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Work in the time of COVID-19: How to thrive amid these unprecedented challenges


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5 min read

There are two kinds of people in the world when it comes to escalators. One group sees an escalator and thinks: “Wow, I’m going to get there faster. This is terrific.” The other half decides: “Hey, this will be a good chance to take a break.” There’s a third who might spend the whole ride wondering why it’s taking so long – but we’ll just ignore this group for now. 

We each face a similar situation in transitioning from centralized offices to remote work. COVID-19 has been devastating to people, families, and economies. Many jobs, and incomes, are tied to providing a service in a specific location – retail, hospitality, dining, etc. But, for those individuals and organizations who can complete tasks remotely, COVID-19 has forced a global social experiment in remote work. And, this experiment presents both challenge and opportunity.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a change in work habits that have been in motion for a while. Even before the coronavirus crisis, the number of people working from home had grown 140 percent in the past 15 years. Workers like the flexibility, employers like the savings and the potential boost in efficiency. People who are able to embrace work-from-home as a potential accelerant with a commitment to succeed are going to thrive. In contrast, those who don’t modify their approach to the new reality, or, worse, take a break, will not.

While nurses, police officers and other first responders (among others) understandably need to compartmentalize their work and private lives, for 21st-century knowledge workers it makes a lot more sense to talk about work/life integration instead of work/life balance. The former, unlike the latter, is not a zero-sum game and it’s possible, by structuring your day properly, scheduling in that ever necessary “me” time and through effective cooperation with the rest of your team, to both get more work done and enjoy more free time. Working remotely needn’t be synonymous with burnout.

Trusting teamwork

If someone needs a yoga class in the middle of the day to reset or wants to wrap up early one afternoon to take a walk in the forest and recharge, so be it. But that same person also needs to be ready to reply to my messages and have the flexibility to take a call with someone in Europe in the middle of the night as the occasion arises. When I think about trusting someone on my team to work from home, it means trusting they will do a good job all day long but also know when and how to take time off.    

Flexibility is among the biggest benefits of working remotely, but that doesn’t mean playing every day by ear. Rather, it’s about the freedom to create a routine that works for you. The good news is that you probably already have some pillars of your day that are ready-made to adapt. No matter your job, your body has likely evolved throughout your career to a certain cadence. It wakes up at a certain time. It needs to eat at certain times. You’ve got a blood sugar and caffeine regimen that runs through the whole day, and — ideally — there’s a clean end to close out the workday. It’s really important to replicate all these things.

Maybe you used to drive 45 minutes to work. Why not keep that built into your schedule? Get up at the same time, but keep that drive time to yourself instead. Listen to a podcast with a cup of coffee in your kitchen for 45 minutes, for example, and get over the feeling that you’re getting away with something. It feels great. If you are used to grabbing a coffee to go in the morning or a quick bagel, there is no reason to start eating bacon and eggs every day. That is more likely to throw off your whole daily rhythm than bring any lasting benefit. Making changes is fine, it’s all about building the routine that works for you, but pace yourself.

Our work team keeps a live meeting running online the whole day. Admittedly that structure is not for everybody, but it works in our group and helps maintain that social connection. People check-in, see who’s there and say “hi” before their shower. They’ve got their hair tied back or a baseball hat on. They go offline and pop back on again 45 minutes later.

Booking “me” time

No doubt staying connected with others is important, but it’s also essential to book time for yourself throughout the day. This is not a sprint. If you keep your calendar too wide open things tend to just get thrown in. Just yesterday, somebody commented to me, “You know what? I am realizing I’ve lost all my lunches. People keep booking stuff with  me at lunchtime.” Now we all have some midday time blocked off. These days, I’m also doing 45 minutes of physical education with my wife and kids (who are home from school) each afternoon. It’s a way to take a break from our structure. We go out in the yard to get some sunshine on our retinas. That time is blocked off in my work calendar, and because it’s there, in my planned day structure, I don’t feel bad about taking it. I come back to my desk energized.

Wrapping the day up the right way is probably even more important than how you start. Survey after survey shows that people who work from home worry about the difficulties of unplugging. In the morning, everybody is just getting started. You got kids. You got a dog that needs walking. You’re waking up anyway, so there’s not really a risk that you’re going to forget to go to work or you’re going to make a habit of rolling in at 11:00 (at least not with the people I work with). The much bigger risk is that you don’t know when to stop. 

Our team, rather than doing our stand ups first thing in the morning, does them at the end of the day — at 4:30, or 5:00. It’s counterintuitive, but you get closure to the day and the online equivalent of a see you later. And you’re done. Now maybe you have to make a call with China or something later that night — each day varies. But your official work is done, you can leave. 

We’ve got a couple of people who now do yoga with each other after that goodbye as a substitute for the drive home. I build some time in so that I don’t jump straight into childcare with work still occupying my mind. I take some time to do some exercise on the rowing machine or rearrange my desk. Do whatever it is that you like to do (play a little Warcraft if you want), but clear the decks so you can then go on to engage with your family.

When we think about work today, we no longer picture that 1950s dad in his white shirt and his black tie, who goes to the office every morning and comes home at five o’clock. That seems like a picture from a bygone era because it is. For today’s knowledge workers, it is all about work/life integration. 

Those who are able to optimize remote work look poised to thrive in ways that they weren’t before. Changing work structures amount to rearranging all the furniture in the room, and — increasingly — doing away with a physical room altogether. All this change means that different people have an opportunity to step forward and thrive. You can use that moving walkway to get where you are going faster, or take a break. Whereas we used to talk about striking a balance, a shift toward integrating work with your private life can create some new challenges for people. But it’s also a shift ripe with opportunity.

Originally published Apr 08, 2020, updated Dec 30, 2022

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