Before a global pandemic locked down states across the nation, working from home was a coveted privilege: you could have a little WFH, as a treat. You looked at people who worked for fully remote companies with envy. Imagine the lack of a commute; the lack of wearing trousers.
But now, if you're able to work from home full-time for the first time, it might not be like you imagined back then. Maybe you're struggling to maintain focus, to deliver results while worrying about how your elderly parents are faring, to respond to work emails with positivity while wondering if you’ll still have a job next week, to raise a child, who might not understand what’s happening, while being present for a big company Zoom meeting.
It’s almost as if “working from home” doesn’t really capture the reality of the present. In the middle of a pandemic, it’s become even more of a privilege for the simple fact that it means not having to risk your life for a job. Employees are grappling with this, and maybe even feeling a little guilty that they're not feeling happier about how fortunate they are.
As always, it was a popular tweet that actually summed up the truth of our times:
"You are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work."— Neil Webb (@neilmwebb) March 31, 2020
I've heard this twice today. I think it's an important distinction worth emphasising.
So what has it been like — not to work from home — but to face a global tragedy while trying to work from home? We talked to women when employers first began putting work-from-home policies in place, and then spoke to them again six weeks later. Here’s a slice of what their working lives look like now.
On taking care of yourself
“It varies day to day,” says Melissa, 32, a VP of product management. “Most days it’s just another day and I’m neutral, other days I dread waking up, and then other days I wake up stressed, feeling behind and a slave to my phone and computer.”
“When this first started, there were too many days to count where I went straight from bed to computer still in my PJs and looked up four hours later to realise I hadn’t drank water, eaten, or been a human yet that day,” she continues. “It was really affecting everything from my mood to digestion and happiness, so I had to find a ritual that works.”
“I’ve let my sleeping routine go to shit,” says Chelsey, 26, a systems analyst. “ I was already a night owl before this pandemic, but now I'm staying up until 2 or 3 and waking up for work at 9. I snooze my alarm and have to drag myself out of bed. I was already only washing my hair once a week before this, but now I've let go of it and it's more of an every 8-10 days for my hair.”
“I feel pretty shit getting up — there's always that moment on waking, where you forget what's going on,” says Jess, 29, a copywriter. “Then it hits you like a truck.”
On taking care of kids
On the one hand, feeling overwhelmed now may make it difficult to set any routine. “I have no habits,” says Casey, 31, a project manager. “I have a 5-month-old. I feel lucky to get anything done. I am not okay. I just run around on fire all the time and try to remember that my employer is telling me not to hold myself to the same standard as before.”
But for many, having regular habits has become even more important. Carla, 31, is a senior publicist who is working from home while taking care of her young daughter. “I created a spreadsheet because... I am just like that,” she says. “We don't follow it to the letter, and I learn a bit more each day about how to balance work and homeschooling. I used to be a teacher so I started off super ambitious, but being 100% on top of work and teaching is just not at all realistic.”
“It’s tough. My son is pretty independent but some of the learning expectations are a struggle,” says Bailey, 32, a sales and operations manager. “There are things that he needs my help on, so I block out time in my day to help with school work.”
On doing enough
Siloed in our own homes, far away from the direct gaze of managers and other higher-ups, many are feeling pressure to prove their productivity even now. “During the calls I tend to embellish the amount of work I've gotten done,” says Claire, a 24-year-old PR assistant.
And a part of the pressure is not just maintaining your workload, but showing that you’re online and available at all times. “I do feel more pressure to be productive — I don’t want my boss to think I’m slacking off if I’m idle on Skype or away for too long,” agrees Lina, 31, a corporate trainer.
“I'm fortunate enough to belong to a union, and we're working to ensure managers are respecting work-life balance in this new reality. Just because we're social distancing does not mean we're on call 24/7,” says Julia, 29, a senior campaign communications specialist.
For Melissa, who says she’s on six to eight hours of video calls a day, there’s an extra burden to keep up appearances in a male-dominated workplace. “I feel pressure to look ‘the same’ I do in office, so I put on makeup and at least make sure I look presentable,” she says. “I work with all men and am one of the youngest by far on my leadership team, so I know appearances matter. Regardless of my stance on equality and whether this is fair, it’s the truth.”
