Life after Covid-19: Remote working in a post lock-down world

Exhausted. Despondent. Unrelenting. Pessimistic. Uncertain. Failure… these are some of the adjectives that a friend of mine gave me when I asked her to describe what her experience has been as a parent working from home during this Covid-19 isolation period. It is a sentiment that has been echoed by many a working parent across the globe as they adjust to new demands and additional pressures of wearing multiple hats throughout the day.

Unsurprisingly this period of social distancing and isolation has produced higher levels of stress, anxiety and general sadness. I imagine that the process of getting used to this new, albeit temporary way of life follows a typical Kubler-Ross change process with the same emotional lows, but sitting on the verge of easing Covid-19 restrictions, have we integrated this new way of working into our lives and are feeling more positive now? Have organisations filled the infrastructure gaps to better handle teams of remote workers?

I posed the following questions to a variety of different water industry professionals from around the world and the responses were varied:

As a working parent in the water industry, what degree of work-life balance did you have before lockdown?

What have been the main advantages and disadvantages of completing your job from home in the current climate?

In future, do you think your employer or organisation will have a better ability to allow remote working?

For me personally, putting the brakes on restarting my career was definitely disheartening, but in the context of daily lock-down struggles – the infamous toilet paper shortages, and anxiety over staying safe during a pandemic – I realized that having the choice to stay home with loved ones, and without ignoring all the struggles of the working parents who are wearing multiple hats at this time, was a privilege. Having this privilege doesn’t negate the stresses of the current situation, but at the very least you have more tools at your disposal to deal with it. Here is what else I found:

Some companies are better equipped than others to allow remote working

“It’s interesting to see that – despite years of being told it wasn’t possible – flexible and remote working is not only possible, it also levels the playing field by removing possible barriers for those with caring responsibilities and disabilities – giving organisations access to the well documented benefits of diversity”.

Jayne Little, CEO Skills 4 Ltd.

“My work is amazing in terms of flexibility and we thankfully had moved to agile working at the end of last year”, says Sinead who works in Project Communications for a water utility, “We already had all the structures we needed in place for it. Post-Isolation I’ll still be working from home a few days a week … [I’m] getting out for walks way more than pre-covid too”. Certainly finding time for exercise has always been a problem for many workers and governments have promoted staying active during this period of lock-down.

The internet is full of newly uploaded articles and videos on how to work remotely, from easy Zoom tips and tricks, to the best ways to manage remote meetings, and videos to stay active. It gives one the impression that the workplace will never be the same again post Covid-19.

As a single parent, Hana, a senior technical author in the construction industry, had the flexibility to work from home a few days a week, attending only important meetings in the office and using the time she would otherwise be commuting to work more productively at home. During lock-down, she has had to start earlier in the morning and finish late at night, but has found that her 6 year old, Max, has developed in his independence and imagination as she works to complete her tasks during the day.

However, site based roles require a great deal of in-person collaboration, and the water industry functions most effectively as a partnership between numerous entities, from public-private partnerships to exclusively private sector engagements between consultant, contractor, and water retailer. Site based construction work, conceptual planning, and successful stakeholder engagement has always happened in the flesh, and whilst this period has introduced new ways of engaging, some roles will always require a degree of in-person presence.

Working from home during lock-down has changed family routines

Brian, a director, says that in a sense he has a better work-life balance now, but also says that educating his kids from home means slicing up the day, “which leaves work to be done [in the] late arvo/early evening … So that cuts into family time”. Adrian, a manager in water maintenance whose role is split between office and site-based responsibilities points out that the constant interruptions that arise naturally from homeschooling young children is one of the largest drains on mental energy, and feels that the extra time spent together is not necessarily quality time.

In early January this year, I signed off the paperwork to confirm the start date for my youngest child’s daycare placement. Within weeks, on the 30th of January, the World Health Organisation had classified the Novel Coronavirus pandemic as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, leading to closure of borders and the eventual shut down of nations worldwide.

