With COVID-19 changing work across industries, companies of all sizes have adapted in different ways to keep business moving as fluidly as possible. One way has been by allowing employees to work from home. While this shift happened fast and became universally recognized as the right call to ensure safety, the shift to remote work has brought challenges that neither the professionals nor their employers had anticipated as it heads toward the half-year mark.
West Philadelphia native Gwendolyn Lewis is a product marketing manager for Disney+ and has a workflow that balances her background in tech with product design. A University of Pennsylvania graduate, Lewis moved to New York City at the end of January to begin work in her new role. When much of the city closed down in the second week of March, she returned to Philadelphia to stay with family and work from home.
While working from home, Lewis quickly ran into issues that stemmed from a lack of barriers between her personal life and work life.
“What people don’t understand is that when you only have one environment, you miss the structure multiple environments give you,” she said. “You sit in the same space every single day. I’m [at home] with my mom and little brother trying to work. It starts to blur the lines between your safe space sanctuary and the mode you need to go into work.”
Before the pandemic, leaving the office every day gave Lewis the opportunity to compartmentalize her work and better focus on life outside of work. While she initially set out to keep many of her habits from the office, she also noticed that the pandemic was affecting work patterns and boundaries for her coworkers. Some worked at all times of the night, while others would send emails at non-working hours.
Dealing with a recession in addition to the pandemic added stress for Lewis and her colleagues. She said that the overall landscape of seeing Disney leadership getting pay cuts and people across industries getting laid off led to her wondering if she was going to have to work even harder to keep her job. She realized that type of workflow during a pandemic could not be sustainable if she wanted to prioritize her health and not burn out.
For Lewis, the challenges of remote work during the pandemic are amplified when she considers the lack of representation in tech. Lewis found support from her manager and immediate leadership following the killing of George Floyd to take time off for her mental health. Still, she is the only Black person on her team. So she has had to come to terms with added pressure to do well in her work because there aren’t many other Black people where she works, or in tech overall.
“As a Black person, I know it’s hard,” she said. “In the tech spaces we always have this feeling that we have to do so much more and we have to work twice as hard because not a lot of people look like us. But that was something I had to deal with and get over a long time ago. I see other Black people at work that can’t do that because they aren’t where I am with their head space at this point in their careers.”
Haniyyah Sharpe-Brown, the director of advocacy and external engagement for the School District of Philadelphia, has noticed an increase in her productivity since she started working from home.
“Working in education, it’s aways a lot of moving parts and a lot going on. I feel like I have more control over my schedule and can plan things out because I am not rushing to get the kids out each morning,” she said. “I just told someone yesterday that we have to give ourselves more grace and less grief through this process.”
Like Lewis, Sharpe-Brown tried to work from home as if things had not changed during the pandemic. But as a mother to two school-age children, she realized that trying to implement that kind of structure brought her and her children stress. To better manage how she and her children adapted to the pandemic, she asked for their insight.
“All three of us are working from home,” she said. “My husband is an essential worker. I rearranged my whole basement to be a creative space and let [my children] contribute to the process. My family is privileged and I worry about the families who don’t have that privilege.”
Access to the internet and digital resources for families with students learning from home has been an issue of concern since the beginning of the pandemic. Comcast recently launched a $17 million digital equity plan to help provide 35,000 low-income families with internet access.
"Be patient with yourself and understand that you don’t have to have all the answers."
While Sharpe-Brown’s workflow has been efficient during the pandemic, she still has yet to take a day off from work and is passionate about advocating for children and families without the resources they need for an adequate learning experience. She has been more intentional about setting boundaries by doing things like not looking at work emails during her free time.
As a person that frequently networked at events outside of work before the pandemic, Sharpe-Brown said that she has slowed down and been able to enjoy more time at home with her family. Working from home has also taught Sharpe-Brown some lessons for being an even better professional.
“Be patient with yourself and understand that you don’t have to have all the answers,” she said. “Ultimately you have to make the best decisions for you and your family. Ask questions, be an advocate and expect nothing but excellence for the people that are serving.”
Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.