They're working from home. Their religious beliefs are no longer respected

The effects of our new forced home-working experiment have been far-reaching. With technology making communication constant, some companies may have gone too far.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Not even time for church?

Image: iStock

I'm sorry to return to the subject of working from home. But, in truth, not very sorry.

We're at a moment in time when changes in our working methods have encouraged us to consider not only how we work, but how we treat those with whom we work.

Last week, I mentioned how Microsoft had learned that while its leaders were thriving merrily, its employees were in abject despair.

They feel overworked, overwhelmed, and overly at the mercy of work intruding into every aspect of their lives. They're always on, which means they don't get any time off.

I received an overwhelming response from employees -- and even one or two leaders -- who acknowledged the vastness of the problem. The leaders confessed they were vainly grasping for a solution.

Redmond is all too aware that something must be done. Solutions, though, aren't easy to find as business eases into a hybrid model.

Yet the words of an advertising executive underlined how hard the task will be.

Of course, no one is forced to be an advertising executive -- disclosure: I worked in advertising for far too long -- but this executive, speaking to Digiday, offered a tale of truly twisted values.

The executive said that boundaries had already become unbound. Now, however: "Religious holidays don't seem to be respected anymore at ad agencies especially. For example, I'm Catholic, and I wouldn't dare say I'm taking Good Friday off."

If even religious beliefs are being disregarded, if people are nothing more than sitting-duck appendages to a machine, can companies really hope to re-engender any sort of trust or inspiration to teamwork and innovation? 

It's surely one reason why many tech companies have swiftly concluded that they do want to see their people again. Physically in the office, that is.

Yet the habits picked up during working from home may still stick when the Great Office Migration occurs.

This particular executive framed their situation like this: "Before, if you had an issue at home, you could say you weren't going to the office because your kid was sick or something. Now, there's no stopping work. There's no way to say you need to take care of your family. I feel like a lot of people are burned out but there's no solution. Companies will tell you to take time off but the work is still there. It's been crazy."

How will company leaders be able to revert to a level of respect they -- hopefully -- employed before? Especially if, as some suspect, the economy truly begins to boom.

Hire more people would surely be one suggestion. But how well geared, organizationally and emotionally, are companies to do that, when 61% of their leaders insist they themselves are "thriving," as Microsoft's research revealed?

If employees are feeling burned out, if they feel they can't even ask for time off for mental health or even religious reasons, what sort of work-life can they expect in the future?

As this executive put it: "People are lacking the basic etiquette of respecting boundaries. People answer emails on vacation. Out-of-office alerts seem to be going up less."

It seems, then, that a collective fear has built up, one that is surely exacerbated by our American work culture -- in the absence of a life culture.

Though technology has managed to keep businesses running -- sometimes relatively smoothly -- during the pandemic, can it really offer sufficient respite when, as the lamenting executive explains: "Work is now 365 days a year."?

Another question that might play in at least some leaders' heads would be: "Is this really productive?"

It may be that some -- many -- employers took advantage of the pandemic to demand and get more from their employees.

As the physical world returns to life, however, the techniques will have to change. Perhaps the most fundamental would be a button on every employee's phone, tablet, and computer.

It would read: "Not today. I'm doing some living."

Or, perhaps: "Sorry, I'm chatting with God. No, that's not the CEO."

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