WFH: What Season 1 of SA Lockdown has revealed

COVID-19 has shaken up the whole world and demanded that we start doing things differently. For many of us, this has included thinking about things differently.

I’m one of the privileged people who have been able to continue working remotely during this time because I have access to a laptop, unlimited WiFi and a skill set that is a necessity for many businesses during this time.

Working from home (WFH), under “normal” circumstances heightens some people’s productivity. I’m one of those people. I just get so much more done at home. BUT, these are not normal circumstances.

Countries all over the world are grappling with a pandemic that has us on edge. Anxiety and stress are peaking. Parents are juggling work and trying to homeschool their children, keep their homes clean, do laundry, keep everyone fed and the pressure of wondering what their jobs will look like after the lockdown or at the end of the pandemic.

Many organisations, instead of using this as an opportunity to meaningfully connect with employees by extending kindness, understanding and compassion, are treating this time as business as usual. In fact, some organisations are pushing employees to be over-productive by implying distrust in their employees.

I have no doubt that there are people who hoped that WFH would give them a break from their toxic bosses and unhealthy workplace cultures. Distance was supposed to form a shield that protects us from abusive people. The jarring realisation for many has been that they cannot “run away” from their horrible bosses.

Remember, when abusive people feel stressed or threatened, their abusive patterns tend to be intensified, and if you were a punching bag in the office, that will follow you when you WFH.

Sadly, under normal circumstances, you can switch off at the end of the day and go home to a space that doesn’t carry anxiety or negative energy. That’s how powerful a change of environment/change of scenery can be. But, what happens when you have a toxic boss and you’re working from home? Where is your safe space?

Some of the trends I’ve seen in how toxic bosses and unhealthy organisational cultures have manifested themselves are:

• Employees being expected to work at any time of day or night “because they’re home anyway”.

• Employers not taking into consideration that employees have other responsibilities while working at home. Those who usually have domestic workers don’t have them at the moment. Those whose kids attend school are now their children’s teachers, tutors and monitors.

• Employers requiring employees to participate in endless video chat meetings unnecessarily. Some employers have this expectation without even providing data for their employees, so employees are out of pocket AND subsidizing their employers.

• Employers putting pressure on employees to participate in non-work related WhatsApp group conversations, accusing employees who don’t participate of “not being team players”. This pressure puts an enormous amount of strain on employees’ mental health and capacity to function effectively at work and at home.

A good leader would take the time to reach out privately to employees to gauge how they’re doing, how they can be supported and how they would prefer to communicate/engage during this time.

Of course, the other forms of organisational abuse are still happening as well; micromanagement, unreasonable delivery timelines, having to constantly prove that you’re working/online/engaged and dealing with inept managers who aren’t interested or equipped to support your mental and emotional wellbeing.

There is nothing normal or “business as usual” about what’s happening right now. Organisations talk about “our employees are our strongest assets and we invest in them” but fail dismally when it’s time to showcase their commitment to putting people first.

Sadly, many organisations will come out of this unchanged and still committed to inequality and unfair labour practices that they can dance around because their legal teams know how to beat the system.

What is clear is that now is a really good time for employees to work on a strategy that will help them navigate these challenges, and the triggers they come with, to ensure that their mental and emotional wellbeing is protected as much as possible.