Even if people wanted to work entirely from home before the pandemic began, their year of telecommuting probably didn’t start the way they had envisioned it — stripped of child care while avoiding contact with people outside their bubble, all in the effort to dodge a novel coronavirus.
Welcome or not, the remote workforce had to adjust, maybe watch their physical and mental health change in the process, and possibly find themselves in scenarios they would like to keep going long after their office buildings officially reopen.
New Virus, New Schedule
From May to June of 2020, a team of University of California, Los Angeles researchers surveyed nearly 1,000 newly-remote employees about how their days and habits had changed. One of the biggest modifications workers reported dealt with when they sat down to work: Nearly 75 percent of those surveyed had shifted their work hours, while 37 percent had rearranged their schedule to accommodate others in their home. Who people worked alongside changed, too: Nearly half said other people were in their workspace at the same time.
For some employees, a chance to rearrange work schedules and work from home is exactly what they wanted. Disability rights advocates have long been pushing for employees with disabilities to have the freedom to telecommute if that’s what they need. The pandemic has made that scenario a reality for everyone, and is particularly valuable to workers whose disabilities mean they are also more vulnerable to getting COVID-19 and need to socially distance. Though it’s painful to see that remote work was widely acceptable only once people outside the disability community wanted it, “it’s nice to realize that it’s working fine and should have been implemented decades ago,” says Charles Catherine, the associate director at the National Organization on Disability, a nonprofit that advocates for employment of people with disabilities.
Default work from home and remote gatherings have meant that employees who can’t drive have been able to go without time-consuming and expensive alternative transportation options to the office. For Nicole LeBlanc, advisory group coordinator for the National Center on Advancing Person-Centered Practices and Systems and a disability rights activist, perpetual work from home has meant no longer scheduling and paying for a 6 a.m. pick up in time for a 9 a.m. drop off at her office, a commute that takes people in their own cars 40 minutes. “Spending half your paycheck on transit doesn’t make sense,” she says. “Now that it’s virtual, I don’t have that stress.” Employees with disabilities who regularly see doctors now might be in an office culture where there’s less focus on when they have to be in the building and more emphasis on getting tasks done, leaving them the freedom to schedule work around appointments.
Flexibility in someone’s daily work hours accommodates other demands in their life, and some people cope better with a constant back and forth between responsibilities than others. Clear boundaries between work and home help some people create order in their lives, says Tammy Allen, an industrial-organizational psychologist at the University of South Florida. Transitions between the different phases, like when a parent is getting ready for work in the morning but also preparing kids for a day of school, can create conflict and stress. The more moments of overlap, the more anxiety. So instead of undertaking a couple of challenging periods in a day, people working from home during the pandemic might constantly ping-pong between responsibilities, crossing boundaries — and feeling stressed — more often. Or, if they’re trying to parent throughout work, the day could be one big overlap.
When Allen and her team surveyed people about their work-life balance when first made to work from home, they expected the boundary-lovers to have the hardest time keeping a good mix of work, leisure and family time in their new routines. They were surprised to learn that wasn’t the case. Instead, participants who liked segmentation weren’t any worse off than others who liked more overlap in their day. Allen and her team think that maybe employees had developed coping skills in the pre-COVID era that they were able to carry home with them, or learned new tactics quickly out of a desire to keep the boundaries. For example, “they shut off that computer and they put it away at 5 o'clock,” Allen says, or learn to detach for a while. “Having some period of time where you let work go is beneficial for an individual's health and well being.”
Where Stress and Parenting Collide
Being able to separate home life from work life can be helpful, as can compartmentalizing the struggles of raising kids. Research has shown that parent and kid stress during the pandemic go hand in hand. In one study, for example, adults who said they were coping with moderate or severe anxiety during the pandemic were more likely to report that their kids had higher anxiety, too. At-home schooling threw another complication into the dynamic. The less capable a parent felt of helping their kid through home school, the more likely that parent was to meet qualifications of moderate or severe depression.
The tight connections between parent and kid well-being made Christine Limbers, a psychologist at Baylor University, wonder what exercise, a well-known stress reliever, could do for mothers during the pandemic. Limbers and her colleagues surveyed moms working from home in the spring of 2020 — when a vast majority of respondents said their kids’ daycare was closed and that they did a majority of the parental work. Moms who regularly fit moderately intense activity into their schedules, they found, were less likely to feel like parenting stress was interfering with the rest of their life.
Of course, multitasking work and childrearing from home during the pandemic can leave families — and moms — without the time for a run or yoga class. Surveys have found that on average, people working from home during the pandemic are exercising less than before, and that even before the global health crisis, working moms often feel guilty for taking time to squeeze in a workout, Limbers says. But her research pointed out that mothers taking time to address their needs could improve every relationship in a household. “This has implications for the whole family,” she says, “and not just the individual who's engaging in exercise.”
Ideally, the 2020 pivot to work-from-home means remote work will extend beyond the pandemic. Catherine thinks that knowing remote work is possible might encourage more companies to hire people with disabilities — in 2020, the unemployment rate for those with disabilities was 12.6 percent but 7.9 percent for those without disabilities. If any jobs stay entirely remote, some people might have the opportunity to choose not to disclose their disability and relieve themselves of facing workplace or hiring discrimination altogether.
Generally, the employees that Allen surveys want a hybrid office and home model in the future. "People can, perhaps, quickly develop skills or try out a new situation, and that changes their preference," she says. And if the goal is to have people working in set-ups that fit them best, then maybe remote work will stick around post-pandemic, especially if it comes with the freedom to see friends.