With many employers suddenly transitioning their staff to work from home during the COVID-19 outbreaks, a lot of people are hoping that at least we might get a major transition to permanent support of telecommuting out of the whole thing, by demonstrating a large increase in productivity that it’s assumed follows from working from home.
But working from home is a major infrastructure problem at both a household and a societal level and this will turn out to be a pipe dream if we rely on employees to absorb the cost of long term work from home transitions.
Focusing on the household level, here’s the employee who is best suited to a short-notice work from home: they live in a quiet clean home, with a furnished private office. When they close the door, it stays closed. If they live with children, those children are cared for by another adult, who handles small and medium stresses by themselves. Their pets are quiet or cared for by someone else or both. They have access to a best-in-class business-grade broadband Internet connection. They can do their work with fairly standard office and computer equipment. If they have a disability, their home is already set up to accommodate it well. They enjoy their work well enough and are motivated by the work itself rather than by social connections with their colleagues or by close management. They have an established and sufficient set of social relationships outside the workplace.
And all this is on top of having a transportable profession such as software development, writing, some types of academic research, and some office support jobs.
That’s a lot of ducks to have lined up. Even leaving aside transportable professions, here’s some examples of employees who may be more at risk from work from home, especially from sudden transitions to it:
They share a home with someone who is abusing them, especially if that person is present in work hours. Abuse might include more violence or cruelty following from blaming the victim for stresses on the household, or simply from more access to them. It might also be financial abuse, such as interfering with the victim’s work in order to try and get them fired or get them to quit.
They can’t set up office-like conditions in their home because their home is too small, or they’re a tenant, or they don’t have enough rooms for an office, or they don’t have a private room at all, or they don’t have broadband cabling or their Internet service quality is variable or poor, or they don’t have the money for the required furnishings. Or they have all that but they live with someone who already works from home and claimed the available office space first.
Their home is physically unpleasant due to uncleanliness or bad maintenance (possibly in their control, but might be due to housemates, children, their landlord’s poor maintenance, etc), or nearby construction or traffic noise.
They have a lot of competing priorities at home that draw their attention: other adults are in the house during work hours and are bored or lonely, there’s errands to run, there’s a dog to walk, they get a lot of doorknocking, their family and friends are under the (common) impression that someone who works at home isn’t “really” working and is available for long lunches or drop by chats or can watch other people’s children all day on short notice, etc.
They require workplace accommodations that are difficult to access in their own home, eg an aide, or specialised equipment that needs professional installation, or they’ve been relying on the office for some accommodations such as hard to get foods or a fully accessible shower.
They have an office, but when they close the door, everyone else in the house knocks on it incessantly or issues ear-splitting screams or barks from the other side for hours.
They live with children and those children’s school or daycare is closed, and there’s no other adult in the house or that adult also has a job, so they have to full-time parent/homeschool them on top of having a job.
They live with children and there’s notionally another adult to care for them but that adult hands over everything except perfect behaviour and conditions to them. “The children don’t like the lunch I made! Can you make them one?” “The child has bruised their knee, they need your hugs!” “I don’t understand nappies!” “My video gaming commitments / meditation practice will consume the next three hours, can you watch the children?” (This is a highly gendered co-parenting pattern, your women employees co-parenting with men are more at risk.)
They don’t like their work and they struggle to do it without regular attention from managers or colleagues.
They do like their work OK, but they still rely on regular in-person human interaction, including in ways they may not realise themselves, in order to maintain a regular work cadence or prioritise their work or feel good about their work.
They don’t have sufficient adult social contact without a workplace because they have high social needs, or are a single parent, or live alone unwillingly, or are newly single, or recently relocated.
They’re conflict avoidant and they sometimes deal with conflict by deferring contact with the other person in the conflict. Work from home enables them to ignore chats, decline video meetings, etc in a way that would not be possible in an office. Small interpersonal problems become big ones quickly. (Spoiler: nearly everyone is sometimes conflict avoidant, and nearly everyone sometimes uses electronic communication to defer conflict.)
How do you adapt to these? Not easily, which is why a sudden and forced transition to work from home is in my opinion unlikely to lead to an emphatic demonstration of telecommuting’s superiority, but some provisions include:
- acknowledge at least some of these concerns, and set aside some budget and manager discretion to expense better internet connections, office equipment furnishings, emergency childcare, ability to rent a small amount of personal private office space
- initiate or strengthen your support around both mental health and around domestic violence situations and be sure they don’t need access to the office
- seek advice on whether small gatherings of employees are safe (in the COVID-19 context) and if so, encourage optional cafe meetups and similar
- actively review with employees who have workplace accommodations whether and how you can provide these in their homes
- create additional leave plans (paid if possible) for people whose childcare and dependent care plans have fallen apart and cannot be reconstructed
- consider how you will manage performance reviews and career planning for people who took a productivity hit