Illustration by Olenka Malarecka
Illustration by Olenka Malarecka

Work Culture

Why detachment is the key to surviving distributed work


Published on July 10, 2020

Filed under

In 1993, AT&T aired a series of commercials focused on the future and how technology would change our lives. Each ad opened with the phrase “Have you ever…” and showed what at the time would have been a new, high-tech development. A woman tucks her baby into bed on a video screen. A barefoot man attends a meeting from a beach vacation. Two kids watch a movie by telling the television to “play science fiction.”

The campaign’s slogan, “You Will,” posited that technological advances such as video calls, GPS, smartwatches, video on demand, and cyber education would soon be part of our daily lives.

One year later, AT&T ran an experiment where 100,000 employees worked from home. They wanted “to explore how far a vast organization could go in transforming the workplace by moving the work to the worker instead of the worker to work,” according to a Harvard Business Review article.

Viewed from the current work-from-home reality, AT&T’s “You Will campaign” and subsequent experiment are almost eerily on target. But maybe even more so was their second tagline, “More than you imagine, and sooner than you think.”

AT&T’s 1993 campaign taglines not only echo the advances we’ve experienced in technology over the past two decades, but also the changes we’ve faced in the last two months.

Today, millions more than predicted are facing a newly distributed way of working—one where the majority, if not all, of a company’s employees are working from home. Though work from home culture has been building for a while, with some companies adopting it wholeheartedly as others viewed it with caution, suddenly, due to wide and rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, it has become a necessity for large swaths of the world.

More than you imagine, and sooner than you think

Between December 2019 and April 2020, the world was thrust into a new reality in which millions were forced to bring their work home. 

More than we imagined, and way sooner than we thought, workers with the ability to work from home have discovered the strength of their internet signals, found quiet spaces in cramped apartments, and become accustomed to children running around in the background of virtual meetings—which, just a few years ago, made the news.

The implications of this new reality are far-reaching and still not entirely understood: unemployment is reaching unprecedented highs (4.4 percent according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in March, and as high as 20% according to more recent estimates). Those still employed and not providing essential services are confined to their homes. 

Just how many people will end up working from home remains to be seen, but for industries like technology, finance, education, and insurance, the numbers will likely be high. And individuals in those industries will rely on cloud computing solutions, work management platforms, file sharing, and of course, email, to remain connected and productive.

Just two years ago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 29% of Americans could work from home but only 5.2% actually did. Now, because of the pandemic, many who reported that they could work from home, but weren’t previously, are doing so. Recent estimates show that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans are part of this distributed model. And while there are technological solutions to support this new distributed workforce, we lack a culture to support it.

Those who are fortunate enough to be able to work from home are also suffering new, and less obvious, consequences.

The economic and social implications of this shift are enormous and very complicated. The ability to work from home has been and continues to be a privilege of those with higher educations and who represent a higher-earning portion of the population. Now, in industries where both manual labor and office work exist, parts of workforces are at home while others must still show up to do their jobs. And as if to add insult to injury, millions of unemployed workers cannot do their jobs from home, which will only further widen this gap. 

To add yet another layer: those who are fortunate enough to be able to work from home are also suffering new, and less obvious, consequences.

Detached from the workplace, but never fully detached from work

Working from home seemed glamorous in the pictures AT&T painted in their “You Will” ads and alternative workplace study. But its consequences are anything but for many of us suddenly forced to adapt to working from home almost overnight.

Days no longer start and end with ‘water cooler’ talk or discussions about last night’s TV dramas, workstations are fashioned from stacked books on dining tables or kitchen counters, and the end of the workday is completely blurred. With no physical boundaries to delineate the beginning and close of the workdays, 9 to 5 has become a 24-hour affair for many. Worse still, for those at home with children or family members who require care, workdays are increasingly interrupted and extend into nighttime when family is asleep. 

While the consequences of this new way of working might not be immediately obvious—after all, work is easier to get to and schedules are more flexible—workers and employers alike would benefit from examining how their new reality affects productivity, emotional wellbeing, physical health, and interpersonal relationships.

Gloria Mark is an expert on human-computer interaction and has spent her career studying the impact of technology on peoples’ lives. Part of her work is on workplace detachment theory or idea that it’s important to psychologically detach ourselves from work in order to feel refreshed and able to apply ourselves the next day. In a 2018 study, she found that productivity is in fact determined “by an individual’s ability to detach from their work at the end of the day and reattach with it when they return the next day.” 

In order to understand the implications of her work, it’s important to define detachment in this context. Psychological detachment from work is described as “an individual’s sense of being away from the work situation.” This might mean not being involved in work-related activities—phone calls, e-mails; any work-related tasks—after physically leaving work. Perhaps most importantly, Mark and her peers have demonstrated that employees actually feel more engaged when they return to work when they’ve adequately detached.

