Tuesday, September 15, 2020
What’s it been like for workers stranded at home the past six months?

[Note: This column also appears in Washington Technology. It is the eighth in a series on how the COVID-19 crisis has changed how government works. Sheri Fields and Michaela Drust, IBM, contributed as co-authors of this column.]

There is a bipartisan legislative push to continue maximum telework at least through the end of the pandemic. However, a recent survey found that one-third of U.S. workers want to be able to permanently work remotely at least a couple days a week after the pandemic is over.

The authors of this blog span the three main generations in the workplace today.  In this final blog post in this 8-part series on distance work, we each reflect on what that experience has been for us.

John: I’m a Boomer who has been in the workforce for more than 40 years – about half in the government and half in the private sector.  Until the coronavirus stay-at-home order came to my office on March 13th, I’d always worked in a traditional office setting. After five months of working from home, I still miss it, but am adjusting to distance work. I envision that I’ll continue to do so for a number of months, indefinitely, and when I return to the office, I’ll be splitting time between traditional office work and distance work. I see that as the new normal.

I’m fortunate to have a home office.  Yes, it’s in the basement and near the air conditioner, washing machine and dryer, and I have to negotiate with my wife for quiet times for meetings, especially when taping a TV interview or moderating a call with several hundred participants. But at least I don’t have a toddler climbing on my lap, like some of my colleagues!

Working at IBM, I always had the option and the technology to work from home before, but never took advantage of it.  I liked the separation between work and home. So, for the first few weeks, I felt disoriented and had trouble setting priorities and felt overwhelmed.

However, IBM being a global company, there was always the dynamic of working with colleagues around the U.S. or in other countries that I’d never met before, so there already was a corporate ethos around working in, and managing, distributed teams.

I’m part of a small team.  We meet via video at least three times a week and stay in contact more informally via Slack. There are optional meetings offered for our larger division (about 3,000 people), and other specialized communities, and the head of the company (about 350,000) holds regular touch call videos about the broader picture.  So, I feel connected, much like when was in office setting.

In addition, our company offers transition training for distance work and offers tutoring on various productivity tools such as Trullo and Mural.  I’d not used many of these tools before and found that investing time in the training and using the tools have made me more productive – which I wasn’t expecting. For example, I find video meetings to be just as, or more, productive than in person, and – ironically – found that all-video rather than split video/in-person meetings, are more inclusive.

While I look forward to returning to office someday, I am now productive in my home office., which I didn’t think was possible, before the pandemic.

Sheri:  I’m a Gen Xer who has been in the workforce for 22 years – with most of that time  working in public sector.  The notion of working from home has always been frowned upon by most of the clients with whom I’ve worked.  Predominately, working with DoD clients mean a traditional office or colocation with the client on base or a government installation.  When COVID-19 was elevated to a pandemic on March 11th,  the possibility of stay-at-home orders became an unavoidable conversation to have with the client.  Notwithstanding the fact that our onsite staff comprised of most of the resources in the building and would leave the building desolate, there were an onslaught of safety concerns associated with poor ventilation and the possibilities of easy transmission.

As IBM, we’ve always had the technological resources to perform our roles remotely.  Effective on March 18th, the client agreed to remote work.   Thankfully, I’d always kept a home office reserved for the late nights often required to finish my workday.  Once settled in our home spaces, the focus shifted to ensuring that the client saw our online presence.  We met daily, checked in with the client frequently and continued to exceed performance.  Our clients were delighted with our seamless transition and performance.

Personally, I was drowning.  With two children, ages 8 and 12, and husband all at home now it became paramount to establish boundaries and schedules.  Initially, I had the false hope that working from home daily was temporary and likely to last just a few weeks at the most.  When the pronouncement of school closures was proclaimed, I was devasted.  Not because I didn’t want to keep my children safe, but because the social environment and their world was horridly disrupted and would not be restored for the foreseeable future.   To assist in educating them while my husband and I worked, we searched for sitters, in-home care assists, and au pairs unsuccessfully.  Luckily, I was able to take a week off and work with both children to create a new normal schedule that involved online tools, workbooks, and even screen time.  Additionally, we developed a system of colored post-its to denote when interruptions were okay, not okay unless an emergency, and when we could all work together.  We have fared well.

The pandemic has forced us to integrate work and family without the demarcation of listening to a podcast to destress while driving from work to pick up a child.  It has also afforded my family an opportunity to reclaim the closeness we’ve always wanted and had only for short periods of time.  While I look forward to returning back to the office on a limited basis, I have appreciated the time that we’re played family games, laughed hysterically at Ellen’s Game of Games, and battled with our Nerf guns outside.

Michaela: I’m a Millennial who has been in the workforce for 2.5 years – half of which has been in public sector consulting. Prior to the pandemic, I spent 45 hours per week on client-site in a traditional office and was not allowed to work remotely. While my generation values telework and flexibility in the workspace, the past five months have taught me that I personally need a balance of both.

I work everyday from my tiny apartment’s kitchen island, making it both my home office and dining space. I miss the work-life separation that I had while on client-site, but I also enjoy the ability to make my own coffee every morning and lunch every afternoon. I find myself working longer hours and having trouble turning work “off” at the end of the day since there is no need to rush to catch the Metro or make a yoga class. Quarantine has taught me that I took the structure of normalcy for granted and has challenged me to develop a more sustainable structure for myself.

At IBM, we rely on tools, such as Slack, to communicate and socialize. The DoD clients that I work with, however, did not have any similar platforms in-place at the beginning of the pandemic. To address the communication gap, the organization quickly adopted and implemented Microsoft Teams to provide employees with virtual meeting, chat, file sharing, and collaboration capabilities. At first, several colleagues continued to send emails and make phone calls to reach each other, rather than instant messaging on Teams. This was a perfect demonstration of how the federal government has been historically slow to technologically evolve in comparison to the private sector. I’ve been very impressed with how far our clients have come in the past months and how they’ve started to see the value in using remote collaboration tools.

Still, nothing beats face-to-face communication. I was very fortunate to develop strong client-relationships before shifting into a remote work environment; this has been integral to my particular role’s ability to successfully function remotely. I often wonder what it would be like to join a project during these times and have to learn the organizational culture and build client relationships and trust from afar. For a new consultant just joining the workforce, I can imagine that this could be quite overwhelming.

As a Millennial, my generation values flexible work policies and work-from-home opportunities. Yet, I miss the office, my clients, and my colleagues. It is hard to not burnout when the daily routine lacks in-person social interaction and stimulation. I look forward to daily client calls, check-ins, and staff meetings – anything that makes me feel connected to others. The pandemic has challenged me to rethink not only how we socialize and interact, but how we work and collaborate. While I look forward to returning to the office in limited capacity, I’m moved by the efforts that both IBMers and clients have made to take care of each other in this “new normal.” For example, rather than doing small birthday parties in the office, we send cupcakes to people’s apartments or homes to surprise them and remind them that we can still celebrate each other.

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Note: This post is the eighth and final in a series on distance work arrangements. Here are links to the earlier posts:

Part 1: The Future of Work is Suddenly Here: “Distance Work” is Transforming the Workplace.

Part 2:  How Is the Private Sector Pivoting to “Distance Work?”

Part 3: What’s Been Government’s Experience with Distance Work Over the Past Decade?

Part 4: What’s Happening Today with Federal Distance Work?

Part 5: Distance Work: What’s Happening at the State and Local Levels?

Part 6: Distance Work: Home Alone?

Part 7: Six Challenges Managers of Remote Teams Must Master

Graphic Credit: Courtesy of silatip via FreeDigitalPhotos.net