About a year ago, I gave a talk to a company that was looking for tips about working remotely. Even though the company does technology-focused work and has offices in a few different locations around the world, many of the employees were working remotely for the first time. I kicked off the talk by reminding them of one hugely important fact:
“We’re not working remotely. We’re surviving a global pandemic while trying to get some work done.”
Then recently while working on an article, I was interviewing a Dr. Alexandra Samuel, a journalist and author who covers remote work, and she said almost exactly the same thing. “Remote work is not the same as remote work during a pandemic. I’ve worked remotely for most of my career, and I love it, but this year sucks.”
She also said, “There’s a heck of a lot that made 2020 and is making 2021 really hard that is not ‘remote work.'”
If you’re new to remote work because of the pandemic, you might not have a clear sense of how remote work in non-pandemic life is different. In fact, you might not have even tried true remote work yet!
Here are 10 ways remote work is different from remote work during a pandemic.
1. Remote Work Should Be Opt-In
In non-pandemic times, remote work is on an opt-in basis. The majority of people who work remotely choose it. Whether you run your own business and work from home or took a job that is largely or entirely remote, it was on your terms. If an employer was involved, that employer also agreed to the remote situation. Everyone had a chance to think about the situation, negotiate it, and agree to it.
During this pandemic, workplaces forced people into working from home. Employees didn’t have an option and neither did most employers. It wasn’t on an opt-in basis. Employees may feel like they have less agency as a result. There was also little to no room to negotiate the terms of the remote working parameters.
2. Remote Work Isn’t Usually All or Nothing
In non-pandemic times, remote work takes many shapes and forms. Some people are the sole remote worker among a team that’s otherwise all based in the same office. Some remote workers only work remotely a few hours per week. Some teams have multiple remote worker and other employees clustered in multiple offices. In normal times, there are many variations of remote work that allow for some in-person time or certain people on a team to be face-to-face all the time.
During this pandemic, “remote work” has meant everyone is working from home full-time with in-office time limited to emergencies or essential work only.
3. Everyone Is Stressed Out and Anxious…
In non-pandemic times, everyone has good days and bad days. Everyone has rough patches when their life is stressful and it affects their ability to work well.
During this pandemic, everyone’s stress is heightened. Your stress is high. So is your boss’s and all your colleagues’ and clients’. We are all worried about our health as well as the health of our family, friends, and communities. People have lost work and are stressed about their own or someone’s else’s economic stability.
4. …Which Means We Burn Out Quicker
In non-pandemic times, we counter-act work-related stress as well as non-work stress by taking time off. Weekends, evenings, vacation time, or whatever time away from work you get helps us “recharge,” so to speak. Another metaphor is to think of refilling your resource bucket. We use resources to cope with stress, and then when we relax, it refills those resources.
While living through a pandemic, and especially for those who are living and working in the same place for the first time, we don’t have as clear of a sense of when breaks are. People don’t want to use their time off to do what–stay at home? Plus we are stressed out and anxious because it’s a pandemic! All that stress accumulates and we have fewer moments of time off when stress is lowered and we can recharge. That leaves us in a low-resilience or low-resource mode. When we have fewer resources, it means we can’t combat daily stress as well. The bucket runs on empty, and we become quicker to burn out or react poorly. And remember, it’s not just “you” but all your family members, co-workers, clients, and bosses who are going through the same thing.
5. There’s Nowhere Else to Go
In non-pandemic times, remote workers often have places where they can choose to work: a co-working space, a cafe, the library, and so forth. Having different spaces helps break up the monotony of being home. Some remote workers also have time-management strategies for using different spaces, for example, planning in advance what they will get done while at a coffee shop for two hours.
During this pandemic, depending where you live, there have been months at a time when additional spaces have not been available. And in places where they are available, they aren’t necessarily safe options. Not having alternative work sites and feeling stuck at home all the time further depletes people sense of agency. It also means the small pleasures of going somewhere you enjoy to work are gone. For people who live alone, going to shared spaces also means having opportunities to connect with the outside world. When that’s gone, working from home can feel extremely isolating.
6. People are Sharing Spaces
In non-pandemic times for people who share a home, children may have gone to school and partners or housemates might have gone off to another work site for hours at a time. Working remotely at home when other household members are predictably away from the home can shape the routine of the day.
During this pandemic, if you share a household with others who are schooling from home or working from home, you are missing out on having a routine to the day when people leave and return at predictable times, and you aren’t obligated to provide care for them, or overhear their meetings, or get frustrated when they bang around in the kitchen while you’re trying to focus.
7. Care Responsibilities Are Not the Same
In non-pandemic times (and this is related to the previous point), many remote workers had fewer or at least different care responsibilities. Kids went to school. Toddlers might have gone to daycare. Care responsibilities might have been shared with neighbors, family members or hired help.
During this pandemic, all those options are not necessarily available anymore, and if they are, it comes with added stress due to exposing your kids and therefore everyone else in your home to people outside your immediate household. Young school aged who are learning remotely can’t always navigate computers on their own. They don’t know how to reboot or reset a passport. They need help getting a snack. They need a lot of supervision while learning. The same can be said for special needs kids who aren’t getting the individualized attention or help that they would normally get during in-person learning. Care responsibilities aren’t just about kids, either. Special needs adults and elders might need additional care, too, and in pandemic times, remote workers have fewer options for getting help.
8. Business Travel Has Been Eliminated
In non-pandemic times, remote workers sometimes travel for business. An all-remote team might travel to a central location once or twice a year to meet face to face, for example. A single remote worker on an otherwise collocated team might fly to headquarters and spend a few days meeting everyone in person. Remote workers who have been with an organization for a long time often spend a few days out of every year in a centralized office to get some face time. While not everyone looks forward to business travel (and certainly many have been happy to see it go), there are cases when it allows remote workers to connect with their team in a meaningful and uplifting way.
During this pandemic, most business travel has been off the table. For new hires have been able to meet their teams in person. Team retreats or get-togethers for all-remote teams aren’t happening. For international travelers, it may not even be possible to travel to a headquarters location anymore.
9. Many of the Best Remote Work Perks Are Missing
In non-pandemic times, remote work has some amazing perks. Although it varies by position and organization, remote work means greater flexibility in time, which means you can enjoy your life more. You might shift your hours so that you can wrap up early and do something you enjoy, whether it’s a yoga class or a trip to the beach with your friend. You might go on vacation without taking much time off because you can simply get your work done while away from home.
During this pandemic, staying safe and healthy means no non-essential trips, no going to lunch with friends, and no group activities.
10. Almost Zero Planning Went Into How to Work Remotely
In non-pandemic times (or really, in a perfect world), organizations and individuals would take some time to think about how working remotely should be different from working in the office. How should meetings be different? How should communication be different? Where is it important for the team or organization or individual to be flexible?
During this pandemic, so many organizations that decided to embrace remote work had virtually no time whatsoever to prepare, reflect, or plan. They didn’t provide training on remote work or immediately have supplies to give workers to make working from home comfortable. When those things did materialize, it certainly wasn’t on day one of remote work. Plus, when remote work started, no one knew for sure if it might last two weeks or two years. With so much uncertainty, many groups are still working the same way they did when they were in an office, except they’re doing it now online. Rarely would that make sense.
It’s Usually Better!
There is a global pandemic going on, and we’re all getting through it. We may have become numb to those words, but it’s still a really big deal. If your remote work situation feels awful, keep in mind that it might not be so bad if it weren’t for the global pandemic, as remote work isn’t always like this. It’s usually better with more perks and much less stress.