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COVID-19 induced remote work is NOT the same as working from home

Psychological & Brain Sciences professor is researching why the "experiment” of COVID-19 induced remote work is different than traditional work-from-home, and comes with unique challenges.

Editor’s Note: The following is an expert opinion piece by Stephanie C. Payne, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at Texas A&M University and her colleagues, Rebecca Thompson, an adjunct professor of psychology at George Mason University, and Zach Traylor, a doctoral student at Texas A&M University. 

She and her colleagues are currently conducting research on the “experiment” of COVID-19 induced remote work. Specifically, Payne examines the effectiveness of human resource practices and how they can be mutually beneficial for both the employee and the organization.

Remote work is traditionally defined as a discretionary act in which employees choose to work from an alternative work location. However, remote work is now a necessity for business continuity in light of social (really, physical) distancing. 

Yet this type of working from home is different in many ways, and therefore requires identifying the unique challenges of this time in order to implement best practices for productivity and business continuity in the future. 

Working from home before vs. during COVID-19

Most of the time the choice to work from home is made to avoid the commute to work and to have some dedicated time to focus on work without interruptions and distractions from coworkers and customers at the main worksite. Working from home can also make it easier for employees to tend to nonwork demands such as letting a repairperson into the home to fix a broken appliance or getting some work done before a 10:30 dental appointment.  

However, working from home is now a necessity for job security reasons because it is the only option for many employees to remain employed. As a result, many organizations and their employees have had to jump feet first into remote work, creating a natural psychological experiment to which no one consented.

There are many employees who do not have the option to work from home, and sadly, many people have lost their jobs because it is impossible for all industries to adapt to the imposed restrictions (e.g., travel, size of gatherings, essential personnel). Although millions of people either wholly or periodically worked from home prior to the pandemic declaration, COVID-19 has forced working remotely upon those who had never done so, and this is a challenge for countless reasons.

COVID-19 work from home is more challenging than normal 

We did not have much time to prepare to make the transition. Although a few organizations did a quick, one-day “experiment” (i.e., Texas Comptroller’s Office, NASA and the Air Force) shortly before multiple shelter-in-place orders were enacted, most organizations had not attempted to have all (or most) employees work from home.

Working from home is not for everyone. Some of us highly value the ability to separate work from nonwork and prefer (and excel at) having physical and temporal boundaries between the two (researchers call this “segmentation”). In contrast, some people prefer to integrate their work and nonwork lives. Most people are somewhere in the middle, managing and enforcing the physical, temporal, and psychological boundaries between work and nonwork as needed on a day-to-day basis. Current science indicates there are no large advantages to segmentation or integration. What’s most important is what works for you.

Working from home during COVID-19 is further complicated by (a) shelter-in-place orders and (b) children needing to do schooling. Traditional remote workers and teleworkers do not have to manage their work alongside these additional circumstances—remote work during COVID-19 is not typical remote work. 

Benefits and best practices of working from home 

There is considerable research on teleworking and many positive outcomes associated with it, including job satisfaction and productivity. The key to benefitting from remote work is to exploit the advantages of being away from the main worksite and the corresponding reduction in interruptions and distractions that occur therein. For example, a less noisy work environment affords the ability to devote time toward tasks that require dedicated, sustained attention (e.g., reading, writing).

There are also a number of other best practices in the telework literature. 

For example, one best practice for parents who are working from home is to separate their parental and work responsibilities and utilize a dedicated childcare provider. This may not be an option for very many parents right now, so many employed parents are rotating with their spouse/partner to tend to their children’s needs, such as online learning.

Because COVID-19 remote work is not the same as traditional remote work, it is important to focus on that which remains in your control during this turbulent time. Some elements to keep in mind include how you structure your day, what time you wake, when you connect, and when you disconnect. There is no shortage of articles in the media right now offering tips on how to work from home that emphasize the importance of communication, goal setting, flexibility, trust, and understanding.


Read more about COVID-19 from Texas A&M College of Liberal Arts experts here