The work-life (im)balance of remote work and what leaders can do to help

Leaders have to step up in a big way and lead with example to ensure that remote work promotes a healthy work-life balance.

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work-life balance
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And so another year went by. The beginning of 2022 definitely feels like a deja-vu. Offices that had partially opened up or had adopted the hybrid work style (a mix of in-person and remote work days during the week) seem to have gone back to working completely remote. 

While the dominant school of thought definitely appreciates the remote work aka the flex-work schedule but does the remote work really provide a better balance of work and life?

Here I am exploring a few aspects of how remote work falls short of providing the ideal work-life balance that everyone dreams of.

The Fallacy of Flexible Work

A recent study done by Microsoft of its thousands of employees show that the dominant feeling about remote work during the epidemic has been the feeling of overwhelm. Recent surveys say that employee satisfaction across the industries have gone down by 13%. Based on a research done by the National Bureau of Economic Research it has been observed that 70% of employees have experienced a 70% increase in meetings after work from home was initiated. The remote work model increased the weekly meeting time by 10%, thus resulting in three additional meetings per week, per employee. It is almost as if the commute time has been engulfed by meetings.

Since employees do not need to commute and can attend meetings from their home office, meetings start earlier during the work day and end much later than they would normally do. This leads to longer work days. People taking care of families, whether that is raising young kids in the house or caring for elderly members, go from working on their office job to chores around the house so much so that they miss the break they got when they would commute to and from work.

The Laundry Logic/ The Do-It-All

“Working from home helps me do the laundry in between meetings”, said no man ever. The repeated statements made by women on social media that ‘work from home allows me to complete all my household chores’ is again an unattainable standard that is held for women expecting them to manage all house hold work while holding down work commitments. Women have been disproportionately disadvantaged by remote work. 

One of the most important factors that we fail to see in remote work is that it is not built so working mothers can take care of their children while drafting the business plan. While 26% of working mothers feel like they have fallen behind in their careers in the past year and a half , 41% of working mothers answered that they are taking more responsibilities at home. Working dads are stepping up but working mothers are generally on point for domestic tasks. The pressure may not come from spouses but working mothers definitely feel the emotional and societal pressure of being responsible for whether the children have finished their schoolwork or if dinner has been cooked. While both parents are working from home, women are bearing the brunt of homeschooling, childcare and domestic chores there by leading to widening gender pay and promotions gap.

All remote and no in-person lowers morale

Research shows that eye contact is an important aspect of triggering the brain to wholly process a conversation or to trust each other. No wonder workers who work remote continuously have complained about the feeling of isolation combined with a lack of belonging to the team. Full-time remote workers may have a harder time problem solving and being more creative than their in-office peers. Many contend that it’s easy to overlook the value of spontaneous ideas and collaborative thought experiments that can happen during in-person team work.

In the expanding geographical boundaries which in itself is a great thing for building dynamic and inclusive teams but at the same time adds the perils of coordination. Sometimes different timezones make it very difficult to finding a common time to collaborate, or ask and answer questions in real-time. 

Leaders Need To Step Up

So should we completely give up remote work?

Absolutely not!

Despite many misgivings of remote work it has multiple advantages which we cannot discount.  We cannot deny the fact that remote work in recent times have become inevitable and in certain cases have proven to be very effective. But in order for teams to be successful while working remotely leaders have to step up in a big way. Whether or not one likes it there is always a power dynamic and for practices to change managers need to ensure that they lead with these changes in order to establish team norms and create an environment where improving work-life balance doesn’t entirely rest on the shoulders of individual team members. These are times of major transitions and changes are an opportunity to take a step back and rethink. 

Here are just a handful of ways how one can do so.

Build in breaks within meeting time

Do not book back to back meetings. Imagine the time people needed to walk from one conference room to another during which they could take a restroom or water break. People working from their home offices still need that time to avoid being fatigued by back-to-back meetings. The only way to make sure that team members don’t go from one meeting to another without leaving their seat is for managers to enable the practice of not bookending meetings. End a meeting 5 minutes before the hour or better yet, schedule meetings for 25 mins or 50 mins to make sure participants always have time to take a mental break.

Reevaluate Meetings

We have become complacent in our practices in scheduling meetings. It’s time to reassess and evaluate two questions before scheduling every meeting – 

Is this meeting absolutely necessary or can the questions be answered via an email? 

Is everyone invited to this meeting critical to the discussion?

Just because we are all working remotely and have the privilege of hopping on a call it does not mean that we should schedule meetings for issues that could be easily resolved over an email or even a chat conversation.

Another important way to make sure that meetings are utilized well, set a clear agenda for the meeting so everyone attending the meeting can best prepare themselves for it, determine on their own if they need to attend, and invite people to the meeting who might be critical to the conversation.

Press Pause

Time away today looks very different from what it did a couple of years back. Be very intentional about pressing the pause button. Time away might look like moving a few feet away from the home office to the living room but that clean break from the work day is essential not just for one’s mental health but also for creativity to flourish. It is easy to slip into a habit of working round the clock because everyone is working from home but this is where managers can help build a better team dynamics by setting the tome of communication. Avoiding sending an email after work hours or over the weekend can go a long way in improving the work life balance.

Leverage tech

The idea of ‘hybrid’ work is not just about where we work but also ‘when’ we work. Leverage tech to either have your calendar blocked for quiet-work time or to avoid meetings when you have personal commitments. While working times can be very different for every individual, after-hour work emails can have ripple effects through out the team. If you are a manager, be cognizant about when you are sending the email. Most email platforms allow you to schedule emails so they are sent during work hours. Use words in the subject lines like, ‘Not Urgent’, or ‘Respond on Monday’ in case these are emails that really do not need an immediate attention.

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