Ottawa

Working well at home takes, well, work, experts say

Millions of Canadians have had to manage working from home since the start of the pandemic, juggling family life and office demands, all while trying to stay sane as a deadly virus spreads through their communities.

Checking in with colleagues, exercising and scheduling alone time can help

Experts say alone time, exercise, eating well and time with colleagues can help make remote employees feel better. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

Millions of Canadians have had to manage working from home since the start of the pandemic, juggling family life and office demands, all while trying to stay sane as a deadly virus spreads through their communities.

While many, such as dentists and hairdressers, will eventually return to the workplace, home could become the permanent office for many of us, especially those who spend their days at a computer.

In Ottawa, leading technology companies including Shopify are already promising to maintain remote working even after COVID-19, and governments are considering similar moves. That trend has experts in workplace morale urging both employers and employees to be mindful of the potential strain on work-life balance.

"The reality is, not everybody wants to work from home. The reality is that not everybody is good at working from home," said Linda Duxbury, a management professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University who spent the past decade completing a major study of the precarious balance between work and family life.

We cannot minimize the impact of being able to separate your home life from your work life if you want to successfully telework.- Linda Duxbury, Sprott School of Business

If the employee works for a company that's equipped to provide the right tools, has a manager who knows how to step back, and has the skill to focus at home, then working remotely can work out, Duxbury said.

But they still have to be able to check in with colleagues from time to time.

"Most of the research says that it works really well for a maximum of three days a week, but eventually people need to be able to touch base with each other, they need to be able to connect with each other," Duxbury said. "People work better together if they know each other."

Some ways to feel better

But similar to how many companies jumped feet first into open plan workspaces, complete with shared desks and computers, Duxbury worries some employers might adopt remote working without considering all the consequences.

"I'm wondering whether they've considered how much they're losing by having everybody work from home," she said. "We cannot minimize the impact of being able to separate your home life from your work life if you want to successfully telework."

Linda Duxbury, a management professor at Carleton University who has studied work-life balance, says not everyone wants to work remotely and even if they do, they may face other pressures — like child care — that impede productivity at home. 1:26

Laurent Lapierre, a professor of workplace behaviour and health at the University of Ottawa, encourages employees working from home to develop healthy routines and boundaries now to help them cope in the medium to long term.

"I'm guessing that it's the ones that have to work from home that are probably most strongly hit, psychologically speaking, by the COVID protocol," he said.

"They're now having work, family or personal life roles all in one location. There's no more boundaries. There's no more escape from one role to the other."

Lapierre suggests some basic steps to help employees cope. One is meal planning to help prevent the stress of worrying about who's responsible for cooking or cleanup on a given night. As a side benefit, that may help families eat better, which has its own psychological advantages.

Among the other lifestyle changes Lapierre suggests: making sure the family gets to bed and wakes up at regular times, that everyone gets outside for exercise and sunlight, and that everyone, but especially the adults, schedules some alone time into each day.

"During that alone time, do whatever you can to stop thinking about various stressors," he said. "Just to get a complete break from demands placed upon us by others in the household."

That alone time could consist of shooting hoops or playing a musical instrument — anything to take your mind off things for a while, Lapierre said.

"That kind of psychological detachment can go a long way in helping people recover their rather limited resources so that they can more easily tackle these more pronounced stressors the next day."

Workplace behaviour expert Laurent Lapierre helps answer your concerns about returning to work or working from home during the pandemic. 16:49

About the Author

Laura Glowacki is a reporter based in Ottawa. Previously, she worked as a reporter in Winnipeg and as an associate producer for CBC's Metro Morning in Toronto. Find her on Twitter @glowackiCBC and reach her by email at laura.glowacki@cbc.ca.

With files from Adrian Harewood

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