In March the NSW government issued a Public Order under the Public Health Act restricting gatherings and movement outside of the home. Faced with dreaded uncertainty the roles that I had been seeking got shelved. The world of business hates uncertainty and one recruiter for a Business Sustainability role that I was due to interview for explained it to me simply as “Businesses have other priorities at the moment”. All of this was akin to having the rug pulled out from under me just as I was getting back on my feet after maternity absence, but I also realized that in a perverse way it was a blessing.

Image by Daniel Lee

When schools closed, I began homeschooling my eldest (I’ve realised that teachers prefer it if we called it “online learning”). My baby was out of the daycare system, and I depressingly had no idea if and when I would ever have a career again. Having a career and being a parent in Coronavirus times is a whole different ballgame, with many struggling parents realizing that juggling worklife and family life is simply impossible.

My friend Farhana, an engineer in Integrated Water Management, said to me “Life definitely doesn’t get easier for working parents. Kids will add new challenges … Some days, there will be uncertainties and other days you will feel proud of yourself. It will need a shift in mindset to accept the changes and to set your career path according to what’s suitable”. Farhana has loved aspects of being at home with her two young children despite the additional challenges, finding her colleagues to be very understanding of each other’s circumstances, or of her toddler sitting on her lap during a Zoom call.

The amount of support you have greatly impacts how well you get through this

“My hubby is still going to work everyday, so it’s just me at home”, says Delia, a Water Utility worker. “Pre-covid I had great work life balance and usually worked 1-2 days a week from home – yes I get to see my kids more but I don’t feel like it’s quality time”. Throughout March, absenteeism rose dramatically as parents were urged to keep their kids home. In April $1.6b worth of government initiatives were introduced to help parents who were essential workers, but this did not ease parenting pressures for most people. Maria, a research consultant working in Uganda says “Life at home with all the daily life chores and active time with toddler and baby just doesn’t allow for much more without preschool or other help at home”.

Karen, a freelance consultant who lives and works in France says “Work-life balance is its own beast when you have three small kids … I have fewer hours to get as much done work-wise and much more to do in managing the household”. However, Karen, whose work involved extensive international travel prior to lock-down has also used this time to improve the space at home for her family, working with her husband to re-do the garden.

A career shift from the roles I’d held previously was my aim when I first decided to return to work – one that still allowed me to work flexibly in order to balance the needs of my young family with my own desire to get paid doing something I was good at. This period in lock-down only further emphasized to me how much easier life is when employees have flexibility to be at home and feel supported whilst still fulfilling their contractually agreed duties.

This period has highlighted any gaps in infrastructure required for longer term remote working

Pre lock-down, my own experience of water industry organisations, both public and private, was that until the recent years that saw a big push to innovate, the industry has been slower to adopt new technologies. By nature, the industry is conservative but has had to adapt to the more rapidly changing demands of clients and stakeholders in recent times, in part due to climate change pressures; but if we are to innovate the industry, we must also innovate our ways of working and engaging.

“If we are to innovate the industry, we must also innovate our ways of working and engaging”.

The last few months have seen an increase in the use of technologies like GIS (geographical information system) and GoAigua, helping water companies to adapt to changes in supply and demand, and novel methods to analyse wastewater for virus fragments – allowing the water sector to assist government in making public health decisions.

Traditional engineering designs are often completed by multidisciplinary engineers sketching out design concepts on a paper together, before passing it on to a draftsman to convert into a CAD drawing or 3D model. The value of 3D modelling, from completing successful bids, to estimation, to stakeholder engagement is now known and we cannot underestimate the amount of collaboration that goes into the creation of these models – learning to do so successfully from remote locations is crucial.

However, Neil, a CAD Leader for a Water Utility in the UK points out that many people who are working at home are doing so in make-shift environments, which would not be suitable for longer-term remote working. Organisations also have a responsibility to ensure that employees have an ergonomic work-station set-up to minimize physical strain on the body from constant sitting and working with screens, which would still be applicable when employees are working from home.

