By Katie Johnston, originally for The Boston Globe
When Emma Sandjong went back to the office in June for the first time in months, she found her workplace transformed. There were a third as many people as usual on her floor at Digital Federal Credit Union in Marlborough, all spread out in new configurations. Sandjong had a designated time slot to visit the cafeteria downstairs, where the offerings were limited to grab-and-go items such as pizza and sandwiches. And the few people who were in the office looked different than when she’d last seen them — hair longer and grayer, formerly clean-shaven faces covered in beards, smiles covered by masks.
As nice as it was to see her co-workers, interacting with them was mentally draining. Even getting a cup of coffee was awkward if someone came into the kitchen at the same time. “You have to constantly be aware that you can’t be close,” said Sandjong, who goes into the office for two weeks at a time, then works at home for four. “It takes a lot of energy.”
From grocery store clerks who’ve been working in protective gear since spring, to software engineers stuck in stifling attics, to employees rotating between their office and home, work has never been weirder. People are logging in late at night to account for child-care interruptions, taking calls in closets, and escaping to their children’s playhouses for Zoom meetings. Stress levels are still high, especially with the school year looming. Even the thrill of seeing co-workers in person is muted by masks and unnatural social distancing rules.
And it doesn’t seem like these changes are going away anytime soon. With remote work growing, offices shrinking, and social distancing rules galore, the world of work may never be the same.
For Sandjong, learning and organization development manager at DCU, the workday at her home in Westminster usually starts at 6 a.m., before her kids are awake, and sometimes resumes after they’re in bed. On the days she commutes to Marlborough, she’s bombarded with e-mails while she’s driving — perhaps because so many people aren’t commuting — and often has to play catch-up when she gets home.
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The school year will make everything even more complicated. She and her husband, who works in the pharmaceutical industry, rotate child-care duties for their four kids and will have to figure out yet another plan in September. But at least they know what they’re in for. “Nothing can be as bad as March through June,” she said.
Still, fear remains widespread. Nearly half of US employees who have been working from home during the pandemic are worried that their employer will bring them back before it’s safe, according to a survey conducted in June by the Weber Shandwick management consultancy United Minds. And they may not speak up. “They don’t want to be the first one on the list when their company announces layoffs,” said Ethan Miller, research and outreach manager at the AFL-CIO’s Department for Professional Employees.
United Minds is working on reentry strategies with dozens of Fortune 500 companies, including virtual tours of revamped office spaces and on-site concierge teams to help during the initial days of temperature checks and one-way corridors.
“It’s not going to look like it did before,” said Kate Bullinger, president of United Minds. “It’s almost like every employee, regardless of what they’re returning to, needs to be re-onboarded.”
Rachel Poor, a digital strategy consultant in Boston, used to spend most of her days at clients’ offices, but for the past five months, she’s been stuck at the kitchen table in her North End apartment. Not only is there no separation between work and home, there’s not much else to do — sneaking out for a manicure isn’t as easy as it once was — so why not work? It’s a source of comfort, in a way, Poor said, because it provides a sense of normalcy.
But it’s also led to her working more in the last few months than she ever has. Even gaining back the two hours she used to spend commuting hasn’t helped. Pre-COVID, Poor got up early to go to the gym, but now she heads straight to the kitchen table, and sometimes doesn’t stop until 8 at night. “Instead of saying, ‘Rachel, those are two hours that you could meditate or go for a walk, or have a cocktail after work,’ I’m not self-caring,” she said.
American employees have logged into work for three additional hours a day on average since the pandemic started, according to April and July data collected by the virtual private network service provider NordVPN Teams. The share of the global workforce putting in 14-hour-plus days has doubled since the pandemic started, according to the Boston workplace analytics firm Humanyze.
No wonder that 42 percent of employees said their stress levels are high and workers are three times as likely to report poor mental health as they were before the pandemic, according to a late July survey by FlexJobs and Mental Health America.
This “never-ending workday” syndrome that many remote workers are experiencing could be a boon for Peter Winslow. Winslow, who lives in Truro, is trying to sell chief executives on OTmail, which generates an on-the-spot $10 bonus for an employee if a manager sends an e-mail after work hours. Managers get a virtual “wallet” from the company for this purpose, and they get a percentage of what’s left every quarter; the less they’ve bothered workers, the bigger the bonus. The huge remote-work experiment going on across the country has provided a new selling point for his product, Winslow said.
When the pandemic put a stop to business trips, Dan Bowers, regional manager at the Cambridge construction products company GCP Applied Technologies, started looking for a way to keep his remote team connected, and engaged. He got 11 of them to sign up for a virtual hike along the Appalachian Trail that tracked the miles each person walked or ran in the real world and placed icons representing their progress along the trail. And over the course of 77 days, beginning in late March, the group blew past their goal of 1,400 collective miles.
“I saw a definite transformation in my levels of anxiety and my ability to focus,” said Bowers, who hopes to put together another virtual challenge. “We’ve discovered that health and wellness, mental and physical clarity, is a priority.”
Back in March, the auto loan refinancing company MotoRefi in Arlington, Va., only had a handful of remote workers, including Sam Smith in Acushnet, who didn’t always feel like part of the team. But when everyone started working from home, and MotoRefi started holding more virtual events and sending out monthly care packages for bingo nights and happy hours from the workspace experience firm Cove, Smith finally felt included. The remote work experience has become “100 times better,” he said. “Night and day.”
Amy Dalebout, MotoRefi’s vice president of people and culture, has found that being at home has made her realize that companies should better communicate why their mission matters. So many things at home are meaningful — spouses, children, hobbies — it makes you want your work to be meaningful too, she said.
“All of a sudden you’re at home, and if you don’t actually love and care about what you do, you start to question, why do I do what I do?”