Many companies are trying remote work for the first time, and the fear that employees will slack off under quarantine has led to a disturbing uptick in managers installing spyware on employees’ computers. “Though I know I’m more productive at home, my boss is overly vigilant about things like that,” says Susan, 32, an accountant. “He has trust issues.”
For teachers like Gabbie, 23, the pressure is more about wanting to show up for students even when they’re no longer in the classroom. “I feel a lot more pressure to always be available for students, parents, coworkers,” she says. “Kids will text me at 10pm asking for help and I usually text back immediately. I am trying to understand that they usually wake up late and stay up late, and would rather them get help than try to put-up a communication boundary.”
On job security
Even as you work from the safety of your home, you realize that your job itself may not be safe. “I’m worried because my industry relies on clients coming in and field contractors to complete the work,” says Dana, 36, who works in design and the construction industry.
“Other universities have started furloughing employees, and I'm always afraid that if it comes down to it, my coworker that works in the same program as me will be the one deemed 'essential,’” says Chelsey. “I'm the newer one to the team and not as technically skilled. This job was a stretch role for me, and I've spent the last 6 months on a steep learning curve. My university also pays for a portion of my graduate degree — if something happened to my job, I would have to quit or pause my masters degree due to the high cost.”
“Fucking hell, I’m so worried,” says Jess. “I've spent three years trying to get a job at this agency, and I started in November. I ended a relationship and moved to a new city for it. I'll be devastated (and broke) if I lose it.”
Turns out, coping with WFH during a pandemic might depend not so much on how ergonomic your chair is, but how management reassures you of your job security. “Our amazing CEO publicly pledged we will be having no layoffs this year,” says Stephanie, 33, a product manager. “It’s impossible to not worry about how long this will last and what the impacts will be in the future. I really, really appreciate the peace of mind that I’m secure for the rest of this year.”
She says it has driven home how important leaders are in times of crisis. “I generally feel so removed from and unaffected by those in power and their words and decisions,” she says. “But our CEO has done such a great job handling this, communicating with us and putting our minds at ease. It made me realize how much less anxiety I would feel if we still had Obama as a president, who would be looking out for everyone, not telling people to ingest disinfectant.”
On feeling lonely or alienated
According to a Qualtrics study of 1,000 adults, 25% of them said the hardest part of working from home was social isolation.
Jess lives with two flatmates, but they don’t get along. “I stay in my room for everything bar using the loo and shower,” she says. “I've never felt so alone or so trapped or so disliked. It's horrible. I wish I was alone. I moved into this house share after living with a boyfriend for six years, so it's a huge shock. Though I'd rather be here than with him.” She says of her experience trying to work from home, “It's shit if you can only stay in one room. Living with people you don't like is the worst.”
Even when you live with someone you love, it can be challenging. “I'm quarantining with my fiance. It has been rough,” says Cecelia, 26, a research associate. “We started the quarantine sharing an office, but then I decided to work in the kitchen. Plus the pandemic has removed our distractions, so now we have to face issues in our relationship, which we are working through. I am grateful to not be alone.”
On figuring out how to cope
If there is something to learn from working from home right now, it might be realising who at your workplace has the capacity for empathy and understanding, and who doesn’t. You might be recognising just how valuable the skill of emotional intelligence is, while measures of productivity feel less meaningful.
“It doesn't matter if you were a regular teleworker,” says Zarreen, 28, who works in public land management for the federal government. “We have all been thrust into a lifestyle that is very different, and we need to be compassionate and patient toward each other as we adjust.”
“I'm taking it minute by minute and constantly reminding myself to slow down,” says Carla. “Say yes to my kid more, listen to what she's feeling and responding to and giving her all the hugs and kisses I wouldn't be able to were she in preschool and I back in the office.”
When asked about the biggest thing she’s learned about working from home during a pandemic, 25-year-old grad student Julia answers simply: “To forgive myself.”