Struggles of Remote Work Half a Year Into the Pandemic

This was supposed to be the year that ushered in a revolution in how we work. Remote jobs would become a common practice, spurred on by the global COVID-19 pandemic. A time when everyone would start paying attention to those radical ideas from remote work evangelists such as Matt Mullenweg.

The question is whether this pandemic was the catalyst the world needed to reevaluate the workplace.

There is certainly a lot of good we can talk about. No hour-long commutes. Saved money by eating at home instead of takeout from the restaurant across the street. More flexible hours.

As a veteran and evangelist of the remote work movement, I have not dealt with many of the struggles that others have during this stretch. While I have had to adjust to the outside world a bit, for the most part, my day-to-day life has remained the same. I had the knowledge that colleagues, friends, and family were having some growing pains with the new reality. However, I never understood what they were going through.

Last week, I nearly reached my breaking point. It was one of those times where reality decided to check in. The beautiful veneer hanging over a decade of remote work was stripped away. It was a time where I truly understood what others had been going through during this worldwide period of struggle.

One of my housemates tested positive for COVID-19 a week earlier. He had a short battle with a fever a few days before, but that was the scope of sickness within the household. My other two housemates and I tested negative and have been doing fine to this point. As frightening as those few days were (Will my friend be OK? Am I going to get sick?), I was unprepared for what this change meant within our household.

That one little test upended our routines and took its toll on my work life.

It meant two weeks of continual interruptions from people who are not accustomed to being under quarantine. While everyone did their best, it was not an ideal situation. I could hunker down in my own space, but the routine that typically drives my life was shattered. For those of us routine-oriented people, even the smallest interruptions can feel like a freight train chugging by with the sole intent of ruining an otherwise peaceful day.

For most of my professional life, I have worked alone in quiet. I might put on some music or a podcast, mostly as a calming bit of background noise. However, I tend to enjoy being alone with my thoughts and the occasional interruption of a cat jumping in my lap for its daily petting.

The two-week disruption of my life, while unpleasant, was a mere blip in comparison to the struggle that many others have endured and overcome for the past five or six months. However, it has allowed me to become more empathetic when hearing others’ stories. From disruptions on Zoom meetings of children zipping through the house to the family dog begging for playtime in the middle of the day, work has taken on a new meaning for many. And, this is true for remote workers within the WordPress community.

The pandemic has certainly thrust companies and their employees into remote work. However, I question whether it was the push the world needed to reevaluate the workplace. It is not something that grew organically. It forced people into situations they were unprepared for. Some did not miss a beat. Others are still attempting to find balance.

Many of us with years of experience have run into issues. A large portion of the WordPress community works remotely. Some are new to it, and many who have years of experience are learning to cope with changes to their environment.

Mullenweg realizes this is not the best of times, even within an established distributed company such as Automattic. “I believe that if you do distributed work well, you’re a lot more productive,” he said in Corner Office interview for the New York Times. “But the pandemic has affected a lot of people’s lives. School is canceled. People are working from home that might not normally work from home. So we definitely have seen a hit to productivity, not to mention the stress, which has been even compounded by the social unrest.”

I am still an evangelist for remote work. Outside of potentially teaching schoolchildren once again (perhaps in the far, far away future), I can hardly imagine moving to an office away from home anytime soon. However, I can see how being propelled into an unfamiliar environment will not sit well with some. This experience in remote work may even turn away those who would have otherwise been comfortable had they been given the opportunity outside of the chaos of kids, spouses, housemates, and all the other distractions. That old, familiar cubicle may be enticing at this point.

I am happy that this pandemic will make for some converts to remote work but worry that others have not been given a fair look at the benefits that might exist under normal circumstances.

This post is in part sharing my struggles with remote work and part an open invitation for members of our community to talk about their experiences over the past several months. This is me checking in with you, our dear readers. How are you coping today?

For people who are struggling but are not comfortable discussing issues related to remote work openly in the comments, please check out Big Orange Heart, an organization dedicated to supporting the well-being of remote workers.


