Talking about the pros and cons of transitioning to working online and how it has impacted our mental health.
If you’re 5 minutes late to a meeting in real life, no-big-deal no one is watching the clock and you might even be able to slip in with a few other people who are also late, but online: where are they? we’ve all been waiting on the line awkwardly for 5 whole minutes? is the meeting cancelled? what’s going on?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the past year, when everything shut down because of the Covid-19 pandemic many offices closed too and moved to an online or remote work set-up. This transition included areas of work that have never really used remote work and online tools to do their work before (mine included!). This sudden change has made me think a lot about how this is impacting our mental health and wellness in the workplace.
So, I thought I would share some observations, negative and positive, about working from home and where I hope we end up when (if) things get back to normal someday.
- No Commute: No drive, no bus, no train. No rushing around to get your things before traffic hits, no sitting in traffic worrying about being late, no spilling your coffee in the car. I think one of the biggest changes for many of us in our daily routines is that we’re not commuting to our jobs. And it is amazing not needing to spend hours in traffic every day.
- Sleeping In: Did I mention no commute? No stressful commute for a lot of us means a few extra moments of sweet slumber in the morning. Or maybe just a slower morning routine to get ready for the work day ahead. Either way the less rush and more rest has certainly done wonders for many people’s mental and physical wellbeing.
- Casual Dress Code: We’ve all seen the memes and commercials of people only wearing their “nice” clothes on web-cam visible body parts (and sometimes literally nothing else – oops). But, in all seriousness, it is nice to be able to wear comfortable clothing and have to worry a little less about our physical appearance. Not to mention maybe saving some money on expensive work clothes.
- Flexibility: For many of us, working from home has offered a level of flexibility that traditional office work did not. For example for parents, they might be more available to help their kids. Work tasks can be shifted around more easily, or broken up with more breaks in between as there is no need to commute back and forth. If you’re hungry you can eat at your desk or maybe take lunch a little early because no ones watching you! Feeling really tired because you didn’t sleep well? Take a nap on your lunch hour, your bed is only a few steps away.
- More Time With Our Furry Friends: Any pet owner has enjoyed the opportunity to be with their furry companion more. There is nothing quite like working away with a warm cat on your lap, or a dog at your feet. They help us to destress before, during, and after the work day, help us to laugh on the hardest ones, they really can be the best coworkers. We are getting to be with them much more than we would normally and that is time that we will cherish forever.
- Seeing New Possibilities: One of the most positive impacts I think from the transition to working remotely is that it has opened people’s (employers and governments) minds to the many ways that work can be done. It has shown people that remote work is possible and that in some cases it is even beneficial and preferential.
- Communication: Communicating information through emails is not always easy, and often more time consuming than just a quick in person conversation where body language and gestures can be used to help convey information. It is also more difficult to explain complex situations or to resolve conflict as misinterpretation is more likely to happen. There is sometimes also a tendency towards over-communication like looping in too many people into a simple decision which can lead to unnecessarily bogging down processes.
- The Joys of Technology: It’s faster online using – insert tool here – right? Wrong. A tool for everything also means constant learning, training, and relearning which takes a huge amount of time. Not to mention if you have the wrong software, update, or your internet is bad everything seems to fall apart. As we often say at my work, “when it works it’s great, but when it doesn’t…”. Technology is amazing and powerful but it like people has its limitations and often unfortunately we are the limitation. We can’t learn everything all the time, we can’t all be computer wizzes, especially by ourselves. If you’ve ever walked someone through a tech problem over the phone, you probably know what I mean.
- Space Constraints: Not all of us have good ergonomic spaces to do our work in, and many of us are squishing onto kitchen tables, coffee tables, or sharing tiny offices all day. Living in a small apartment, it has been a challenge to have a functional work space for 2 people working from home. Not to mention when you both have a video meeting at the same time? Yikes.
- Productivity, Productivity, Productivity: I think going into this we may have thought that the lack of commute might mean a shorter work day. But unfortunately it seems that the lack of structure seems to maybe even put more pressure on workers to be highly productive. You’re comfortable, you’re not at home, you can work anytime, you don’t need to commute, so you should get WAY more done, and actually we expect you to. This attitude ignores that we are all living through one of the hardest times many of us will live through and that human beings are not efficiency robots, we can’t turn off our worries and emotions. People’s productivity is not a continuous upward trajectory even in the best of times. It also does not take into account the many other things that can get in the way of perfect productivity like childcare & homeschooling, shared working spaces, or access to high speed internet.
- Lack of Human Connection: Working from home has many benefits, but one of the biggest drawbacks is the lack of social interaction. For many of us our colleagues are also our friends and it can be those brief interactions in the kitchen getting coffee, or on breaks that really make our jobs fun, and help us to feel supported in the workplace. Maybe it’s staff events or luncheons, or for those of us who work with the public, getting to interact with the larger community is part of what we love doing. Many of us are experiencing loneliness and disconnection from important people in our lives and our work is no exception.
- Disruption to Routine: Transitioning to working remotely, especially if this was something out of the norm for our workplace, has required big changes to our previous routines. And any time we drastically change our routines, even if for the better, it can be stressful and difficult, it’s as simple as it’s new and scary.
A note on unsafe living situations: I want to acknowledge that there are many people who do not have a safe living environment, and working from home actually increases the abuse and danger in their lives. In addition it possibly cuts those people off from a safe environment that they relied on and even resources to help them get out of their situation. Of course in these situations working from home is not helpful and could in fact increase negative mental health effects greatly, this is of course another topic that is not discussed enough and we are often too quick to forget so I wanted to make sure to include it.
Overall, there are good and bad things about working remotely and I’m sure many that I have not listed. I find myself flip-flopping between loving it and missing my office desperately. This experience has taught me that while working from home some of the time is nice and I would like to be able to do that, I would prefer a mix of both because I do like my dedicated workspace and a change of environment in my week. Personally, the most beneficial part of working from home has been the extra sleep, I am a person who needs many hours of rest in order to function at 100% and it has drastically improved my mental and physical health being able to get easily 30 more minutes in the morning.
I think the big lesson from all of this, and my big hope, will be to try to hold onto the things that were good and beneficial for our mental health. For example, maybe having more flexibility for workers needing to work from home sometimes. Or, maybe easing up on ultra strict work dress codes in settings where it is possible. Maybe even having later start times to avoid stressful commutes, or help those who need more time in the mornings. There are many changes that we can make in our workplaces and our society’s work culture as a whole to improve our mental health and wellbeing. When and if things do go back to normal, there will be another huge transition where we all relearn to work in shared work spaces, and there will be hurdles and lots of emotions that come with that too. It will give us all another opportunity to really examine what is helpful and what is not and hopefully make changes.
I am curious what other people’s experiences have been in this transition. Did you move to working remotely during the pandemic? How did it impact your mental health?