We are all home workers now

March 24, 2020 | Last updated on March 24, 2020
4 min read
Young business woman working at desk typing on a laptop in office and drinking coffee.
Undrey / 123RF

A few weeks ago, Guy Anderson would have been self-conscious about sounds from his home creeping into phone calls and Zoom conferences with clients. Today, more leniency is required.

Anderson, senior investment advisor and financial planner at Aligned Capital Partners in Toronto, has worked primarily from his house for a few years. The Covid-19 pandemic has just made that house more crowded.

Glimpses of family life made surprising cameos on work screens everywhere last week as employees fumbled their way into remote working.

“We have a number of meetings happening now where kids and spouses and pets make appearances on the video,” says Becky Porter, senior vice-president of human resources at Capital Group in Irvine, Calif.

“I think everyone recognizes we’re all in the same boat, and we can laugh about it.”

These glimpses may even add a personal touch that was previously hidden from clients, Anderson says.

As workers adjust to video conferences and sharing work spaces with family — or with no one at all — firms are trying to offer employees leadership, direction, flexibility and support during an exceptionally stressful time.

Due to the uncertainty in everything from markets to which essential services will remain open, Porter says leaders need to set the tone, regularly updating teams so everyone feels connected.

“With so much disruption and so much happening both at the office and in people’s personal lives, it’s really helpful for our associates to feel like they have a sense of: ‘What’s the priority? What am I going to be focused on today?’” she says.

Managing workflow remotely can be complicated, but employers should resist micro-managing, wrote Matt Sonnen, founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based PFI Advisors, in a blog post for American advisor Michael Kitces’ Nerd’s Eye View blog.

The distance is an opportunity to build trust and give employees more autonomy, while still monitoring quality and providing support. “If you trust your employees to service your clients in the first place, they need to be trusted enough to do so even when they’re working from home,” Sonnen wrote.

Anderson’s team has started using Slack and WhatsApp for group chats. They have Slack channels for particular aspects of the business, such as offering memorandum products and referral arrangements, so discussions remain focused even with multiple people responding.

“It’s actually been better because it gives us a tracking mechanism and the ability for people not in an office to chime in and help out,” Anderson says.

But as these work tools are invited into the home, it’s important to ensure they don’t take over. Porter says there should be a buffer between video meetings to move around and maybe get some fresh air. If materials aren’t required for a call, she suggests occasional walking meetings (at least for those in jurisdictions where casual strolls are still permitted).

Capital Group is also encouraging group coffee breaks by video conference, with no agenda. “Recreating those water cooler moments virtually” can prevent workers from feeling isolated, Porter says.

Anderson recommends taking a lunch hour to help maintain boundaries.

“Even though you’re at home, it’s a work day. You’ve got to have a schedule,” he says.

“Otherwise you have the potential of just working 18 hours straight.”

The mental separation between work and home can be harder to pull off when spouses and kids are around all day. Workers may need to set time aside during the day to home-school kids or run an errand, extending the work day into the evening. That flexibility is encouraged, Porter says, but must be managed responsibly.

“We’re asking people to use good judgment to not let it turn into a 24/7 work week,” she says.

Sonnen wrote about the added pressure right now on advisors who are parents, trying to reassure clients while also caring for kids. He pointed to firms that have rolled out employee benefits for babysitter costs while schools are closed. The added cost in a down market may be worth it in employee productivity and goodwill, he wrote.

Capital Group is offering webinars on coping with stress from Covid-19, in addition to its traditional employee assistance program, Porter says.

To hive off work hours, she recommends making a list at the end of every day with tomorrow’s tasks. “Then close your laptop and shut it down, and you’ve created the separation that you’re at home now. And then when you boot up again in the morning, you have your list and you’re ready to go.”

Clothes can also help mark the boundary. While some of us may be revelling in looser sartorial standards, fooling webcams with sweatpants hidden under desks, this may not be the best approach — especially for the longer term.

Anderson says he rarely wore suits to work, but he gets dressed the same way he would if he were going to the office. It’s part of preparing for work, he says. And with kids at home, it also sends the message to them that it’s a work day.

Financial Times columnist Robert Armstrong, in a recent column about dressing for work at home, framed the ritual as a defence against madness. In a crisis, he wrote, “order matters, including (and possibly most of all) forms of order that are purely symbolic.”

He recommends putting on your designated work clothes in the morning, and changing into something else when you clock out. “If there is no clocking in and clocking out?” he asked. “Then the game is already lost.”