- The end of the 2019/2020 school year brought some relief with the slower pace of summer and the hope that the pandemic would be contained by the fall, but there are now more questions than ever before.
- For some employees, flexible work conditions are more appealing than vacations, pay raises, and even retirement plans.
- Some people like to keep their personal lives separate from their work, but “compartmentalizing” can be nearly impossible when your workplace and your home base are one in the same.
- There are no easy answers, and the fluid nature of the pandemic situation means that any intended plans for the 2020/2021 school year could change in an instant.
By Eve Padula
Earlier this year, the world changed forever with the COVID-19 outbreak. Businesses and schools temporarily shut down, and many employees and students were suddenly forced into a remote setting with little—or no—advance warning.In the months that followed, everyone was left to play catch up as the pandemic raged on. Businesses scrambled to ensure that their now-remote employees were equipped to work from home, teachers struggled to continue the education process virtually, students grappled with distance learning, and working parents juggled remaining productive at their jobs with sharing more of the burden of educating and caring for their children—who were now under the same roof all day!
Many Questions…But Few Answers!
The end of the 2019/2020 school year brought some relief with the slower pace of summer and the hope that things would be cleared up by the fall, but anyone who has been following the news knows that there are now more questions than ever before. Will an effective vaccine for widespread use ever be developed? Is it even safe to return to school or work? Should states where COVID cases are increasing reverse their phased re-openings in the hopes of “re-flattening” the curve? What will school look like in the fall? Most people have settled into a normal-for-now routine that works for them, but the upcoming school year will undoubtedly bring a new set of challenges to working parents, teachers, businesses, and students alike. It’s enough to drive anyone nuts.
Even as the economy has started to reopen, subsequent spikes in COVID cases have caused some to wonder if US businesses will remain open for long. Although some employees who were suddenly forced into remote working without choice ultimately came to find that they really enjoyed it, others have truly struggled with the adjustment. What’s the best option for businesses? Sure, some employees might like working from home, but is a remote workflow optimal for morale and productivity? What about the employees that miss the normalcy of their old office-based nine-to-five lives?
Of course, education adds yet another layer of complexity to the equation, particularly with the start of another school year fast approaching. When remote learning was forced on students and teachers this past spring, some adjusted quickly and thrived under the new format. Unfortunately, this was not the case for everyone. Some teachers struggled to reach their students in a strictly virtual format, many children—particularly young children—did not respond well to learning from a screen, and working parents were caught in the middle of two worlds. On the one hand, they still needed to remain productive and produce quality work for their employers…but on the other hand, this was no easy task when their children were under the same roof and potentially struggling with the new education format.
Remote Working: The Pros
Once we had time to recover from the initial shock of dealing with a global pandemic, some people found that they quite enjoyed the remote working process. After a few weeks of stay-at-home orders, people were able to configure their home offices to their liking. Additionally, technology made it possible to collaborate and connect with others from a distance, and there was the added benefit of no commuting or preparation time—it was simply a matter of walking to one’s computer and starting the workday (even in pajamas or sweatpants)!
Even before the pandemic hit, remote working was already on the rise. Most employees appreciate the freedom to work at a location of their choosing (home, coffee shop, hotel, airport, etc.) with more flexible hours. There is also much to be said for escaping the monotony of the nine-to-five Monday-through-Friday office grind. For some employees, flexible work conditions are more appealing than vacations, pay raises, and even retirement plans. According to SmallBizGenius, businesses that permitted their employees to work remotely reported a 25% lower employee turnover rate than those that didn’t. Furthermore, people who work remotely at least once a month are 24% more likely to be happy and productive. Based on this research, remote working is a win-win situation for employees and businesses alike—employees enjoy more flexibility and an improved quality of life, and businesses enjoy the benefits of higher employee satisfaction and lower turnover.
Even as businesses are starting to reopen, some employees have come to appreciate the newfound freedom that remote working affords and would be reluctant to give it up. Many employees also believe that they are more productive at home because there are fewer office distractions. It’s also easy to save money on gas and food when you’re not driving into the office every day, stopping for coffee, and heading out for a sandwich at lunchtime. Although the economy has slowly started to reopen, most non-essential employees are still traveling to the office less frequently than they once did. Until the pandemic subsides, this trend will likely continue as businesses and employees strive to stay healthy and minimize exposure. Whereas some people prefer this new level of flexibility, others are truly struggling with the adjustment—which brings us to the “dark side” of today’s virtual world.
