Advice & News

March 22, 2021

Working Remotely Doesn't Mean You Always Have to Be on the Clock


Olesya Kuznetsova/Shutterstock

The pandemic is changing professional culture. Pre-covid, around 20 percent of Americans reported working remotely often or always according to Pew Research survey results. Now, more than 70 percent work from home frequently or daily.

Part of what's made remote work difficult during the pandemic is that there was no opportunity to acclimate: facilitating childcare, remote training, and shared mores around boundaries and expectations all happened immediately and in a complex context.

Still, the Pew survey results reveal that more than half (54 percent) of employees would like to continue working remotely, post-pandemic, if they have the opportunity to do so. It seems, however, that a key first step to a permanent remote program would be outlining expectations and enhancing the remote work culture for employees.

Because remote work is still an emerging workplace trend, it's helpful for employees to get clear on how it could function better. Hopefully, employees will have a hand in shaping what remote work looks like for the remainder of the pandemic and in the post-COVID workplace. A key dimension of fit when it comes to remote work is shaping boundaries. Here's what to consider.

Remote Work Is Mutually Beneficial

It was wonderful that you were able to keep working during the pandemic, and that many institutions were able to continue their work during such a monumental global event. And it's heartbreaking that so many higher ed professionals and so many Americans lost their jobs.

But none of this means that you have to work extra hard or be extra available to "make up" for any of this. You're still a person living through a difficult, scary time. Your institution is fortunate too; your school was able to retain its precious talent. Give yourself credit for being flexible. You made this work.

You don't owe your institution your non-stop attention because you got the opportunity to work from home during a global crisis. You get to have boundaries. You get to have weekends and evenings. You get to have as normal of a life as you can muster right now. Decide what that means for you, and claim it.

Work with Your Team to Outline Expectations

The pandemic has ushered in a whole new paradigm when it comes to how we work. Thankfully, it looks like we may turn a corner soon in managing COVID-19. Still, many of the workplace changes we're finessing now stand to be with us for a while.

Get clear on what's expected of you when you're working remotely. Are there expectations around response rates for phone calls and emails? How does the team manage high-volume seasons? Are there core hours when you need to be reachable? It's hard to feel confident when you're unsure.

Once you're clear on expectations, there's plenty of tools to help you outline and clarify your boundaries. Doing so is vital to the success of a remote arrangement. "The problem of being 'always on' is a big contributing factor in remote burn-out, something I've been mindful of and working to counteract in my team," Matt Erhard, managing partner, Summit Search Group, explains.

"One step I recommend all remote workers take is to disable desktop or phone notifications for your e-mail and work messaging systems when you're not actively working. Some systems will let you schedule 'do not disturb' periods during which those notifications will be blocked. If you don't have this option, you can disable them manually at the start of your off-time and re-enable them when you're starting your next work day," Erhard adds.

Actively teach yourself to separate your professional and personal lives. It's a fundamental skill for remote professionals that keeps you from burning out.

Explain What You Need

Flexibility is a wonderful perk. It's a give and take. If you're helping your daughter get on a Zoom call, taking an afternoon yoga class, or dropping your pup at the vet, you don't owe your employers your non-stop allegiance and attention in return.

It can feel like you have to keep paying those increments of time back. There's just an overlap between work and life. Think about all the times that your mind turns to work during your personal life: in the shower when you're mentally writing letters to donors; when you wake up with the resolution to a student issue; when you're exercising and you figure out a better way to explain something to colleagues.

Recognize that a give and take is rooted in an ongoing relationship built on trust and stop sweating the details. Then talk with your manager about what you need to be well-positioned to work. This is a time when the very nature of work is undergoing a transformation. Be honest, clear, and unapologetic about what you need.

"Clearly communicating your schedule to your coworkers and managers is important, too, especially if your schedule changes from day to day. . . Discuss the matter with your team and come up with an efficient, clear system for informing each other of your daily work schedules to ensure no one is being interrupted when they're trying to focus on their personal life," Erhard advises.

Advocate When Necessary

Remote operators have to assert themselves more. That's especially true now as everyone is still getting comfortable with this new paradigm.

Erhard advises: "If your manager isn't respecting reasonable boundaries set by the employee, it's definitely appropriate to push back. Remote managers and employees don't see each other face-to-face and this can have an unfortunate dehumanizing effect. Very often, the offending manager doesn't realize how much stress they're causing to employees until someone tells them, so a polite request to stop sending weekend/evening e-mails (or whatever other issue is going on) can be helpful. Concisely explain the negative impact of the action and suggest a potential better approach. The main thing to keep in mind is that you want to keep your tone positive and change-focused."

A Hopeful Future

Hopefully, some employees will soon be able to return to campus. Maybe by summertime children can attend summer camps and visit family members, relieving their overworked parents of the multitasking that has made remote work so hard. Perhaps autumn will look more like it used to on campus.

And hopefully, we will have learned a new option for working productively because of what we experienced during the pandemic. For all the chaos we've endured, there is much that is beneficial about remote work, as long as we can get control of it and truly make it work well for us. Make that your ambition. It's a worthy one.