A Pandemic Isn't the Time to Worry About Being Employee of the Month

Everyone has a lot more on their plate these days than just their day jobs. Phuttharak/Shutterstock

If you're reading this at home, congratulations. You're doing a great job at social distancing.

Now get back to work.

That's probably the message — very literally — your boss is sending you right now.

(Check the bottom left corner of your screen for the ping.)

In the face of a pandemic — and the need for social distancing to fight it — thousands of workplaces have relented and allowed their employees to stay home. But it seems many of them have included one strict caveat: Every moment at home must be productive. In other words, home time is company time.

This is, unfortunately, where the great American ideals of never slacking — and seizing every moment to get something done (preferably for the company) — runs badly astray.

This isn't the time for that. Ask not what you can do for your company. Ask what you can do for your community. Or even just yourself.

Maybe it's a grocery delivery. Maybe just a phone call. Or maybe all you can do is worry. In any case, with COVID-19 spreading at a downright terrifying rate — and no effective control in sight — you really don't need to be Employee of the Month.

And bosses shouldn't expect that either. Although, being bosses and all, they still do.

In arguing against productivity in times of pandemic, New Republic writer Nick Martin argues thusly:

"For those with the privilege and ability to conduct their work from home, the coming weeks should be a time to focus on ourselves, our communities, and our loved ones. It should be a time to do nothing and produce little without the accompanying feeling of guilt or panic caused by a ping from a higher-up that you should be doing more as the rest of your world slowly cranks to a halt."

While plenty of employers understand that people's heads aren't exactly in the game these days, others still seem to pine to see their staff physically hunched over a keyboard in their cubicle.

Take, for instance, these rules for working from home handed down by a senior editor at the Wall Street Journal:

That's right. Make sure you let your manager know when you're making a dash to the loo. And keep that camera on during meetings. Nothing reassures a boss more than seeing feigned interest on the faces of employees.

Even in perfectly healthy times, these rules might seem a little heavy-handed. But in times when we've all got so much more on our minds, they're downright insensitive.

The thing is, it shouldn't be so hard for companies to give up the ghost of on-site workers — particularly those in industries that don't actually need people on site. We're talking about people who program, translate, enter data, market products and even write stories like this.

In fact, according to TechRepublic, more than a third of full-time employees will likely be working remotely in the next decade. And yet, many companies still haven't formally ironed out policies — which leaves the door wide open for tone deaf directives like those from the Wall Street Journal editron above.

"This is probably a result of the learning curve that organizations go through in the early stages," Raoul Castanon-Martinez, a senior analyst at Boston-based 451 Research, tells TechRepublic.

Unfortunately, this isn't a good time for employers to be figuring that out. There's little doubt they'll get it eventually. But in the meantime, you really should be forgiven for ignoring that little flashing icon at the bottom left corner of your screen.

Worry, instead, about what really matters.