Saturday 4 July, 2020

COVID-19: A glimpse into remote working - expectation vs reality

iStock photo

iStock photo

With Kareem McKenzie

As nations across the globe continue to battle the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the harsh reality of what is upon us eerily looms. With close to 6.5 million infected worldwide and more than 350,000 dead, these numbers have grown exponentially over the past few months. Coupled with this, the unknown duration of this pandemic presents before us a grim and bleak forecast; most certainly a cause of great concern on a global scale.

Inundated health care systems, overworked health care professionals, very lonely exit and burial for the ones who unfortunately succumb to this virus, colossal job losses, impending salary cuts, cash-strapped businesses and contracting economies are all indicative of the ongoing fallout from the effects of this deadly virus.

But what are governments, businesses and even individuals doing to combat the spread of COVID-19 in order to ensure that this silent killer meets its own demise? 

I hear of the reemerging phenomenon, “social distancing”, a term used in modern history (over a century ago) as a counter measure to restrict the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, but a term least likely to have been in anyone’s vocabulary, let alone ever being practised by this generation. As humans, we are naturally created as social beings. Building relationships, interacting with each other, touching, hugging and even kissing are some of the daily norms governing peoples’ behaviour. Additionally, we are accustomed to going about our daily lives, dropping the kids off at school, heading to work, going shopping and doing other leisure activities as freely as is desired. However, with COVID-19 comes restrictions; with COVID-19 comes social distancing.

This brings into focus the subject of this article – remote working: expectation vs reality.

As a preemptive strike to combat the disease, many entities have sought to activate their business continuity plans, which also now happens to include plans for remote working. This seeks to ensure the practice of social distancing and adherence to other government stipulations aimed at curbing the spread of the disease. For the lucky few who are still able to hang on to their jobs and operate remotely, this may be deemed both a blessing and a curse in some respects. Why a blessing? This affords one more time spent with loved ones, the freedom of not having to rise before dawn to beat traffic, the flexibility of being your own person in your own space. On the flip side, why is this a curse? The tremendous physical and psychological toll, increased family/spousal disputes and other unrelenting challenges presenting themselves on a daily basis.

With that said, let us examine the expectations many businesses currently hold in regard to remote working and juxtapose that with the harsh realities experienced by the millions who are now, you guessed it - working from home.  

The Expectation

It is my personal view that whilst many corporate entities move towards establishing protocols for remote work to ensure business continuity, the expectation happens to be a far cry from the reality now being faced by the many still employed around the globe.

Business as usual – Remote working by its very name suggests the performance of your regular day to day tasks away from a physical office. This would indicate a lifting and shifting of specific duties from one location to the next with a seamless transition. In other words, it is expected that it will be business as usual, albeit in another location and in this instance, from home.

Conducive workspace – Businesses are expecting employees to continue to deliver on the required objectives of the assigned tasks. However, a workspace at home conducive to such a delivery, ideally, would require a quiet workspace with little or no distractions. Additionally, one would hope that these spaces are ergonomically friendly with nicely padded chairs that offer adequate back support for an 8 hour day and comes outfitted a with conveniently placed office desk and other utilities available at your fingertips.

Reliable connectivity/high-speed internet – Working remotely comes with the increased need for enhanced communication via video/teleconferencing tools, access to company data over a secure virtual private network (VPN) along with access to applications and IT systems; all of which depend on a steady and reliable high-speed internet connection.

Proper work schedule/plan – Establish a set work schedule for oneself and one’s team (for those who are people managers) to ensure 100 per cent productivity and the overall achievement of daily key performance indicators (KPIs) at all times. This should also take into consideration your meal plan for the day and even factor “no disturb” timeslots of which your family must be informed.

Discipline – The individual should also possess a level of maturity and discipline to ensure that adequate focus is maintained throughout the day, thus facilitating achievement of objectives.

Readily accessible for frequent calls/check-ins - I suppose it is also eagerly anticipated that individuals will be at others beckoning call readily accessible for check-ins, status updates or otherwise. Further, it is perceived that any such conference calls will be uninterrupted, as let’s face it, you are working in a conducive environment – right?

The Reality

The reality faced by several millions across the globe currently working remotely, just so happens to be aeons away from the expectations outlined above. So, what is the stark reality?

Business as usual – By no means is it, or will it ever be business as usual; well at least not with the day to day challenges further highlighted in this article.

