New normal adds stress at home and office.
Less than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, a new normal—what some call the “next normal”—prevails. Millions of U.S. workers find themselves staying at home, connecting with colleagues largely through Zoom and other video apps, emails and texts. All while cooped up in spare rooms as spouses, kids, pets and other distractions loom.
As early as March 27, just over three weeks after WHO officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, an estimated 16 million office workers were working from home in an effort to flatten the infection curve, according to the online business communication platform Slack. This was almost a fourth of all “knowledge workers”—those who hold office positions and work with data, analyze information or think creatively during a workweek—in the U.S. workforce.
Home used to be an escape, a haven. Now, the other side of our lives—the office—has invaded that haven, and mental and psychological debris is everywhere.
The at-home workplace became such a phenomenon that the group Global Workplace Analytics developed the Work at Home After COVID-19 Forecast to keep meticulous tabs on the trends and what drives them.
“Our best estimate is that we will see 25 to 30 percent of the workforce working at home on a multiple-days-a-week basis by the end of 2021,” said Kate Lister, the organization’s president.
Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom said the work-from-home revolution was already rolling along, but it became vital once the crisis arrived. Bloom, who wrote an acclaimed 2014 paper on the new “working from home economy,” has been in high demand as business leaders scramble to incorporate the concept into their workforces.
“Without this historic switch to working from home, the lockdown could never have lasted,” Bloom told Stanford News. “The economy would have collapsed, forcing us to return to work, reigniting infection rates. Working
from home is not only economically essential, it is a critical weapon in our fight against COVID-19—and future pandemics.”
AN ALTERNATE REALITY
This could be the future for a lot of people so mired in the 9-to-5 lifestyle that there are seemingly no feasible options. When you’re living outside the parameters, when does work begin and end? When is quitting time? And what is the cost?
Frazzled minds are common among people who began working from home earlier in 2020, reports a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Researchers from the NYU School of Business and Harvard Business School found that in cities that experienced lockdowns related to the virus, people spent almost an hour longer processing their email than they did pre-COVID.
Analyzing the work habits of more than 3 million people, the researchers found that people worked an average of 48.5 minutes more, per day, than they did before the pandemic.
“It’s definitely been a personal challenge to unplug from work, as it’s tempting to work into the evening when I have more to do,” said Rebecca Knights, social media manager at Imagine Media Consulting in Atlanta. “I generally plan out my weeknights a bit more than normal so that I have a reason to make myself log off at a normal time.”
These days Knights, a Harbert marketing grad, is grateful for the simplest of things.
“With our workforce shifting to work from home, our company has been great about allowing us more flexibility in this time,” she said. “For example, if you need to take a 20-minute walk just to get out of the house or step away from your computer, you can.”
The more you think about it, the easier it is to dwell on the unknown: How long will this go on? When will our balanced, pre-pandemic lives return?
HOW DO WE COPE?
“In short, acceptance and intentionality,” said marriage and family therapist Raven Pyle, who practices locally and is pursuing a doctorate at Auburn. Acceptance, she said, is the mental pursuit of removing judgment about whether a situation is good or bad. It is simply acknowledging that the way things are is separate from the way you want them to be.
That does not mean you have to be OK with it all.
“The development of acceptance is an important foundation in decreasing internal conflict throughout prolonged situations that you are unable to change, like the pandemic that we are experiencing,” she said.
Without that foundation, each encounter with the new normal will feel like hitting a wall.
“After acceptance comes the more active piece—being intentional with your physical, relational, mental and spiritual health,” Pyle said. “Undoubtedly, we have all had to rearrange the ways that we meet these basic human needs. In some cases, we are having to meet them without the help or action of others for the first time in our lives.”
Pyle suggests calculating how much time you spent on routine pre-COVID activities and connections, such as driving to and from work, completing tasks at the office, working out at the gym and social events, as well as the amount of time you used to spend alone and with family members.
Then, carve out time for the things that were most meaningful in ways that align with the current situation. It may seem difficult, but it can be done.
“Intentionality implies setting priorities and then manipulating your plans and schedule to make those things happen,” Pyle said. “Be creative, perhaps setting time aside to call and check in on friends and loved ones weekly, waking up an hour before your family to have some time alone, creating a schedule that includes quiet time for your children, or making a point to connect with co-workers outside of meetings.”
A NEW VIEW OF FAMILY TIME
Flexibility is key. For instance, re-think family time, which can easily turn into a free-for-all. Maybe now is the time to implement a family schedule, with set times for activities like family walks around the neighborhood or in-home date nights after the kids are in bed.
Setting an individual work-from-home schedule is another common challenge, one that has been magnified during this disruption. In the book Indistractable, published in pre-COVID 2019, author Nir Eyal noted that just a third of Americans keep a daily schedule, “…which means the vast majority wake up every morning with no formal plans. Our most precious asset—our time—is unguarded, just waiting to be stolen. If we don’t plan our days, someone else will.”
Now, time is more precious than ever. The unstructured days present obstacles of our own making. With no set breaks or lunch hours, the workday is up for grabs, and motivation can be elusive. Eyal’s advice: Change your thinking about motivation.
“When we need to perform a difficult task, it’s more productive and healthful to believe a lack of motivation is temporary than it is to tell ourselves we’re spent and need a break (and maybe some ice cream),” he wrote.
This disruption has heightened the need to stay connected, Pyle said.
“It is even more important to care for yourself intentionally and to reach out to each other for support and empathy,” she said. “Doing so can not only begin the healing work from whatever has been lost over the last months, but also can provide us with more flexibility and fortitude to face whatever is to come in the months ahead.
“In the best case, it just might leave us with a stronger understanding of what is most important to us, even after the pressure of this time has eased.”