Telework or back to office? Some hope for mix of both 00:00

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Telework or back to office? Some hope for mix of both

A Purdue University professor and social scientist says the Covid-19 lockdown exacerbated the work-life imbalance; a working mother shares her experiences. They hope the lessons of working from home will result in more freedom for employees in a post-Covid world.

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More than half of U.S. employees (52%) would prefer a hybrid work model — working some time at home and some time in an office. Source: Gensler U.S. Workplace Survey 2020

Becky Malone: My name is Becky Malone. I have three children. And I am a senior planner … at the City of San Diego. In the early days especially, it was just hectic and a madhouse.

I would be kind of in the living room trying to work, and once the distance school started up, the two kids that were attending elementary school were both in the dining area, which was right adjacent to where I was. And, then if they wanted to watch TV, that’s just right there too. It might be that I’d have to leave what I was doing to go regulate some sort of argument. I’m sure that my co-workers got to know my home life a lot more than they cared to.

Ellen Ernst Kossek: With technology and the pandemic, work-life boundaries are increasingly blurred. My name is Ellen Ernst Kossek. And I am a chair at Purdue Krannert School of Management. And I’ve been studying work and family, and issues of gender and how we treat people in employment settings for many years.

Boundaries can be physical, like shutting a door …to work out of the bedroom, even though everybody’s at home. It can be cognitive, are you thinking about work and not able to detach at night, are you checking email in the middle of the night, and it can be emotional…your child’s zoom kindergarten could go badly. And then you rush into the next room for a call with your boss. So these boundaries are just all jumbled up today.

Before Covid some people were integrators — so they would be at work, but they would be checking Facebook or be texting their child, ‘Are you home from the school bus?’, others would be segmenters — so they would work and really not think too much about personal life throughout the day — or if they did do personal tasks, they might only do them at the lunch hour, like make a doctor’s appointment over lunch. And then there are people with mixed styles, and they might shift in how they manage boundaries — say you have child custody where in the summer, you have your child with you, but you don’t during the school year — you might have peaks and valleys.

A portrait of Ellen Ernst Kossek at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, in 2015. (Photo courtesy of Krannert School of Management/Purdue University)

Becky Malone: So in the before times you know we had a very structured routine. Generally, I would get up at about 6 to 6:30 to get all ready. I would take the kids to school and daycare. Get to work around 8:30, work a full day and my husband would pick up the kids at the end of the day. When I was at work, I did not really need to be concerned about the kids or about things going on around the house. It was very delineated.

Ellen Ernst Kossek: It’s important for people to have recovery time. If you’re working seven days a week straight all the time, you’re not as productive than if you have that break to catch up on sleep — creativity is not as high when people are slogging along a long-hour workweek. 

Just having access to teleworking does not help you reduce work-life conflict, you must have perceptions that you’re in control of when, where, and how long you work and are able to shut work off. And employers have to help employees do that, and people also have to learn the skills.   

Becky Malone: In the early days … I mean, it was absolute madness (laughs). I mean, there were just kids everywhere. To be honest, I actually think my husband probably had a harder go of it. He really didn’t want just all this care to fall to me. My husband would go in really early in the morning, so he could get back around lunchtime or early afternoon to help out with the kids.

To my work-life balance, it really didn’t change things all that much. … I still pretty much would not pay any attention to any sort of email or message that came outside of my working hours. It was just that I was also trying to manage three children, as well as make sure that I was signing off on all the things I needed to sign off on, do all the work things I needed to do. I had very understanding supervisors — still have very understanding supervisors. So there was no problem with the fact that … I would have these children just coming in and out of meetings and whatnot. 

Becky Malone with her family in San Diego, Calif., on Oct. 17, 2020: husband Brendan Malone and children, from left, Calvin, Marian, and Ryan. (Photo courtesy of Malone)

Ellen Ernst Kossek: Workplace of the future? I think the best arrangements are going to be a mixture, where you might be at home a couple of days a week. If you have a long commute in the office, maybe three days a week. If you’re able to be a virtual knowledge worker — and not everyone’s going to have that choice — but to me, that’s the ideal: is to have a mix of coming together. 

I mean, this might be a pipe dream, but could it be a way to bring the country more together, if you’re more connected — socially and workwise — with people living wherever they want to live? Why can’t we just hire talent from many different parts from the U.S.? I mean I’m from Dubuque, Iowa, could you hire people from there to work for a company in New York City as a way to keep economic well-being spread out throughout the U.S.? 

The employers that are able to give employees more choice over their boundaries, over when they’re working, being able to have a way to multitask and combine other parts of their life with work — I think that’s going to be the competitive edge. I think they’re gonna have happier, healthier people. Think about (how) you have more time to exercise if you’re not commuting two hours a week, you have more time to cook a healthy meal, you can stop work earlier and catch up on the news. 

Becky Malone: So I do not want to go back to the way it was. I love the newfound flexibility of the remote work. I love that I can roll out of bed at 7:15 and be at my computer signing in at 7:30.

Granted, I tend to make the children breakfast and stuff over the next hour or so, make sure they’re getting into their classes. But I love not having the big morning routine, whereas I have to get myself all businessed up for the office, and also drop the kids off, and drive out to work. I love not having to do all that.

But then I also love  — let’s say that I have a meeting I need to call in at 3:30 which is also the time I need to drop my son off at Little League. Well, I can drop him off and I can call in to the meeting from the park. What I’m hoping is that we have a real mix, and there’s maybe workstations that we can go check into if we are wanting to work in an office setting — but then we can primarily work remotely.

Although none of the workers that I supervise have children, I think that they like it for the same reasons I do. They as well like to be able to get out and take a walk, go make themselves some coffee. I think it’s helped our team be able to, to get the work done, without feeling like you have someone looking over your shoulder

Tarryn Mento: For iPondr, I’m Tarryn Mento.

(Photo at top: Becky Malone and the team she supervises on March 13, 2020, the last day they were in the office in San Diego, Calif. From left to right, clockwise: Jordan Moore, Becky Malone, Elena Pascual, Alberto Santos-Davidson, and Tara Ash-Reynolds. Photo courtesy of Malone)

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