The team leader is about to launch a virtual meeting when the video feed goes dark. Just then, an email arrives from her son’s teacher saying the history paper he was supposed to upload is 30 minutes late. Working from the dining room table, she develops a pounding headache from the dog’s incessant barking at squirrels outside. But above all else, there is mounting anxiety about her 70-year-old mother, who insists on taking daily walks but hasn’t returned home.
For many people, this is suddenly their new work reality. And while most firms and managers are likely aware of all the more obvious distractions, experts say the mounting remote-work movement is also exposing home-life situations that vary vastly. “The inequities of people’s lifestyles are now more vulnerable to being exposed,” says Andrés Tapia, Korn Ferry's global diversity and inclusion strategist.
Among the differences, of course, is the simple fact that not everyone has a house big enough for a private office or much private space. Some may be dealing with caring for a sick parent or a teenager with substance abuse problems. Workers of various ethnicities may have cultural customs or other lifestyle differences that may be harder to keep private after carefully cultivating career survival tactics of assimilation in the workplace.. “The collapsing of those walls are major distractions that add another dimension to what inclusive leaders need to take into account,” says Tapia.
He says leaders have to be mindful and respectful of the fact that even though they are the manager at work, they are now entering someone’s house. “Obviously, a lot of people are comfortable with working at home,” he says. “But not everyone chooses this option.”
Whatever the distractions may be, leaders know that they are piling up, making it exponentially harder for workers to remain engaged and productive. Helping employees manage the daily demands on their attention is the biggest priority for leaders right now, says Korn Ferry senior director Mark Royal. “It’s imperative to recognize that, in this new environment, there are other responsibilities people will need to attend to during the workday,” he says.
No one will have the perfect solution, of course. But Royal says leaders can help employees compartmentalize portions of their day for work and personal obligations. One strategy is to avoid scattered scheduling, allowing employees to focus on work during certain available blocks of time and avoid it in others. “Opening up a block of time during the day for people to deal with personal obligations can create more energy and focus for when they turn their attention back to work,” Royal says.
If ever there was a time for organizations to prove that they truly put their people first and value a work-life balance, it is now, he adds. Helping them balance work, family, and self-care isn’t just an engagement and productivity issue—it may also be a health and safety issue. Organizations and leaders who don’t get it or don’t care risk a double hit of diminished engagement now and after the crisis passes, says Royal. Those that step up “will win a lot of commitment when this is over,” he says.