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How can we run UK PLC from home? Ethical dilemmas at the boundary of family and work

Updated: Nov 14, 2022

The unfolding impact of COVID-19 in homes affected rather than infected by the virus

By Debbie Wayth and Alison Reynolds

In these past few weeks, more and more of us around the world have been forced to embrace new ways of working whilst facing unprecedented uncertainty. We worry about the impact on the economy and our employment prospects . At home, we try to maintain normality for our kids. We are anxious about the impact on our loved ones, especially those most vulnerable.

Many of us, once predominantly office workers are now entirely working from home as part of our national and international response to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. At first, we felt grateful for the technology and focused our time and energy on making sure it worked well. Great we thought, we can do this! I can use Skype or Zoom or whatever platform you give me. I’ve even upgraded my Wi-Fi and without the commute I can definitely commit to 15 minutes of mindfulness practice each day, so it’s all going to be fine. I might even be more productive!

And then the children were sent home from school, the nurseries and day cares shut up shop, and for many the prospect of lost income or redundancy loomed. The structures that enabled our families and work lives to coexist, can no longer be accessed. Grandparents can no longer visit or be visited; schools and childcare facilities are closed to non-essential workers and private arrangements at home are out of bounds. Parents and carers are now looking after their children, whilst working from home.

The balancing act – what should be we be prioritising in the coming weeks and months, and who decides?

We are both working mothers and what has become clear for us – in our different homes and set ups – is just how difficult it has been to know what good looks like each day. Should we be prioritising our children’s development and education or focusing on paid work (particularly given many businesses are feeling the pressure and have a bleak outlook)? Should we be supporting our partners, so they can work, or presenting a case for them to supervise our kids so we can? Should we prioritise our ‘work’ team over our ‘home’ team? Should we, at a time like this simply be prioritising being a good citizen – volunteering in our community, supporting our elderly relatives with phone calls and neighbours with shopping? We want to do all of these things but there simply isn’t enough time.

Each day is filled with a series of ethical dilemmas far beyond negotiating who should use the Wi-Fi bandwidth. So how exactly should we decide what to prioritise, and on what basis? For the benefit of me as an individual, us as a family, or ‘we’ as a wider collective society? Overnight we are bringing company policy into our living room and partners and families into our team meetings. We implicitly expect people to be competent to navigate and triangulate these potentially difficult conversations with both their employers, and their partners. And let’s be honest, we are probably feeling a little fragile at the moment – not the easiest of times to be agreeing what you need from each other, let alone the courage to voice it!

In organisations we are certainly in a crisis; in more ways than one. Three things have become clear. Firstly, we need to understand what we’re trying to do during this period – are we trying to run UK plc from our homes, or are we trying to run the minimum viable operation (or somewhere in between dependent on your business/organisation)? Getting this really clear, whether by organisation or by team, is really important in setting implicit expectations of each other.

Secondly, for those of us working from home what does good ‘homing’ look like – what are the expectations we have of each other, and what is the relationship between the family and the work organisation?

Finally, to do this period of ‘homing’ well we need to shift our expectations, mindset and practices from just working from home, to a more prolonged version. A version that honours the multiplicity of our roles and responsibilities – and offers a hope of enabling us to feel valued and sane during this period.

To the first point, running UK PLC from home – are we working business as usual, albeit virtually? If we’re not careful we risk our virtual diaries emulating the physical ones with endless back to back meetings. Organisations are clearly under great strain with sales postponed until at least later in the year if not into 2021. Growth targets are being scrapped and budgets cut. Share prices are in the tank. The Government backed furlough period covers the immediate short-term but what happens next? We are watching China closely to see what a ramp-up looks like and the readout so far is understandably cautious. With this as the outlook you can understand trying to maximise what staff can do from home, but we need to be wise in making our new ways of working sustainable and cognisant of the individual’s circumstances. We may need to review job roles or the allocation of responsibilities, if only temporarily. How we work in the coming weeks and months will play an important role in our ability to be ready to ramp back up again.

If we look to how we’re working now, what we have discovered is that this period of ‘home working’ or ‘homing’ as we’re calling it, is not the same as ‘working from home’.

For most it is no longer the once longed for reprieve from the daily commute where we can do our normal job from the comfort of our home. This new concept of ‘homing’ has few of the advantages of working from home as we struggle to juggle maintaining focus on our kids education/ entertainment/safety with our work commitments, run a home (when did I last hoover or change a bed?) and where possible helping our wider community. We need to shift our expectations, mindset and practices of what we knew of the temporary, occasional way of doing our normal roles, to this new concept of ‘homing’. This will enable us to set up well for a prolonged period where we need to integrate home responsibilities, community concerns and work commitments.

We recognise that what works for us today or this week may change. Our works demands and patterns will change over the weeks and of course we have yet to see or understand the impact of many roles being furloughed, or worse yet made permanently redundant. ‘Home working’ or ‘homing’ as we’re calling it is being figured out day by day and will be different in each household dependent on the responsibilities each hold. It will also no doubt as UK organisations make decisions about what they need to do in order to survive. We have to learn whilst we’re doing this – not after – and to do this starts with sharing our assumptions and expectations about what will work – for you, for me, for us together.

The shift in mindset, expectations and practices starts with being honest – with ourselves, our partners, our work colleagues. What is the impact on my role during this period? Do I still need to work full-time to get my work done, when do I need to prioritise the time socialising with my team in staying connected and when do I need to prioritise supervising the kids? What are the new expectations and targets that we are working to – both externally and inside the home? From many organisations there is explicit messaging that things are different and employees are supported but we still see so many meetings, hangouts and pressure around. Even when hours are reduced, are expectations too? We see when our organisations are under pressure, and maybe our response is to get busy when we internalise that pressure. But trying to do it all isn’t healthy nor sustainable. We need to get personal and specific. Generic guidance on ‘flexible working hours’ is not enough at a time when people are seriously struggling to balance conflicting duties. This is an imperative if we are to both survive this period of isolation, and to be in a good position to be part of the ramp-up in the months ahead.

The immediate self-care actions

At this time what we can do is help ourselves and those close to us to name and share the dilemmas we face (recognising that they will be different). We should not under-estimate this single act of naming our own dilemmas – it takes to courage to speak to who we are and the various aspects of our identity that define how we see ourselves. We can encourage each other to step in – at a time of great anxiety and uncertainty – to speak to what makes us feel vulnerable and share what we are feeling, and what we need right now. This time in our history is unchartered territory and it isn’t fair that we expect those closest to us to guess what pressures we are under, or to make sense of it all on our behalf. We need to help each other and ourselves by initiating the conversation.

The normal rules do not apply!

As we each navigate the waters that lie ahead, we wonder what dilemmas you are facing now, and who do you need to share and explore them with? We need to recognise that this is an unprecedented period and we can’t be teacher, child-carer, worker, partner, family member, community helper to the standard we would want, in normal circumstances. The normal rules do not apply! We need to treat ourselves with compassion. We invite you to create a dialogue in your own home and work ‘teams’ to explore and find a healthy path through the various dilemmas you find yourself facing.

We would love to hear how you get on, and we will continue to share our own journeys in the coming weeks and months.

Debbie Wayth is an Organisation and Team Coach and Consultant. She is Programme Director and Adjunct Faculty at Hult-Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School working with public and private sector clients.

Alison Reynolds is on the Thinkers50 Radar and co-author of ‘What Philosophy Can Teach You About Being a Better Leader.’ She is Faculty at Hult-Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School.


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