Zoom Has Torn Down Workplace Walls. Maybe It’s Time To Put Them Back Up.
There’s a lot of freedom that comes with a “work from home” job — but it can come with great personal cost, too.
The CEO of an old-school financial firm invited all employees to a zoom meeting. The pandemic had impacted their business negatively, and it was time for him to provide a candid update on their strategy. Most employees had cameras on, and could see the employee who was lounging on his couch with stacks of pizza boxes and empty wine bottles in the background of his studio apartment — as well as their host who was attending poolside from his own home in sunny Florida.
The disparity in circumstances between the two zoom squares — and the many employees whose home offices fell somewhere in between those extremes — took on a particular poignancy as they heard about the hiring freeze, selective workforce reduction, benefits cuts, salary freeze, and other difficult decisions the company was undertaking to respond to their new economic reality.
As white collar work has largely been driven online this year, companies who never thought they’d have a telecommuting workforce have learned that it’s not only possible to do — it’s something they intend to keep in place post-pandemic. Telecommuting brings great savings in real estate spend, it creates happier and more productive workers, and allows a broader talent pool of people to participate in the workforce.
For historically marginalized workers, there are also some clear benefits.
When a commute to the office is eliminated, it suddenly becomes easier to balance career with caretaking needs for children or elderly parents. Workers with highly-specific skillsets who are tethered to a specific city because of a spouse’s suddenly find that the pool of potential employers broadens with telework — and the company that hires them benefits from access to this “best of the best” talent, too.
But while telemeeting technology makes it easier to address these unique circumstances, it can cast a new bright light on them for observant coworkers.
When we all go into the same office, there is an explicit distinction between “work” and “home.” The commute allows professionals to make their own choices about how much of their personal life they disclose in the office, and how much privacy they want to protect. But when the office is now brought directly to the workers’ home such distinctions are harder to maintain.
For whatever reason, there are a lot of parts of “personal life” that employees don’t want to share at work. 50% of LGBTQ workers are not fully “out” in the workplace. But this ability to be closeted is increasingly difficult when a home office space is shared with a same-sex partner who may now be seen wandering across the background of zoom calls.
In the same vein, parents (mothers, in particular) who have worked hard over the past decades to convince their employers that children don’t get in the way of being their best professionally are finding it harder to shield just how demanding their kids are from coworkers who now see those kids popping into home office when they need attention.
Similarly, we may know at an abstract level that corporate CEOs earn compensation that is many multiples of their typical employee. When they come into the same physical office together, though. the wage disparity isn’t as apparent — and “we’re all in this together, team” messages are credibly received. These messages don’t hold up so well, though, when delivered from an executive’s palatial home, or from an ever-changing background of luxurious international destinations that the “work anywhere” mentality now affords them.
Does this mean we should give up on work from home setup? I don’t think so. But it does mean we need to be more intentional about how we maintain the work/life boundary — even as those two spheres increasingly collide in the same physical space.
At a tactical level, it might mean using the virtual background capabilities of most meeting platforms to keep at least a digital wall between your home office and your work colleagues.
More difficult, it also might mean continuing to make efforts to create workplace cultures that not only allow employees to share their full selves at work — but actually celebrate individual differences as assets to the business.
In either case, though, it at least means thinking carefully about your personal brand, what data points can influence it, and then making smart choices to shape and control your intended professional persona. The new teleworking world may provide more opportunities for hits and misses in these efforts — but they can be mastered.