“In These Unprecedented Times …”

Rethinking the work-at-home life, one year later

More than a full year into the pandemic, the deluge of content touting the best ways to create a home office, offering Zoom-ready makeup tutorials, and the many, many, articles containing the words “self-care” have slowed to a trickle as the world has reached the final stage of its collective mourning for normal life: Acceptance.

By now, when it comes to working from home, you probably fall into one of three different categories:

  • You are thriving! Management will have to rip the sweatpants from your cold, dead body.
  • You hate it! You’re not your best professional self at home and pine for the structure and camaraderie of in-office life.
  • You vacillate wildly! You both revel in the lack of commute and curse the all but obliterated lines between personal and professional time as well as the circus of partners, children, and pets you have to battle to get any actual work done.

No matter how you feel about working from home, chances are you may not be going back to the office any time soon and many organizations are re-evaluating their need for physical office space even after the working world resumes business as usual. After what feels like a lifetime of settling into “office 2.0,” most workers have realized that the daily grind hasn’t changed, it’s just moved in with them. Let’s revisit some of the most repeated remote work tips from the early days of the pandemic and examine if they still hold true or, with a little perspective, if we’ve learned better.

Turn “Self-Care” Inside Out

First, let’s reflect on what the majority of these early content pieces failed to mention and acknowledge—the true luck and privilege of having gainful employment with the ability to work from home during an era when so many others have not and do not. This gap highlights a tremendous inequality. A June 2020 Stanford University survey reports that higher paid, white collar workers were able to easily transition to a remote work environment while lower paid workers in industries like agriculture or hospitality, or those who lack adequate internet and a suitable home environment, were being left behind.

This past year has been one of difficulty and instability for a large percentage of the world and mutual aid societies have become a new way for people to help and connect. Mutual aid groups help communities share support and resources to care for each other in times of need. Working from home, and the pandemic in general, has kept many people in their communities during the day. Try becoming a more active part of your own. Everyone has something valuable to give, so find out where the most need in your hometown is and find out how you can help. Afterall, sometimes caring for others is the best care for yourself.

The Pants Paradox

When offices first went remote, one of the most common pieces of advice concerned our pants. To maintain some mental semblance of normality, countless tips advised workers to continue to dress as if one was still going into the office. While this advice may have been followed at first, the sartorial mullet familiar to most Zoom-equipped workers consisting of business from the waist up and party from the waist down has, by now, become a well-worn cultural meme. As work dress norms relaxed, corporate leadership was left wondering whether a dress code was outdated and even necessary when working remotely.

If you’ve found yourself sporting the same old hoodie for too many days in a row, consider changing up your wardrobe. You might be surprised at how different you feel.

Of course, what you wear all comes down to personal preference and the industry in which you work. The last year, though, has proved that productivity and “professionalism” isn’t necessarily as tied to what we wear as we thought. What’s most important is your intention starting the day and the act of getting dressed in a way that makes you feel “ready for work,” whether that’s putting on a freshly pressed shirt or changing from your night pajama pants into your day pajama pants. Studies from Scientific American and the Harvard Business Review confirm that what we wear does affect our mood and even our posture. If you’ve found yourself sporting the same old hoodie for too many days in a row, consider changing up your wardrobe. You might be surprised at how different you feel.

Tipping the “Work-Life Balance”

Mercer, an HR consulting firm, conducted eight surveys between April and October of 2020 and found that nearly 90 percent of the more than 300 U.S. employers surveyed reported that productivity was consistent with or above pre-pandemic rates. This is, of course, great news for businesses and shows employees have a remarkable ability to adapt, but boiling down the past year’s experience to “productivity data” is only looking at half the story.

As much as the workforce was urged to find a healthy work-life balance during the pandemic, the phrase itself betrays the paradox when you have to work where you live. A Society for Human Resource Management study notes that nearly 70 percent of professionals who transitioned to working from home during the pandemic report working on the weekends and 45 percent report working more hours during the week than before. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) calls this extra work “hidden overtime” in its September 2020 report on the remote workforce.

The pandemic has made people recognize that work-life balance just looks different now and that’s going to have to be okay. Traditional office life confined people of very different personalities and preferences into “one size fits all” ways of working, dressing, and living. One of the positives of leaving that behind has been finding new opportunities for flexibility, introspection, and discovering that left to your own devices, you’re actually morning person, or you get hungry for lunch at 3 p.m., or that you’d rather take more breaks during the day and work later into the evening. Needless to say, that despite everything that’s happened, we’ve kept learning!

We asked some of our colleagues at Excelsior College who are working from home what they’ve learned about themselves, how they like to work, and what advice they would travel back in time to give their 2020 selves. Here are some of the comments we received:

  • “I love working from home, and I like the improved collaboration!”
  • “Work-life balance is only as good as you make it.”
  • “Designated space is important.”
  • “Take a break.”
  • “Buy a really, really good desk chair.”
  • “If working at home for the long haul, it’s important to have a plan!”
  • “I’ve gotten in touch with my self-motivation.”
  • “Pay attention to food.”
  • “Enjoy the flexibility.”
  • “Find a work buddy if you can and meet up a few times a week.”