May 5, 2020 - Economy

The good and bad news about working from home during the pandemic

Office chair

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Although many, many companies pulled off relatively seamless transitions to operating fully remote, workers are discovering unforeseen consequences of the sudden switch.

The big picture: This is not normal teleworking. Typically, employees aren't caring for or schooling kids while on the job — and they're not prohibited from seeing friends, working from a coffee shop or going to the gym.

  • People are experiencing Zoom fatigue, as the in-person meetings and happy hours of yesterday have been replaced by ceaseless calendar invited to join video calls, writes Axios' Scott Rosenberg.
  • Parents — who make up around one-third of the U.S. workforce — are dealing with unprecedented stress and exhaustion.
    • At the end of March, 57% of mothers and 32% of fathers of kids under 18 said their mental health has deteriorated during the pandemic, per a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

There could also be longer-term consequences of this grand experiment in remote work, experts tell Axios.

  • It could lead to an increase in outsourcing. "If a job can be done remotely by a worker in the U.S., it can also be done remotely by, says, a worker in India or China," says Brookings' Sawhill.
  • And we don't yet understand the effect of telework — particularly at such a massive scale — on productivity. Past studies have reached conflicting conclusions as to whether working remotely leads people to be more productive, with some finding that staying home helps workers and others reporting that it leads to disengagement.

At the same time, companies are coming up with innovative ways to ease employees' discomfort and pain as they navigate working while quarantined.

  • Harvard's Choudhury, who has spoken to chief executives at companies around the globe about the shift to remote work, tells Axios that firms are using teleconferencing as the new community gathering spot, hiring DJs for virtual dance parties or fitness instructors for group workouts.
  • There are also companies attempting to help working parents by offering virtual homework help for the kids, he says.

The novel coronavirus is also accelerating the adoption of certain workplace benefits that were already on the rise, reports Fortune, citing survey data from the Society for Human Resource Management.

  • More firms are adding online therapy sessions and telemedicine services: 72% of employers provided telehealth benefits in 2019, compared with 86% after the coronavirus crisis began.
  • Around half of employers are offering to reimburse certain remote working costs, like new monitors or boosts to internet speed.
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