COVID-19 has turned everyday life on its head. School closures, social distancing, and new work-from-home protocols have made life before COVID barely recognizable. Striving For A New “Work-Life Balance” is now more important than ever as COVID-19 has provided us with an incredible dry run on how to manage our businesses without the benefit of common office space. Some companies actually witnessed a significant increase in productivity. OpenText was one of these and as a result, approximately half of their physical offices around the world will not reopen.
In the pre-COVID world, most working people were already juggling a lot. Carving out time in a busy schedule for different priorities and commitments, often rushing from place to place, was the norm. At the same time, we had some sense of separation between work and home.
Now, everyone is at home. Demands on our time and emotional resources are escalating. No one knows what the future will bring on many fronts. Economic uncertainty is at an all-time high.
Is it even possible to talk about “balance” anymore? Current conditions are placing unique stresses on employees and work culture and there are growing concerns that people’s mental health and well-being can take a hit when working remotely.
In this post, I offer some suggestions on how leaders can support their employees in regaining some work-life equilibrium.
The New Normal Is Anything But Normal
“Work-life balance” is a term that gets tossed around a lot in conversations about company work culture. Technology has made work easier, but it has also extended the boundaries of the workplace.
Smartphones and ubiquitous access to the internet have created an always-on digital culture in many companies. More and more people have become accustomed to “taking work home”, answering late-night emails, or checking their phone during their kid’s hockey practice.
But work-life balance isn’t only for working parents. According to one survey, 79 percent of employees without children were looking for a better work-life balance.
Source: Huffington Post
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, striking a balance between work and personal life was a challenge for many. But having different physical spaces for those different parts of life made it a little easier.
But now that’s all changed.
The lines between work life and home life have suddenly gotten much blurrier. It isn’t just that people are working from home, it’s that everyone else is at home too.
Finding work-life balance is a whole new ballgame in the COVID-19 era, and it looks different for different people. Parents with school-aged children need to supervise their kids to some degree, even as they begin new distance learning programs. People whose spouses are also working from home have to share available working space. Those who live alone no longer have the social interaction they may have enjoyed in the office (and outside of it). For some people, working from home has created a new reality of social isolation and loneliness and removed a very important source of social connectivity.
There may be some silver linings. The shift to remote work arrangements has eliminated long commutes. For better or worse, the suspension of most group activities has cleared everyone’s schedules. Suddenly, some of us have more time.
But more time isn’t necessarily what we need. We still have work to do, and life to live. Work and home spaces have merged (or collided!) and it’s time to rethink what work-life balance means in this new reality.
Striving For A New “Work-Life Balance”
In times past, this would have been a different post. Advice on supporting work-life balance might have included flexible work schedules, optional fitness allowances, or paid time off for volunteering. But we’re in uncharted territory now, where everyone’s options are much narrower.
These new working (and living) conditions are a challenge. Leaders have a big part to play in helping their teams navigate these waters. Here are three things you can do to support a healthy work-life balance as your employees weather the COVID-19 storm.
Respect Personal Boundaries
With most employees now working from home, work has literally entered personal spaces. While everyone’s home life is different, each employee must still be able to draw a line between their personal and professional lives.
I’m not only talking about separating work time from family time (though that’s clearly a big part of work-life balance). I’m also talking about the ways your employees are expected to interact with each other in this new environment of virtual teams and remote work.
Tools like Zoom or GoToMeeting are great for capturing some of the energy that real-time, face-to-face collaboration brings. It’s no accident that Zoom’s user base exploded to 200 million in March, up from 10 million in December.
But joining video calls from home is not the same as joining them from an office cubicle. Everyone may be working from home, but not everyone wants to let their co-workers into their personal space.
Source: Ascend Consulting
Our personal space can reveal a lot about us. Some people may be self-conscious about their personal surroundings, for any number of reasons. They may be sensitive to revealing their aesthetic taste or even their socioeconomic status. They may also want to protect the privacy of other household members who are nearby. Video calls may force employees to expose aspects of their personal lives that they prefer to keep private.