When we don’t detach from work and continue to think about unfinished tasks or reflect on stressful events, we show higher stress levels. When we consider the current reality for the distributed workforce logging in from home and the difficulty many face detaching from work, it becomes clear that people are paying a price. 

It’s now even harder to detach from our work—because our workplace is now in our home.

Before the current work from home situation, people could detach by going to—and leaving—their offices. In one study, Mark highlights the value of a commute, which though often maligned is in fact “the ideal location for mentally transitioning in and out of work.” Even though many loathe the time we spend in traffic or on public transportation, it was actually serving a purpose before it was cut from our schedules. Without the daily commute, millions are now forced to find new ways to detach and reattach to work (or spoof their commute in their bathrooms). 

Endless hours

With no transitional period between work and home, the delineation between working and not working is increasingly difficult to make. Added to the lack of physical delineation between office and home are the ongoing digital notifications. We are all becoming workaholics—whether we want to or not. 

Digital notifications and “always-on” culture is not new. In an age when mobile devices are glued to our hands, many struggle with detaching from work even when they work from an office. Now, as we transition to working from home, many for the first time, we have to set our own guardrails, which can be especially hard for those who feel as though their livelihood is in jeopardy and have no way to confer to management that they are engaged in work except by responding to messages at all hours. 

And this probably doesn’t appear all bad from the employers’ side: if employees are working longer and are more responsive, surely they must be contributing more. But that’s not necessarily true. A longitudinal study on psychological detachment from work showed that a lack of detachment “predicted an increase in emotional exhaustion.” Although people are working longer hours, that doesn’t mean they’re being more productive. In fact, we’re getting tired faster and working less productively. Which means that the new distributed workforce is at risk of burnout.

When we don’t detach from work and continue to think about unfinished tasks or reflect on stressful events, we show higher stress levels.

We also need to examine our habits and the social or emotional impulses that drive us to behave in a given way. We might feel overly compelled to send signals that we’re working longer hours by emailing late at night. Employers might attempt to micromanage their teams because they can’t physically see them in the office. It’s important to circumvent these counterproductive behaviors in order to protect our physical and mental health.

An interruption on interruptions

Interruptions are normal at the office: emails come in, the phone rings, someone stops by our desk to chat. At home, interruptions take an entirely new form: the dog needs to be walked, your kid needs lunch, your sister called with news about her work; dishes are in the sink and someone needs to wash the windows soon. Now it’s the household duties that interrupt workflows as we struggle to keep up with work while dealing with myriad new hurdles: accessing online education, ordering food for an elder relative, checking on sick friends, and attending to the tensions that arise when a family shares small quarters.

While interruptions might not seem to undermine work completely, the effect of interruptions shouldn’t be ignored. Mark’s study on the cost of interrupted work found, surprisingly, that “people compensate for interruptions by working faster.” People actually speed up their work to compensate for the time they lose to interruptions. While it might not sound all bad, Mark found that this speed comes at a price: the constant task switching lulls workers into a false sense of productivity, when the opposite might actually be true.

When we’re interrupted, there are various disruption costs incurred: there’s the time it takes to “reorient back to an interrupted task,” as well as to reorient our mental state. Mark’s study concluded that we who are interrupted often suffer from a higher workload, stress, frustration, and the feeling of not having enough time.

So while interruptions might push employees to work faster, the experience is that their workload has grown. When we’re at work, interruptions are usually work-related and, while contributing to stress, they also foster community or expedite a group project. But interruptions at home, more likely unrelated to work, are less likely to help us do our jobs. Constant at-home interruptions put both mental health and productivity at risk in the long term.

Learning to detach

Economic stress, the impact of a global pandemic, and more responsibilities at home are all part of a new normal. Psychological recovery between workdays is probably more important than ever and yet, increasingly challenging to manage. 

It’s now time to develop new habits and new detachment and reattachment skills. For example, we can focus on reattaching—establishing a mental connection with our work—before our day starts by simply reflecting on how we’re going to approach a meeting or looking over our to do list for the day.

Detaching from work can impact our engagement, too. In one study, researchers found that doing “off-job activities” can affect how engaged we are with our work. By participating in activities like physical exercise, household chores, or socializing, we feel more engaged and invigorated the next morning. 

We know by now that failing to detach from and reattach to work effectively can contribute to higher stress levels and employee burnout. When we’re worried about unfinished tasks or stressing about work after-hours, it “adds to an energy depletion process.”  But some tasks, as we know, almost always go unfinished each day. So, in order to decrease stress and practice healthy detachment, Mark suggests reflecting on what went well during the day, or writing a to-do list for the following day.

