What we’ve learned about working from home 7 months into the pandemic

When large parts of the world were shutting down in March, we really didn’t know how we would move massive numbers of employees used to working in the office to work from home.

In early March, I wrote a piece on how to prepare for such an eventuality, speaking to several experts who had a background in the software and other tooling that would be involved. But the shift involved so much more than the mechanics of working at home. We were making this transition during a pandemic that was forcing us to deal with a much broader set of issues in our lives.

Yet here we are seven months later, and surely we must have learned some lessons along the way about working from home effectively, but what do these lessons look like and how can we make the most of this working approach for however long this pandemic lasts?

I spoke to Karen Mangia, vice president of customer and market insights at Salesforce and author of the book, Working from Home, Making the New Normal Work for You, to get her perspective on what working from home looks like as we enter our eighth month and what we’ve learned along the way.

Staying productive

As employees moved home in March, managers had to wonder how productive employees would be without being in the office. While many companies had flexible approaches to work, this usually involved some small percentage of employees working from home, not the entire workforce, and that presented challenges to management used to judging employee performance based for the most part on being in the building during the work day.

One of the things that we looked at in March was putting the correct tools in place to enable communication even when we weren’t together. Mangia says that those tools can help close what she calls the trust gap.

“Leaders want to know that their employees are working on what’s expected and delivering outcomes. Employees want to make sure their managers know how hard they’re working and that they’re getting things done. And the technology and tools I think help us solve for that trust gap in the middle,” she explained.

She believes the biggest thing that individuals can do at the moment is to simply reassess and look for small ways to improve your work life because we are probably not going to be returning to the office anytime soon. “I think what we’re discovering is the things that we can put in place to improve the quality of our own experiences as employees, as learners and as leaders can be very simple adjustments. This does not have to be a five year, five phase, $5 million roadmap kind of a situation. Simple adjustments matter,” she said, adding that could be measures as basic as purchasing a comfortable chair because the one you’ve been using at the dining room table is hurting your back.

Setting boundaries between work and home life

As we get farther along the path of working at home, one of the big issues facing many workers is working too much and an inability to set boundaries between work life and home life. It’s clear that employees have extra time they had been spending commuting to the office, but what have they doing with it? In a recent study by Barrero, Bloom and Davis, they looked at what people were doing with their extra hours, and found that by far the majority, 35.5%, were allocating that time to work. The next closest response was leisure activities like watching TV at 18.6% and household chores at 15.5%.

But with that increased productivity and the fact you can always get on the computer to take care of another work task, makes it even more essential to draw boundaries between work time and home time because it’s easy to let the lines blur, she said. “What I’m observing is that the most important tools that people can put in place to feel the benefit of reclaiming that commute time are routines, rituals and boundaries.”

She added, “One of the most critical things is now that you don’t have your commute, what’s your go-to-work routine, and more importantly probably than that, what is your leave-work routine at the end of the day.” She says that failing to do that leads to work creep where you’re going to do one more email, one more blog post, one more PowerPoint slide, and before you know it, you’re feeling burned out because you are not taking enough breaks.

When working from home is a problem

Of course, not everyone can work from home so easily, and the adjustment has been particularly difficult for these groups. One thing we have learned through these months is that the parents of small children and school-age kids are being asked to walk a difficult balancing act between work and family. That was always the case of course, but parents had the advantage of their kids being at school, activities, play dates or daycare and those avenues have been shut down or greatly diminished during the pandemic.

Then there’s folks who live in cities in small apartments where their small kitchen table or their bedroom has become their office. Most people signed up to live in the city because it offered an active lifestyle. The tradeoff was that you paid high rent for a small space, but in normal times that didn’t matter as much when you could spend most of your days away from your home base. That changed during the pandemic. Finally, there are people struggling to share their living space with others who have multiple work and school needs requiring quiet spaces and time to work. The smaller the place, the more difficult this becomes.

Mangia has some advice for people working through these additional challenges. For starters, people sharing small spaces need to work together. “Communicate and coordinate mission critical meetings. Stagger bandwidth-intensive and quiet space needs with your shelter-in-place companions.” She says that in a pinch, if you have a car, you can use that as a quiet meeting space. While it might not be ideal, it does give you a place away from family or roommates for a critical meeting.

For parents, she says don’t be afraid to ask for help. “When people offer to help, be specific with your ask. I highlighted a working single parent in the book who does just that. When a family member or a friend asks, ‘How can I help?’ she responds with ‘Watch my daughter for an hour so I can teach.’ Or ‘Help my daughter with her homework.’ Or ‘Let’s do meal prep for the week together on Sunday,'” Mangia explained.

What the future could look like

When I spoke to tech leaders over the summer about what going back to the office could look like, they couldn’t foresee coming back to the office this year unless there was a highly specific requirement. It looks like given the current situation that is going to hold true through at least the first part of next year and perhaps longer. That means that we have to adjust to working at home as the new reality for now, but what about when this is over and we are able to return to the office?

When we interviewed Box CEO Aaron Levie on Extra Crunch Live in May, he said when we do come out of this, we probably won’t see working in the same way as pre-pandemic. He saw it along a continuum with many companies offering greater flexibility in terms of where and how employees work:

“If you imagine a continuum, if you will, that on one end of the continuum, everybody’s fully distributed, fully remote. And then on the other end of the continuum, everybody goes to the office. You commute an hour each way to the office, and we just build up skyscrapers and everyone works that way. I think it would be at least safe to start with the premise that most of the world probably won’t, especially in bigger companies, will not be on either end of that continuum,” Levie told us.

Indeed some work in the office may be a necessary ingredient to innovation according to a recent report by the OECD, which reckons that proximity can be a driver of innovation. “The importance of in-person communication especially for complex tasks and innovation implies that too much telework can decrease worker efficiency and long-term productivity growth. Indeed, the high importance given to clusters of entrepreneurship and the high geographical concentration of high-tech firms in the ICT sector (e.g., Silicon Valley) and the role of labs and departments in academia strongly suggest that sharing the same physical space is essential for innovation,” the report found.

Yet many companies are thriving with fully distributed workforces and have found that with proper policies and procedures in place, and the right communication tools, a company doesn’t have to share the same space to be successful. One prime example of this approach is GitLab, a company with more than 1,200 employees and 30 million registered users. CEO Sid Sijbrandij told Alex Wilhelm at a TechCrunch Disrupt panel in September that the company has reached $130 million in ARR. Clearly, in spite of the OECD’s assertion, companies can be innovative and thrive in spite of lacking proximity.

It remains to be seen, however, when we can return to the office again as the pandemic surges in the U.S. and Europe. For now, many employees are still working at home and we have to continue to evolve the systems and processes we are using at work to accommodate that reality. Seven months on, we have learned much along the way, and it seems clear that whenever this pandemic ends, we will take these lessons and apply them longer term to continue changing the way we think about work.