As your employees juggle the escalating demands of home life, they’re operating from an increasingly personal space. Instead of trying to replicate “normal” workplace protocols, keep their personal boundaries in mind. Allow them some latitude to determine how (and when) they communicate and collaborate with their peers.
High-performing and resilient organizations have high trust levels. Even if your team already had some work from home policies in place, everyone working from home is going to change team dynamics.
Communication patterns will change. Productivity may suffer while everyone (managers and team leads included) adjusts. In the midst of this disruption, it’s important to establish and keep trust.
In other words, now is not the time to micromanage.
When managers can no longer interact in person with employees, they may be tempted to over-check in with them while they are working from home. While well-intended, such interactions may add more stress to already burdened employees.
Constantly checking in with employees (via email or on Slack) can make them feel like they’re under surveillance. Given the pressure that everyone is under, it’s more appropriate to allow more autonomy, not less.
Micromanagers may not even realize they’re overstepping, but you can bet the people they’re managing do. Micromanagement drains productivity, both for the manager and the employee. But it also breaks down trust and erodes employee morale.
Source: Wunderland Group
Trust is the cornerstone of a healthy organization, and even more so during challenging times. It reduces friction, increases commitment, and keeps your team proactively engaged.
But remember: You need to give trust to get trust.
The actions you take to show trust in your team will strengthen their trust in you. Focus on the “what” of any given deliverable, but try not to dictate the “how”. Offer help or direction if needed, but trust them to execute in the way that’s best suited to their current circumstances.
Lead By Example
Work-life balance applies as much to leaders as to anyone else. And as with all behaviours you want to see in your team, you need to model them first.
For leaders in the current economic environment, this may be easier said than done. Founders and leadership teams are steering their businesses through the economic storm — and that isn’t a 9-to-5 job. But your team needs to know that you support a healthy work-life balance, especially while working from home.
Your employees are more than likely anxious about the future. Even if you’re communicating consistently with them (and you should be!), they can’t ignore the gloomy economic forecasts. Some may abandon any attempt at work-life balance for fear of losing their jobs down the road. Seeing their leaders “walk the talk” can go a long way to alleviating concerns about clocking-out at the end of the day.
Source: Educator’s Room
Your employees can’t see you in the office, but they can see you online. Avoid sending emails in the evening or in the early morning hours, indicating that you’re working when they aren’t. If you do, make it clear that there’s no rush to respond. Log off your team’s collaboration platforms (like Microsoft Teams or Slack) when you’re not working, rather than appearing to be “online” 24/7. If you need to take time off to recharge, do it — and make sure your employees know about it.
And if these aren’t practical steps for you to take, practice transparency with your team. Be honest about the challenges that you are facing at work and at home. Let your employees know that everyone needs to find a balance that works for them.
Taking Care of Your Leaders is Taking Care of Businesses
It is important to acknowledge that your role as a leader is also undergoing disruption. Leading remotely is all about effective communication and the ability to help your team achieve results in this new environment. Once you got over the hump of setting up the business to work remotely, your role as a leader shifted from managing the logistics of remote work and the triage of operations and business continuity, back again to the usual challenges of growing your business and implementing strategic initiatives; but you find yourself in a new landscape.
It is important for companies to understand their existing leadership toolbox may no longer be sufficient to deal with this new world of work; your leaders are being asked questions to which they may not have definitive answers, they are being forced to learn new skills quickly and are expected to provide their teams with the same level of leadership and motivation.
Companies that invest in leadership training and coaching programs to build their leaders’ resiliency will have a better chance of succeeding and achieving their original goals for 2020.
What COVID-19 taught us about “Work-Life Balance”: Maintaining Balance Strengthens Resilience
As everyone struggles to find a new work-life balance amid the pandemic, flexibility and empathy should be the order of the day. This new work-from-home culture has imposed constraints on everyone — but as I have said elsewhere, constraints can be advantages in disguise. With the right policies and behaviours in place, your organization will come out stronger than ever.