COVID-19 Upended Work/Life Balance. Why Are We Surprised?
The rosy picture of remote work that has been painted for the past six months of the COVID-19 pandemic is starting to fade.
As the Wall Street Journal notes, projects are dragging on, collaboration is becoming increasingly difficult, and training is growing more complex. Perhaps most concerning of all, however, is the fact that many of us are experiencing the collapse of work/life balance. NordVPN estimates that, based on its user data, workers have added an average of three hours to the typical workday since the beginning of quarantine. Executives are starting to sound the alarm that a permanent shift to remote work may not be as sustainable as we once thought.
Are we really surprised by this?
Remote Work Was Tough Long Before COVID Hit
All of the issues emerging right now are troubling, but they were also predictable. At Igloo, we surveyed workers before the pandemic for our 2020 State of the Digital Workplace report. Even then, the writing was on the wall.
According to our data, employees were already struggling to collaborate without also having a pandemic to worry about. Eighty-five percent of remote workers reported that technology issues disrupted their meetings, and more than a quarter of remote workers surveyed said they had struggled with issues like an inability to locate important files and being excluded from policy or process change announcements. Overall, 80 percent of remote workers said they faced challenges their office-based counterparts did not.
It also doesn’t help that employees reported struggling with increasing noise in the workplace. More than half of the workers we surveyed said they were overwhelmed by messages not related to their work.
Our survey also suggested that remote work may not be conducive to building inclusive cultures. Thirty-two percent of remote employees reported being left out of social activities, and 25 percent reported it had gotten harder to find the right tools to contact their coworkers. In short, many remote workers were feeling isolated prior to COVID-19, and the added stresses of the pandemic may only exacerbate that fact.
That said, remote work doesn’t have to lead to isolation or thwart collaboration. Our pre-COVID-19 data shows improvement is achievable. Ninety percent of remote employees reported their companies were taking steps to make them feel more included, and the vast majority said they believe their employers take their concerns seriously.
The data also suggests employers are doing more than just paying lip service to their remote employees. Instead, there have been real, concrete improvements. For example, we saw a 23 percent year-over-year decrease in the number of remote employees who said they had missed an important piece of information because it was communicated in person.
How Do We Make Remote Life Easier?
As our report shows, the coronavirus is obviously not the only reason fissures are forming in remote work. If we had paid more attention to the needs of remote workers before the pandemic, we would have already addressed many of the issues now plaguing distributed teams.
Better still, there’s plenty we can do right now to start mitigating these problems. According to our 2020 State of the Digital Workplace report, improved collaboration technology, smarter workflows, and a strategic approach to intranet deployments can go a long way.
Mobile technology is especially important, as 21 percent of workers spend more than half their work time on a mobile app. That’s a lot of lost time if the app is unreliable or inefficient, so be sure to equip your remote employees with tools that actually work on the go.
Your employees — remote and in the office — likely also need better document-sharing options to facilitate more collaboration and inclusion. Unfortunately, recent trends in this area have not been good: Between 2018 and 2020, the number of employees who said they have avoided sharing documents due to the difficulties inherent in the process rose by 65 percent, from 31 percent fo 51 percent. With even more employees working remotely today, a central intranet or collaboration platform is mission-critical.
Leaders must also talk with employees to understand how they really work. One of the most troubling findings of our report is that roughly a quarter of employees admit to using two or more apps not approved by their companies to do their jobs. The number of rogue apps is only bound to grow if we don’t address the root cause, threatening to create new security risks and silo important business data in your organization. Leadership teams need to engage with employees and solicit their feedback to find out what technology works best for them, then use that feedback to improve their offerings accordingly.
Before we prematurely declare our great work-from-home experiment a failure, let’s remember that these issues took root well before the COVID-19 pandemic. We owe it to our remote workers — past, present, and future — to solve them.
Mike Hicks is CMO of Igloo.