Just before 8 am, as John Augustine opens his emails, he sets in motion a daily round robin of phone calls and discussions from his makeshift office inside his Luzerne County home.
As the president and CEO of Penn’s Northeast, an eight-county economic development agency, Augustine is still working to recruit companies to Northeast Pennsylvania while adapting to the remote office forced upon many by the coronavirus.
“People are being inundated with information,” said Augustine. “They are being overwhelmed with webinars and Zoom meetings. What we have tried to do is to have 20 minute webinars three times per week. You have to give people space and work alone.”
Augustine has worked from home in other jobs in the past, but said in those cases, he did it alone without his spouse and children in the same confined spaces. Now, he and his wife plan alternate conference call times so as to not use all of the Internet bandwidth at once.
As parents, they monitor school time and assignments – all during the workday.
“We’ve tried to set a schedule in our house,” he said. “I built a birdhouse with the kids and then we painted it, so there is some fun disguised as learning. But it’s a challenge while we work.”
Working from home has become the new normal for millions of Pennsylvanians. With offices vacated, employees are finding their new office is at the dining room table or a quiet space in a corner of the house.
“This idea of working from home is certainly different from past discussions about it when remote working only meant one person working from home and was transitioning into that process,” said Dr. Matthew Sowcik, a Wilkes-Barre native and assistant professor of leadership at the University of Florida. “It’s kind of different now because everyone has been mandated to work from home.”
Dr. Sowcik recently held a webinar with Luzerne County business owners on strategies for maximizing remote work opportunities.
“Most people are not only working from home,” he said. “They are having to take care of kids and transition their lives and figuring out how to manage their workflow.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, 29 percent of Americans had the option to work part-time from home in 2017-2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the U.S. Census Bureau found that about 5.3 percent of the workforce worked from home full-time.
Global Workplace Analytics, which tracks remote telework and studies workplace trends, found that the trend will only continue going forward.
“Our best estimate is that 25-30% of the workforce will be working-from-home multiple days a week by the end of 2021,” said Kate Lister, President of Global Workplace Analytics. She said the demand to work-from-home has been building for decades.
Dr. Sowcik said employers need to ‘re-think’ the whole concept of working from home. He said much of that comes from how leadership from the top is structured and leaders are structuring technology, workers roles and what employees need.
“Leaders also have to create a good culture,” said Dr. Sowcik. “That’s really important. We put a lot of attention on how to get tasks done, especially in chaos or turbulent times, but equally important is the culture that we’ve built for many years within an organization. If someone has a birthday and we celebrate it in the office, how do we celebrate it when we are working remotely? If we don’t do things like that, we’ll have high levels of turnover.”
He said without a good culture, employees will be over-stressed and burnt out when the pandemic is finished.
“We all need a map as to how and get the things we need for our jobs,” he said. “How we network with each other and figure out best practices are two things we’ll need going forward.”
Talia Walsh, a personal trainer and owner of Quest Studio in Jessup, believes sticking to a routine and eating well are key work-from-home components.
“Maintain the social interactions with your employer,” she said. “It keeps their morale and motivation higher.”
Walsh said isolation can also be mentally challenging, so feel free to have a little fun.
“Have a virtual wellness stretch webinar that teaches employees how to set up a home office desk properly that gives them good posture,” she said.
“Everybody’s inboxes have doubled and everybody is spending more time on conference calls and Zoom meetings than they are actually getting work done,” said Augustine. “We’ve tried to minimize those and focus on letting people work.”
“Because everyone is going through this together, don’t be afraid to leave some slack. This is a time when people are paying attention to other people,” said Dr. Sowcik.”