Work & Money

How to make working from home a little better — if it looks like you'll be doing it a lot longer

Experts on the need for taking stock and speaking up with your colleagues and family too.

Experts on the need for taking stock and speaking up with your colleagues and family too

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, those of us who weren't temporarily laid off or deemed essential workers found ourselves abruptly working from home for the first time. We were forced to adapt to the myriad logistical and social challenges of teleworking with very little notice or preparation. 

And now, even as provinces and territories are continuing to open up and many employees are expected to go back to work, it's looking like a substantial percentage of the workforce may continue working from home for at least several more months, or even once the pandemic is over. A recent Statistics Canada survey, for example, found that almost a quarter of businesses expect that 10 per cent or more of their employees will continue to work remotely. Additionally, for workers with health issues or young children, a physical return to work may simply not be tenable while school reopening plans remain uncertain

If you see yourself working from home for the long-term, you may be wondering how to deal with the challenges you'd hoped would be short-term! To help you tackle concerns around maintaining productivity, managing expectations and work-life balance, we reached out to productivity and remote-working experts for their best advice for these times. 

This may be the new norm, but it's far from normal

In the current situation, you're not teleworking so much as you're doing "emergency work from home," says Dr. Linda Duxbury, a professor at Carleton University's Sprott School of Business whose research focuses on balancing work and family. Duxbury points out the very real distinctions, and they are worth keeping in mind. "It is not the same thing at all; it's destroying balance, it's destroying marriages, and it's causing huge problems." 

You may not have childcare and elder care available, you might not have a separate space in your home where you can work undisturbed — these are all important requirements for successful telework, says Duxbury. "There has to be a recognition that this is not business as usual," she says. 

Communicate your needs and expectations — it's more important than ever

To make things work in the long term, Duxbury says that many teams still need to develop new rules around how to work together, remotely. But being responsible about clearly communicating is important, too. "Everybody's reality is quite different today … [and] you have to treat your colleagues and your boss and your partner as if they're potential allies, not enemies," says Duxbury. "Assume they have no idea what your life is like right now, and communicate what your life is like." 

That can mean addressing logistical and practical challenges as they come up, and asking for reasonable accommodations or modifications to tasks and deadlines if necessary. "If you've got a concern, you've got to articulate it, because a lot of times we take the absence of a communication to mean everything is fine," says Duxbury.

However, Duxbury acknowledges that especially as many organizations are having financial problems and downsizing their workforce, it's important to remain in good standing at work. So instead of directly saying no to work requests that you may not have additional bandwidth for, Duxbury advises people to give their bosses "options for yes" instead. Rather than saying no, Duxbury offers examples like the following, "'Here's what I'm already juggling; which one of these tasks can take a delay?' or 'I'd love to do this for you, but I've also got these other things that you've asked me to do.'"

Similarly, it's crucial for families to have discussions about splitting household responsibilities and commitments — everything from grocery shopping and meal prep to parent-teacher communications — in a way that is both equitable and sustainable. "All of this, when it's well-managed, is going to enable higher contributions at work," says productivity coach Clare Kumar. "This is an opportunity for families to really redesign how they tackle their home life so it supports their professional life." 

Set boundaries for your work — they'll make you more productive

Not having a clear division between your personal life and your professional life can certainly lead to a number of challenges, says Kumar. "We don't have this environment that's helping us [be more productive], with all the cues and the energy that was around us, with other people getting things done… we're just in our little desk by ourselves," says Kumar. "There are things you can do [at home] to channel into that energy." She suggests simple things like having a colleague check in with you about various projects, or setting a timer for completing certain work tasks (to add time pressure) can help. By improving your telework productivity, you'll free up more time for other life commitments. 

When you're working from home, there's often the temptation or requirement to try to perform work- and family- related tasks at the same time; but researchers have shown that it's hard to cognitively be in two places at the same time, says Dr. Scott Schieman, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto whose research focuses on work and stress. "Be very mindful of the risks of multitasking that were always there, but now are amplified." 

Schieman notes that multitasking can potentially be a threat to one's well-being and role functioning, and recommends carving out a separate domain, psychologically and spatially, for work if possible. When the boundaries between work and home are more relaxed and there's increased flexibility when it comes to work hours; that can be good, but there is a downside, says Schieman. "Some employers might take advantage of that, with greater work intensity, or [they may] just expect more." Having this separation might also help with what Schieman calls "role ambiguity," which may be an even bigger issue for those returning to the office part-time. 


Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.

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