“We used to work from home, now we live at work”

I read this article published a few weeks ago in the Financial Times with great interest to try to understand why there has been a huge rejection of teleworking and the new way of working set up during the pandemic. In the months of April and May, the percentage of people suffering from mental problems and serious fatigue increased and it would be interesting to see if the cause is due to telework or simply telework misapplied by necessity.

Obviously, the confinement put us all to the test, since feeling deprived of freedom, not being able to continue with a normal life and having to stay at home, can trigger feelings of anxiety at first; But once the situation was assimilated, seeing the whole world in the same circumstances and understanding that being responsible was the only way to save lives, that anxiety must have given way to an ‘uncomfortable’ state of calmness and anticipation of it coming to an end.

Then we tried to begin again, with children, parents and sometimes grandparents going back from our living room to school, university and work. And the adaptation was obviously not easy, it could generate stress again, but it was an essential requirement to move forward and achieve apparent normality. And this is where I think the first problem comes: believing that what we did during confinement and the successive semi-lockdown was ‘telework’.

During those early months the only thing we sought was to survive and prevent the world coming to a standstill. Those of us who could, put great effort into working from home and those who had to go to their workplaces did so by adapting to the new measures, with everyone affected by the virus fighting to save themselves.

But the truth is that nothing of what we have experienced or what we are still living through is a normal situation. We have not implemented telework naturally, but under obligation, so clearly a solution that opens up great opportunities has been confused with a kind of ordeal.

I am a strong advocate of telecommuting, under normal circumstances. Four years ago at HRF we took that step and we have verified that it is really beneficial and that any shortcomings in the running of the day to day business can be filled by learning to manage this new model little by little. Before the pandemic, I visited the office, changing countries, once a month or every two months, and goal-setting meetings were held once a week. The rest of the time it’s all about trusting, trusting, and trusting. And then work, work and work.

One of the main complaints from those who have felt “burned out” and “stressed” with this new situation is that “before we used to work from home and now we live at work.” These people felt nervous if they did not answer an email immediately or if they did not respond to a call at 7am … And there comes the following erroneous belief: that now your workspace is your living room, you cannot switch off once you have finished your day’s work, so you live under the constant pressure of not being able to show that you are sitting there fulfilling your role.

Neither should pressure come from management, nor the worker feel questioned and insecure all the time. The relationship must remain the same as it was in the office, except that at home the responsibility for work is down to the individual. You are the one with the obligation to work a full day without having to be supervised, you are the one who must work efficiently throughout the day, so the home routine shouldn’t be very different to that of the office. In short, you have greater control of your time and you must learn to manage it well without neglecting your professional development. The misnamed ‘teleworking’ that has served as a temporary fix in many companies all these months and that most likely has not been implemented as it should, must not cloud the opportunities that this new working model offers us.

Teleworking is the sum of “time management” + “individual responsibility”. If the entire team can understand this from the highest position to the lowest and the climate is trustworthy, I predict a great future, because there are more and more companies, and ours is one of them, that can prove that it works.

Is technology a help or a hindrance in achieving work/life harmonisation?

Before the pandemic, it was beginning to become apparent that we live in a flexible world in which the workplace does not have to be the office. At Home Renaissance Foundation, team members in various cities throughout the world have been working from home for a number of years, with our headquarters in London still active as a meeting space a few days a week.

This has allowed us, quite naturally, to adapt to the period of confinement without making drastic changes because teleworking was already established. Mondays meetings set the work pattern for the rest of the week with a flexible timetable to include scheduled calls.

But what has happened in cases where adapting to a new way of working has not been so straightforward? For those not used to teleworking and surrounded by family with children in need of homeschooling?

The change has not been easy, but in general, people have managed to adapt with more or less success, considering that what we have lived through is not the best example of teleworking. We have asked around and people, in general, are satisfied. Many feel exhausted due to the circumstances and wishing for a certain normality, but happy with the potential new way of working where technology plays a leading role. Many feel that once children return to school, the new teleworking practices introduced by pioneering companies will be more effective and easier to implement.

Kathleen Farrel, Lecturer at the Technological University of Dublin, wonders “Is technology a help or a hindrance in achieving work/life harmonisation?” in her chapter of our latest book entitled “People, Care and Work in the Home” published by Routledge.

We are not going to advance her conclusions, but she contextualizes teleworking by quoting different authors, for example “Work and family could be said to be two of the most significant elements of human life” (Toyin et al., 2016). “Indeed, work/family balance is one of the most challenging issues facing families in the twenty-first century” (Walker et al., 2008).

“According to the literature on working from home, the results indicate that the success or failure of working from home is very closely linked to homeworkers’ identity.” (Tietze and Musson, 2010).

Friedman (2014: 12) highlights that to be effective one needs “to know what matters.” He recommends an exercise called “Four Circles” representing the four domains “work, home, community and self.” This helps reflect on the “values, goals, interests, actions and results” cultivated in each area, and whether the latter are compatible or opposed to each other. When people engage in flexible working, the relationship between work and home needs to be redefined and changes made. (Tietze and Musson (2003, 2005).

I would say that quarantine has helped us, without a doubt, to reflect on these issues as a family after spending so much time together. We found ourselves immersed in change without much ado and it has been shown that those who took these aspects into account achieved a more effective and above all, a true adaptation, with a personal and work balance that gradually approaches the ideal pattern.

Colin Brazier said in his article on ‘Home in the Time of Coronavirus‘ that once confined, the success of its management does not depend on “any radical change. This is not the time to introduce lessons in Sanskrit.” What has not been taught before cannot be quickly applied. What is no longer a habit is very difficult to establish or balance in crisis situations.

Therefore, the home needs to be built little by little and with tenacity. It is a titanic effort that bears its fruits in the medium and long term. Family management must include reconciliation; and teleworking, thanks to technology, can be a very useful tool that, well run, will bring results. If the home lays its foundations well, it will be able to face health crises like the current one, with job changes such as teleworking, or technological innovations that we still don’t even imagine. The important thing is that the core of the home is unbeatable in the face of storms and flexible enough not to be overwhelmed – and that requires a good leader. Don’t forget that in your home, the leader is you.