Inescapable Office: 6 Remote Work Challenges and How Unions Can Help
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a sudden and radical shift in the way work is done in many industries and for many jobs.
“The outbreak of COVID-19 has forced organizations into perhaps the most significant social experiment of the future of work in action, with work from home and social distancing policies radically changing the way we work and interact,” write Willis Towers Watson’s Ravin Jesuthasan, Tracey Malcolm and Susan Cantrell.
One of the big changes businesses have had to make is the shift to include more remote work options to stay operational. While this mode of work has become increasingly popular over the last few years alongside technology that enables distributed workforces, it wasn’t a mainstream working arrangement for most workers. Now, however, it is.
“COVID-19 has forced hundreds of millions of employers and employees worldwide to engage in a sudden, massive, real-time experiment with remote work arrangements,” writes Cyril Bouquet, professor of innovation and strategy at The Institute for Management Development (IMD).
According to a Gallup poll, in mid-April 2020 the number of U.S. employees who were working from home because of coronavirus concerns nearly doubled to 62 percent from mid-March.
This is a win-win situation for workers, right? Remote work means less commute time, more flexibility and greater control over work environments.
But there’s another side of that coin. Working remotely comes with its own set of unique challenges that many workers who suddenly find themselves working from the kitchen table are struggling to manage.
1. Remote Workers Struggle to Manage Their Time
Time management is one of the biggest challenges for workers who have made the shift to working from home, especially during the pandemic.
“Working from home automatically comes with its own additional time management challenges under regular circumstances,” writes Heather MacArthur, career consultant at The Executive Advisory. “But we are all dealing with time management on top of the undeniably chaotic events that are unfolding due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
In addition to the “normal” everyday distractions that can derail productivity — e.g. doing the dishes, playing with kids or the temptation to do nothing at all — workers also contend with constantly changing protocols for everyday living due to COVID-19. These workday interruptions all make it easier for people working from home to get side-tracked from their work and lose control over how they are spending their time.
As a result, workers can feel as though they’re falling behind in productivity and struggling to find time to play catchup. That’s when the lines between work and home life start to get blurry.
2. Their Work Life and Home Life Get Jumbled
Remote workers miss out on the “getting off of work” part of the day, which makes it difficult to determine when the work day is done. The flexibility that comes as a perk for working from home is also getting “translated into work without boundaries,” notes educator and teacher trainer Fatima Zahid.
The technology that facilitates remote work keeps workers and employers connected beyond 5 o’clock, fueling an expectation that workers are always “on,” even when the work day should be done.
“The hard-won boundary between work and home life is becoming blurred,” writes Ged Nash, employment affairs and social protection spokesman for the Irish Labour Party. “Remote work, ushered in by the COVID-19 lockdown, is also diluting family and personal time.”
3. They Overwork Themselves
A related challenge to the one above is remote workers often fail to realize when it is time to stop working.
“I’ve found that it can be easy to overwork myself when I work remotely, as working from home can sometimes feel like I never leave work,” says Rachel Bodine, a writer for Expert Insurance.
Financial educator Shanté Harris-Superville says she used to start her workday at 7:45 a.m. and work until midnight before she made a conscious effort to set working hours. Her story is common among remote workers who fall into the trap of doing “just one more thing” — e.g. checking email or returning a call — that ultimately leads to them spending more hours working.
4. They are Constantly Monitored by Managers
Also driving the urge to overwork is a belief among some remote workers that they have to work harder to prove their productivity.
Employers don’t always do much to assuage their fears, as managers constantly monitor employee productivity.
“Some managers just don’t believe that working from home means doing real work,” writes Alison Green, founder of the blog Ask a Manager. “They apparently assume that the second people aren’t being watched, they’ll jettison their work ethic and spend entire work days binge-watching Netflix, even if they were previously trustworthy, responsible employees.”
Because of that lack of trust, managers implement anxiety-inducing productivity checks on their employees.
“When such doubts creep in, managers can start to develop an unreasonable expectation that those team members be available at all times, ultimately disrupting their work-home balance and causing more job stress,” researchers Sharon Parker, Caroline Knight and Anita Keller write.
That stress is compounded when workers don’t have colleagues with whom to share these workplace experiences.
5. Remote Workers Suffer Social Isolation and Loneliness
The benefits of water cooler conversations shouldn’t be underestimated. Those interactions are opportunities for coworkers to form important bonds in the office.
Engaging in these conversations also makes work more meaningful and enjoyable, notes Mike Hunter, president of organizational culture consultancy Overland Resource Group, Inc.
“Historically, water cooler chats have provided short but necessary mental and physical breaks, opportunities to temporarily de-stress, and brief but meaningful moments that help to foster community–all of which improve engagement and reset focus,” Hunter writes.
Working at home alone all day restricts such social interactions, leading to feelings of loneliness and isolation among workers rather than a sense of community.
Though many businesses have turned to videoconferencing to keep workers connected, such measures don’t satisfy the innate need for people to socialize, neurologist Richard Cytowic, MD, notes.
And when workers are struggling to manage their work schedules outside of the office, they are less likely to leave home to seek human contact. It’s a slippery slope that can have enduring consequences such as anxiety and depression.
6. They Are Easily Sidelined by Technological Shortcomings
Remote workers are completely dependent upon reliable technology, but not all workers have access to the tools they need or an IT person to help them troubleshoot any issues. These types of tech problems present significant challenges for remote workers.
For starters, not everyone has access to reliable, high-speed internet, which is necessary to power video conferences and network accessibility, reports Rani Molla, senior data reporter at Recode.
Nor does everyone have the hardware to facilitate all requirements of working out of the office. Headsets, mobile devices and VPNs are not standard in a lot of households, and not everyone can afford to make those investments. If the company can’t step up to purchase them, workers are limited in their ability to do their jobs.
Troubleshooting any technology issues is also out of the wheelhouse for most people. And without easy access to an IT team, down equipment can set remote employees back, ratcheting up their stress levels.
Labor Unions Including Remote Work in CBAs
This shift to remote work has left employees working from home while feeling uncertain about their workplace rights. Employers have the upper hand in dictating working conditions because most union contracts don’t address the issue of working remotely.
According to research conducted by Bloomberg Law, only about 4 percent of union contracts over the past five years mention remote work in any form. “Working from home is still a novel concept for most bargaining units,” Bloomberg Law analyst Robert Combs says.
Unions are working to change this. For example, the recent contract agreement between the Environmental Protection Agency and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) allows employees to work remotely up to two days a week, Nicole Ogrysko at Federal News Network reports.
As working remotely becomes the new normal for many people, more unions will ensure they are addressing the issue in contract negotiations so workers are afforded the same protections at home and at the office. As union leaders navigate this relatively new terrain, they can use a tool like UnionTrack ENGAGE to stay engaged with members who are working remotely.
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