In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the constant distraction of work was actually soothing for Jeremy Cohen.

Cohen, 25, who works at a tech start-up, remembers the days going a little like this: “What do I do all day at home? Work! Done with work, what now? Work more!” It was an easy way to pass the time — easier, at least, than confronting the question that weighed on him as people across Philadelphia lost their jobs, and others were forced to risk their lives to keep the city running: What could he do to help?

“It’s a little bit of an excuse,” he said. “Like, I can’t be doing more of that because I have to do my work.”

But as the days wore on, he grew weary of working so much, and specifically, working from home, where there were no physical — or, it seemed, mental‚ boundaries between the professional and the personal. That symbolic fusing was especially hard for someone like him, who, before the pandemic hit, already had a tendency to spend long hours working. He started banishing his work laptop to a drawer on the weekends.

Still, he said: “There’s no one who hides the key for me.”

The threat of the coronavirus has driven millions of white-collar office employees to work from their homes, some for the foreseeable future. Executives who previously rejected remote work arrangements found themselves pleasantly surprised by the smooth transition and wondered whether they’d renew leases on pricey office space.

Fewer than 30% of workers in the United States can do their jobs from home, according to 2017-18 federal data, and black and Latinx workers are less likely to be able to do so. But for those who can work remotely, the new setup comes with ups and downs, according to interviews with more than two dozen people who, until now, had never regularly done so. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared jeopardizing their jobs.

Some welcomed the seeming autonomy and flexibility, a feeling that their time is more their own. They found they could get their work done in six hours, not eight, and enjoyed not having to sit at their desk to prove they were working. They saved time not commuting, there were fewer distractions from coworkers, and they could spend more time with their families.

“I’m free to do whatever I want, whenever I want, as long as I’m getting my work done, which I am,” said software engineer Lori Becker.

Becker, 37, said her house is cleaner than it’s ever been, and her dog is happier, with less time spent waiting for walks while she’s at work.

But there’s also a new kind of work performance — the moving of the mouse to make sure your icon on chat software such as Slack is green, and the constant stream of Zoom meetings, punctuated by small talk and “emotional check-ins.” Without a commute, it’s rare that the workday comes to a hard stop. Instead, it slowly fades away, with a notification here, an email there. Many are doing double duty with kids at home. And, of course, there’s the toll of isolation and the coronavirus itself — feeling that you have to work extra hard to prove your worth in case of layoffs, but also feeling paralyzed by the pandemic.

"It’s clearly a recipe for burnout,” said Thea Gallagher, director of the outpatient clinic at Penn’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety.

On top of that, Cohen and others said, is a fine layer of shame and guilt over the privilege of working from the safety of home, all while doing jobs deemed not “essential” by the government.

“It’s hard to complain about work when people don’t have work, you know?” said a 24-year-old woman working at a health education nonprofit who is quarantining with three people, two of whom have been laid off.

When her office went remote, she said, her department instituted twice-daily video meetings, at which coworkers are prompted to share updates about their personal lives — the phenomenon of the pandemic “how are you?” It’s a well-meaning effort, she said, to make colleagues see each other as people, not just workers. But as the youngest and only black person on the team — a dynamic staring her in the face on video conferences — it’s sometimes an uncomfortable reminder about just how different her life is.

For example, she recalled a supervisor complaining about the Shore house where she was staying having “too much space.” Another coworker said the city should reopen right away. It felt tone-deaf amid concerns about how the virus is disproportionately affecting black people. But she didn’t believe that she could say anything.

Being in Zoom meetings all day can take a toll on the work-from-home crowd.
Cynthia Greer
Being in Zoom meetings all day can take a toll on the work-from-home crowd.

The pandemic has driven employers to focus on their workers’ health and wellness, as well as supervisors’ emotional intelligence skills, said Bruce Marable, cofounder of Employee Cycle, a human resources software company. Acknowledging the crisis and asking how employees are doing is a way “to show that people aren’t just a cog in the wheel,” he said, “that they aren’t just something that exists to help make the company money.”

But that strategy can feel disingenuous to workers if attention to such issues was nowhere to be seen before the crisis.

A 31-year-old editor who works for a medical publishing company recalled a department-wide email from a director featuring photos of the boss’ kids. “It’s like it’s suddenly occurred to them that they need to be personable and reach out in this way that they never did before,” he said, “but their relationship to us hasn’t actually changed.”

Similarly, calls to “take time for yourself” can seem like empty words if employers aren’t setting a standard to make it possible. A 32-year-old content marketer said she’s often told to make time to have lunch but doesn’t know how she’s supposed to do that when her days are full of back-to-back Zoom meetings.

Lisa Colosimo, who works in IT at pharmaceutical company Novartis in Princeton, said she thought cutting out her commute — 45 minutes one way — would mean more time for herself. Instead, the 51-year-old is working even longer hours now that she can get on a conference call as soon as she gets up. And, she said, “I have to keep an eye on a fourth grader” — her son — “so he gets to his [school] meetings and doesn’t spend all day on Fortnite.”

Cohen, the tech start-up employee, said his company has been understanding of people’s new work situations, adjusting expectations of productivity and responsiveness. One higher-up even spoke candidly about burnout on Slack.

But he’s found himself missing small, seemingly insignificant things that played a role in making work enjoyable, such as mindless banter in the office. Now, everything at work is more intentional. Every interaction, every Zoom meeting is goal-oriented.

“It feels like the last few traces of humanity were neatly rubbed off,” he said, “leaving a polished gem of total efficiency.”