In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, as companies made frenzied transitions to telecommuting and remote work, whether they wanted to or not, we saw a spate of media commentary about how this could mark the beginning of a work revolution in which employees would finally enjoy the kind of flexibility and work-life balance they’d long sought after. While it’s still too early to make blanket pronouncements one way or the other, and while there have certainly been some positive indications, so far remote work in the age of COVID has not quite been the revolution we’d been hoping for.

One of the signs that there was trouble in paradise was Florida State University’s announcement to its employees in June that they would no longer be allowed to care for children while working from home during the coronavirus outbreak as of August. Fortunately, the university has since rescinded this policy in the face of an intense backlash, but the fact that they even announced it was indicative of an ambivalence that has marked the discourse around telecommuting since the 1980s and 90s.

The Ambivalence Surrounding Telecommuting and Flexwork

Part of the purpose of remote work and telecommuting support programs, at least nominally, has always been to increase flexibility to employees with caregiving responsibilities. In practice, however, telework options have been considered a temporary short-term solution to support occasional dependent care needs, rather than a normative behavior in organizations.

This ambivalence has marked the discourse around telecommuting, remote work, and flexwork for decades. In 1987, for example, social scientist Kathleen Christensen wrote in a Christian Science Monitor article, “A woman cannot simultaneously care for her child and do her work.” Of course, this was written during a time when women were widely seen as the primary, or perhaps the only, caregivers for children. Christensen had conducted a survey of 14,000 women in which two out of three women with children who were working from home reported that they needed to resort to supplemental daycare. It’s not clear if this was the case because they found caregiving to be truly incompatible with their work or if their telecommuting arrangement was constraining to begin with, thereby making it difficult to effectively juggle their work with their caregiving.

Even today, the federal government specifically states that “telework is not a substitute for dependent care” and that telework represents “the exception and not the rule” of work behavior. And despite the fact that more companies, in the face of increased demand (even well before the pandemic), are claiming to be family-friendly, in many cases, their claims amount to not much more than a facade.

Advocates of remote work, flexwork, and family-friendly programs have pushed for a change in the mentality of flexible work options being the exception. They have touted the potential for a massive shift from office-based work to remote work as a potentially huge advancement for family-friendly workplace policies. However, as evidenced by the Florida State University example, many organizations are attempting to regain control (and profit) by issuing strict telework policies.

Organizational Control and the Dark Side of Remote Work

While remote and flexible work arrangements have the potential to increase work-life balance, it is important to understand the potential dark side that comes in the form of organizational control. When an employee works from home, they are potentially allowing the organization to control their home life or aspects of it, and if remote work is to be the new normal we are likely to see increases in the levels of organizational infiltration into the home. This could range from specifications for home office aesthetics to who is allowed to be at home during work hours, what we wear, and how long we are in front of the desk. (No more poolside court hearings or office meetings while spinning on your Peloton.)

Legally, an employer can control work-from-home employees the same way it would in-office employees, either through a teleworking agreement or the job description. In some instances, this may be advisable such as ensuring that the remote employee’s physical environments are safe and secure. This usually means providing, in a teleworking agreement, that the employee will ensure their workspace is free from potential hazards, and that the employee is taking steps to ensure that any of the company’s information/property inside the employee’s home is secure. For many employees whose work is entirely done on the computer, this may simply mean password-protecting their devices and logging on from secure connections. But employers can require employees who have company equipment or hard copy files at home to take steps to properly secure it, such as with a locked office or locked file cabinet (in which cases the company should pay or reimburse for any special equipment needed to secure its property in the employee’s home). 
 
In addition, many employers ask that employees dedicate a “distraction-free” zone in their home for work. This may have been a fair expectation before the pandemic (depending on what employers mean when they say “distraction-free”), but we are obviously living in very different times. With everything that has occurred, it is simply unreasonable to ask working parents to completely separate work from home when they are literally at home. Reopening workplaces and asking parents to go back while schools and daycare remain closed would also be unreasonable. It is as if working parents are being asked to choose between their jobs and their children.

Yes, an employer can, legally, say that telecommuting is not a substitute for finding childcare and that employees on video conference calls should try to keep the background relatively free from significant audio or visual distractions (e.g. kids and pets). But some companies, as evidenced by Florida State University's recent move, are wanting to take the “distraction-free” idea further and entirely remove the “family” from “family-friendly policy.”

Just because companies can legally make such demands does not mean it is in their interest to do so.  There are numerous research-backed advantages of telecommuting including employee morale, organizational commitment, productivity, higher employee retention, and greater company appeal to new talent. Practically speaking, being too controlling and rigid about employees’ environments defeats some of these advantages since flexibility is one of the defining qualities that makes the advantages possible, to begin with. Also, during this pandemic, it is simply impossible for employees to be able to keep all home life out of their work-life, especially when they may have no other safe or available childcare options or may have a spouse who is also telecommuting. Insisting on such unrealistic work-life divisions will only reduce autonomy for both sides and increase stress as a result of the inevitable intrusions of personal life and family into work and vice versa.

There’s no question these are extraordinarily challenging times for companies, but they need to remember that their employees are the lifeblood of their businesses. Rather than forcefully, and unrealistically, try to separate employees’ work and family lives, companies can instead reap the aforementioned benefits that come when employees know their employers are invested in helping them balance these dimensions in the midst of a difficult situation.

(Dr. Meagan E. Brock Baskin, Ph.D., is a Chapman Assistant Professor of Management in the Collins College of Business at the University of Tulsa.)

Working from Home A foot rest will help ease the fatigue of long hours of sitting at home. Photo: Pexels