I started working from home long before Covid. My wife was going back to school to get her PhD, and that required that we move. My boss at the time, and subsequent bosses, were gracious, but what I failed to account for was my own sense of alienation. I’d thrived in many different kinds of companies, from big organizations to much more tightly-knit groups. My last full-time office environment was at a website within a larger firm, and we felt like the young, scrappy group breaking with convention. It was dynamic and invigorating, and when I switched to remote work I suddenly realized I was the wild animal that escaped the kennel. I’d head to town a few times a month for meetings — but didn’t get the in-jokes. Staff were cordial with me, but weren’t sure exactly where I fit in.
I started at the next gig as the remote guy, and I had direct reports, which confused them. How could I be in charge of them and not be in the office? Worse, I was dealing with exactly the same concerns as my colleagues; I was as self-conscious about my status as a teenager with too-long limbs at the freshman dance.
What’s different today, says Dr. Alan Castel, a professor of psychology at UCLA and the author of Better with Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging, and a specialist in how men relate to work, is that COVID forced a huge number of us to suddenly shift to toiling at home. This afforded a grand experiment, one many men perhaps hadn’t anticipated, and one that even companies that had never considered the upsides of remote work are now weighing in after-action assessments. Who’s actually vital to have at the office? Who isn’t? Could we do a lot of half-office, half-home working?
And while all of that’s going on, every one of us, he agrees, should also be evaluating our own experiences. What have we gained? Certainly, more time to watch how our kids learn and grow has to be considered a tremendous plus — and a challenge, naturally, as well. None of us expected to suddenly become part-time teachers, and the boundary-setting rules around needing to work while kids are on Zoom in their own remote classrooms has pushed many parents and their kids into the red. But so many of us have also learned a new kind of patience with our kids and our colleagues. Seeing coworkers as whole human beings as they shush their children in the midst of online chats has created closer-knit dynamics.
Still, Castel comments that too much fails to transfer over video.
“I am a father of three, and quite enjoy (most) of my work from home for now,” he says. But he also believes that many men don’t realize how much they gain from having random chatter. “I think there is some good evidence that especially for men, a lot of social interaction and ‘work-friends’ are the result of casual social interaction at the job.”
He thinks that many of us may in fact benefit from this opportunity to continue working remotely, perhaps part-time, not least because it may make all of us safer. But he also thinks it’s critical that as companies assess their structures and the physical location of staff, that we’re also assessing our own suitability for remote work. Castel says nobody knows yet how this will shake out for entire industries, but he does believe there are three key ways to do this assessment personally, to weigh the pros and cons. If you’re weighing whether or not you should ask to work from home permanently, it’s important to consider these factors.
Are You Good at Boundaries Now?
When I first began working from home I holed up in the laundry room because it was literally the only spare room remaining — my wife got dibs on the guest bedroom. The problem: My laptop was always there, and because I didn’t want to be seen as taking advantage of the “luxury” of working from home, I was hyper-vigilant about checking in with the office.
Castel says that for many parents during COVID, they might have found just the opposite: a reason not to work.
“Your kids are also always there, and dirty dishes, etc., and it is hard to make decisions on when/why certain tasks should be given your attention,” he says. If you’re considering working from home, even part time, Castel says you need to set boundaries. “You need both timetables,” for when you’re on the clock, “and physical walls, like closing doors when you’re working.”
He also thinks the crisis may afford leeway for home workers that previously might have been less understood. Your boss has just gone through this crucible, too, and so working with leadership to build in a time slot for your kids during the day when you might normally be in the office won’t seem as strange.
Alan Krieger, whose Albany, New York-based Krieger Solutions has advised managers at huge organizations, like the New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Association, says that, from a managerial perspective, your boss is likely to be concerned about boundaries, too, both whether you can physically be separate from your family as you work, but also whether you’re really able to be in tune with your team of fellow workers without constant distraction. He thinks anyone pitching permanent working from home ought to be aware that that’s how their boss will be thinking, and how they’ll need to as well.
How Have You Found COVID “Office” Life?
While some companies could literally be dissolving offices in the wake of the pandemic, forcing most of us to work from home, Castel says they, and we, should be cautious of cheering such decision making too suddenly. He’s especially thinking about how offices work as social petri dishes, and how informal breaks in workflow enable us to focus when we need to, and catch a break when we may need it most — but don’t realize it.
“Most people can and do benefit from some small talk and social interaction in the workplace, and we don’t notice these ‘hidden’ benefits until they are gone,” he says.
It’s very possible, Castel adds, that if you’ve managed to work well at home it could be because you’ve structured in distractions — much like they would’ve occurred organically when someone came by to knock on your office door. “Sometimes these give us a mental break, and may make us enjoy the process of work more.”
Then again, if you’ve found working from home to be more tortuous, it’s quite possible you haven’t realized this part of the equation is what’s missing, and Castel notes it’s very hard to replicate random person-to-person contact. If you’ve especially missed the casual humor we get in person during informal interactions at work, and find it difficult to assess the level of engagement with peers (as he certainly says has been a struggle between him and his psychology students learning on Zoom), he says it may well be that working from home cannot replicate the experience you need to thrive.
Krieger adds that while he’s currently in the midst of advising managers about being flexible in allowing satellite structures, he’s also advising them to be sensitive about team dynamics within their organizations. If casual water-cooler conversations knit people together and that’s critical to problem-solving, it could be that at least some in-person work will be required at your company.
What About Your Career?
Krieger thinks worrying about the company ladder and where you might stand on it is a legitimate concern. However, he’s also advising clients that factors like over-riding health concerns or worries of exposing family members upon returning home from the office, have to be part of the equation bosses and managers are weighing at this time—though he’s also advising that managers be wary of the damage they could be doing to team dynamics. Castel’s bigger-picture view and hope is that the boss and their employees are weighing work-life balance more carefully than before the pandemic, and he reiterates that this is how you ought to be thinking about the equation, too.
“Some balance is needed,” he says. “I think being around people with common and complementary goals can be inspiring, but working at home can lead to many productive avenues, especially if we also can have more of an integrated work-life balance, so we can set up our routines to have the best of both worlds.”
Most of all, Castel thinks that’s also a way to pitch the idea to your company, as a stepping stone to partial work from home and partial office work, “because now there’s a good opportunity and many companies are taking advantage of it.”
He re-iterates that gut-check should be twofold: You may want to be in the office some of the time, and that as the experiment unfolds, we should all welcome the chance for some in-person interaction because we’re social creatures and crave human contact.