‘Integrators’ and ‘separators’: How managers are helping the two types of remote workers survive the pandemic

September 16, 2020, 10:00 PM UTC

As the coronavirus pandemic wears on into its seventh month, a dichotomy has emerged among employees: those that enjoy the flexibility remote work affords—think laundry in between meetings!—and those feeling stifled by constantly juggling home and family responsibilities with professional ones.

“One interesting thing we were looking at is the concept of people who are integrators, and people who are separators,” Ali Rayl, vice president of customer experience at Slack, said Wednesday at a Fortune virtual event on the topic of business resiliency. “For integrators—I’m one of them—it’s fine having this fluid life situation where they blend together. For separators, this is an extraordinary difficult environment to live in.”

Companies are searching for ways to support the latter group—short of welcoming them back to the office, which for many companies remain closed.

“So much of this is realizing where we are, accepting where we are, and not anchoring our judgments of ourselves to what we were able to accomplish a year ago, but what does it look like today,” Rayl added.

That’s especially important as the pandemic wears on into the school year, and the reality sets in that employees will be dealing with these issues for a while yet—and that some of the changes may be permanent.

“We will never go back to normal,” said Rachel Mushahwar, vice president of the sales, marketing, and communications group at Intel.

Mushahwar, for her part, has four kids at home, juggling homeschooling with her work day. “It’s kind of a disaster; it just is, some days.”

Leaders and managers need to set the tone, executives advise, by both giving employees the room and flexibility they need, as well as making employees feel seen, even when physically, they’re not.

“One thing we’re seeing is that people are working longer and harder because they feel less visible,” said Rayl.

That’s not necessarily a good thing: “I recognize that that can’t last, and it actually can have a damaging impact on work-life balance,” said Dan Maslowski, global head of distributed engineered systems and storage at Citi.

One strategy Slack has implemented to help people cope is “Friyays,” where the company institutes a holiday one Friday a month. The benefit, according to Rayl, is by everyone taking the same day off, there’s no pent-up crush of workload when people return—because no one else was assigning work while they were out either.

Another tool: Slack bots. The messaging company has implemented a couple of internal automated games and gimmicks, like a bot that reminds people twice a day to check in on a game called Animal Crossing, fostering connections between employees.

They’ve also deployed a bot called “Donut,” which pairs random people across the company and encourages them to have a (virtual) coffee meetup—something Slack has used to help welcome new employees. “It looks for somebody you are unlikely to have met,” Rayl said. With everyone remote, “it takes a little bit more effort to keep up with people,” she added, “So we’re using that to lower the bar to help people to connect.”

Correction, September 17, 2020: This article has been updated to clarify Slack’s “Friyays” policy, which a prior version of this story incorrectly referred to as “Free Fridays.”