CORONAVIRUS

8 months of working from home take toll on employees, employers alike

Child care, policies among challenges of remote work

While many remote workers may appreciate the flexibility of working from home, research indicates telecommuting can incr
While many remote workers may appreciate the flexibility of working from home, research indicates telecommuting can increase the amount of time people spend working. (Photo illustration by Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Working at her kitchen table, Katie Curtis noticed a conspicuous silence from her toddler — a silence too perfect for an active 2-year-old boy — after he wandered into another room.

“He took a big chomp out of a piece of candle,” Curtis said. “He had a handful of wax in his mouth, and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’”

On another occasion this past spring, she looked over to see her son drinking from the bowl of water meant for their cat.

“He was lapping it up like an animal and saying, ‘Oh, that’s so yummy!’” recalled Curtis, chief development officer at Foundation 2, the not-for-profit human services agency. “How much worse can it get? Your kid is drinking out of the animal dish.”

Curtis is not the only one to juggle situations like these. Over the past eight-plus months, employees and employers alike have faced myriad challenges as much of the workforce remains working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mary Noonan, a sociologist at the University of Iowa, has extensively researched the impact of employees working from home. She said the effects varies based on whether someone is a parent, and if so, the children’s ages.

“Are they under the age of 12 where they need a fair amount of supervision?” Noonan said during The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas 2020 Conference in October. “Or are they teenagers where they prefer for you to leave them alone?”

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At the same time, the temporary closing of many day care centers and schools during the pandemic means many of those children, like Curtis’ son, often can be in the same room as their parents when they’re working.

“Working from home with children is an entirely different beast than working from home without children,” Noonan said.

“They fear that they’re kind of slipping behind at work, but they also feel guilty because they’re putting their children in front of screens to try to get work done.”

Curtis has wrestled with the balance between her son’s screen time and her lost productivity.

“I play this game of, ‘OK, if he can have a half-hour of screen time right now when I’m in this meeting, then we’ll turn it off at this other time,’” Curtis said.

“That was a constant battle of how much screen time was appropriate for a kid that little.”

Noonan said the parenting-while-working trend has disproportionately affected women in the workplace.

“We see that both men and women are doing more ... spending more time helping kids with homework, they’re spending more time supervising their children and they’re doing some more housework,” Noonan said.

“But the shift definitely increased more for women than for men. ... It appears COVID has exacerbated the gender inequality in the division of work at home.”

The lack of social exposure also can more negatively affect women than men, Noonan said.

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“Face time I think is a huge thing, especially for women,” Noonan said. “Women feel that sometimes at the office they have to do more than men to prove their worth, and so researchers have found that telecommuting — even though it has a lot of great benefits — can actually hurt women more than men if they don’t have that face time.”

For those without children, Noonan said working remotely “can free up a substantial amount of time.” It has the potential of giving the employee more time for leisure or sleep.

While many remote workers may appreciate the flexibility of working from home, Noonan’s research before the pandemic showed telecommuting can increase the amount of time people spend working.

“Most telecommuters, based on nationally representative data, are people that put in 40 hours at the office,” Noonan said. “But then they telecommute in the evenings. ... They’re doing more work maybe after the kids go to bed.”

She recommended workers set clear boundaries to avoid overworking.

Policy complications

As employees face these issues, including dealing with child care, many have been leaving the labor force. Iowa’s civilian labor force shrunk by almost 120,000 people between February and October, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The labor force participation rate in Iowa dropped to 65.6 percent in August, its lowest mark since 1985. Since then, it’s risen to 65.8 percent.

Along with the shrinking workforce, employers have also faced several challenges from a human-resources perspective.

“Much of what we’ve built up for policies — both in terms of internal company policies as well as our regulatory structure from a legal standpoint — is really still based around a Monday-through-Friday, 8-to-5 workweek where you are physically in an office,” said Jason Glass, president of Iowa Society for Human Resource Management, at The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas 2020 Conference.

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That’s why many companies have been reluctant to change to a work-from-home model before the pandemic despite the viability of video conferencing technology such as Zoom, Skype or Microsoft Teams, Glass said.

One example of the policy hurdles relates to paid time off. What’s usually defined as “hours that you’re not in the office” is a little more complicated in a work-from-home setting.

“If I’m juggling multiple things in the home with my kids or with my housework and those kinds of things, how do I measure my time?” Glass said.

Compensation for work-related injuries gives HR managers another challenge. Employers’ liability for injuries while working from home is not clear.

“What happens if I have a repetitive-motion injury when I’m working from home?” Glass asked. “Or even something as simple as I trip over my dog when I get up from my chair. ... I was performing work. Is that now a safety-work comp issue?”

It also necessitates “a lot more work” for managers on how to evaluate employees when it’s time for promotions, Glass said, because managers can’t rely on in-person observations.

Glass sees working from home creating opportunities for employers, though.

Now an Iowa company potentially could go through the hiring process with someone who’s sitting on a beach in California.

“Sometimes it can be a challenge to get people from other areas of the country to move to Iowa because of their perceptions of what Iowa is,” Glass said.

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“It’s a tough hurdle to get over. ... This opens up some opportunities for us to tap some of that talent that we may not have been able to get to move here physically in the past.”

There’s a catch to that, though.

“It also means that every other competitor can pull my people,” Glass said.

As companies adjust to onboarding employees via video conferencing, Glass said companies need to be more “intentional” about the process.

“Even if we say, ‘Let’s have a team lunch where we’re all on Zoom and have some social time,’ that doesn’t feel the same as when you do it in the office,” Glass said.

“In some cases, it can even feel forced.”

Some people have gotten creative to replace the social interaction that would usually occur on a daily basis in the office.

Curtis, the Foundation 2 development officer, said she’s been playing a lot of the Jackbox Games that allow people to play from different locations.

“It’s really great because you get to spend time with people in different states that maybe you wouldn’t typically get to hang out with,” Curtis said.

In the meantime, Curtis hasn’t needed to stop her son, now three years old, from eating candles or licking cat bowls.

“Now that he’s back in school, we’ve had so much more of a normal routine,” Curtis said.

Comments: (319) 398-8394; john.steppe@thegazette.com

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