Pandemic working is not remote working

Amid all the negative reports about remote working, it is worth repeating again and again that pandemic working is not normal remote working.

Woman leans on a table looking depressed


It’s been another week of negative stories about home working. City AM reports today on research commissioned by commercial landlord Landsec which suggests remote working could cost the UK economy up to £95bn a year in lost productivity and innovation and investment in residential and commercial property, business events, meetings and travel.

Balanced against concerns about productivity is another report earlier in the week which suggests home workers are doing longer hours. Bloomberg reported that the move to remote working has meant longer hours have become the ‘new normal’ for many in the US and other countries and that the number of hours people are logged on has fallen back toward pre-pandemic levels in only Belgium, Denmark, France and Spain. Workers in the UK were among those who were logging on for an extra 2.5 hours from home in the pandemic.

Is that because they have more work – quite possibly – because they find it harder to shut down or because they are also having to homeschool and the working day is extended? It could be a mix of all three. Certainly my working day is a lot longer because in between fielding endless online calls I am doing algebra and advising on whether you can compare A Clockwork Orange and the Picture of Dorian Gray, neither of which I have actually read [though I have Googled them both extensively…] while trying to help my neighbour with photocopying and fielding numerous well-intentioned check-in calls from schools.

Pandemic working is really not at all the same as normal remote working and not just because of the homeschooling. Everything seems more intensive. Everyone is worried about their jobs. There are so many different calls to jump onto that I spend half my time scheduling them and the other half trying to find the details two minutes after I am due to be on them because five minutes before I was doing algebra with my son [who, the moment I go on a call, decides that it is Nintendo time]. As I have several jobs I have several different zoom folders which I am sure I could streamline if I had the time to do so, but by the weekend I am so entirely knackered and have 1,001 other things to do, including motivating children to do exercise because I feel so guilty about not having the time to do it during the week [I am known in the family for recommending walks at 9 or 10pm], that it falls down the priority list.

I hope that when this is all over we have a bit of a breather, but I suspect that many won’t get one because of the imperative to make up for lost ground. People who have been burning the candle at both ends for months to get through this will need a break, though. Longer hours are not sustainable in the long term. I’m not even sure they are sustainable in the short to medium term if you don’t have the right support around you meaning you can delegate other tasks.

Another report out this week from the Royal Society for Public Health found that homeworkers feel less connected to their colleagues, are finding it harder to switch off and have more trouble sleeping. They are also often working from a bed or sofa, with all the back issues that brings and many were, unsurprisingly, doing less exercise than before. Clearly not everyone can work from home, although normal remote working doesn’t just mean working from home in any event. Clearly exercise is a problem if you have an intense working/work-homeschool day, it’s dark by the time you finish and the only exercise available is a walk or run. Going for a walk in the dark – and the rain – is not everyone’s cup of tea and is potentially more unsafe. Moreover, exercise can help you switch off and sleep better. The only exercise I get during a week of pandemic working is when my son does PE and that’s only because he won’t do it unless I do.

Another reported on Wired warns of problems for remote workers as sexual and racial harassment moves into digital workspaces, but any change in the way we work requires shifts in the support necessary. HR, like everything, is transforming fast in the digital age and needs to keep on top of trends, including being aware of the needs of remote workers.

Evidently remote working is not for everyone, but for many it helps make working possible with all the other parts of their lives. The number of women who have dropped out of jobs because of long days in the office and commuting is enormous. I’ve spoken to a lot of them over the years. The ‘normal’ working week is bad for many people’s mental health and wellbeing and it makes any type of social life outside work much more difficult. Childcare costs are also an issue, of course, but people want to be spending more time with their children, not wasting hours in traffic or on trains. Surely there has to be a happy medium in between where people get more choice over what way of working is best for them?

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