Working Remotely? This Will Hit You Next!
The Current Situation
Many people around the globe are working from home right now, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This happened all of a sudden and overnight. Despite the rapidness of the change, moving to remote worked surprisingly well for many teams, because they were used to some degree of remote work before. Especially development teams and technology firms in general have many years of experience with allowing their workforce to do their jobs from wherever and whenever they like. Switching to home office therefore doesn’t feel particularly grim at the moment. When I asked some of my friends how it was going, they unanimously answered: “It works very well, no problems.”
The question on my mind is, if we can sustain this feeling of “it works” in the future. I suggest we can’t. In this article you will learn which scientific results led me to this opinion, and what you should be aware of in your own situation.
The Pandemic Frames a Stressful Context
We are living through a pandemic. Epidemics and pandemics, especially the Ebola outbreaks in recent years, taught us that they are accompanied by high levels of stress and anxieties  of the affected population. We fear for our loved ones and don’t want to get infected ourselves. If we get sick, some of us are being stigmatized or fear we might be. If our friends get sick, we might try to keep away from them to protect ourselves. What the article cited above also tells us is, that we are likely to develop depressions and a feeling of helplessness, especially when quarantined or limited in our movement. Which is true for most of us right now.
In addition, we might not always act rationally in such a context. During the Ebola outbreak 2013-2016, people exhibited anxiety-invoked behavior to a large extent. This included for example violence against medical personnel and disregarding of the rules installed to protect the populace, such as funeral rites and treatment of sick people. Research concluded, this happened for at least six reasons :
- Fear and stress interfere with cognitive processing.
- Personal assessment of risk is hampered by lack of information.
- Individuals’ risk assessments are poor even with good information.
- Individual actions are influenced by the actions of other individuals.
- Mass actions are influenced by the actions of the masses.
- Fear-driven actions may escalate and reach a tipping point when compounded by a collapse of the individual’s or the community’s values and cultural references, and/or an erosion of systems of governance and public order.
While this happened in West Africa, which seems far away and not necessarily relevant, we can spot the same types of behavior everywhere around the world, today. People leave their homes and gather in droves  or empty toilet paper shelves at our local supermarkets . We even attack ambulances  and doctors , as if we could defeat the pandemic this way. Some people don’t seem to understand this behavior worsens the situation.
To make matters worse, some of us are fearing for our jobs or even our existence. In the United States, 3.28 million people lost their jobs last week . Up to 14 million jobs could be lost by summer  – and that’s just the U.S. The same outlook is true for most countries right now. While huge monetary aid packages are being prepared by many governments, these won’t be enough to secure all jobs. That means, we are fearing for our jobs while fearing for our health and loved ones. This definitely means an increased level of stress for us.
Effects of Remote Work
Let’s take a look at the effects of remote work on peoples’ productivity and health. A study of Eurofound and the International Labour Office  concluded 2017, that “the findings on the effects of [remote work] are therefore highly ambiguous and are related to the interaction between [technology] use, place of work in specific work environments, blurring of work–life boundaries, and the characteristics of different occupations.” This means essentially, that the effects of remote work depend on the person and the context.
The positive aspects this study found are:
- Reduction in commuting time
- Greater working time autonomy
- More flexibility in terms of working time organization
- Better overall work-life balance
- Increased motivation
- Reduced turnover
- Enhanced productivity and efficiency
- Cost reduction
At the same time, the study found the following disadvantages:
- Longer working hours
- Work-home interference (overlap between paid work and personal life)
- Blurring work–life boundaries and increased work– family conflict
- Work intensification
- Potential lack of necessary rest periods
- Isolation and negative effects on occupational health and well-being
- Lack of access to informal information sharing
- Increased risk of burnout
- Problems with sleeping
The study [10, p. 38] finds that about 30% of people doing regular home-based telework feel stress at work always or most of the time (compared to 25% of people commuting to the office). “Regular” in this context doesn’t mean all the time though. It means a couple of days every week. The authors conclude: “Partial and occasional forms of T/ICTM appear to result in a more positive balance between the benefits and drawbacks.”
