While we can all agree that the Covid-19 pandemic came with very few silver linings, some might argue that the subsequent new wave of work-from-home culture was a blessing in disguise for working parents in particular.
Flexibility and the ability to operate remotely has long been a power struggle between parents and their employers. However, now that many of us have the flexibility we always craved (and the evidence to show that it can be done), is it all it's cracked upped to be?
Is working from home working for us?
Working mom Tracey Grammer-Porter believes it is. Pre-Covid, the mom-of-four, was up at 05:00 for a two-hour commute to her office job as a software application architect. Her husband would handle school drop-offs while a trusted au pair service covered pick-ups and after-school sports.
Traffic-dependent, Tracey would get home anywhere between 17:00 and 18:00 – or later if she needed to do a grocery run. And, most months, she'd rack up a significant overtime bill with her nanny, who took charge of the younger two children during the day.
"Until the pandemic hit, any work-from-home requests remained a pipe dream within our organisation. There seemed to be a flawed cultural understanding that you were lazy if you worked from home. I'm hoping they see now that this isn't true. Covid was our number one digital transformation driver," says Tracey.
With a nanny home to help during work hours, Tracey effectively scored an extra four hours of work in a day, which significantly improved her productivity and allowed for some additional quality time with her kids. That is until Level 5 lockdown was instated, and the family no longer had the support of a full-time nanny during working hours.
"It was then that my days never actually ended. I was both a mother and a full-time office worker, and there was no time off."
For Tracy and her husband, days bled into nights and the boundaries between work and night dissipated."
"Mothering smaller children means most late nights or early mornings you have a crying baby to tend to (along with everything else). I rarely get any proper sleep, and this is with a hands-on husband," she says.
The downside of working online
As a parent juggling it all, Tracy might be far more productive when working from home, but she admits that keeping the juggle alive without the support of a nanny is unsustainable. Even though she can do all of her work remotely, working online has compromised the interpersonal connections she once had with her coworkers.
"There's a lot that gets misunderstood when working online in terms of tone and body language. Professional relationships can suffer under these circumstances," says Tracy, adding that she and her team brainstorm better in person and that in-person discussions result in better-quality outcomes.
It's for this reason that Cape Town-based digital agency TouchFoundry prefers working IRL. "We're a digital consultancy, so you'd think that slipping into the work-from-home life would have been as easy and as comfortable as (almost) never having to get out of your pyjamas anymore," says TouchFoundry founder and MD Fabio Longano.
"However, as much as we've respected every Covid-19 regulation until now, and while we've worked remotely wherever possible, we'll be heading back into the office as soon as it is safe to do so," he adds.
Even though he runs a digital consultancy, Fabio acknowledges that human beings are social creatures. Much of our efficiency and efficacy depends on us being in the same physical space.
"We've all found rhythms in working at home, but they can become damaging. There's no more chatting in the office kitchen or around the water cooler. Every chat has to be scheduled as a Zoom or Teams meeting, and diaries are crammed with more, shorter meetings and less time during the day to do the work," says Longano.
"I miss the coffee breaks and chats!"
Although wellbeing and balance are encouraged at her workplace, working mom-of-three Thando Naves, who works in the professional services industry as a talent development specialist, admits to missing her colleagues and "the office vibe" immensely.
"Wherever possible, I'll have a quick connect-call instead of sending an email, as it keeps that personal touch alive. With that said, however, some days there are far too many calls, which can be draining."
Having missed that all-important connection with her colleagues, Thando took up the task of facilitating monthly video calls with her work team to catch up on a personal level. "There's no work talk! It's such a fun way to keep the connection alive, and I always look forward to our chats,” she says.
Work/life boundaries have blurred
Thando also admits that, while wellbeing and balance are encouraged at her place of work, she struggles to maintain a healthy balance between work and personal life.
"My personality doesn't lend itself to switching off completely. I want to be thorough and to give my best, so I have often worked much later and longer than I would have if I was at the office.
TouchFoundry's Longano can relate. "We've realised that, as much as a lunch break is a good time to recharge, we need to banter and chatter with our colleagues to take a break during the day. Working alone at home – for us and for many other businesses – means a 100% focus on the job at hand, all day, and we’re landing up in a hyper-efficiency trap that’s detrimental to our health."
How WFH impacts your health
Thando admits that working from home over the last year often resulted in her skipping meals. "I also stopped visiting the gym, as I used to go to one in our work office park," she says.
And while the working mom recently started taking afternoon walks – baby in tow – to build stamina and mentally switch off from work, she admits that she’d love to get back to her former fitness regime.
Similarly, Tracey admits to feeling physically depleted due to working from home full time without external support. "My mental health took the biggest knock. I was never someone to suffer from anxiety, but I now truly understand what anxiety is post-lockdown."
"And physically? You cannot push your body this hard and be sleep deprived for so long without your body taking a knock," she says.
What's the best way forward?
Working parents and the businesses they work for took a beating when Covid-19 and associated lockdowns hit in 2020. Working online and remotely was the lifeline we all needed to keep our lives afloat.
But with the vaccine rollout under way and a light at the end of this long tunnel, should we continue to work from home or will it be best if we all headed back to the office?
Thando believes a hybrid model would work best – one that enables working parents to work from home and visit a physical office or shared working space when needed.
"I believe that humans thrive on connection and that it’s important in our working lives too, so a blend of both would be most beneficial going forward," she says.
Fabio agrees with Thando's sentiments on connection. He believes there's no replacement for human interaction, whether among colleagues or between a supplier and their client.
"Even though our business is digital, and we're helping build a more digital world, we still believe that at the heart of any great technology are the humans that made it – and the relationships they forged while creating a meaningful solution to a real challenge."
Tracey, meanwhile, believes that working from home is the future, assuming the job at hand allows for remote connection. "I can do my entire job from home. And, with the right support, it could engender greater productivity and more sacred family time."
What about you? Are you a working parent? Do you thrive in a comfortable home environment under the right circumstances, or are you craving some friendly watercooler chitchat? Let us know what you think is the most sustainable way forward for working parents.
Share your stories and questions with us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anonymous contributions are welcome.
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