Remote Working: The Cons
COVID-19 prompted immediate action—meaning that businesses and employees were strong-armed into a remote working situation regardless of their unique situations or personal preferences. Granting employees the privilege to work remotely if they choose is one thing, but temporarily closing an office during a pandemic (and thereby forcing employees to work remotely) is entirely another. Meanwhile, school-age children were now stuck at home, too, creating a logistical nightmare for many working parents. Everyone knows that young children cannot be left alone at home—so unless they are able to secure childcare, many working parents will be forced to remain home as well (even if they would rather return to their physical offices). And if the last three months of the 2019/2020 school year taught us anything, it’s that having children at home is not conducive to a productive work environment. So while working from home might have fewer office distractions, the pandemic has created some major distractions of its own—close and continued proximity to family members as well as an inevitable disruption to a predictable routine.
Even some non-parents are not completely sold on the shift to a remote workflow. Children or not, it can be quite difficult to “compartmentalize” your life if your workplace and your home base are one in the same. Some people like to keep their personal lives separate from their work lives, and this can be nearly impossible when your office is literally steps away from the dinner table, your television, and other members of your household. Without a clear-cut start and end time, there is always a greater temptation to respond to one more e-mail or get sucked into another fire drill that requires immediate attention. Physical space creates more of a barrier, and although this challenge can be overcome, it takes a great deal of discipline when there’s no “leaving the office for the day.”
With major corporations like Google and Twitter relaxing their in-person work requirements, remote working seems to be the wave of the future. At the same time, however, it remains to be seen if this shift to virtual is sustainable or beneficial in the long term. According to a Twingate study of over 1,000 remote employees, remote employment during the pandemic has disrupted many employees’ work/life balance. Based on the results, 45% of employees reported attending more meetings during the pandemic than when working in the office, compared to 21% who attended fewer meetings. Furthermore, 40% had experienced mental exhaustion from video calls while working remotely.
Other issues include a lack of motivation, constant breaks in routine, and a feeling of isolation from the workplace culture. Video calls make it possible to see and hear another person, but some would argue that there’s no substitute for being in close physical proximity to co-workers. Body language can speak volumes, and people who thrive on social interactions will find that video calls lose a lot in translation. Granted, these pandemic times still necessitate face masks and social distancing, but hopefully these measures won’t be permanent. In time, it would be nice to see a return of the office banter and camaraderie that is impossible to replicate in a virtual setting.
Won’t Somebody PLEASE Think of the Children?
The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t just turned our lives upside-down—it has affected our children as well. While it is certainly true that some students adjusted quickly to the push toward distance learning last spring and some actually thrived in the virtual format, this was not the case for all (or even most) students. According to the EdWeek Research Center, two-thirds to three-quarters of teachers stated that their students were less engaged during remote instruction than they had been before the pandemic, and that engagement declined even further over the course of the 2020 semester.
A new school year is right around the corner, but all indications are that the coming fall semester will be unlike any other. Many districts remain reluctant to implement a concrete plan, even at this late date. Despite evidence that distance learning is not always effective, some schools are considering an all-virtual approach. Still others are leaning toward a “hybrid” approach that combines distance and in-person learning. Although this might alleviate some of the issues with students who don’t respond well to remote schooling, families will likely still struggle because they’ll need to deal with the complications of alternate education locations and formats as well as little consistency from one day to the next. As noted earlier, either situation will create a logistical nightmare for working parents. Additionally, some parents who are struggling with working remotely are also raising young children who are struggling with learning virtually—Unfortunately, I’m speaking from personal experience here!
The Bottom Line
With so many questions remaining unanswered and so much uncertainty about the future, it is anyone’s guess what the coming months will bring for our personal and professional lives. Although the pandemic will likely cause long-standing or even permanent changes to the world as we know it, everyone has a different opinion about the ideal situation. Some employees thrive in a mostly or completely remote setting, whereas others crave the normalcy and predictability of the traditional nine-to-five life. Some parents have embraced distance learning, while others remain concerned about their children’s education and emotional well-being. There are no easy answers, and the fluid nature of the pandemic situation means that any intended plans could change in an instant.
One thing is for certain, though—to succeed as workplaces of tomorrow, businesses will need to be nimble enough to accommodate all their employees’ preferences, however complicated this may be. The same employment policies that might be seen as benefits to some employees will likely be viewed as detrimental to others, especially if they are trying to make the best decisions for other family members too. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to keeping your employees happy, so it’s important to remain as flexible and accommodating as possible as we move through the pandemic and beyond.
Eve Padula is a Senior Editor/Writer for Keypoint Intelligence – InfoTrends’ Production Services with a focus on Business Development Strategies, Customer Communications, and Wide Format. She is responsible for creating and distributing many types of InfoTrends content, including forecasts, industry analysis, and research/multi-client studies. She also manages the writing and editing cycles for many types of deliverables.