Well, our situation is neither partial nor occasional. Most of us were all forced into this situation involuntarily, full-time, without a clear perspective with regards to when it will end. In the past, most of us were used to meeting our coworkers in person every couple of days and our boss at least once a week. In our current situation, we face several months, maybe even longer, of severe social distancing, which amounts to not meeting our colleagues in person. This is far more extreme than any scientific study conducted so far with regards to home-office and remote work. Therefore, we don’t know for sure what will happen next.
A Possible Scenario
Let’s think of a best-case scenario: Only few people develop anxiety-invoked behavior due to the Corona crisis and the outlook of a possible job loss. Let’s also assume most of our team members love to work from home and only 30% of them experience a high stress level due to the remote situation. If two out of three people can cope with their stress without causing conflicts or needing additional attention by their peers and bosses, this leaves us with 10% of our workforce exhibiting additional needs and potentially causing conflict. That is one person per team.
Let’s evaluate if one person per team is a realistic number. Imagine you are working in a team, consisting of ten people. All work from home now, including you. Some have a house with a dedicated office space. Some are living in flats with no dedicated office space. Some have kids, some don’t. Some are living with their fiancés, some are alone. Some relationships are stable and time-tested, some start to crumble. Basically, your team consists of normal people with common problems.
Now the heat is turned up a notch. Somebody in your team gets sick and doesn’t know if it is Corona or just a regular cold. The grandfather of one of your workers needs to go to intensive care, be it Covid-19 or a heart attack. At the same time, your company has less orders coming in and needs to reduce working hours. The company next door is laying off some people. Your team is great in this situation and acts as professionally as they can. Of course, they also care for their colleagues and discuss urgent issues, such as how to increase sales. That’s when your internet connection fails, you no longer can watch the facial expressions in video streams of your team and your voice comes across garbled.
What do you think: Is this a likely scenario for your team? Could this lead to one person in your team acting stressed-out?
One person per team, acting “special” can ruin your whole team’s performance and health, if not addressed early and thoroughly. One problem is, that most of us are not used to or trained in how to deal with team conflicts and people’s anxieties remotely. Another problem is, that the best-case scenario above is highly unlikely. In my opinion, we are lucky if just three out of ten people are affected by anxieties or more stress than they can cope with.
What Can We Do About It?
The first thing we need to do is determining how many people in our teams are affected or could be in the near future. Therefore, we need to establish a high level of transparency with regards to stress and well-being of our employees – and ourselves. We definitely should watch out for conflicts, behavior we don’t understand and signs of stress or burnout. As a leader, we need to help our teams as role models, with serenity (you can read more about this here). Agile processes help you to establish a high level of transparency. Scrum for example comes with two great assets in this situation: A Scrum Master, who also is a people-carer, and a Sprint Retrospective, which allows us to check in with everybody at least every couple of weeks. While this is certainly not enough to succeed, it gets us two steps closer to situational awareness. Also, sit down with your team and discuss the issues openly. Invite everybody to come forth with their fears and suggestions.
Make everybody aware of the “optimism bias” , which means people believe bad things only happen to others. In addition, you might want to consider learning about stress-coping mechanisms and patterns. Some are healthy, others are not. You can also establish rituals in your teams that work as stress-relievers, for example a virtual dance party or even just talking about oneself instead of work for ten minutes each day. Whatever you do, keep transparency high, inspect your situation together with your team often and adapt your approach from there. Get help, if and when you need it.
Have you recently experienced such an issue in your team? Is there more conflict than usual? Let me know through LinkedIn or leave a comment below this article, maybe we can learn together.
 Dtsch Arztebl 2020; 117(13): A 648–54,
 Shultz, J.M., Cooper, J.L., Baingana, F. et al. The Role of Fear-Related Behaviors in the 2013–2016 West Africa Ebola Virus Disease Outbreak. Curr Psychiatry Rep 18, 104 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-016-0741-y
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