Navigating the Psychology of Working From Home
The New Face of Remote Work
As many Americans enter their second or third week of working remotely due to COVID-19, subtler yet impactful challenges of working from home have begun to emerge. Initial advice about working remotely, while still helpful, is unlikely to be sufficient for managers and employees to maintain their own psychological well-being and that of their teams. Individuals and companies will have to move beyond suggesting regular breaks, a designated workspace at home, and routines for personal hygiene and healthy eating.
Current conditions add even more pressure for both employees and managers. Having children at home because of school closures, caring for a sick loved one, navigating personal schedules and video calls to connect with family and friends, anxiety about current events—all can increase stress.
Even before the current pandemic, remote work was associated with a unique set of psychological challenges. In Buffer’s 2019 State of Remote Work survey, 49% of remote workers said that mental health was the biggest challenge of working from home. Specifically, 22% reported that they struggled to separate work from their personal lives, 19% said they suffered from loneliness, and 8% said they had difficulty staying motivated.
Loneliness and Isolation
As Derek Thompson noted recently in The Atlantic, “Beyond lost creativity and companionship, the gravest threat to many companies from remote work is that it breaks the social bonds that are necessary to productive teamwork.” Many workers are now unexpectedly grieving for mundane aspects of office life they may have taken for granted: small talk with coworkers, waiting in line for the microwave, even signing those endless group birthday cards. Professor Alex Pentland, director of MIT Connection Science, notes:
The fact is, companies derive subtle but profound value from social interaction… Likewise, employee trust, solidarity, and mental health rely on the hundreds of minute affirmations and gestures of support that we offer those around us every day: expressions of understanding or empathy, nods of courtesy, morning greetings, and so on.
So how can we create this same sense of camaraderie without physical presence?
- Solutions for managers: Managers can do a great deal to help alleviate loneliness and isolation among their employees. Starting video meetings with a few minutes of personal conversation and checking in on how everyone is doing is vital. Reaffirm the importance of civil and respectful collaboration and an individual’s contributions. Make sure everyone on your team feels seen and has the opportunity to voice their feelings and ask for support. Also, managers can actively encourage employees to connect socially with their colleagues throughout the day. Employees should feel encouraged to connect with one another, not guilty that they’re wasting valuable work time.
- Solutions for employees: If you’re missing your daily gab, you should actively seek opportunities to check in with coworkers. This is especially important if you’re close with people with whom you don’t work directly or attend the same meetings, as you’re unlikely to virtually “run into them” like you might during a normal workday. Why not schedule a few minutes to catch up via Slack or Zoom or even “have lunch” together? At one nonprofit that recently adopted a remote work routine, employees even started an “Around the Watercooler” Slack channel for casual conversations. Employees posted pictures of their pets, shared tips for working from home, and planned virtual get-togethers.
Feeling Out of the Loop
Communication with remote employees is even more vital during a crisis or when the transition to working from home occurs suddenly as it did with COVID-19. Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley observes, “[Team members] feel like they’ve been extracted from the mothership. They wonder what’s happening at the company, with clients, and with common objectives. The communication around those is extremely important.”
- Solutions for managers: Communicate regularly, even redundantly. If you have a team video conference, follow up with an email summarizing the meeting and any action items so everyone is on the same page. Share what you’ve learned in conversations with executives, clients, and people from other departments. Make sure employees still feel like they’re part of an entire business, not just a discrete unit. This can adapt and change over time. For example, you might realize that your team needs someone to take notes during meetings, or that video calls with the entire office would benefit from a moderator. It’s much better to communicate too much at a time like this than to communicate too little.
- Solutions for employees: Ask for what you need, including information. If your manager isn’t sharing details of what’s happening elsewhere in the organization, ask if they can give a brief summary during a team meeting. Reach out to coworkers in other departments to hear what work is like for them right now. Make sure you’re advocating for team members who are less likely to be “in the know” such as part-time workers, interns, and new hires.
Bias and Power Dynamics
In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, experts noted that a variety of team dynamics may become more apparent when working remotely. For example, team members may make what psychologists call a “fundamental attribution error,” mistaking someone’s behavior as a personality trait rather than a result of situational factors: “She’s distracted and unmotivated,” vs. “She’s worried about her ailing mother who’s isolated in a nursing home.”
Or they may make unfair assumptions; for example, that the crying child in the background of a video conference must belong to a female employee. Researchers have also noted that supervisors tend to rely on and communicate more with their “favorites” when the whole team is remote while, “Some kinds of people will be ‘out of sight, out of mind’: women, minorities, and others who are on the periphery of a team are less likely to have access to information or resources and influence on the team leader.”
- Solutions for managers: Managers should give their employees the chance to share context that may impact their ability to work productively from home. One suggestion for implementing this is to allow team members to give virtual tours of their current working environment so that coworkers can visualize potential challenges and distractions: roommates, pets, children, nontraditional workspaces, etc. This can build empathy among teams and normalize remote work. Managers also can keep a list of their employees with photographs next to their desks so they can “see” their entire team and remember to check in with each person individually.
- Solutions for employees: Even the most empathetic bosses and colleagues aren’t mind-readers, especially from a distance. If conditions at home are impacting your ability to work productively and consistently, it’s okay to share that information with your team. Advocate for what you need, whether it’s shifting your hours around your children’s schedules (if approved) or equipment like noise-canceling headphones for calls.
Unable to Unplug
Another concern among experts is that remote work often creates more pressure to be “on” and constantly working, which can lead to burnout. In fact, a 2019 survey found that “82% of remote tech workers in the U.S. felt burnt out, with 52% reporting that they work longer hours than those in the office, and 40% feeling as though they needed to contribute more than their in-office colleagues.” As American workers settle into working from home for weeks on end, many feel pressured to prove that they’re equally productive when remote, which can lead to overwork, lack of sleep, and unneeded strain on personal health and relationships.
- Solutions for managers: Managers can help create boundaries by modeling them for their teams. If you wouldn’t normally make a last-minute request by email late at night, don’t start doing it now. Encourage employees to take breaks. The most important thing managers can do during uncertain times is to trust their teams. Tech columnist Jason Atem writes, “Punching a clock for eight hours is out. Regular work hours are also probably out for many people. Instead, trust your team and give them the freedom and flexibility to get work done on the schedule that helps them be the most productive. That’s good for your team in the long run anyway.
- Solutions for employees: It’s more important now than ever to set boundaries around your work. Begin and end the workday at your normal hours. Let bosses and coworkers know when you’re signing off for the day and that you won’t be available by email or IM during off-hours. Use “extra time” gained from eliminating your former commute to practice self-care, check-in with loved ones, or do something that brings you joy like a hobby or exercise routine. Shutoff notifications at night. Find an activity or ritual that helps you transition from work time to downtime: a workout, a bath, meditation, cooking dinner, anything that creates a bracket around your day. Know that you don’t have to prove anything by working beyond your normal hours: this is a marathon, not a sprint!
The Bottom Line
While remote work may not be ideal for all companies and all workers, there are ways to ease the strain for those of us who are lucky enough to be able to work from home during this unprecedented time. Thoughtful executives, managers, and employees have an opportunity to make this time not only productive but psychologically healthy. It will take empathy. It will take innovation. It will take patience. But as anyone who worked remotely full-time prior to COVID-19 can tell you, it’s certainly not impossible!