For the last two years, I’ve considered myself privileged to be able to work from anywhere. This lifestyle has spared me from the countless hours I would have squandered commuting in rush hour traffic or the politics of a traditional office. It has let me meet deadlines from the peace and quiet of the study nook in my home to the beachside cafes of Thailand. And in spite of its several downsides, I have truly cherished every second of it.
While before I belonged to a relatively small, yet growing class of people working remotely, that’s no longer the case.
Since the coronavirus pandemic hit the world and shelter-at-home orders came into effect, a staggering number of people have been forced to work remotely. Businesses have scrambled to adopt and integrate remote tools to enable their workforces to, well, work, and stay connected from their homes. Companies like Google, Facebook, and Zoom have stepped up to cash in on the meteoric upswing in demand for telecommunication mediums with new features and services.
Remote work is, at long last, under the spotlight. It’s the moment the concept’s longtime proponents have been yearning for.
But the grim reality is this isn’t the remote work I know and love. Far from it, in fact.
A different sort of work from home
Working from home isn’t simply about being in your pajamas all day and cocooning yourself from the rest of the world. No, its greatest strengths are freedom and flexibility — the two luxuries none of us can afford in these times.
In an ideal remote work environment, like I had what now feels like ages ago, I could reserve my morning to do all the chores I’ve been dreading — like visiting the bank — and spend the rest of the day in that open-air cafe near the park.
Even though I was home most of the time, I knew the world was right out there when I needed it, to, for instance, meet up with a friend — a feeling that often got me through a bad day.
Another reason why people choose to work from home is to escape the cacophony of open-offices. Before, all I heard for hours was the sound of my fingers click-clacking away on the keyboard. With everyone from your parents to your kids always at home now, people are much more distracted.
More importantly, working remotely today is stressful. And trust me, with only the sounds of birds chirping, normal work-from-home is anything but.
A sense of anxiety and fear incessantly looms in the air and the monotony of staring at the same set of walls for days on end has begun to creep into my productivity. With practically no long breaks or vacations to break the fatigue of looking at screens, I feel burned out but have nowhere to go.
The work-from-home life also demands a delicate balance between your work and your life outside of it — which for some of us took months to master. An understanding of spaces, schedules, the will to curb urges and distractions, and when to log off for the day is key as well.
The death of work-life balance
Most people who are today working remotely due to the pandemic, however, were neither prepared for this nor had the right equipment.
Katie Brandner, an attorney based in New Orleans, Louisiana, said that while her firm’s IT department has quickly managed to get a remote system up and running, she’s struggling to juggle work and her three kids all of whom now have online classes as well.
“It is difficult and I never feel caught up. Working from home with the three kids all there is difficult, specifically with my son who is 10. Ideally, I would have help with them and I could go into the office! I definitely could focus more there,” she added.
For many officegoers, remote work has also ended up creating a false impression that they can now be reached at any time of the day and need to work. Many have had to work much longer hours than they used to and take calls late into the night.
“My work-life balance is practically non-existent now. Our company always argues late-night calls are arranged only in emergencies when we object but the fact is we never took calls after 6 P.M. when we weren’t working from home,” said Aakash Mehta, a San Francisco-based software engineer.
All of which makes me wonder: Are these mandatory work-from-home orders marring remote work’s reputation? And could they potentially do more harm than good if the lockdown grinds on for another few weeks?
The answer is complicated. On the one hand, companies are now better equipped to handle a remote workforce. But on the other, the pandemic has painted a rather grim picture for the work-from-home life which likely won’t sit well, I believe, with most people. To restore their previous lives and put an end to the chaos they are today experiencing, it’s clear a lot of employees will prefer returning to their offices.
Remote work, instead of being the future as many claimed, will instead have a bigger role to play in workplaces. What this pandemic has essentially done is put it on the radar of even the most traditional companies for whom work-from-home was previously a far-fetched thought. It has made them realize work-from-home isn’t just an off-day in disguise.
In the future, employees will likely have more flexibility and choices and won’t necessarily have to compromise by wasting hours on their commute. Remote work will complement and, in a lot of cases, replace offices. The question is how many organizations will take that leap — and are workers ready for it?