9 responses to “Struggles of Remote Work Half a Year Into the Pandemic”

  1. A good article giving an honest feedback on home-working , tele-working ,
    Justin , gives angles to everyday situations , that grabs my attention.
    He goes into corners that probably others would not.
    He jumps in , whether its wordpress articles , or Life articles similar to this, despite , what he says about his independence , he has an inbuilt compass of whats happening out there ,
    I could relate to this article , and could even write a chapter on my own experiences , Always look forward to his writing , well done , ( Greg ),

  2. When you work in an office you dream of how nice it would be to work from home. When you are forced to work from home some people dream of how nice it would be to work in an office.

    I have worked from home for a decade and I love it. Firends used to assume I could do whatever I wanted all day. I don’t need to tell you all at this point that is not how it works.

    Working form home has different struggles. Those struggles are something I forgot about but they are very real and I have got to witness other people fall into the work-from-home lifestyle and it is not easy to adapt to it at short notice.

    There was no time for them to learn how to shut out the distractions of home life during worktime. No way for their family members to know the bounderies needed. Ain’t no way your teaching a young kid to stay out during calls if they have never seen you do calls at home often.

    The work/life balance is hard to get right when all of your work and all of your live happens inside your home. Both sides encroach on each other in ways that are hard to explain.

    Sometimes working from home is working all of the time. Sometimes working from home is doing only household chores all of the time. How do you fit both into the one space?

    How do you get everything you need to done? This has been the most common question I have got in the past months.

    The truth is there is no hard and fast answer to it. You do what works. What works for me might not work for you and what works for you might not work for your neighbour.

    I love working from home but It is not without it’s share of challenges. I had plenty of time to adapt over the years. The people that have been forced to adjust without any lead-in time have got it rough though.

  3. I have worked from home / 2 different homes / for about 5 years now. I would preface this by saying living in Ohio we were blessed to have Amy Acton as our public health director so that really helped a lot of people understand what was going on.

    At first, I was like I’ve been doing this for a while it’ll be ok. But then I realized how much I missed the routine of watching sports + social gatherings + planning vacations, etc.

    Working from home during coronavirus is different from working from home minus coronavirus. Great Point!

    Ultimately, I think working from home is more productive for the creative class: if you have an idea spring into your mind you can run over to your workstation and do it. That’s been my experience. And talking to a client or a co-worker over the phone is much more comfortable than someone leaning over your cubicle or over your shoulder as you’re typing or photoshopping.

  4. My family has been a work-from-home family for 10 years now, so it doesn’t feel a whole lot different yet. My kids now work (out of the home), so there’s always that wondering if they’re going to bring it home, but that tends to relax the longer it doesn’t happen.

    While my own life has been largely uninterrupted, the company I work for is NOT a remote work place, so suddenly having EVERYONE work from home was wildly stressful for many of them, especially those with kids. I really feel for them, especially now as they have to decide about school.

    I hear often “When the kids are are grandma’s this remote work stuff is AMAZING. When they’re home it’s pure hell.”

  5. Thanks for this post Justin. Yeah, working remotely, whether for an employer or yourself, comes with a lot of twist and turns. The most recent, although it appears we are already in our natural habitat, comes with challenges still and a lot that you have already faced.

    I will refrain from reflecting of 25+ years of running my businesses out of our home I’ve seen a lot. Back in those days it wasn’t cool for sure :) Take care and do your best.

  6. I think this biggest challenge with the pandemic is that your home became the space for everything, not just work.

    Before the pandemic, if I felt like I needed a change of space I could go work at a coffee shop or I was able to go to the gym. Once everything closed home became the space for everything, but for myself and my partner. This made it really challenging to have boundaries around work and leisure time.

    I think right now remote work can be especially challenging if you don’t have your own personal workspace, but that’s obviously a luxury that may not be available for everyone. This may not have been as noticeable before but with more people/family at home the problem is amplified


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