Monday, June 24, 2024

Is it remote work or (not) remotely working?

Now that Zoom – the company that started it all – has folded its hand on the remote-work gamble, requiring its employees to return to the office, it feels like the party is over.

We are three years into the work-from-home experiment thrust upon us by government-imposed lockdowns, and you would think from the posts dominating my social media feed that the work-life balance has never been better.

“No more commuting!”

“More time with my kids!”

“Look at me! I’m hiking at lunchtime!”

Hmmm. Is it really that good? As someone who has worked from home since cordless touch-tone phones were cutting edge, I am unconvinced.

Yes, working from home has made my life more flexible, and writing days can be more productive, but I am not sure the bosses I worked for would have celebrated the times I closed the laptop to get those Christmas gifts wrapped or muted my conference call so I could stop my sick-at-home-and-high-on-Tylenol six-year-old from giving himself a haircut (side note: I wasn’t quick enough, and it took four weeks for those bangs to grow back).

Now that most of us are doing it, I will bet plenty of work-from-homers slump into a sofa at the end of the day, the laptop and ring light surrounded by crayons and cookie crumbs, knowing that while trying to do two things at once – work and home – they did neither well. And I’ll bet that, far from snapping a smiling selfie on a lunch-time hike through the mountains, many spend all day sitting in a non-ergonomic chair putting the final touches on their carpal tunnel syndrome while hunched over a laptop.

It turns out, my bet might pay off. In its 2023 annual Trends report, global HR research firm McLean and Co. reports that one of the top sources for stress and burnout, in second place and up six percentage points from 2022, is “Blurred work/home boundaries.”

Mysteriously, this elephant in the dining-room-come-office is completely ignored in the subsequent slides while the authors segue to such helpful recommendations for HR professionals as “infusing work with purpose” and “improving employee experience”. According to the company’s own research,  improving employee experience might involve getting them back in a cubicle, but the bullet point is never explored. I watched the webinar recording thinking the live presenters might have more to say about it. Nope. Nothing. Crickets on the blurred work/home boundaries thingy.

Maybe no one wants to air the dirty laundry about work from home. (Another distraction, by the way. Your boss might be a thousand kilometres away, but the dirty whites and colours are in the next room and, really, it will only take a sec). And it’s no wonder. Mention “return to the office,” and it might seem like you just suggested mandatory kidney donations.

Elon Musk and now Zoom have both stirred up contempt and opposition, even rage, after Musk mandated a return to the office, and Zoom mandated two days in the office for anyone within 80 kilometres of one. Simply reporting on the limitations of work from home can get you into trouble.

“Does no one who writes about this stuff give a shit about the disability community?” howled one LinkedIn member in response to a Wall Street Journal article that summarized research showing work from home is not nearly as productive as it is made out to be.

The reality, in my experience, is that some days go well and other days go like my last Monday, when I decided to take advantage of incredible weather and squeeze an afternoon hike into a gap between meetings.

“We have time!” I insisted after my boyfriend Brock questioned the logic of starting a hike at 2:30 p.m. when I had to phone someone at 4:30 p.m. “We’ll do the 90-minute loop and be back in the car by 4!”

Except when we weren’t.

At four o’clock we were on a skinny stretch of rocky dirt that was steadily winding us north and away from the parking lot. Surrounded by a thick forest of trees, shrubs, and vines, there was no exit. You could hear the stress in my voice when I said, “We should be heading back by now.”

I pulled out my phone, which wavered between one bar and “No service” – barely enough for All Trails to pinpoint our location. While the mosquitoes swarmed our motionless, blood-filled (for now) bodies, the blue dot finally appeared on the All Trails map. My stomach sank. I had missed a left turn about 30 minutes earlier, and we were now outside the Conservation Area.

I was reminded of another meeting mishap at Christmas one year when I had been standing in line at Canada Post, parcels perched on one arm and my iPhone balanced in my other hand while I multiplied the number of people in line with the average time at the counter to calculate my wait time. Just as I was modifying the dinner plan from homemade chili to frozen waffles, my phone chirped. A text. From a client.

“Hi Colleen, I’m in the Zoom. Are you coming?”

That time, the car had been a two-minute dash away to double as a makeshift office. Out here, on the endless northbound sliver All Trails was calling Bear Rim Trail, no amount of dashing was going to save me, and the nonexistent cell service ensured no makeshift office would be had. I had officially missed the meeting.

I could chalk this up to a Colleen problem, but as chance would have it, I had just exchanged text messages with a friend that morning, a senior leader with a multinational who has spent more than 15 years successfully managing global teams and high-profile projects from a home office, with a pull-up machine and free weights tucked strategically out of view.

“Today will be an interesting day … balancing camping while working …!!” She texted with the jubilant optimism of someone about to embark on an idyllic, selfie-worthy “work from home” day. I could imagine the romantic digital nomad posts already.

“How did it go?” I texted her after I was home licking my wounds and scratching my mosquito bites.

She did not reply with a leafy photo of her balancing a laptop on a Coleman stove and doing a victory salute with her water bottle. Instead she sent, “Crazy. I’m taking this afternoon off because it is too hard.”

There you have it. Remote work – even the executives find it hard some days. I wish the presenters at McLean and Co. had acknowledged their own results and given their audience some concrete ways to put more boundaries between work and home. After nearly 20 years of alternating between success and failure, I am sure I would have learned something. Good grief, after showing us how to work, connect, teach, and learn in a virtual setting so we could all survive lockdowns, the higher-ups at Zoom might have welcomed the help.

Of course, that would depend on having the conversation without taking sides, hurling judgment, and shouting indignant sound-bite sized retorts when someone says they want people back in the office. I anxiously await McLean and Co.’s HR Trends 2024 to see our progress.

Now I also think… but hang on. I gotta go. Brock just stopped by to drop off a tube of After Bite, and there is a guy here to give me a quote on fixing my washing machine.

And, really, it will only take a sec.

Colleen Stewart
Colleen Stewart
Colleen Stewart is a Carleton University journalism grad who avoided real work by travelling to 53 countries and writing about her adventures. In 2012, she founded Perfect Pitch Consulting to help businesses across North America tell better stories about what they do and why. In 2020, she published her first book, The Story Compass. Every few months, Colleen gets the itch, and that means escaping real work to travel and find some adventures to write about.

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