The Biggest Concerns of Working-From-Home Employees

An interview with Paul White on a study of WFH employees during COVID-19.

Posted Oct 05, 2020

Paul White, used with permission
Source: Paul White, used with permission

Working from home (WFH) has rapidly become the new norm for many people who never had the need to work remotely before the global COVID-19 pandemic. Workplace dynamics are replaced with other challenges, and a study of WFH employees has shed light on the similarities between the ways many of us experience work.

Dr. Paul White is a psychologist, speaker, and international leadership trainer who “makes work relationships work.” His company, Appreciation at Work, provides training resources for corporations, medical facilities, schools, non-profits, government agencies, and over 700 colleges and universities in over 60 countries. He is the co-author with Dr. Gary Chapman of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, which has sold over 500,000 copies.

Jamie Aten: How did you first get interested in the topic of Working From Home (WFH) employees?  

Paul White: Over the past decade, my professional focus has been on improving the quality of work-based relationships and workplace cultures. This was originally done by applying the concepts of The 5 Love Languages (written by my colleague, Dr. Gary Chapman) to relationships at work. This led to our book, The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, and the associated assessment and training resources. I then explored toxic workplaces, including toxic leaders and dysfunctional colleagues, leading to another book and set of resources.

When COVID-19 hit the U.S., we did some exploratory research on what stressors newly working from home employees were experiencing and how they were coping with the stress. As the length of time has expanded (into several months) in which we have had to deal with the pandemic, working from home, and other resulting social changes (along with anecdotal reports we were hearing), we felt it was time to “check in” with working-from-home employees to hear directly from them: “What is most concerning to you?”

JA: What was the focus of your study?

PW: We reached out to employees and leaders who follow our work and asked them to respond to a several-item survey. Within a week, we had 565 respondents who are currently employed and either are working from home themselves or co-labor with colleagues who are working from home.

Since we believed that some of their responses might be influenced by their role in their organization, we asked them to identify themselves in one of four roles: employee, supervisor of front-line employees, manager (having one or more supervisor reporting to them), or executive/owner. The distribution of those groups was: 44 percent of the participants identified themselves as employees, 19 percent as supervisors, 21 percent as managers, and 16 percent as executives /owners. Over 95 percent of the respondents were from the U.S. and Canada, while a small number were located in Asia and Europe.

From a focus group discussion, we identified 22 issues that employees and leaders were concerned about during this time of many working from home. In the survey, we asked people to share their level of concern for each of the 22 life circumstances, rating each item either as: “None,” “Mild,” “Moderate,” or “Extreme.”

JA: What did you discover in your study?

PW: Three major themes were uncovered:

1. We found that there are important issues, which are of significant concern to all the respondents, no matter their position in the company. A total of 13 issues presented (out of all 22) had at least 50 percent of the individuals rate the issues at a moderate or extreme level of concern.

2. Two concerns were rated more highly than the rest of the issues, with leaders being more concerned than employees on each item*:

  • The emotional and mental health of team members (75 percent of respondents rated this as an extreme or moderate concern)*
  • Work/life boundaries (~70 percent of participants identified this as being at a moderate or extreme level of concern to them)*                                                       

Interestingly, 84 percent of managers indicated the most concern about work/life boundaries, which may indicate that they are finding themselves in a “pressure point” within the organization—with increasing demands on their time and energy while employees across the organization are working from home.

3. Overall, supervisors, managers, and executives/owners rated many issues at a higher level of concern than did the employees. Six of these items were directly related to leader-oriented issues (for example, onboarding of employees and performance evaluations of remote team members). While there were six issues on which the ratings by all groups were essentially equivalent, there were no issues where the employees, as a group, indicated higher levels of concern than their leaders.

*Percentages reported are the combined totals of ratings for “extreme” and “moderate” levels of concern (with “mild” and “none” being the other two categories).

JA: Is there anything that surprised you in your findings, or that you weren't fully expecting?

PW: We investigated a pair of issues that have received a lot of attention in the media. One is the concern about the impact of working from home on parents finding child care solutions; the other is the challenge for working parents to oversee the schoolwork of their children, who also are at home.

Interesting (to us) was the finding that these issues were not “top of mind” for our respondents; while they were of moderate levels of concern (58 percent for both items by the total group), other issues were rated more highly. Additionally, employees were less concerned about these issues than their organizational leaders were (54 percent < 64 percent for child care, and 53 percent <  64 percent for schooling).

JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives during COVID-19?

PW: If left unaddressed, the two highest-rated concerns (the mental and emotional health of team members and the challenge of work/life boundaries) will create serious problems in the workplace and our society. The implication? Individuals need to actively take of themselves.

Secondly, it is helpful to remember that there are issues that are highly stressful to others with whom you work, even though they are not as great a concern to you. This will be important to understand when others are sharing their worries and discussing where they would like to focus resources to address problems.

JA: How can readers use what you found to help others amidst this pandemic?

PW: These results provide an excellent opportunity for you to open a discussion with your team members about what is most concerning to them. The most helpful information is about your team members personally (not about national groups on average). Print out this (and our previous) blog, have your team read them, and then ask them what they thought about the results and what issues are most concerning to them. [Note: This may be a good discussion to have as a group for some teams, while, for others, having individual dialogues may be better.]

The goal is to hear what their concerns are, to affirm and acknowledge their concerns, and to discuss potential actions that could be taken to reduce their fears. By doing so, you will take significant strides toward showing support for them and building a more cohesive team.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

PW: An area of continued focus is emphasizing to supervisors, managers, and employees the importance of staying connected with their colleagues at a personal level. Our prior and current research continues to point to the critical aspect of employees staying connected personally (rather than just about work-related issues) as a key factor in successfully managing the stress of working from home.

An additional area of investigation relates to follow-up questions raised by this study. We are interested in finding out:

a) What do people mean (specifically) when they say they are concerned about the emotional and mental health of team members?

b) What are practical steps that can be taken to address this concern about our emotional health? What can be done: By team members? By supervisors and managers? By executives and owners? By others?  

c) What do violations of personal/work boundaries look like? On the personal life –> work continuum? On the work –> personal life continuum? By whom are these violations enacted (or experienced)?