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Life and Work Continues in the Age of COVID

| September 8, 2020

by Jim Bruce

Life and Work Continues in the Age of COVID

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Jim Bruce, Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. Jim may be reached at [email protected].]

Since March, the Tuesday Reading has featured many essays focusing on the coronavirus pandemic. These essays focused primarily on how to work effectively when most of the staff are working from home. They also focused tangentially on others who might also be “at home” with us. That assumed a “shut down” where the directions for everyone except “essential” personnel to work from home was expected to expire early summer.

However, the assumption that staff would be able to go back to their offices during the early summer, long-ago ceased to be a good assumption. Today, assumptions based on past best practices suggest that it will be late in 2020 or the first half of 2021 before a fully tested vaccine will be widely available. And, assuming that the “right” vaccine is being pre-manufactured in sufficient quantities, it will take additional months to vaccinate a critical mass of our population before the way we work and live can return to the prior normal. My guess is that this may take us beyond the summer of 2021. And, then, there will be the real question of whether everyone will want to go back to the previous way of working.

In the meantime, some, perhaps a very vague, resemblance of normal life will continue. Working (and non-working) adults and their pre-school and school-age children will compete for time and attention with each other. In some instances, they just cope in the midst of chaos, in others they are able to structure their days so that each adult has time for their work while the others take care of the children’s needs including any online schooling. And, in some instances, they may have others to help care for the children while the adults work.

Based on what has been learned from the past four months about working from home, today’s Tuesday Reading will explore some of the actions we each need to take now so that we, our teams and those in our household can be most effective in what we each do.

In an August, 20, 2020 New York Times column, “The Office Will Never Be the Same,”1 Claire Cain Miller quotes Dan O’Leary, director of business partnerships at a technology company, saying “Work is totally now for me something you do, not somewhere you have to go.” Miller continues saying “Many white-collar workers say their lives are now like Mr. O’Leary’s. They have adjusted their schedules to better fit their lives, and they’re enjoying it, according to a new, nationally representative survey.” Specifically, some 86% of those surveyed said that they were satisfied with working remotely. Only one in five workers said that they wanted to go back to the office full-time. (It’s important to note here, that six in ten American workers, most often some of the lowest paid workers in the economy, cannot work from home. These are workers in service jobs like food preparation, dishwashers, health aids, farmworkers, home care aids, construction workers, delivery drivers, etc.)

Working remotely didn’t just begin this past March. Linda McRobbie2 reports that between 2005 and 2017, there was a 159% increase in remote work. And, she notes that by April 2020, Zoom was hosting more than 200 million virtual meetings each day, up from 10 million five months earlier in December 2019. She also notes that surveys done by PriceWaterhouseCoopers demonstrated that fears of declining productivity during the lockdown were unjustified as workers rose to the challenge.

Interestingly, Miller’s column also reports that “Parents with children at home — whose days are busier than ever — say they’re more stressed than non-parents, but equally satisfied with working from home.”

However, working from home is complicated. If you are able to have your own physical “office space,” even a large closet outfitted with desk (preferably one that adjusts from sitting to standing), equipment parallel to what you had in your office, an ergonomic chair, a balance board to keep you moving when you are standing at the desk, good lighting (including back lighting for the monitor) and excellent connectivity, you are far better positioned for success and satisfaction than is someone working, along with a spouse or partner and two children who are doing school work, all from the kitchen table.

And, if you and your spouse or partner have children at home when you are “at work,” do develop and agree on a plan for how you will each do your own work and also meet your children’s needs, particularly for help with their online school work. Such a plan likely will need to separate the children’s work area from the adult’s work area, possibly time shifting one or both of the parental work times earlier or later than “school,” or even joining a learning pod or hiring someone to help the children during their school times as well as other parts of the day. (Many childhood education majors who graduated last spring are still looking for jobs and would welcome such an opportunity, though they can be expensive.)
Much has been written providing guides for our remote work.3,4 Some you might find helpful include:

  • Create your workspace. In addition to the comments made above about furnishing that workspace, having a dedicated space will help you get organized and separate your “work” life from your “home” life. It will also provide a demarcation point, permitting you to “leave work” at the end of your work day.
  • Have a plan for your day. Just because you are working from home is not an excuse to not plan your day and week. Take time at the end (or beginning) of each week to lay out what you plan to accomplish during the coming week. And, don’t forget to review and adjust your plan at the beginning of each day. Yes, it will change. However, having a plan provides you a marker for what needs to be done.
  • Communicate clearly, ask questions rather than assuming you know the answer, and be decisive. Working from home means that you will not have that opportunity to see one of your staff in the hall or the coffee room to have that casual chat. And, it means that discussion about their work assignments and progress will need to become more formal. Figure out how you are going to communicate and let your team and your manager know. Include what tool (Email, Slack, Zoom, phone, etc.) you plan to use for which type of communication. While you don’t want to over-do it, a good practice is to check in with everyone on your team two or three times a week. And, don’t forget that you need to meet with your team as a group so that everyone is on the same page. These don’t need to be long meetings, just 15 or 20 minutes for a brief update, longer if there is a major topic to address.
  • Be very flexible with your own schedule, and encourage your team members to do the same. Include time to get up from your desk, take a walk, start the laundry, begin cooking dinner, etc. Be patient with other family members who are in the house with you and who ask you to meet their immediate needs. Flexibility, kind words and understanding will go a long way to reduce stress.
  • Limit meetings. Most people cannot do back-to-back phone calls and video conferences all the time. Managers need to make sure that their staff are not spending so much time in meetings that they cannot do their own work.
  • Give staff flexibility in scheduling. This includes scheduling their working time outside the normal 9-5 workday. Work does not have to be done at the same time.
  • Make time to emphasize. Gerdeman3 reminds us that in situations like we are in, staff and the teams they are in, need for managers to acknowledge that we are all in this together. She notes that for everyone this is a real crisis and to be successful we have to be committed to working together.
  • Team coffee breaks, lunches, happy hours, etc. Take the opportunity to schedule from time-to-time optional events to just get together. These can be excellent ways to get team members to relax a bit and enjoy each other.

We are all mostly working from home now. Let’s all make our time profitable and what we do effective.

Do work to make what you do this week very effective.  .  . .   jim


1.   Claire Cain Miller, The Office Will Never Be the Same, New York Times, August 2020.
2.   Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, What is an office now?, strategy+business, September 2020.
3.   Dina Gerdeman, The New Rules for Remote Work: Pandemic Edition, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, March 2020.
4.   Ana Borray, Transitioning to Remote Work, EDUCAUSE Review, March 2020.