And there’s no more often cited advice than to set and stick to a routine with boundaries. Adding structure, like set working hours, and turning off notifications outside those hours, helps create boundaries. By setting these boundaries, household members can help maintain them. 

Another useful exercise is journaling in the morning or doing some kind of light physical activity. No matter what, rolling out of bed and opening your laptop will undermine productivity, engagement, and stress. 

Detachment for employers and managers

Employers and managers play a critical role in encouraging and facilitating detachment and reattachment, too. A key step to helping teams working well in this time of distributed work is establishing a focus on results: because managers can’t see their teams in the office, they have to shift their evaluation of employees to the work they’re producing. This results-oriented approach to work is one that Jason Fried, the CEO of Basecamp, has been encouraging for years. “The only way to tell if somebody is doing their work is to look at the work itself: It's words, it's graphic design, it's programming, it's customer service [...] it's things that [can be evaluated] from far away,” he explains. Focusing on results empowers employees to work how and when is best for them, and adds a layer of flexibility for those who are currently working in suboptimal environments at home. 

Part of an employer or manager’s role in developing the skill of detachment is fostering connection amongst teammates. Finding alignment on how to communicate, the tools to use, and what expectations are of one another while working from home is crucial to avoiding after-hours stress and allowing every member of a team to detach at the end of the day. 

Employers must take this time to establish best practices, decide on tools to keep their employees connected, and support their teams in this transition. Because the more connected and up to date we feel during the workday, the easier it can be to detach at the end of it. Without the stress of uncertainty, we can achieve psychological safety and feel good disconnecting when we log off—and so can our bosses. 

As Fried puts it on his blog, “This is a chance for your company, your teams, and individuals to learn a new skill [...] working remotely is a skill.” “When this is all over, everyone should have a new skill,” he says. 

The silver lining

While the short and long-term consequences of this new reality can’t be overstated, it’s not necessarily all bad. After packing up desk essentials and shutting down offices worldwide nearly overnight, learning to work from closets and never-before-considered bedroom corners, a number of positive side effects have emerged. 

Flexible schedules, for example, allow for caregiving, childcare, and even self-care. Without a commute, there’s time to rediscover cooking, working out, gardening, or spending quality time with family. Though the commute does provide valuable time to detach, it can also be a major stressor as well as ‘dead time’ when productivity halts. Without time spent traveling to and from work, you can reclaim hours in our days and do what you want with them instead. 

The distributed workforce is changing perspectives for employers, too. As Matthew Mullenberg, a founding developer of WordPress writes on his blog, “This [pandemic might offer] an opportunity for many companies to finally build a culture that allows long-overdue work flexibility.” And it turns out employers are reexamining their expectations of working remotely—as well as how offering remote work opportunities might make them more appealing to potential applicants. According to Brice Lamarque, Sales and Accounts Director at a Rush Hour Media in Hong Kong, "Before (the epidemic) happened, we were not really keen on letting our team work from home because we value collaboration.” But after letting everyone work from home, Lamarque and his team found that it works well—now they’re now considering adding it to their employee benefits. 

For employees, this experiment in distributed work provides the opportunity to try working from home and show that we’re able to produce results when outside of the office. It’s giving us a taste of more time for family, hobbies, and establishing new routines. And for employers, it’s an experiment in how distributed work might work for them, too. Exploring cost savings when office space is no longer a necessity, or how flexible work policies might allow them to expand their hiring pools, are unexpected benefits of the rapid shift to remote work. 

You Will in 2020: Reexamine how to work

The overnight shift to a distributed workforce is unlikely to reverse itself at the same speed. In fact, workspaces may never return to the pre-pandemic state. What is certain is the need to examine our behavior as a newly distributed workforce. The research supports the merits of adopting detachment and reattachment, but without a commute, office space, and schedule to separate work from home, the burden now falls on us to develop these skills. It’s up to each individual to detach and reattach from work each day and our employers to support us in our efforts.

At a time when social norms are being turned on their head, we must also examine the practices that we’re developing around distributed work—how they impact our wellbeing and company culture, and whether this change is one that companies will stick with after social distancing is over. If we ignore the need to redefine boundaries, today’s workforce could end up burnt out and physically unwell—a pandemic of sorts that the world doesn’t need and can easily avoid. 

It’s time to question our habits and proclivities to work more out of reflex, and to acknowledge that workplace detachment is vital to ensuring our wellbeing and outcomes for our employers. It’s a skill we could all benefit from developing further—global pandemic or not.