Maintaining Work-Life Balance During and After a Pandemic

New research from ThinkLab highlights the need to balance the emotional and physical needs of all employees, whether they work in the office or remotely.
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Despite their comfort with unconventional workspaces, millennial and Gen Z workers have reported the greatest challenges with working from home. Courtesy Eastlake Studio

While work-life balance has always been a priority for Americans, understanding how the concept of remote work fits into the picture has been a bit of a challenge. Can employees truly be productive at home or outside the office? How can team camaraderie continue when members aren’t together in one physical location?

Seemingly overnight, these questions became top of mind as the COVID-19 pandemic drove nearly a third of the American workforce to work remotely. Those professionals demonstrated to many naysayers that working from home, well, works— so much so that one study reports a 500 percent anticipated increase in remote workers over the next year. What’s more, the report found that 69 percent of people enjoy working from home more than they expected to, and 54 percent say they’re more productive there.

But amid these positive accounts a disproportionate number of young people report struggling with the transition. A recent study by the commercial real estate service firm Cushman & Wakefield shares that “overall, younger generations have lower experience scores—70 percent of Gen Z and 69 percent of millennials report challenges in working from home, compared to 55 percent of baby boomers.” Among the reasons were inadequate workplace environments, often because of roommates sharing a small space, lack of childcare, and no commute time—i.e., no signal to start or stop the workday.

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Eastlake Studio’s offices in Chicago celebrate working outdoors. Many organizations, including Eastlake Studio, designed their workplaces to foster social connection. Now, with the transition to working from home, “addressing the sense of isolation and anxiety brought on by feelings of being disconnected from a company culture will be one of the bigger challenges,” says the firm’s principal Christina Brown. Courtesy Eastlake Studio

Digging below the surface of these statistics reveals that most companies were not prepared for the emotional challenges that come with a predominantly remote team. ThinkLab sat down with members of the design community to develop a list of best practices and create a road map that also takes into account an eventual shift back to the shared office.

ADDRESS EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE

In a recent blog post, Eric Yorath, principal at the Toronto-based interior design firm Figure3, noted that the level of stress among employees across the world has risen by almost 20 percent since the 1990s—a phenomenon that can be attributed to a lack of emotional security. He explains: “On the one hand, our assumptions of the future have been completely disrupted, leaving us in a state of uncertainty— the core of our stress and anxiety. On the other hand, so many of the assumptions we had regarding what we needed to perform our jobs have also been disrupted.”

Yorath suggests that the key to combating this emotional insecurity is to acknowledge the facts in front of us. “Management will need to develop tools and strategies to identify when remote employees are at risk. If [this is] done right, much of the workforce will come out of this pandemic with a broader perspective on their capabilities and understanding of how they work best.”

EMBRACE VULNERABILITY

One unforeseen emotional benefit of the pandemic has been the recognition of an innate need for authenticity. Christina Brown, principal and interior designer at Eastlake Studio, explains this well. “When we break down the barriers of social norms in the workplace, we start to see a lot more understanding,” she says. “We’ve seen into each other’s homes; we’ve seen each other in our street clothes or with our hair undone. The trust we place in each other at those vulnerable moments gives us a better sense of empathy.”

And Brown believes that this empathy truly provides for a more emotionally enriching environment through its ability to encourage vulnerability. She adds: “That sense of power over our own lives is a taste we won’t forget when we go back to the office. According to our survey, 81 percent of respondents would not consider a job without remote working opportunities. That’s a powerful statistic. With human capital being the most expensive part of a business, there’s no room for policies that stifle our daily lives.”

ACKNOWLEDGE DIFFERENCES

When the pandemic passes and employees have the option to return to work, it will be interesting to see what changes stick. Sarah Kuchar, owner and creative director of interior design studio Kuchar, believes that one of the best ways we can learn from this experience is to recognize the differences in employee work styles and accommodate them accordingly. “For the future, I’d like to see some innovation to address our need to merge the two types of work,” she says. “There are so many facets to our job and our projects, I think this just means allowing someone to work from home when they need to focus and encouraging a team to meet in person when they need to collaborate is the future of our practice.”

Most would agree that the future success of the workforce depends on a delicate balancing of the emotional and physical needs of all employees, regardless of whether they work in the office or remotely. “The worlds of design, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience come closer and closer every day to helping us understand how different environments and activities shape the way we think,” says Yorath. “The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us into circumstances where we are having to perform our regular jobs under very irregular circumstances. As a result, employers will need to invest in better understanding the psychological connection between people and space to provide for a conducive environment, whether that be in the office or remote.”

You may also enjoy “Designing for Equity and Well-Being in the COVID-19 Era

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Categories: Ideas, Workplace Interiors