The madness and mindfulness of remote working

In May, I wrote an article on the liminality of the pandemic. For better or worse, it had a more uplifting tone than how I’ve felt about the situation in the months since. It was a period when, for the first time, we all saw each other’s living rooms via zoom meetings. We saw our kids running around or asking for irrelevant stuff while trying to close a deal or present our clients.

It was new and interesting even while it was scary and overwhelming.

But in the fall of 2020, the novel spring experience of attending school and work online became more permanent for millions. The virus is surging again worldwide, nothing seems “temporary.”, and all seems more unpredictable.

Liminal times are periods of intense human transition; Turner sees these moments as a phase, “a becoming.” The person who emerges on the other side of a liminal event is not the same kind of person who entered it. This mechanism is unsettling but there is always a social structure that is waiting for us at the end of this “in-between-ness”.

Currently, we do not have a path to lead us to the other side. We have no idea where it all leads, if it leads anywhere. We are stuck in betwixt and between.

If we agree on anything, it’s that we all seem to be over this mandatory social experiment.

A couple of weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article detailing prominent CEOs’ comments on their remote working experience. The handful of executives who had positive takeaways and said:

“We are grown-ups, and we have adapted to these new work realities. That’s going to produce permanent changes in how we all work. I am getting my work done, and so are my colleagues. I don’t have an issue with it.” -

“We have adapted to work-from-home unbelievably well. I had a philosophy that I want to hire the best and the brightest even if they work from a different location, and now, ironically, we’re all working from another location. We’ve learned that we can work remote, and we can now hire and manage a company remotely.” -

Some of those CEOs who disliked the work-from-home (WFH) experience referred to missing social and personal interaction. For others, the productivity and quality of their work dropped. But no one tapped on major aspects but contained their arguments in between the lines of “productivity”.

Regardless, the WFH experience is not homogenous. It is undeniably related to your life phase and your physical environment, motivation, self-discipline, and time management. They all likely determine the experience you’ve had during the past eight months and the struggles you’ve faced.

They’ve each played such a large part in defining the difficulties of pandemic life.

Parenting

Life is complicated when you have kids in 2020. Life is even further complicated when you have multiple kids from different age groups in the same quarantined household. Some on their own without any help from their ex-partners, parents have been juggling online-schooling, cooking, washing, drying, folding, attending zoom meetings, replying to emails, and more.

Parents check on their kids, so they don’t fall asleep in front of their computers. They try to motivate their kids during the day, even while they struggle to motivate themselves. Their kids’ exams are more real and consequential, and attendance is more realistic. Missing assignments are equally more disturbing for teachers and parents alike. We are viciously fighting each other in our own homes, and it is becoming even harder to look at things from a different perspective.

One of my sons prefers to cuddle around a blanket and lay down in his bunk bed during school. When I, with my razor-sharp mother-instincts, bust him for this transgression, he does not even collect himself. He looks at me with empty eyes, “Mom, I am in the class, just listening, leave the room, please!”

I leave in confusion — am I the one behind on what’s now acceptable? I rush to fix the lunch for my other children with half a mind on a conference call that is (thankfully) mostly muted and with the camera off.

This is not the Pinterest-serene WFH scene I imagined it might be. Are any parents out there enjoying their coffee while writing their reports in peace? I strongly doubt it!

In our pre-pandemic lives, we had grown used to the separation of work and home. It didn’t always work, but the aim was to have some private time for ourselves, a good pace of duties, and adequate space for play.

Now parents, especially, are all tangled up.

Physical confinement

The physical threshold of the office environment — like it or not — has always helped us to leave behind domestic issues and personal problems. Physical thresholds contain a symbolic meaning; they help us separate spaces and provide a clear boundary for the different expectations in a new place.

We learn by observing culture, experiencing enculturation, or conforming to corporate expectations, visible or invisible. Periodically we are expected to attend corporate events and workshops where we were supposed to internalize the tangible and intangible corporate culture. At least, that was the goal.

Now, many physical offices are closed. Most of us are not passing through any thresholds. There are no boring corporate events, no handshakes, no pats on the shoulders, no give me fives, no gossiping over coffee, no good mornings, no see yous, no eye-contact, no reading the feelings, no what am I going to wear for tomorrow, no over-time pizza deliveries, no emotionless birthday celebrations… basically no anything!

The movement of our lives has been thrown off, and the confinement to a small, shared space only increases the moment’s stress.

Self-motivation and self-discipline

If we were not very strong on self-motivation and self-discipline before the pandemic, we were probably crushed even more by the chaos of 2020 work life. Who among us isn’t frequently scanning self-help books to discover how to be more productive, organized, and efficient? We need advice, and we need to learn fast.

WFH life has not been a romantic or relaxing experience for many of us. It has become a stressful requirement. We are trying desperately to etch in order with steel pens, all the while knowing that even those attempts can be erased. If you are not naturally self-disciplined, you probably saw your productivity sink and work product diminish, just as some of the CEOs the WSJ interviewed did.

On the bright side, this crisis has forced even the least organized of us to become more self-reflexive, more mindful. We are learning to control our inner worries when we create a new routine.

But these routines are fragile. The internal factors of motivation and discipline become more critical to our ability to maintain the pattern and adjust it as needed.

Time management

More than ever before, our personal and professional lives are tangled in every sense. We need to optimize our time management, even as we don’t have a sense of when this all will end. After researching the topic, both locally and globally, I can assure you that our impression of time has changed in this pandemic.

Initially, we were all cracking jokes like “Every day is Monday.” “Did we have summer?” “How is that we are about to have winter?” “How many years long has this year been?”

But as the quarantine dragged on, we rushed through our barrage of stressful tasks without an end in sight. Time management requires a list of (mostly) reliable predictions on which to base our plans. Luckily, we usually have the luxury of ignoring the more unlikely of the “what if…?” questions and can make plans and arrangements that give us a sense of calm and order in the chaos.

Not this year.

COVID-19 life makes our planners blurry. We are full-time at multiple jobs at all hours of the night. Our mental health is on shaky grounds, hit by anxiety, and smashed with unpredictability. COVID-19 has taught us that plans penciled in our calendars are open to being shattered by an unforeseen event. The unlikeliest of things can and does happen.

~~~

WFH used to be a cool trend that many employees enjoyed and demanded. What I hear from our recent global research, in contrast, is that WFH is torture. We have lost our personal spaces and our social lives. We are losing our minds from being burdened with too many responsibilities.

Today, we understand that the pre-COVID-19 period was a paradise in itself. That revelation we will not soon forget.

Our minds are overwhelmed, there are never-ending cases worldwide, and masks have become a political statement that degrades the virus’s importance. But life must go on.

Now is not the time to focus on how we can perform better. It is the time to focus on how we can continue to perform; however, well, we can in the places we call home. It is a time where all executives and directors should be amazed at how their employees work at all under these intensely stressful circumstances.

We need to be empathetic. We do not juggle between the office and home, all chaos is contained, all is happening in between four walls once called “home”.

Remember, the weariness of your employees is more than just zoom fatigue; it is pandemic fatigue. And we are all stuck in a long-lasting liminal phase.

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