Coronavirus crisis could be ‘watershed moment’ for working from home

Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz
Chicago Tribune

The Great Work-From-Home Experiment is upon us.

Not just for a day or two, but potentially for weeks, if COVID-19 concerns shut down offices or authorities announce a preemptive lockdown.

How it goes, especially at ill-prepared companies that now face trial-by-fire, could determine if remote working gets adopted more broadly long-term — with potential ramifications for office space, commute patterns, how people balance their work and personal lives and where people opt to live.

“I think this is a watershed moment in terms of wider acceptance and implementation of work-from-home,” said Philippe Weiss, president of Seyfarth Shaw at Work, the Chicago-based workplace training subsidiary of the law firm Seyfarth Shaw. “Employees that have tasted the benefits of more freedom and autonomy are going be hard pressed to let it go.”

About half of U.S. workers have jobs that could at least partially be done remotely, according to Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, a research and consulting firm focused on new ways of working. A good share — 43% of workers — telecommute sometimes, but on average only two days a month, according to a 2016 Gallup survey. Just 3.8% work at home at least half the time, a share that’s nearly tripled since 2006, Lister said.

When a crisis like the new coronavirus temporarily forces companies into remote work, it tends to show them that it can be done successfully, she said. But it can also demonstrate the benefits beyond disaster preparedness.

“What many organizations learn from the experience is that a remote work program, when approached strategically, can deliver far greater organization benefits such as improved (talent) attraction and retention, increased productivity and engagement, reduced real estate costs and environmental impact and more,” Lister said.

Whether a pandemic-driven plunge into remote working spurs a more permanent paradigm shift depends largely on whether the experience is positive for employers and employees. software engineer Melissa McEwen, 33, works from her Logan Square neighborhood home on March 12, 2020. McEwen has worked remotely for five years.

Melissa McEwen, a Chicago software engineer who has worked remotely for five years, worries the conditions are not ideal given the anxiety around coronavirus and the fact that many companies may rush into it without the proper setups. Some people will have to juggle homebound kids while trying to get work done at the kitchen table.

“People are going to get a bad impression,” said McEwen, 33, who works at, which usually has half of its workforce working remotely but, because of coronavirus, has encouraged everyone to do so. “I hope they give it another chance.”

McEwen finds she’s more productive at home, because “you have to send signals that you’re actually working” whereas at the office you can feign work by just sitting at your desk. The apartment she shares with her boyfriend has an office with a desk and a good chair paid for by her employer, but often she finds herself working from the couch in pajama pants — inadvisable, according to experts who promote ergonomics, but it works for her.

Conference calls are the biggest headache when working remotely, she said, because technological issues arise and background noise can be disruptive. Her cat, which friends advised her to get for companionship when she started working from home, “meows constantly in the background,” she said.

Those calls can feel especially fraught when her boyfriend, a college lecturer, also works from their 900-square-foot home and has a simultaneous call. But she prefers it to the alternative.

“People should explore different ways to work,” McEwen said.

Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, a Chicago-based software company that allows all 56 of its employees to work remotely as often as they like, said he expects a bumpy ride at first at companies scrambling to get their systems in place to accommodate remote working. But the likelihood that the emergency won’t be over quickly means they’ll have a chance to smooth out the wrinkles and get comfortable with such arrangements long term.

“Eventually people will go back to offices,” Fried said. “But I think that remote work will now be a tool in the toolbox. They won’t be afraid of it.”

The key, he says, is not just to implement the right video conferencing tools, but to shift the mindset about what it means to work collaboratively.

“The ones who stumble are the ones who try to emulate what they do in the office,” said Fried, who estimates less than 10% of his workforce is at headquarters on a given day. “This is an opportunity to finally not have so many meetings, to write things down instead of saying them out loud.”

A big reason many companies have resisted allowing employees to work from home, despite technological advances that have made it much easier to do so, is the fear that managers won’t know if their employees are really working if they can’t see them, Weiss said. They have suspected remote work requests were excuses to run to the bar or watch the game.

“That’s been a sea change for managers,” he said. “Manager myths are falling by the wayside because their people have had to come front and center.”

Weiss said Seyfarth at Work has been getting a lot more training requests recently on how to supervise remote employees, which requires a different approach than when they are sitting in a nearby cubicle or when casual conversations can be had en route to the elevators.

Managers must set clearer expectations, offer more frequent praise and have more purposeful check-ins on progress when their workers are remote, he said. They should overcommunicate, he said — but not too much.

“This one manager kept sending his people half-hour reminders to stay on track,” Weiss recalled of a client. “Three people asked to switch departments.”

Communication was the most difficult adjustment Susan Brenkus encountered as her employer, Healthcare Financial Management Association in suburban Westchester, Ill., transitioned to a remote-work environment over the last seven years.

The organization opted to allow all employees to work from home, subject to manager approval, in order to provide them with greater flexibility and to expand its talent pool, said Brenkus, senior vice president of people and culture. About 20 of its 100 employees now live outside of the Chicago area.

Brenkus’ own “aha” moment about the communication challenges came when she joined a conference call remotely and discovered everyone else was physically present, making it difficult to break into the conversation without the benefit of body language. It made her conscious of the need to keep remote workers feeling connected, which looks different for everyone. With one woman based in St. Louis, Brenkus sends a daily morning instant message to go over her agenda.

Most days up to 40% of the staff works remotely — on Fridays far more do so — and the option has made them happier as a result, Brenkus said. Appreciation of the work-at-home policy is the top comment in employee engagement surveys, and it has helped with hiring, she said.

“If people are mindful and purposeful as they go through this and they give people the tools and the right environment, they will find there are real benefits to it,” Brenkus said.