Why Work From Home Causes Stress In More Than Just Zoom Calls — And How To Overcome It

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant gives tips on how to ease the strain of working from home, and even find joy in it.

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Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
Adam Grant Reset Thumbnail
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

Why Work From Home Causes Stress In More Than Just Zoom Calls — And How To Overcome It

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant gives tips on how to ease the strain of working from home, and even find joy in it.

We’re going into month three of the biggest experiment in remote work ever, and many are adjusting to more than just Zoom calls. Work setups are different, communication between coworkers is different and even job roles may be shifting.

All that change adds a lot of stress, according to Adam Grant, the podcaster behind WorkLife and a bestselling author who studies how to find joy and motivation at work in the face of adversity.

One of the biggest mental challenges people are facing during the coronavirus pandemic — especially at work — is the breakdown of shared identity, or the feeling that a team is working towards a common goal.

“We’ve known for a long time [shared identity is] hard if you’re not on site,” Grant said. “Now all of a sudden, no one is.”

Here are some of Grant’s insights on what managers and employees can do to ease the strain of working from home.

Bosses often dominate Zoom calls

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One of the initial hopes in creating video-conferencing technology was that it would make it easier for everyone to speak up, Grant said. The pandemic has shown that it’s often the exact opposite.

“It’s often the people with the most authority who will dominate the conversation,” Grant said. “Very frequently, those who don’t have status … their voices get silenced really quickly.” The same is true between extroverts and introverts.

Tip: Let team members use the chat function during the call, or write out questions or feedback before the call starts.

Productivity doesn’t work like we think — but that can be good

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Many companies have been forced to let employees work from home during the pandemic — and with that comes opportunity, Grant said.

One study has shown that people who work from home were 13% more productive and about half as likely to quit over a six-month period.

Productivity is about balancing periods of focus and collaboration, Grant said. That’s important because collaboration allows for more “burstiness” — or the feeling “where it seems like the room is just bursting with energy and ideas.”

But your peak in creativity may not be when you think, Grant said. Studies show that morning people tend to be most creative at night, and vice versa.

Tip: Set times when your team is online — even if it’s just for three or four hours — which can help recreate in-person “burstiness.”

The whole world is socially awkward right now

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One of the keys to understanding the current work-from-home environment is what psychologists call “weak” and “strong” situations, Grant said.

A strong situation is one where everyone generally understands the social norms — like on the bus or at a wedding. A weak situation is the exact opposite: The social norms are fungible, which causes heightened stress.

Right now, the entire world has simultaneously been thrown into a weak situation, Grant said.

“Even if there are some norms, they’ve all been disrupted by the new ways that we have to communicate and collaborate,” Grant said. “I don’t think enough teams have had really thoughtful discussions about how should the norms change?”

Tip: Teams should ask themselves: What do we want to do differently? What experiments should we be running while we’re stuck in this situation?

Bosses need to inspire, but also manage

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When people are in a crisis, they tend to freeze and narrow their focus. “That’s the exact opposite of what workplaces need people to do right now,” Grant said, and is why workplaces need structure and clarity more than ever.

Transformational leaders — those that are charismatic and have a strong vision — help motivate companies and teams in a crisis. But just as important is transactional leadership, or what we think of as traditional management, setting goals and keeping employees to schedules.

“It’s really hard to be a good leader if you’re not a good manager,” Grant said.

Tip: Clarify your team’s goals: What are we trying to achieve based on our mission? And what’s possible right now? What roles need to evolve based on the current state of things?

Find joy in what you’re missing

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How do you find joy during the stress, isolation and disruption of a pandemic? “For me, it started with gratitude,” Grant said.

“I know many people are feeling FOMO, the fear of missing out, right now on all the things that could be happening in their lives,” he added. “But there’s also such a thing as JOMO: the joy of missing out.”

On Grant’s grateful list: wearing sweatpants to work, missing his commute and having fewer awkward interactions with strangers.

Tip: Make both a list of things you’re thankful you have, as well as a list of things you’re thankful to be missing during the pandemic.

Remember: This too will end

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While the pandemic feels indefinite, “that doesn’t mean it won’t end,” Grant said.

Try doing “mental time travel” — imagining yourself in the future, Grant said, adding that’s what astronaut Scott Kelly used during a 340-day mission in space.

“[Kelly] didn’t know what his mission was going to end. He wouldn’t be able to go outside without special equipment, which sounds very familiar to a lot of us right now,” Grant said. “So, he imagined not just what he wanted to accomplish once he left Earth, but how he wanted to feel on the day he came home.”

Tip: Imagine yourself on the day the crisis is over, and ask yourself: How do I want to feel on that day? How do I get myself to that mental frame of mind now?

Mary Hall is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow her @hall_marye. Katherine Nagasawa is WBEZ’s audience engagement producer. Follow her @Kat_Nagasawa. Dan Tucker is the executive producer of WBEZ’s Reset. Follow him at @danielptucker.