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How to better manage tasks in the work-from-home era

By Sian Beilock | China Daily | Updated: 2021-01-09 09:50
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Many managers are treating 2020's pandemic-induced shift to work from home as though it were standard telecommuting. But it's not, and operating under the assumption that it is can harm employees' morale. While office workers are typically faring better than essential workers during the pandemic, the abrupt shift to remote work has been jarring, and its effects should not be overlooked.

Leadership experts and cognitive scientists can attest that resistance to change is less about the change itself and more about losing control and the fear of uncertainty. Humans-and other animals, for that matter-respond defensively when the power to make decisions about their own lives is removed. In a recent study on the COVID-19 pandemic and mental health, researchers found that adults surveyed in the United States and five European countries who believe that other people or random chance mostly dictates what happens to them also report greater symptoms of depression.

There's a big difference between choosing to telecommute and suddenly being forced to work from home. While eliminating the daily commute has been nice, the average office worker simply wasn't mentally or financially prepared to turn his or her home into a makeshift "WeWork location" while also taking on previously outsourced teaching, childcare and eldercare duties. Many families do not live in homes that can easily accommodate telecommuting, and some employees' domestic arrangements are not conducive to success.

Managers can take several steps to ease these burdens for their employees.

To begin with, they can set reasonable expectations. Many employees are bearing new burdens and facing pressure from multiple sources. Managers can avoid overwhelming them by eliminating unnecessary reports and redundant procedures, and by being as transparent as possible about deadlines. For example, if an important client meeting is postponed, managers should inform everyone who is preparing materials for it immediately, so they can reprioritize the day's tasks.

Likewise, managers shouldn't expect immediate replies to emails-a constant sense of urgency contributes to employee burnout. Sending emails outside of working hours (especially late at night and on weekends) should be avoided, or staff shouldn't be expected (much less required) to answer after-hours messages immediately.

Second, managers should not force employees to be "on" all the time. Zoom fatigue is sky high, and employees may have to manage quiet space so that all household members can participate in their respective work calls and video meetings. Women usually get the short end of the stick, with one author dubbing them "reluctant nomads" in the "battle for space". For instance, an employee might find herself perched on the edge of the bathtub, precariously balancing a computer on her knees, so that her partner and children can conduct their business or schoolwork from the living room, bedroom, and kitchen. Also, women tend to face unfair criticism and pressure over their appearance on Zoom. So, managers should ask whether any meetings could be eliminated, shortened, or conducted without video.

Third, they can find more opportunities to celebrate accomplishments. While it's always a good idea to strike a balance between criticism and praise, employees now face a constant flood of terrible news related to the pandemic, and are likely starved for wins. Managers should look for small successes that can be publicly recognized to boost morale, and thank employees for their hard work when they see a job well done. It costs nothing to show appreciation, and a little positive feedback could be exactly what someone needs to hear on a particularly rough day.

And fourth, managers should capitalize on accessible resources. They should look for ways to create more win-win scenarios while leveraging the assets they already have. At Barnard College, Columbia University, for example, we are paying our students to tutor the children of our faculty and staff. Our undergraduates gain part-time work at a time when internships and entry-level jobs are scarce, and our full-time employees can outsource one task among their many responsibilities.

We are also offering extended childcare and eldercare benefits through our existing contract with an external provider. Managers who are unclear about where employees need some help could ask them in an anonymous survey about the biggest challenges they face and allocate resources accordingly.

Adjusting to sudden change requires effort on everyone's part. Managers owe it to their employees to stop treating work from home like a luxury. The office wasn't invited into the home. It turned up like an unexpected guest-and it shows few signs of leaving soon.

The author is a cognitive scientist, and president of Barnard College at Columbia University.

Project Syndicate

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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