Bridging the new divides

The New Possible is a series of human stories and perspectives on how COVID-19 is challenging and changing our lives and livelihoods. In our first installment, we explore how the crisis is shaping working from home.

At 7:30 a.m. each weekday since the coronavirus lockdown began in Leicestershire, England, a 44-year-old father of two named Martin wakes up, puts on a T-shirt and jeans, and brushes his teeth, being careful not to wake his sleeping wife and children. He makes himself a simple breakfast, then begins his workday as a housing manager for more than 5,000 tenants—from what used to be his wife’s dressing table.

It’s the easiest commute Martin has ever had, but it leads into a long and stressful day. Many of his tenants have lost their jobs, and it’s on him to manage each situation. In the meantime, he helps look after his children, who try to keep up with their studies at the dining-room table just a few steps away.

When we met him, Martin was cheerful. He told us he loves music and plays the guitar. At the same time, he was candid about his unease, showing us the electronic thermometer he had just purchased online, which he keeps next to his asthma inhaler.

Martin is happy with how his employer is supporting him in this complex moment. The company gave him the day off when the remote-working policy was announced, and he feels appreciated. “One of the things I think we need to work hard towards,” he says of his working future, “is how we capture and keep that kindness."

Bridging the new divides
Bridging the new divides

The coronavirus crisis might speed the adoption of working from home, at least for the 25 to 40 percent of US workers who can do so. Executives are excited about it, and we’ve heard from dozens of people, across eight countries who are keen to lose their commute and gain time with family and friends.

But, as we’ve also heard, working from home doesn’t work well for everyone. In certain cases, it’s creating and exposing new divides: divides in types of living setups, divides in the ways people and organizations get work done, and divides in our individual needs for social interaction. Here are a few voices from our research:

“The dining room has become an office.” Aditi, a 43-year-old teacher in New Delhi, is one of the dozens of respondents who have bid domestic tranquility goodbye. Her husband and children have turned almost any flat surface into a place for work. “My house has become messy these days,” she told us. Elsewhere, apartment dwellers showed us the work-from-bed” setups they’ve adopted, so that their partners or roommates can work at the only table in their units.

“The day that looked empty is now full of meetings.” Matthew, 37, is a sales engineer living in Chicago with his girlfriend. He told us that he feels less efficient and more tired, and it’s harder to collaborate now that he isn’t located with his team. “Prior to COVID-19, internal meetings happened ad hoc at my desk,” he said. “Now we have to schedule each of them, and any day that looks empty quickly fills up with 30-minute internal meetings.”

Working from home
Not your typical cubicle.
Working from home

“I miss my colleagues.” Kim, 39, lives in Berlin with her partner and works as a paralegal. She loves to travel, learn new languages, and ride her bike to work, which she can’t do in the current situation. “I don't want this to stay,” she told us. “I miss my colleagues. We cheer each other up and talk a lot during the day.”

Some of these challenges, while momentarily exacerbated by staggered reopenings, will go away as everyone heads back to work or school. And while certain issues, like family dynamics sizes, are outside employers’ control, other aspects of working from home present opportunities for large organizations to bridge these new divides—and they can prepare to do so now by focusing on a few areas.

Remote working is creating and exposing divides in living set-ups, divides in the ways people and organizations get work done, and divides in our individual needs for social interaction.

Leveling the work-from-home (WFH) playing field

I work in my bed by stacking up four different pillows to use my laptop because my partner took over the desk.

Sarah 35; Chicago, US

When people work in the same office, they have access to the same space and infrastructure. When they work from home, that level playing field vanishes—but it doesn’t have to entirely. Companies can help to even things out by providing furniture and equipment allowances, coworking memberships, resources for broadband enhancement, ergonomic consultation, and more.

Providing the right tools and training

Working from home successfully isn’t about just videoconferencing; it’s about almost any tool that streamlines and enhances communication, collaboration, and transparency. Leading companies, however, will think beyond tools alone, to ensure that their teams are set up to tackle time-management challenges and productivity while working with colleagues remotely.

Building more workplace connectivity and social structures

When colleagues work remotely, the chances for them to connect at office events and gatherings go away. Companies must realize how critical it is to invent the social fabric and social serendipity of a socially distanced world. They should talk to their employees to find out their social needs and wants and then think creatively about ways to fill them.

These trends will continue to evolve, and it’s important to remember that the right WFH operating model will take time to perfect. The “office building,” after all, has been around since the 18th century. But what’s clear to us already is that those employers that can successfully anticipate and bridge these new divides will attract the best talent.

Thanks for reading. For more stories about how this crisis is shaping the way we live and work, please check out The New Possible collection page.