Are things actually any more flexible a year into the pandemic?

The promise of remote work and electronic communication isn’t new, but it certainly ramped up and grew to so many new industries during the pandemic. When everyone went remote last year, the use of Zoom, Slack, and Teams all skyrocketed and we were promised that this new era of productivity software would result in flexibility and increased productivity. But in the end, are our lives actually better for it, and are we better able to enjoy our personal lives?

The COVID pandemic may not have introduced the concept of flexible work arrangements and remote work, but it certainly sped up the adoption of practices and systems around it. For many who enjoyed the flexibility to work from home periodically before the pandemic, it quickly forced us to work remotely all of the time. For others, it may have been the first time working from home. While we all embraced the ability to work from home and interact remotely and virtually, we also didn’t pause to think about how this rapid shift would impact us. Immediately going to entire teams working remotely every single day meant that we shifted our availability, but not necessarily the expectations. As a result, many people are now paying the price of finding they are constantly connected and reachable since time zones and physical barriers matter less now.

I used to work remotely once a week or so before COVID. When I was remote, it was a challenge to feel connected to others. I would often schedule my work from home day as one in which I either had very few meetings or one in which I had mostly remote meetings with coworkers from other parts of the world, knowing that hybrid in person and remote meetings just don’t work well. When any significant portion of a meeting takes place in a single location, it becomes the center of that meeting and makes it very difficult for the remote people to participate. It’s hard to hear often depending on the position of the microphone, hard to pick up visual cues depending on the location or presence of the camera, and nearly impossible to break in to the conversation.

The shift to everyone being remote meant that this would no longer be an issue. With everyone individually on calls with their own dedicated camera and microphone, it became far easier to conduct meetings. However, it also became way harder to schedule and to conduct an effective conversation. The slight lag on a video call makes it difficult to pick up on cues when someone wants to jump in, and the remote nature means people feel less likely to want to participate. Conversations that often sparked lively debate organically in person become teeth pulling exercises over video conferencing. It’s also hard to schedule meetings because every little conversation that could have taken place at a desk or in a café now needs to be a scheduled meeting. It’s for these reasons I’m not especially optimistic about heading partially back to work in a hybrid model.

The pandemic really sped up the adoption of instant communication mechanisms and tools in the name of reachability and productivity. Tools like Zoom and Slack are supposed to make teams and individuals more productive by allowing asynchronous conversations and rich forms of communication that can augment regular conversation. However, in reality they just set expectations that everyone is reachable all of the time and erode the physical barriers we have with an office. While I’m still technically reachable after leaving the office for the night, the barrier to reaching me is just enough that it has to be an emergency to do so. Now, since every single conversation is over Slack, it’s muscle memory to ping me anytime of day or night when someone thinks of it. And because these tools are so terrible at actually filtering, I get pinged with a notification that I can’t ignore. Even when silenced or with muted notifications, it’s way too easy to form a habit of “just checking” email or messages before bed or when I wake up, encouraging the bad behavior.

For a while, I thought I was successfully taming these tools. I had rules set up for what time I could get a notification for email and Slack messages. I would shut off my laptop for the night and thought I was disconnecting. But really I was still giving mental capacity to these systems because calendar invites would sneak through into joy notifications, resulting in me checking email just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. The red unread bubble on Slack on my phone called to me and I would often check it just to make sure someone wasn’t desperately trying to reach me. Despite years of judging the people with 999+ unread emails or the count of unread notifications on their home screen simply giving up, I realized they were actually better disconnecting than me.

It’s not just the tools either. With remote work, we thought that we could set our own hours that worked best for us and disconnect otherwise. On the days I need to leave early for a doctor visit or child care related, I should have no problem and can either get online earlier or make it up later since remote work means the flexibility to work whenever and wherever. Instead, I find more pressure to keep up with messages when out. Instead of being able to leave the office and disconnect for the time needed to take care of these errands, I leave, feel guilty, and end up checking and responding to messages throughout. Instead of having the flexibility to workout in the morning and get online slightly later, I need to dig out from the piles of messages from the previous night and am already behind by the time most people start getting online for the day since they’re online earlier without a commute. Instead of needing to work only when the core of a team is, it means needing to work across the entire team every member of a team is.

These practices aren’t sustainable. It’s no wonder that a year into the pandemic burnout is at an all time high, especially in the technology industry where adoption of these tools and practices are so high. While managers and numerous others may have already had these tools in place before, they are finding the demands much higher now, and all those that didn’t are now experiencing the pain. While the pandemic was supposed to free us from the shackles imposed by physical location, we’re finding that the freedom is more detrimental than we could have imagined. Instead of continuing to stick to the old expectations around meetings and acceptable communication, we’re abandoning those boundaries and mixing work into every other facet of our lives.

The pandemic completely shifted the way we work and how we balance work and life. When everyone went remote, we believed this would mean more flexibility and the ability to make our own schedules. As parents, we believed we could schedule around commitments and family needs. Instead, we are finding that we need to respond to messages, emails, calls, and join meetings while out on the way to daycare or at the doctor’s office. Instead of being able to work early and at our most productive morning schedule, we still end up online late in the evening to accommodate other schedules and other time zones as teams become more distributed. The tools that were supposed to free us are making things worse and chaining us to each other. We need to find the ways to break free before it’s too late and we bring these practices back to the office when we return for hybrid work or we’ll never be able to go back.

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