Remote work during the COVID-19 outbreak: Are there any opportunities amidst the risks?

Having to adopt this model in a time of crisis isn’t easy – but there are a lot of positives that can be reaped as a result.

Today, many companies are facing the global health crisis provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced them to ask their employees to stay at home and work remotely. If on one hand, this could be the opportunity to finally build a culture of long-overdue work flexibility, on the other hand we should be careful about the disruptive way in which many workers are testing it for the first time.

Our working lives have never been so massively changed in such a short time. The current situation brought, with no warning, a lot of uncertainty, doubts, questions and worries. Many workers, whose routine was disrupted, experience unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety due to the rapidly changed working conditions.

Eurofound foresees that, even though the full impacts of COVID-19 on the labour market are still to be seen, however, it is likely that rates of telework in Europe, and as a result employer/employee relationships, will be changed permanently, and has announced the publication of a report devoted to analyse the implications of COVID-19 on employment and working life.

As more companies encourage their teams to stay away from centrally located offices, there is much to be learnt from those businesses that have already embedded a remote or home-working culture. Having to adopt this model in a time of crisis isn’t easy – but there are a lot of positives that can be reaped as a result.

Indeed, this dystopian situation can actually be a way to build and spread a culture of work flexibility among all of those companies that used to be skeptical about it still one month ago. In particular, in relation to older office workers, remote working can develop flexible solutions and change employer attitudes, reducing obstacles such as health conditions and caring responsibilities, which can cause them to exit the workforce earlier than they choose to. Additionally, working from home can help to create a more sustainable path into retirement that is good for them, for society and for the economy. The time and energy saved on daily commuting can be used for hobbies that have been postponed for a long time.

We have little impact on what’s going on in the world right now. The best we can do is to “stay at home” as asked by the authorities. Luckily, this is easier for many office workers than for the others, because they can continue their work in those conditions. This requires of course developing new habits and finding the best practices. It might be more difficult for the older office workers who might have not experienced this way of work before. We looked at some ways the office workers can find themselves in this home-office reality. What are the pieces of advice shared by the experts?

1- First of all, get to know the tools. If you’ve never done remote work before, this might come as a shock – the teleconferencing software, cooperation platforms, documents storing repositories. On top of that, a lot of new vocabulary. If you feel lost, try to get help from a family member or a close friend. If that’s not possible, inform your manager about the difficulties and ask for support. Surely, you are not the only one experiencing difficulties, and they need to be addressed. Moreover, there is a lot of guidance available online, e.g. YouTube tutorial videos might be of great help. Simply put “How to use (name of the tool)” to the Search box in YT to find the material that interest you.

2- Try to get into a routine. Working from home or remotely can be very challenging and isolating. Sometimes our attention wanders, or we miss people and social interactions. As suggested by the Mental Health Foundation, a structured day can be a good way to address this:

  • Designate a place to work that is as free of distractions as you can make it.
  • Set a routine for working at home – it’s important to get up and get started, to take regular breaks including a lunch break, and to finish working and turn off at an appropriate time.
  • Try and set clear tasks for the day – three major decisions or activities is a good day’s work – but keep an eye on ongoing tasks too. You won’t always get as much done at home – but you might get loads done.
  • Have a proper lunch break. Try and get outside and get some natural light if you can do so safely, and try some exercise, again within guidelines on social contact.
  • Use your diary to clearly say to others when you are working and when you are available to speak.
  • Consider keeping a journal – incorporating gratitude practice – ask “What was I grateful for today?” – and learning – ask “What was I challenged by today?” – in a week or so you will start to get insights into things you can improve in this working pattern.
  • When you are done for the day, pack away your work things or leave your work area at the end of the day.

3- Keep up the formal and social flow of work. The structured and unstructured connections with work and colleagues carry on whilst people are working remotely or flexibly:

  • If you are a manager, discuss with your teams how you’d like to run supervision, check-ins, and sign offs remotely. Let people know how and when to contact you and try not to go outside those lines until you’ve got a routine established.
  • Try to use video for all formal discussions, and any discussions where you are checking in on someone’s well-being – the non-verbal communication is key for this.
  • Follow-up video chats or calls with a quick note with a summary of the actions to take, or your understanding of the major points to ensure that things are clear.
  • Use video calling software for informal chats – Soup. Sandwich and Skype lunches – or virtual coffee catch-ups for example.

Rapid change of the working conditions, new worries and loneliness – this can of course affect our mental health. If you have ongoing health or mental health conditions, even if they aren’t disclosed, your employer has a duty to make reasonable adjustments. In the case of distance working, it could mean additional support from managers, or equipment.

It’s quite likely that we will need to accept a certain amount of distress and anxiety relating to the coronavirus outbreak, in the short and medium term. If you have self-care techniques that work for you, try and make sure that you have what you need. You may need to think differently – for example doing exercise workouts from videos instead of attending classes. You may want to consider looking at mindfulness practice or finding ways to help others in your community. Self-compassion, and support for others is going to be very important.

The current situation shows that we need smart solutions that can track employees’ health and wellbeing. We particularly need SmartWork solutions that will support active and healthy ageing at work for older office workers, even if they are not in their centralised office, and especially in the novel and stressful situation as we experience today.

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Authors: Federica Porcu, Karolina Mackiewicz, Valentina Tageo