Can Working From Home Bring Us Closer Together?

BY JOE MARKLING, BOMA FELLOW, CPM, CRCMP, RPA

Most of us are now several weeks into working from home as a result of COVID-19. This situation is hardly typical; under normal circumstances, we would have had time to prepare for working remotely. Technology needs would have been evaluated, tested and, if necessary, adjusted. Children would be at daycare or school. And, of course, there wouldn’t be the stress, uncertainty and tragedy of a global pandemic. These circumstances have been a trial by fire for working from home, and many of us are finding we’ve missed heading into the office.

In some parts of the United States, we’re beginning to transition back to normal, but other jurisdictions will need to remain under stay-at-home orders for the foreseeable future. And, if some predictions are accurate, we may end up back at home again in the future. Here are some observations on this mandated work-from-home phenomenon, based on my own experiences and feedback from my team: what works, what hasn’t and how we’ve responded to it all.

WE CAN ADAPT

Although I had spent many years working remotely prior to joining USAA Real Estate, even I was surprised by how this situation has made me rethink how I work and my relationships with others. Overall, it seems that most friends and colleagues made the transition very well. Technology has progressed to the point that we were already constantly connected and never far away from work. Laptops, tablets, headsets and cellphones already had become the norm, and, in fact, I found that only a few of my team members still used traditional desktop computers.

For some of us, stronger reading glasses prescriptions were necessary as we no longer have our triple-monitor, large-font set-up at our disposal. Spending many hours on the screen of my tablet had me blurry eyed at first, but where there is e-commerce (everywhere), there are inexpensive monitors ready for delivery to your doorstep. On my team, we all quickly learned how to use tools, such as DocuSign, Zoom and Microsoft Teams, and we gained new skills, becoming pros at things like changing the ink cartridges in home printers.

In some ways, working from home has also made us more productive. There is an assumption that being at the office means you are working, but a significant portion of the workday is spent catching up with colleagues or sitting in on meetings that could have been accomplished with a quick phone call or email. While there’s nothing wrong with this (in fact, catching up with my colleagues in the office is my favorite part of the day), the assumption that working from home involves more distractions isn’t necessarily true. It is an interesting discovery that might lead us to question such things as the need for so many in-person meetings.

And, of course, we in the commercial real estate industry have also worked together creatively, led by guidance from government agencies, public health officials and BOMA International, to keep our buildings up and running for our tenants who have been deemed essential in our communities.

THIS IS NOT NORMAL

Of course, there are significant downsides. One thing that didn’t work for us was the residential internet system. It just wasn’t built for the sheer volume of data and video calls our business demands. Then, when students started logging into virtual schools, it felt like we went back to the Stone Age. In fact, our team had to go back to cell phone conference calls for a week until the internet providers opened up the bandwidth.

And even among those who were technologically prepared, some were not emotionally ready for the isolation and feeling of being alone. Humans are social by nature, interactive and curious and generally in need of being with others. The lack of that social circle we call work can leave a vacuum that is hard to fill. Others will struggle to focus with many distractions, or at least different ones, than they usually experience at the office: pets, chores, the refrigerator and Netflix. And, of course, many workers are having to juggle working full time while also caring for children. Some are taking on homeschooling for the first time, others are managing toddlers.

For others who live alone, distraction comes in the form of silence, loneliness and longing for the camaraderie of their office family. Where home was formerly a place of rest and relaxation after a day at work and stimulation, now those lines are blurred. When your family table is also your office and you long for some human interaction, days can seem long. Then, when the day is over, you are still at home.

For everyone, this is a time of tremendous stress. We should all have a little grace for ourselves and for each other. We’re not going to be able to operate exactly the same as we did under “normal” circumstances.

A MATTER OF BALANCE

At the national level, the commentary has finally shifted from doom to looking ahead towards recovery, and for commercial buildings, re-entry. The world is thinking about getting back to normal again, but this will take time to implement fully. This is an unusual opportunity for us to re-evaluate our typical routines and plan to make changes going forward.

So, while we are still in work-from-home mode, it is vital that we reflect on the experience and take advantage of what it does have to offer. With the arrival of spring weather, it’s a great time to take a walk, go for a run or take a scenic drive, especially if you are by yourself and feeling alone. While you may not be able to interact with others due to safety restrictions, seeing other people from a distance and being active is itself a source of rejuvenation.

Also remember, working from home is really about not being tied to a single location. If you can, change it up and work from another location, even if that means moving to the patio or in front of a different window. You are only as confined as you allow yourself to be.

If you know you will still be working from home for a few more weeks and you have been struggling with your set-up, go ahead and make the upgrades to a bigger monitor, better lighting and a proper chair. These are good investments and, not only will they help you until you get back to the office, but those upgrades also will be waiting for you the next time you need to work from home.

Don’t skimp on the human contact (in whatever form it can safely take). Connect with your friends, family and colleagues during the day. After all, as I said before, we all do it when we’re at the office. Since we are all dealing with the same oddities of working from home, they will likely welcome your call or video chat. Personally, this experience has also opened a deeper, more intentional focus on family. My wife and I are here in Texas without any family close by. We find that we are talking to our kids and parents more, having weekly video chats with siblings and generally reaching out more. I like the increased frequency and depth of the conversations and hope that it continues long after this time has passed.

Finally, for those who are already back at work or soon to return, if you missed your colleagues and are glad to be back, be sure you say so. We won’t be able to hug or shake hands for a while, but your smile and attitude will speak loudly.

Social distancing has become a daily part of our vocabulary. But that doesn’t mean we cannot connect, and, if done right, maybe that distant connection can even bring us closer together.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joe Markling, BOMA Fellow, CPM, CRCMP, RPA is managing director and head of Real Estate Operations at USAA Real Estate. Markling served as chair and chief elected officer of BOMA International from 2012-2013. He is based in San Antonio, Texas.

This article will be published in the May/June 2020 issue of BOMA Magazine

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