New Normal: Working from Home, Living at Work with Lisa Cohen

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Episode 2 of The New Normal’ hosted by Dave Kaufman: Working from Home, Living at Work with Lisa Cohen
Dave Kaufman: As our world shut down around us, working from home has been something that many non-essential workers have had to adapt to during the COVID-19 pandemic. Work from home has left us more isolated and infinitely more distracted, while trying to complete our tasks. It has lengthened our workdays, but shortened our commutes. Many have gone from a 30-minute drive or bus ride to the office, to a 10 step walk from the bedroom. It has turned our dining room tables into our desks and our living rooms into boardrooms. Working from home has frayed the division between the home and the office, and forced us to recognize that by blurring the line between work and home, we can be in two places at the same time. It has also, according to this episodes expert, given us time to think about how to make our world a more equitable place.
Dave Kaufman: Welcome to the New Normal, the podcast exploring management research brought to you by Delve, the official publication of McGill University Desautels Faculty of Management. I’m your host, Dave Kaufman. On this episode of the New Normal, we will discuss the broad effects that working from home have had on ourselves, our workplaces and on society as a whole. Joining me today is Professor Lisa Cohen, associate professor of organizational behavior and the director of equity, diversity and inclusion at the Desautels Faculty of Management. prior to joining Desautels, Cohen was a faculty member at the London Business School, the Yale School of Management and the Graduate School of Management, University of California, Irvine. we reached Professor Cohen at her home office, which like for so many of us has been a work in progress.
Lisa Cohen: A lot of us are in a situation where we have to create our work environments, and our tools, and our workplaces, our equipment. I am right now, I am sitting next to a pile of books with a microphone on top of it. Really, the way that we have to do all of these things to make our physical environments work for things they weren’t necessarily intended to work for from the start.
Dave Kaufman: Cohen’s work in progress has resulted in a lot of troubleshooting, something many of us can very much relate to.
Lisa Cohen: Another big change I had to make is as I started out working at a sitting desk, and after a while I realized this wasn’t going to work, it was driving me crazy. I couldn’t teach and project as well that way, so I now have a standing desk converter and this way, so there are all of these adaptations.
Dave Kaufman: In so many ways, the last year has shown us just how malleable and adaptable we all are.
Lisa Cohen: Yeah, it’s amazing. And, I started all of my classes by saying, “Look, like you, I am just learning how to do all of this and I’m going to make mistakes, but it’s not going to be because I’m not trying really hard to make this work.”
Dave Kaufman: Her conversation began with me asking Professor Cohen to describe the broad effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on work and the workplace.
Lisa Cohen: I think about this in two ways, there are the really obvious things like a lot more people are telecommuting now, so it’s changing where people work and a lot of people are losing jobs. Some jobs are vanishing. But then, I think about the add-on things, in addition to those, it’s affecting things like when people work. Suddenly nine to five takes on an entirely different meaning. It’s really easy for work to seep throughout your day. So now, we’re potentially working all day long. It’s going to affect the culture of organizations since we no longer are sitting together in rooms and having those casual interactions that create bonds between us, that help us forge relationships and build a sense of a culture. It’s affecting how we communicate, how we coordinate and do the work. It’s also affecting what work is being done and by whom. We see lots of shuffling of task.
Dave Kaufman: Cohen highlights an example for effect, and mentions that a whole new industry has emerged as well, which shows that a COVID related entrepreneurial spirit has really been awakened since the pandemic started one year ago.
Lisa Cohen: My friend who works in management, in production for an orchestra, suddenly she had no performances to book and to work on, and started taking a new and different tasks. She started initially doing some translation. She organized a competition, a composition competition. So, there’s lots of shuffling like that. There are new tasks that are coming, and even new jobs in for instance, hospitals. COVID coordinators, those didn’t exist before. I now have something called a remote learning assistant, an RLA, who helps me with my online Zoom sessions never, had that before, anything like that before. So, there’s that.
Dave Kaufman: As we know, there are many negatives that go hand in hand with the positives that Cohen has mentioned. The pandemic has definitely had a more negative impact on some members of society.
Lisa Cohen: Then there are some effects on inequality, big effects. There’s this question. I said, jobs vanish, but whose jobs are vanishing, which jobs are vanishing? As we look closely, we’d see that it’s more heavily leaning for some working class jobs, think about restaurants, in-person retail. Another sector that would be hard hit are startups, harder hit than larger organizations in a lot of ways. On the other side of that, there are some medical professions and medical startups that are doing pretty well. There are also some effects in terms of inequality in the home. So suddenly, no more preschool, no more school. Who is it that is taking care of the kids and making sure that the house is running? It ends up being predominantly falling on the shoulders of the women in relationships, not always, but predominantly that seems to be the case.
Dave Kaufman: The fact that working from home has been disproportionately more challenging for women is something that I have definitely noticed anecdotally. And, I wondered if Cohen thinks that more can be done to acknowledge and fix what has become a systemic problem.
Lisa Cohen: Often it is the women who take on the bulk of the housework, and the childcare, and the at homeschooling that has to happen, in addition to the at-school schooling or the Zoom schooling. And, pushing for a society where these tasks are more equally shared is going to help with that enormously. Also, a society where people do have good access. I’m more lucky in Quebec people do have access to childcare in normal times. These, of course are not normal times. So, those are the things we can do. We can make sure that the people who lose jobs, who are underemployed, get the aid that they need. Also, we can do some things for people who lose jobs in terms of helping them to find alternative jobs. Maybe even this would be a good time to work with people and help them retool.
Dave Kaufman: Perhaps this is a good time to learn new skills, and not just the bread baking and guitar playing that everyone seemed to take up in the first wave of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. Cohen argues that there are many variables that are going to change the face of work. And now, is the time not just for adaptability, but empathy.
Lisa Cohen: COVID, isn’t the only change in society right now that is affecting work. We have this AI data mining thing, which is threatening to change billions of jobs, not do away with billions of jobs, but somehow touch them. And, maybe we could somehow make this a time to help people better prepare for that. This is hard for women, this might be hard for minorities, harder for people in more blue collar working class jobs. But I also want to emphasize, this is actually difficult for everyone. There’s no situation that is perfect. So you live alone, that means you might be isolated. You live with five people, overcrowding. We just all in a very pollyannaish way have to learn to be nicer to each other and try to take care of each other in some really basic ways.
Dave Kaufman: Just going back for a second on how this has negatively affected women. And, I know that you said it has affected everyone, but I’m recalling some data from the fourth quarter job losses in the United States last year. And, I want to say that a %100 of those job losses were by women. The study actually showed that employers cut 140,000 jobs in December signaling that the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic is backtracking. Digging deeper into the data also reveals a shocking gender gap. Women accounted for all of the job losses, losing 156,000 jobs, while men gained 16,000. And, I get that we’re working on the fly here, and that a lot of these things obviously were not things that we could foresee, otherwise we would have been a lot better prepared for the pandemic. But, what can we do going forward both as a band-aid, and as something reactive to ensure that women don’t bear the brunt of future job?
Lisa Cohen: I think the band-aid, it involves some things I’ve talked about, like helping to redeploy these people, find them work or find them support when they don’t have work, retrain them, retool them to be in different industries. The distribution of men and women across jobs is not equal, there’s still a lot of segregation in terms of, at the workplace, at the occupational level, at the industry level. And, that does potentially put some people at greater risk. So, we need to think about what can we do to change the distribution of people to make sure that certain groups of people are not in more at risk jobs and occupation.
Dave Kaufman: Cohen is also abundantly clear that we aren’t reinventing the wheel with work from home. What is new is that we seem to have learned about it, where there seems to be no choice in the matter. You’ve argued that work from home has always existed, it’s just that perhaps it’s been more magnified since COVID Correct?
Lisa Cohen: We’ve been talking about remote work for 50 years. It just hasn’t really taken off until now. And, there are a lot of reasons that it took off now. And, that it seems to be working pretty well. Primary among those is, there was no choice, so suddenly it’s this grand experiment and people who were hesitant to allow it or to do it because it might mean people are less productive, it might have implications on your career and your relationships, suddenly there you are forced to do it.
Dave Kaufman: What have we learned about working from home in the last year that we didn’t necessarily know before the pandemic hit?
Lisa Cohen: Okay. I think we learned it can be made to work. I think we also learned that we want to avoid extreme, so we went from relatively little telecommuting to a huge amount of telecommuting. And, I think the best plan is somewhere in-between that. We’ve learned about some ways that we can build relationships without being in the same room. We’ve learned about the importance of the talk around the water cooler, so a lot of pieces.
Dave Kaufman: One of the big issues that we hear on a daily basis is the inability to separate our work life from our home life. I think of a friend of mine who said to me numerous times in the last year that, “She no longer feels like she’s working from home, more like she’s now living at work.” Cohen suggested that for people who feel this way, better and more robust boundaries are essential.
Lisa Cohen: Work is kind of seeping into all of our time and it is hard. It’s hard not to pick up the computer after dinner at eight o’clock. There are little things that we all can do to make it work better. Start your day by going out for a walk, go for your morning commute to make that separation between home time and work time, and do that again in the evening. Don’t respond to people’s email if they’re sending emails out of hours. Even if you write that email, don’t send it until the morning, schedule it for later. You have to create your own boundaries. Work has been seeping into the rest of our life for years. I remember when BlackBerry first came out, people were up in arms because it was going to cause people to work all hours. It was going to cause them to work from home. And, this was horrible. This was awful. I think we’re seeing the same thing over again here.
Dave Kaufman: Do you think that part of that is a class issue?
Lisa Cohen: Absolutely. There are people who have a room in their house that they can devote to this, or have four rooms in the house, if it’s two kids and two parents. And then, there are people who live in just a couple of rooms, and so don’t have that ability to mark out the separate space. There are also connectivity issues. We see this in trying to teach online, we have students who don’t have internet, easy access to internet, or don’t have good computers that will be stable for an hour long Zoom calls or classes. Definitely a class element going to that question about that inequality and how COVID is magnifying inequalities in the world.
Dave Kaufman: Where do you see office centric workplaces being down the road? Do you think that we’ll go back to a time where downtowns are bustling and buildings are full?
Lisa Cohen: Personally, I hope so. I miss downtown. I miss going out for lunch downtown, or anywhere for that matter right now. I think we will go back to offices. I don’t think we will go back full-time, five days a week. I think that downtowns are going to need to do some work rebuilding themselves. They can’t rely just on office workers to make them work. Yes, there will be downtowns. There will be workers in downtowns, maybe not to the degree that there was pre COVID.
Dave Kaufman: What do you think that businesses can do to try and lur workers back post pandemic?
Lisa Cohen: Creating a workplace where people actually want to be is the biggest thing you can do, offering some support for commuting costs. If you want people in, don’t put all the costs on them. Share those costs. Have events that will bring people together and bring people in, those sorts of things are going to help with that. I would recommend against absolute mandates, going back to a time where workers simply are not allowed to work at home, that’s going to be counterproductive, because there will be other employers out there who are capitalizing on lessons and telecommuting, and your workers will move over to those places if telecommuting is important to you.
Dave Kaufman: 2020 has been quite a tumultuous year, a year where inequality has been highlighted, but also a year when gains have been made and the efforts to make our world a better place. As our conversation winds down, I wanted to ask Cohen the ways in which she thought that 2020 would be remembered.
Lisa Cohen: I think we’ll think about a lot of shots to the system, certainly COVID is going to be one of them. I don’t think there’s any way we can edit that out of our memory. But I think along with that, we do have to think about new technologies and shifts in technology. It’s interesting that those new technologies are one of the things that help make at home work possible. We also need to think about AI and data mining, and all of those pieces and how those are going to affect work. That was what everyone was talking about before COVID hit. I also think COVID is playing into some other social movements, which are another kind of shock to the system. Social movements create new work, they change work, things like Black Lives Matters.
Dave Kaufman: But, what does the Black Lives Matter movement have to do with working from home in the COVID-19 pandemic? Cohen, posits that more free time hasn’t just resulted in more Netflix streaming and crossword puzzling, but in positive actions and self-reflections that have led to people wanting to do their part, to help foster and create a better and more equitable world.
Lisa Cohen: Certainly, I think because of COVID, I would argue people had a lot more time and put a lot more attention into the response to George Floyd and other events over the summer. But, there are also things like sustainability and changes that need to be made around sustainability. We already see Joe Biden in the U.S. doing a lot of things, aimed at the climate. This is also going to affect work and workers as well. So, I think we will look at all of these things.
Dave Kaufman: Do you think that Joe Biden will be good for business?
Lisa Cohen: I think someone who takes the threat of COVID very seriously, and takes the issues around the environment and the climate seriously has to be good for business.
Dave Kaufman: And as we concluded our conversation, I asked Professor Cohen, if she thought that we would see a more just society as a result of the pandemic, at least in the realm of business. Her response was twofold and not necessarily what I had expected.
Lisa Cohen: I can see two really distinct possibilities. The first of them would be that it just opens up inequality, and it becomes more the has and the have nots. The other is that workers or employers start to treat their workers more fairly, that they think more about equality, that they think about things like childcare and other responsibilities, and that they become more flexible to meeting workers needs. That would be the hope. I am not clear on what we need to do to make that happen.
Dave Kaufman: Will we continue to fall into the same patterns or has COVID in this rollercoaster year helped us highlight what needs to be done to improve both workers and society as a whole? Stay tuned as we navigate this new normal together.