Communication is going to be our lifeline
Communication is going to be our lifeline

As the world continues to adopt new measures to limit the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, a record number of Americans are spending their days in a new environment.

The home office.

As of mid-February, 46% of U.S. businesses had begun implementing remote work policies as a result of the pandemic, according to Willis Towers Watson, a risk-management and advisory company. That number has likely risen in recent weeks as public health experts have more vocally urged citizens to stay home and limit gatherings to no more than 10 people.

Such a massive shift has provided plenty of food for thought for Creighton University researchers who study organizational communications and workplace social dynamics.

“This pandemic is interesting because (the virus) doesn’t care. Everyone’s having to work from home,” says Erika Kirby, PhD, A.F. Jacobson Chair and professor of Communication Studies in Creighton’s College of Arts and Sciences. “No one knows what’s going to happen because we’ve never been put in these circumstances before.”

Kirby, who studies the intersection between working and personal lives, sees the aftereffect of the pandemic playing out in one of two ways: “I think a silver lining that could come out of this is that people understand that work is a function that can be performed in many spaces, and we might loosen up our attitudes toward it,” she says. “I do have a little bit of a fear that, because we weren’t prepared for it, that for many it might not be successful.”

It’s important to note, Kirby says, that working from home during a global health crisis is not the same as working from home during times of relative calm. Under normal circumstances, employers would have time to establish clear policies and communication channels for work-from-home employees, she says. And workers themselves could follow tips such as establishing “office” hours, setting “boundaries” between work and home, and designating a specific workspace to maintain a proper work-life balance.

Now, with widespread school closures and limited time outside of the house, many employees are juggling workplace responsibilities with homeschooling and other parental duties.

“I have a feeling that some of the teleworking attempts during the pandemic are going to fail. These aren’t the kinds of conditions that you would normally have,” Kirby says.

Nonetheless, some standard work-from-home tips are still relevant, Kirby says. It doesn’t take advance notice to create a routine for the home workday: set an alarm, dress, create a designated workspace (not the couch) and take breaks. Kirby also recommends building some physical activity into the day.

One consistent piece of advice on working from home, Kirby says, is to maintain communication with coworkers. With the pandemic increasing concerns about isolation, reaching out to others whenever possible is even more important to maintain a healthy outlook. That means putting more effort into maintaining workplace friends despite the distance.

Chad McBride, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Communication Studies, says one important element of this is maintaining a relationship with a “work spouse,” which is, as he defines it, “a close platonic friendship in a workplace that is characterized by high levels of trust and disclosure.”

These kinds of relationships often develop between people who work closely together, McBride says. And they tend to be mutually beneficial: McBride’s research shows that work spouses tend to make each other better employees by complementing each other’s strengths and candidly pointing out weaknesses.

A work spouse can also serve as a sounding board for workplace concerns, McBride says. And this role continues to be important even when working from home, in many cases in the presence of an actual, legal spouse. The work spouse can provide an employee with an outlet to vent work frustrations, so they don’t carry over into interactions with family. 

“Traditionally, your work spouse knows all the ins and outs of your workplace culture,” he says. “If you were to talk to your actual spouse, and explain, ‘Here’s what happened today,’ they don’t have the same shorthand that your work spouse does. You’d have to explain all the backstory. With the people I’ve interviewed, a huge benefit is getting that venting done, so they can fully embrace family time.”

For people working from home during the pandemic, McBride recommends checking in with work spouses and other co-workers through any of the tools available: calling, texting, email, video chat, etc. The key, he says, is to be intentional and make the effort.

“I think right now, the situation is, we’re trying to work from home with other people in the house. So, the sharing of ideas about what’s working and what’s not can be really beneficial,” he says.

As Kirby puts it, socializing — even about trivial things — becomes incredibly important during times of crisis.

“I think, with all these ideas of routines and boundaries, communication is the only thing that’s going to hold us together,” she says. “Communication is going to be our lifeline.”