Four months into the coronavirus epidemic, most of us who have been "working from home" (or WFH as it is now commonly known) have realised that it is no piece of cake. There is hardly anything normal about all members of an entire household needing their space to work or study online while a mountain of housework lies in wait at every corner.
I work as a faculty in the business school of a local private university and in March this year when closures were announced, I was excited at the thought of working from home and teaching my classes entirely online, something I was confident I could manage, as we were using online platforms from as far back as 2015. I had also trained my students to take live tests online while the university was open, having had the foresight to know that a closure was in the offing.
However, a variety of challenges cropped up. House work- disinfecting groceries and other purchases, cooking, doing the dishes and laundry took forever. My spouse seemed to have back-to-back video conferences going on night and day. Often he would finish work way past midnight. Initially, he had set up his workspace in our living area; this turned out to be a problem as I couldn't move around the house freely as any noise I made could be heard on these never-ending conference call sessions. He would also not have a moment's free break between his calls.
I eventually figured out that the best thing to do is to acknowledge that we are all vulnerable, ask for help, share out responsibilities within the family and just plan smarter. Not every task needs to be done on a daily basis. If family members know that their needs are also being considered apart from work, much stress can be dealt with.
My husband started working from the spare bedroom with his desk, so as not to disrupt our movement within the house. Everyone started to pitch in more with household tasks. We even looked up "meal planning" ideas online and found a few sources of processed vegetables, etc.
With time we have learnt to keep phone/online conversations shorter generally, by cutting down on unnecessarily long and formal opening and closing statements. We also keep almost all calls on speaker to force ourselves to be cognizant of how much time is actually being spent on the call and allow us some mobility (e.g. to go and check on the stove while the call is in progress).
These steps we took after much trial and error. It is still very much a work-in-progress; we are far from managing our time comfortably!
However, personal steps are often not enough. There is also a role to be played by employers. Organisations too need to be considerate of the need for "personal time" and prioritising physical and mental health in an era when the boundaries between work and family/personal space have been totally obliterated. They can allow this time - a break at least twice a day - when all members know they will not have to join some video conference or meeting. This would actually be in their interest in the long run as a recent Harvard Business Review article by Giurge and Bohns, "Three Tips to avoid WFH burnout" pointed out the surprising fact that workers would be at higher risk of burnout while working from home than from the office.
Corporations should also help their employees work smarter. Time-management training has never been more relevant!
Also, more employees than ever before are using video calls without the necessary training. Though much has been written about how to look presentable for video conferencing sessions and afford the best view of your living room furniture, there are other aspects to it. Video calls should all be preceded by an agenda so that precious time is not wasted in explanations and getting on the same page. Remember, emails have not become obsolete! They should be used for setting the video meeting agenda well in advance, along with the expected duration of the meeting.
With the WHO predicting that the Coronavirus will be here for a long time, and other dire predictions like another strain of swine flu virus spreading, learning how to change the abnormal work environment at home into a relatively more normal one is of paramount importance. The sooner we all take steps, the better.
Rumana Anam is an Assistant Professor in the ULAB School of Business of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh