Taking Walks with the Kids Is One Perk of Working Remotely; Handling Their Meltdowns Is Not

Survey explores the ups and downs experienced by newly remote workers

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie May 7, 2020
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Taking Walks with the Kids Is One Perk of Working Remotely; Handling Their Meltdowns Is Not

​Time with kids. Time with pets. Time to exercise. Time to cook. Time to sleep in.

These are among the perks that employees appreciate while having to work from home during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the results of a recent survey.

But there are downsides, too: trying to work while overseeing kids' schooling, for instance, or being distracted by children so stressed-out by quarantine that they frequently cry or act out.

"The level of remote employees reporting enjoying the extra time they have as a result of not commuting one to two hours a day was an intense theme," said Paul White, Ph.D., a psychologist in Wichita, Kan., who writes on relationships in the workplace and who conducted the survey with Natalie Hamrick, Ph.D., a research psychologist.

By that, White said, he means that the vast majority of respondents indicated that not having to commute was one of the things they most appreciated about being forced to work from home.

"We wanted to learn about newly remote employees—those who were forced to work remotely," said White, who is co-author of four books, including The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace (Northfield Press, 2014). "With the millions of new remote workers—who face different challenges than traditional remote workers—we thought it would be wise to explore the experiences, perceptions, reactions and coping mechanisms of this group of workers … for the purpose of providing guidance to leaders, supervisors and HR professionals in understanding their new remote employees and how best to support them."

From more than 1,200 applicants, White chose 50 people representing different ages, genders, geographies and living situations. Most participants had been working remotely less than two weeks when the study began. They were asked to fill out an online questionnaire once a week for four weeks, answering questions about their concerns, the challenges they faced, their anxiety level, what they were anxious about, what coping behaviors they were using, the feelings they were experiencing and the positive aspects of working from home.

Anxiety Levels

Respondents tended to report a moderate amount of anxiety—about their health and the health of their relatives and about the impact of the pandemic globally and on the economy.

The levels of stress and anxiety were fairly consistent across the respondents' ages, genders, family situations, living arrangements and geography, which surprised White.

"I thought maybe that living in an urban setting rather than a rural one might feel more stressful," he said. "But there was no difference between participants in those groups as to anxiety, stress or positive reports. Same thing for whether you lived alone or not, or had kids or not."

Managing Kids

Respondents who had children reported that their biggest challenges when working from home were things like "working while overseeing my children's schooling" and handling cooped-up children who were experiencing "lots of crying and meltdowns."

"Employers and employees alike must recognize that working from home naturally involves surrounding noises like animals and children," said Michael Masset, chief human resources officer at ITWP, a digital market research company based in Wilton, Conn. "We are all human and having to deal with more than we have before. Child care and schooling have been disrupted. Companies must maintain structure for employees but also provide flexibility where necessary—not only because it's the right thing to do but because it will ultimately lead to greater productivity."

The Upside to Working at Home

One thing that surprised White was the number of people who said not having to commute was the most positive aspect of working from home.

"The intensity of [the reply] and the breadth of it were unexpected," he said, noting that "not commuting" was an answer to an open-ended question, not a choice on a list of answers. "It was [about] … more time with family, lunch with the wife, walks with my kids, time for exercising. It populated the majority of the positive things they were mentioning."

Should managers worry that employees who report having more time for exercising, cooking or playing with kids might be less productive than they were at the workplace?

Mercer partner and business segment leader Adam Pressman says the consultancy is "hearing from both employers and employees that there are two sides to this coin."

"On one hand, employees that work from home do report they have extra time in their day due to less travel and no commute," he said. "However, we are also hearing concerns about maintaining work/life balance and managing burnout. With everyone working at home, e-mail traffic has increased and the amount of time on Zoom and conference calls has increased as well. And for employees who are parents with children now being forced to do online learning, it can be a challenge to keep up with both work and family needs.

"We encourage employers to be empathetic during this time and allow people to find a work structure and approach that works for them."

Alex Konankykhin is the CEO of TransparentBusiness, a New York City-based workforce management and coordination software company. While it's a leader's duty to worry about employee performance, he said, good managers know who their solid performers are. That probably isn't going to change when those employees work at home, even if they are "in their jammies," he noted.

"Managers know that [some] employees may give in to the temptation to take advantage of the lack of transparency into their work and enjoy Netflix marathons, moonlight for other companies, work on a personal pet project or spend time on domestic matters," Konankykhin said. But, he added, "every manager knows [which of his or her] workers are dedicated employees. And often, when working at home, [they put in] more hours than they used to in the office, due to the time saved on the daily commute and due to the higher comfort level of working at home." 

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