Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard freely admits that she’s hanging out in her kitchen while working from home during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown.
“I’ve had many meetings where my kids walk behind me and get a snack out of the cabinet,” she said. “It doesn’t bother me.”
That’s because Rothbard is a self-described “integrator,” a term she uses for people who don’t mind blurring the boundary between work and home. Integrators are the opposite of segmentors – people who have a strong desire to separate business from personal life. When segmentors work from home, they don’t lounge around in their yoga pants all day. They like to get dressed with a purpose and sit down to work in a dedicated space, such as a home office, preferably with a door that can help keep out dogs, cats, kids and spouses.
“In this new work-from-home reality that we’re living in, it’s particularly challenging for segmentors, people who like to keep a sharp line between work and home. We can’t do that right now, even if we want to. This is where the rubber hits the road, and our two worlds are colliding like crazy,” Rothbard said. “We have kids who are doing online school. They’re wandering into the room to get something. You’ve got a spouse or a partner who is also trying to get work done from home. Sometimes you have clashing conference calls. Sometimes you both need the high-definition video camera…. These are the kinds of challenges that we inevitably are facing in the pandemic work-from-home reality.”
Rothbard joined the Wharton Business Daily radio show on SiriusXM to talk about the sudden shift from office to home prompted by the COVID-19 outbreak, and how workers and companies are adjusting to the new reality of remote work. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page. You can also watch a video interview with Rothbard below.)
“I’ve been looking at how people navigate the boundaries between work and home for many, many years, and this is a phenomenon that is both fascinating to me intellectually, but also I’m living it as well,” she said. “It has given a whole new meaning to living your research.”
A Digital Divide
Enabled by advances in technology, remote work has been gaining traction in the last decade. Research released last year from International Workplace Group, a flexible workspace provider, found that 83% of businesses offer, or are planning to offer, remote work. Yet less than a quarter of all full- and part-time employees worked from home in 2018, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of employees currently working from home under the social distancing guidelines demanded by the pandemic haven’t been counted officially. But anecdotally, it’s likely in the millions.
To be clear, Rothbard said, employees who have been able to migrate seamlessly from the office to the home are those “lucky enough to do knowledge work.” Many in white-collar fields such as finance, technology, education, science, engineering and design are using Slack, Zoom, WebEx, Microsoft Teams and other software to stay easily connected to each other and to clients. Blue-collar workers don’t have that luxury, she said.
“Some people’s jobs really need to be in the workplace. Our grocery store workers — we need them in the grocery store. We need people stocking the shelves. We need people shipping us goods to keep the flow of food going. Not to mention the toilet paper crisis that everybody’s experiencing,” Rothbard said. “Some jobs really don’t lend themselves as easily to work from home, and it’s also linked to socioeconomics. People who don’t have high-speed internet in their homes are experiencing this in terms of the public school crisis, in terms of the unevenness of access to technology. And that’s creating a digital divide which may be separating us even further.”
Concerns Over Productivity
Some companies that haven’t been too keen on flexible work have been forced into it by the pandemic, and once-reluctant managers are now learning how to navigate thorny issues around productivity. Those managers have a perennial concern that out-of-sight employees are also out of mind, taking a nap or doing laundry or watching TV during work-from-home hours because nobody is watching them.
“We can use the pandemic work-from-home experience as a way to really identify what’s important.”
Rothbard noted there are a variety of technology solutions to keep tabs on workers, by counting their keystrokes or monitoring log-in screen time. But a better solution, she said, is for managers to be crystal clear about expectations of employees who work remotely. What are the daily or weekly goals? What are the deadlines? How often should they check in via video, email or phone?
Some remote employees want even more flexibility by not sticking to a strict 9-to-5 schedule. Perhaps they want to work for four hours in the morning, take a long break in the afternoon, then work another four hours at night. Again, Rothbard said, that accommodation depends on the demands of the workplace.
“If they’re on a team and they need to coordinate with other people to get their work done, it’s really, really important to have that person available during a window that is also acceptable to the other people on the team,” she said. “As a manager, what I would recommend is that you make sure that employees structure shared time.”
The risks and benefits of telework have been debated for years. On the plus side, it enables workers to live outside of expensive urban areas where white collar jobs tend to be concentrated. It cuts down on carbon emissions from commuting. It saves on electricity used to power large office buildings. It helps many employees strike a better work-life balance. But teleworkers also report feeling lonely and losing the sense of camaraderie and team work that comes from being in an office, where hallway chats and impromptu meet-ups can spark creativity and innovation.
“It’s definitely a challenge for all of us, but it’s also an opportunity,” Rothbard said.
Business leaders can take this unprecedented moment in history to think about how they want the future of work to proceed. She urged them to examine their data and the metrics to build better policies around working from home.
“We’ll be able to work smarter if we can figure that out,” she said. “We can use the pandemic work-from-home experience as a way to really identify what’s important, what are our priorities, and what are our expectations about individual versus team-based work. If we can do that as leaders, use this as a natural experiment, that can allow us to leapfrog in terms of productivity and the work flexibility that we’re able to offer in the workplace in the future.”