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Part IV: Working From Home & The New Normal, Dr. Pennebaker Speaks About The COVID-19 Crisis

This is Part IV and the last instalment in a series of discussions by Dr. James Pennebaker, where he discusses the impacts of working from home on both our work lives and our personal lives.

Read Part I: Studying Communities in Crisis

Read Part II: What's Happening Now and What Comes Next

Read Part III: How To Weather The Storm

How has the COVID crisis changed the nature of work?

What we're finding is there are upsides and downsides, which is not particularly surprising. I think it has the implications of changing work forever in some ways. What we're finding is that by and large people are adapting surprisingly well. Part of it is just learning a new way to work. Everyone who has been having online meetings and so forth knows they're picking up some pretty basic things— we just have to learn some things here at the beginning because we haven't done this before at this scale. 

Read more about why “Zoom fatigue” happens and how to reduce it.

I have a group of about a dozen graduate students, and I had a meeting with them where I asked how their classes were going. They all said, “you know, we've discovered this thing that we call Zoom fatigue,” which means you can't have a three-hour class on Zoom. I've noticed it myself, I'm in these meetings, which in the past would've taken an hour, but now that hour seems like five hours.

The nature of communication is different now, and we need to be much more efficient. We’re still learning just how to use this new medium, but we're also discovering this medium's pretty slick because we don't have to walk across the office or to another building for a meeting. We don't even have to commute.

At least three or four thousand of the people that we've looked at in our online survey are full time employees, and most of them are doing remote work. What we're finding is those who are working from home are happier, more engaged, and mentally much healthier on average than those people who are not in employed full-time. That's not particularly surprising. One of the things that we're finding is the more coworkers that they interact with during the day, the happier and healthier they report being. In other words, they are taking advantage of social support.

What can employers and managers whose teams are working remotely do to make working from home as easy as possible?

Try to avoid unnecessary meetings, especially long ones. Try to figure out how to make communication work and work effectively. To balance meeting fatigue with the need for interaction, we’re finding that just a five-, ten-, or fifteen-minute call-in works really well. So does taking advantage of chats or instant messaging through tools like Slack. Those social connections are what an office is. One reason we like an office is that we can stick our head in and talk to the person next door for just a minute. I think that is a really psychologically healthy system.

Think back to college. Typically, you would sit in a class where a faculty member would drone on for an hour or an hour and a half, and nobody raised any questions. What did you do during that time? The odds are pretty good that you didn’t listen very carefully to most of your lectures. I didn't appreciate the extent of this until I started teaching an online class several years ago – an online introductory psychology class. At the very beginning, my colleague and I thought, “well we'll just do our usual lecture with a small class, and we'll have a camera in the back and you'll just see us walking back and forth as we're giving a lecture.” We realized that was really, really boring, so we tried sitting behind a desk. We realized that was pretty boring too because when you're watching a video, that’s the only thing you have to look at.

You can't look around the room, at the other people in the room, at the chairs and ceiling and floor. You just look at this little square. Then I started to study late-night television. Why is it that millions of people will watch all these late-night shows night after night after night? Because they know how human attention works. We pay attention to things for three to five minutes. Look at the average YouTube video; the average YouTube is three to five minutes long because that's how long we pay attention. Now a great teacher can do this when they’re just talking, but the point that they're making is probably between three and five minutes and then they change to a different point. But if you're in a video, if you're just looking at this one little screen, you need to change what you’re looking at every three to five minutes.

That also tells me most meetings could probably be done in three to five minutes. You could have six five-minute meetings, and that would take up 30 minutes scattered over the day and people would actually listen to every one of them, which they don't now. In other words, think about how human attention works. We did not evolve to sit there quietly for an hour and listen to somebody drone. We were outside, looking to see if there's a squirrel around to eat or trying to find a banana on a tree. And our immediate environment was constantly changing. At the most, we would sit for a while waiting for the deer to come out from behind some bushes so we could throw a rock at it. But the point is evolution did not train us to look at something that provides minimal information for a long time.

Should managers and employers be aware of any differences in how different people are working from home?

An issue that jumps out when we look at the data is that the more people under the age of 12 years old in your household, the more stress you're under. In our current situation, people with kids are really suffering a lot more than any other groups that I've found. They're worried about costs, they're worried about childcare, they're worried about trying to get their work done when they don't have the space and they don't have childcare at home. And that’s all on top of the stress that those of us without kids are experiencing. This is important for employers and managers to understand: if you have a bunch of people working for you remotely, those people who are trying to juggle kids at home are likely having an unbelievably difficult time compared to those people who don't have little kids at home. Pets and plants tend to have the opposite effect.

You’ve given us a lot of advice here. How do we bring it all together, find balance, and make sense of this chaotic time while we’re struggling to get through every day?

Your broader question is how do I make a meaningful life, not just a meaningful job, and how do I balance every part of it? I'll give you the summary as I think about it. What I find so interesting about the whole COVID thing, and every other disaster I've studied, is how it completely shatters our everyday life.

There's a wonderful book by Wendy Wood that just came out that's called Good Habits, Bad Habits. In it she argues that humans are just made up of habits and that what we do today is pretty much what we did yesterday. When you have a major event like this, all of those habits are thrown out the window. The question that she asks in the book is, why do we have habits? And her argument is that habits make life easier. When you get up in the morning, you don't have to ask yourself, “Should I brush my teeth? Should I brush them now or later? Do I need a toothbrush? Really? Couldn't I just use the toilet brush?” Once you have the habits, you don't have to think, you just get up, you do it and your mind is free to think about other things.

But now we have to rethink every day. We have to rethink every meeting. We have to figure out what we want to do and how we should do it. We are in a really elegant time right now in an odd way because we have the option to reconfigure our lives and to start making new habits and new schedules. We know that making a schedule is beneficial, but how do we do it? There's no true answer. Now that we're in a situation where we don't have these habits for the first time in years, we can start experimenting.

See what works. In other words, try the fifteen-minute meetings, try the five-minute meetings. Just remember the first time you do it, it probably won't work very well. Try it again. Maybe try it a third time and see if it works. How should you be spending time with your kids? You do need to schedule that in some way. My son and his wife just had their first baby. It was a stark reminder for me of what having your first child does. It is like every disaster I've ever studied. It completely disrupts everything. It disrupts your friendships, it disrupts your finances, it disrupts your daily routines, it disrupts what you eat, and it definitely disrupts your sleep.

COVID is like having a new kid, and the art form is learning to dance with it. Come up with this new life and then start asking yourself, what do I want in this new life? Let me make a recommendation: set aside fifteen or thirty minutes today, do it again tomorrow, and the day after that. I want you to just sit back and write. Ask yourself, "What do I want in life now? I have certain freedoms I didn’t have a month ago, in terms of how I can construct my time. How can I construct a life in which I optimize quality time with my children, quality time at work, the way I interact with the people I work with and my friends and family?” Do you have the ability to learn a new skill? How can you do this? This is an optimal time to start thinking about how you can start living a life that is more satisfying and more meaningful for you.