Jason, a CAD manager working in Sydney also highlights data and information networks as an issue, stating, “Our drawings, electronic resources and even schedules all reside on central computers which were not set up for the volume of data to be transferred externally. This has led to excessive load times and often computer failures”. He also points out that drafting teams often need access to large format printers, and design manuals which are often not available electronically. He adds, “the physical copies are heavily annotated by a dozen designers … helping to ensure that key learnings from past projects are implemented”. As a team leader he also spends large portions of his day assisting with minor technique improvements or trouble shooting simple issues, sitting side-by-side with a colleague.

Perhaps in addition to highlighting existing limitations of working from home, this period has also caused many to adapt to a different way of working. Frederick, a Water Researcher who also recently completed his PhD noted that “Studying/working from home was an adjustment at first … I’m now much better at digital tasking than before, even doing martial arts training that way!”

Having tested the limits and capabilities of our existing IT infrastructure – arguably what is left to do in order for remote working to work seamlessly for businesses is to address current infrastructure shortcomings and continue the shift in cultural work practices. This would allow the sector to continue addressing the upcoming challenges we face. However, businesses must also consider their human capital.

Many organisations are woefully equipped to ensure the ongoing mental well-being of their employees

Despite the leaps that the engineering sector has taken in the past decade, from providing access to Employee Assistance Programmes to engineering firms working to normalize discussions around mental health, many engineering organisations are still falling short in their efforts to support their employees, particularly for FIFO workers, women, and other minorities, potentially due to outdated beliefs that employers are only responsible for an employee’s physical well-being.

In relation to remote working post Covid-19 and the inherent isolation this brings, many companies are simply not ready. “You can give people phones, Skype, instant messaging apps … these don’t replace the need to be amongst others [for our own] mental health”, says Neil, who has advocated for a greater awareness of the mental health impacts of prolonged working from home. The value of break times around the water-cooler should not be underestimated, in addition to the informal project-related chats that occur during these breaks.

Adrian highlighted that being remote from colleagues and clients removes the ability to read non-verbal cues, and requiring a far greater awareness of what others are communicating in order to minimise the stress that arises from miscommunications.

Given the rise in mental health impacts that we have seen in recent months, there is reason to believe that ongoing isolation leads to decreased mental and physical well-being, which organisations should care about because, apart from the obvious moral responsibilities, it will ultimately will affect business performance and continuity.

Australian businesses reportedly lose up to $6.5billion each year by failing to provide early mental health services/treatment to their employees. There are also legal obligations of employers under Australian legislation to recognize and promote mental health as part of part of creating “a safe and healthy workplace … [and] building a safe work environment, one that will not create or exacerbate mental health problems and where workers with mental illness are properly supported”.

Where do we go from here?

I have been grateful that I don’t also have to fulfill the crazy trifecta of paid employment as well as parenting and teaching right now. Here’s what I’ve found in interviewing my fellow water sector colleagues who have:

  1. Spending more time at home with the children has had both positive and negative outcomes depending on how much support you have and the quality the time spent together;
  2. Working from home with kids requires work to be split up into blocks, sometimes late at night;
  3. No commuting means more time for exercise, work, or to spend with family;
  4. Remote working has led many people and organizations to work more effectively in the digital world, but limitations still exist;
  5. Despite this, organizations have a long way to go to safeguard the mental health of all their employees, particularly those working remotely;
  6. Face-to-face meetings are good, but in future perhaps we will have learned to spend this time more meaningfully.

As we emerge from lock-down, governments continue to encourage safe social distancing on public transport and working from home until a more permanent solution can be developed. The size of our office-based workforce may change forever.

I can imagine that many managers will feel more confident managing remote teams and we will see a workforce that comes into the office only for meetings, workshops, or collaboration exercises. Will this lead to more quality time spent together as a family? My roots are grey and I haven’t been to the gym in what feels like forever. As I ask my 6 year old (still in his pyjamas because I ran out of energy to make him get changed) for the umpteenth time to complete his writing task for the day, whilst bouncing my toddler on my knee and swatting away her attempts to type on my keyboard, I can only say – maybe?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s