Conducive workspace – Really? How about your dining room table and a wooden chair, the sofa, the floor or let’s try a nice mattress with a soft fluffy pillow to prop you up and support your back whilst working? You know what, let me retreat to the car! Maybe you don’t have any distractions and your designated workspace is completely sound proof but not so for me. There goes the weed whacker again as my neighbor gets her lawn nicely manicured; construction noises in the not too far distance, yes, that’s my other neighbour who is expanding his house – does he know I am working remotely?

Then even closer to home, my two bundles of joy, both playful energetic boys, one almost two, the other seven. Both demanding their attention at any given point but with the older being a little more empathetic/sensitive to the need that daddy, though home, is working. “Cricket at 5pm Dad? Don’t forget you promised football when you get a break too.”

Oh, did I mention my beautiful wife who just so happens to be working from home as well? Suffice to say, we have butt heads on a few occasions, arguing over whose turn it is to tend to the kids, who needs to get on which conference call now, competing priorities, competing for time, competing for space, competing for a quiet zone in order to deliver on job objectives.

Reliable connectivity/high-speed internet – Well, an established service provider recently announced that users should brace for reduced internet speeds/bandwidth. I wonder how that will pan out. As, the government enforces stricter restrictions and more persons are working remotely…hmmm. I will try my best to continue to deliver whilst I get bumped off the internet, toggle between my mobile hotspot and personal internet connection. Why on earth are my files taking so long to open? Why can’t I access my company’s applications? Sigh! Just another day of working from home.

Proper work schedule/plan - Ok, let me set my tasks for the day and don’t forget your direct reports as well. Remember to check in with them regularly. What will I have for breakfast, I need to plan that too and think about what I am having for lunch as well? Reality check that is nowhere on the agenda as one rolls out of bed, gets refreshed before heading back into bed to begin the day’s activities. Tick tock, tick tock and many conference calls later, it is now 12 noon and no breakfast. Tick tock, tick tock 2pm speedily rolls in. How about a quick bite and some stretches? Maybe glance at the kids, peep at the wife in the other room then back to work. Oh man, my neck and back hurts but let’s keep going, 5pm is just on the horizon. The official work day has ended. Time for cricket…remember!! Wait, did I have lunch? Well it’s dinner time now anyway. Catch up on the news and COVID-19 updates, watch a few TV series – Criminal Minds and Hawaii Five-O are some good picks. Time to get the kids ready for bed. At last, total and utter silence. Ahmm, did I shower today? Had better do that! It is 11pm, back to work now doing my actual tasks until 2am when my eyelids refuse to remain open any longer and begin to fight back. Sleep, here I am.

Discipline – Yes, I have discipline! The job gets done – just not during the standard work hours.

Readily accessible for frequent calls/check-ins – Sure I am available to take all phone calls and respond to emails where the volumes have exponentially increased considering all my colleagues are working remotely as well. No longer can we doorstep someone and have a face to face conversation, instead I am battling my inbox and trying not to reach my mailbox limit…delete…delete…delete! Don’t forget, your son might not be remote working but he sure is remote schooling. Let’s ensure he keeps up with his school work and doing as the teacher asks. How do I do that – I have so much work to do and I also have my targets to meet – maybe I’ll leave that to the wife? I almost forgot, my 3pm conference call – let me jump on the call now. In comes the “king of the house” my two year old, whilst I am trying to deliver a presentation – “Da…Da…Dadda! Dadda!” Oh how sweet but let me go on mute for a quick second. “Hon, come and get this child!”

All in all, with everything considered, it is physically draining and mentally taxing as one is having to work longer hours, deal with the psychological toll of not being able to attend to family when they crave your attention. What can I say, it takes a lot of mental fortitude to be doing what we all are doing daily and continuing to achieve our objectives as best as possible.

I applaud every individual working remotely to keep the business going but also reminding us that COVID-19 is NOT here to stay. This too shall pass. We still have lots of positives to take away from this experience.

Considering that the work from home order has now expired, I encourage businesses to continue to exercise empathy, be a little bit more flexible and understanding, given the myriad of challenges faced by employees who will likely still be working remotely as new measures and protocols are established. We are indeed a dynamic bunch and will always rise to the occasion to deliver what is required.

So, whilst we are physically apart and remote working slowly becomes the new norm, let us stay connected, keep safe and remain COVID free.

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Kareem McKenzie is a Financial Controller, a husband, a father and currently working remotely.

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