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Frustration Revisited
May 17, 2021   |  Articles

A Confounded Experiment Revisited – Working Remotely During COVID

As a long standing proponent of the benefits of remote work, when COVID shut down state after state and pushed workers into their homes, I hoped that we were on the cusp of a nation-wide shift towards accepting remote work but I feared that we were playing a rigged game. Indeed, in the first few months of the COVID pandemic, many companies offered data disproving assumptions that remote work *must* be ineffective and seemed to validate the longstanding arguments of WFH proponents.

But amidst the success stories and articles predicting the death of brick and mortar, there were challenges.  Many of the same companies that lauded remote work productivity in mid-2020 have already begun to reopen their offices and my personal knowledge of offers to new hires at multiple large, Bay Area tech companies confirms that presence in a physical office is still being required.  With almost a year of data collected around the productivity, efficacy, and desirability of remote work, it can be tempting to believe that we can now make informed decisions about the future.  Unfortunately, there is a catch: the past year remains a confounded experiment!

One oversight in my original article was a failure to clearly articulate what “confounded experiment” actually means so I will take a moment to address that now.  In experimental design, a basic goal is to separate the influences of each variable being tested so that clear conclusions can be drawn from the results.  When variables are “confounded”, it is impossible to separate and understand the impact of one without the impact of the other.

When it comes to remote work between March 2020 and May 2021, I believe that it is impossible to separate the impact of remote working conditions from the additional factors imposed by a global pandemic.  The factors are deeply confounded.  This article is therefore intended to address those leaders whose commitment to fully returning to their physical offices is now as strong, or stronger, than before the pandemic struck.  Even if the past year has been tough for your business and the data seems clear, I would like you to consider that remote work may still be a viable option for your organization.

I will start by asking how much technical and fiscal support team members had in creating ergonomic and technologically adequate work environments in their homes?  While many companies have offered to reimburse employees for everything from extra monitors to better desk chairs, leaders focused on an imminent return to collocation, and worried about the bottom line, may have considered such accommodations frivolous.  As the pandemic dragged on, accepting the status quo of employee home offices may have happened unintentionally.  This is unfortunate as additional monitors have been shown to increase productivity and although many ergonomics solutions focus on long term musculoskeletal damage, even short term “muscle soreness” can have a negative impact on a person’s effectiveness.  The introduction of so much video conferencing has also increased the need for relatively modern graphics cards, processors, and webcams in industries that previously cared more about the ability to run Excel.

Assuming that your teams had access to all of the processing power, monitors, chairs, and other equipment they might have wanted, I would ask next whether your employees are fortunate enough to have home situations that permitted any degree of focus?  Speaking as a particularly privileged person in a double-income-no-kids household, even my husband and I have been challenged to share our home while trying to work simultaneously.  Our house is wonderfully laid out for living but terribly configured as a shared office.  At the start of the pandemic, one of us had to move into a bedroom, neither of which had desks, when we both had calls and wished to keep our conversations separate.  

As the pandemic dragged on, I was able to tuck an Ikea table into a corner of the guest room as a more private desk and we were able to move my husband’s “home office” space out to a finished shed in the backyard.  This has been sufficient for us but  we are now completely out of enclosed spaces.  If we had also needed to accommodate homeschooling, we would have had no other option than to give over our only common space as a classroom.  

Two adults and two cats, even in a small house, is no challenge at all compared to sharing the space with half a dozen roommates or children too young to be left alone all day.  I know many people who worked from home full time pre-pandemic and NONE of them were simultaneously responsible for full time child care.  Parents have had few, if any, resources available to them over most of the past year, leaving them juggling childcare and remote work to the best of their ability.  Before declaring a parent “unable” to effectively work remotely, they should be offered an opportunity to be a remote worker instead of being a remote-working-teacher-parent.  You may have to wait a few months (and yes, this is the same timing I proposed in the first edition of the article so I hope that the timing is more accurate on this pass) to attempt such an experiment but the suggested delay simply emphasizes the poor conditions this crisis has created for effective remote work.

Perhaps most disruptive of all, however, is the mental health impact of a global pandemic.  While many of us struggle to truly grasp the implications of losing over 550,000 countrymen and women, millions more are in the throes of personal grief or struggling under the weight of a changing reality.  Quarantine can have a devastating effect on mental health, even without a worldwide crisis, and asking individuals whose limits are being tested by daily survival to step up and deliver business results at the same level they achieved a year ago may be unrealistic.  

No employee should be expected to bring their best self to work after the loss of a family member or close friend.  Neither the duration nor the universal nature of the COVID pandemic diminishes the potential severity of the effects on mental health.  In fact, the persistent presence of the pandemic can be an unending reminder of trauma.  There are very real consequences to living through a pandemic and reduced productivity in a business setting may be one for your employees.  Such an effect might have been equally incapacitating in the office but there was no opportunity under most shelter orders to test this hypothesis.

Given the nature of the “COVID-induced remote work experiment”, I think it is safe to say that if working remotely has worked for you and your team over the past year, working remotely will likely be effective for you under any conditions.  If your team has struggled, however, I implore you to remember that valid experiments include controls to separate out the impact of all the potential factors.  The past year has been nothing but confounding factors.  So before ruling out remote work for your teams, please take the time for a true experiment.  Wait until the emotions have ebbed and childcare is available.  Address the ergonomics and provide the necessary equipment.  Isolate the variable and let your team demonstrate the reality in a more “typical” setting.  They *still* might just surprise you.

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