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Office Space

An ILR prof on the ups and downs of remote work


ILR’s Vanessa BohnsProvided

When Vanessa Bohns discusses the challenges of working from home during a global pandemic, she knows what she’s talking about—on both an academic and a personal level. When she spoke to CAM via phone in early June from her home on Ithaca’s South Hill—where she has been working since mid-March, when the University shifted to online instruction—it was during a respite from tending to her two daughters: her six-year-old was quietly occupying herself with a tablet while her two-year-old napped in another room. “The thing I miss the most is childcare,” says Bohns. “My kids are young; they can’t even get snacks by themselves. My older daughter is in kindergarten, so my husband and I are supposed to be teaching her how to read and do math, all while we’re doing our own work. It’s been exhausting.”

An associate professor of organizational behavior in the ILR school, Bohns studies workplace relationships and stressors; her research topics have ranged from the psychology of compliance to the complexities of rejecting romantic advances. This spring, her expertise on how the present shift to remote work is affecting employees—and what they can do to avoid burnout—has been much in demand, tapped by such media as CNN Business, Market Watch, U.S. News & World Report, and Harvard Business Review.

How has this massive increase in people working from home exacerbated work/life balance issues?
For remote workers, this is an extreme version of a direction we were already heading in—which is that we were constantly connected to work and trying to project this “ideal worker” image. There’s this expectation that employees will prioritize their work over everything else—over family and even their health. If your boss e-mails you in the middle of the night, you’re going to respond; if they ask you for something, you’re going to say yes. Now, with so many people working remotely, it’s even harder for employees to carve out space or time that’s theirs. Employers know they’re home, so there might be even more pressure to respond right away, because you don’t have a “good” excuse for why you wouldn’t get back to someone.

Have you been doing research around this?
A colleague and I have been looking at what happens when people send non-urgent e-mails after work hours or throughout a crisis. The sender thinks, “This person will just get back to me when they’re able to,” but when we receive those e-mails, we get really stressed out. One person is emptying their e-mail and feeling productive; the other is seeing their inbox fill up with things that aren’t that important, but which they feel demand a response. So there’s this unintentional way we can make it harder for other people.

Do you have any tips to make working from home more manageable?
The biggest issue is that we’re working and trying to relax in the exact same space. Normally, we have these physical boundaries—we put on our work clothes and drive to work—that signal a shift from “home you,” to “work you.” We have a lot fewer of those right now, so anything you can do to create those boundaries would be helpful. One idea is putting on work clothes in the morning and then changing into cozy clothes after work hours. Working in a different part of the house from where you relax is another big one. Some people use different equipment at different times of the day—their work computer at their desk and then a tablet or phone after work hours.

If someone is feeling overwhelmed, how can they ask for help from their coworkers or supervisors?
This is really important. Typically, people hold back from asking because they worry they’re going to look bad or that whoever they ask is going to say no, but research shows that in many cases you actually are judged more positively when you ask for help and that people are more likely to say yes than we think. The other thing is, people tend to beat around the bush with in-direct phrases like, “You know, I could really use this . . .” Actually, people respond much more positively if we just come out and ask them for help. Being direct—polite, but direct—is key.

Are there any particular things workers miss out on by not going in to the office?
One big disadvantage is that you don’t run into people randomly. You have to be intentional if you’re going to connect with someone over Zoom or over e-mail, but when you’re physically on campus or in an office, you have spontaneous chats that can lead to social connection and new ideas.

On the flip side, are there benefits to interacting with coworkers remotely?
This has definitely opened people’s eyes to things they may not have known about each other. We’re seeing more of each other’s kids and pets and homes, and a lot of small talk arises from seeing things in someone’s background on a Zoom call. In some ways, this has brought us closer together, even as we’re more physically apart.