note this especially if you are a male manager.
Excessive or compulsive busyness during this crisis can be a sign of trauma or a way of dealing with trauma. Managers will often schedule endless online meetings and be in constant online communication with staff at all hours of the day. For many it is their way of coping with this profound crisis and trauma. With sufficient time and emotional intelligence, they will eventually begin to self-regulate. As an employee, you may find that busyness or excessive working may be a form of salve since you do not have to think much about the pandemic and its consequences.
Research is showing that too many online meetings are causing exhaustion and premature burnout. Schedule these only when absolutely necessary. Also, do not feel that you have to control every single sound or activity in your house during these online calls. Cats, dogs, babies, flushing toilets, etc. are part of what it is to work with home and what it means to be human. We control what we can in order to concentrate during these calls but we live in different types of households and managers need to create a culture where it is okay for your two year-old to interrupt your Zoom call. Introduce the child to your colleagues rather than scream at them for interrupting.
Lockdowns make each day seem as if it’s blurring into the other. It may be helpful to negotiate some ground rules regarding when you will engage with work. For example, still thinking of the “weekend” as a weekend and time away from work may be a way of boundary setting. Not sending or responding to emails after 17h00 on weekdays is another. The way this is done will be different for different organisations and people but you cannot be “on call 24/7” as this will deplete your psychological and physical reserves.
Finally, recognise and be thankful for any privileges you enjoy. You may have a large house with a garden during lockdown, or have a double income family. Your household may be food secure, you may have unlimited WiFi and have a dedicated space and time to work. These are not universal contexts. Recognise this in your dealings with others and be grateful if you enjoy any of these privileges.
This is a time of profound adaptation, and discussion and debates about working from home need to shift to a discussion on how we can better work “with” home. In the end this is not a discussion about people as human resources but rather one of people as relational beings.
Shaun Ruggunan is an Associate Professor of Human Resources Management in the School of Management, IT and Governance at UKZN.