Monday, March 30, 2020

Some Advice for My New Working From Home Compatriots

It's strange to think that I have been working as a remote employee for two and a half years now (or close enough, officially since the end of October 2017). In those two and a half years, I had to make a number of adjustments and I had some painful and frustrating realizations during that time.

With the spread of COVID-19 and numerous Shelter-In-Place orders, many of my friends and colleagues are discovering what it is like to work from home full time. In fact, this may well be the single greatest experiment of its kind. Telework has long been championed by many and it has just as vocal detractors. Still, for many of us, it is a way of life. 

My engineering team, due to the high costs of real estate in the San Francisco Bay Area and decisions of our head office back east (or what was our head office at the time; our head office is now in the UK ;) ), was converted to being a 100% distributed team. For Socialtext (my core team until literally today for the past 7 1/2 years), this distributed attitude was built into the DNA of our company. When we were acquired, our new parent company tried to have us be more of an in-place/in-office team, but it never really took. Thus, when the decision to go full remote for our team was made, we were well able to deal with it. Now, our colleagues who are very used to office life and all it entails, are having to work remotely and all that entails.

Recently, we had a chat about some of the things that those of us who were veterans of the remote work world would suggest to our colleagues. As part of that, I figured some of my readers who are now in the same space might find this interesting/valuable. 

Disclaimer: some of what I am going to suggest is context-specific. I'm fortunate in that my children are grown, albeit two of them are in the house with us at this time (my son is sheltering in place down in Los Angeles and so far as we have been told/he's told us, he's doing alright). My advice may or may not be appropriate for those with younger children or other situations but I still hope my suggestions may be helpful.

1. You Used to Commute. Preserve That Time

Consider your former habits and your time that you would take to get door to door to work. You may consider the fact that you no longer have a commute to be a time saver. It certainly can be and if you are sure you will not be commuting again in the future, feel free to ignore this advice. Otherwise, determine what your average daily commute is and what your habits are/were around that time. Consider doing a virtual commute.

What I mean is, think about those things you did. Did you walk to a train? Did you drive? If so, what did you do from the time you left your home to the time you sat at your desk. Seriously consider how you used that time and try to duplicate it. For me, I used that time to listen to e-books or podcasts, or to read/work on various projects. That time is still important to me. While I do not always preserve that time, I do try my best to allow myself a "commute hour" or so in the morning and in the afternoon so I can keep that time. I have also literally rolled out of bed and started working. Some days I've logged off work and rolled right into bed. It's a real danger and an easy trap to fall into. Thus, I encourage you to give yourself some literal transition time.

2. Get Dressed For Work, At Least a Little

OK, I confess, I vary on this. I do dress each day but a lot of time I dress in workout clothes and stay in them. Other times, I will actually get up and "suit up" as though I was going across the country for a corporate face-to-face. Again, this helps to fight the "roll out of bed and go to work" attitude. Believe me, I've done that, a lot, and on the whole, it tends to feel a little depressing.

Your mileage may vary on this but seriously, I find that my attitude and my demeanor jump up considerably when I suit up for work. Again, suit up can mean getting into workout clothes, wearing what I'd wear for a meeting, or to really have some fun, embrace the whole #ReverseCasualFriday and really get dressed up. That can be a lot of fun, a little silly and yes, it can definitely punch up your mood, especially in a team meeting. This past Friday, I literally wore a Victorian frock coat, vest high collar shirt, silk cravat, and a derby hat. Silly? Maybe. Did I feel great? Absolutely :).

3. Try to Keep to a Set Schedule, if You Can

The promise of telework is also its biggest danger. Remote work is often touted as "I can work anywhere at any time" and that is often true. Just as often, that can morph into "I will work everywhere, all the time". Have I done this? I most certainly have. That's why I'm strongly suggesting to keep it in check.

I get it, deadlines happen, there are crunch times, situations may call for being flexible. Still, it's easier to deal with those on a case by case basis than it is to get into a habit of being always on and then realizing you need to scale back. If you worked specific hours before, again, try to keep to them as much as possible. If the team as a whole decides to make some modifications, that's OK, but make sure you aren't all falling into the same time trap. Remember, for many of you, you will be returning back to an office at some point and it can be difficult to then have to pull back from an arrangement that just sort of happened due to circumstances. This goes double for if you have younger children that you have to take care of now for an extended period... and on that note...

4. Set Office Hours and Regularly Scheduled Breaks. Post Them for Your Family

Getting everyone on the same page is going to be a challenge, especially in this arrangement currently. It may not be realistic to work a full eight hour day and say to everyone, "Hey, imagine I'm not here." That doesn't work very well with young kids and shelter-in-place orders, especially if they are trying to do school work and have other needs. Your schedule will need to be flexible but to that end, if you can, try to establish key blocks where you can say "during these times, I need to be focused".

I find it best to schedule these in two-hour increments at the most. From there, it may be necessary to take an hour to handle family stuff, cook meals, a shift towards helping with school work, or any number of other necessary things that don't coincide with a full workday. Schedule those shift times, and then schedule those focus times as well. Again, my kids are all adults now, so this is easier now than it was a few years ago. Still, if you can do it, try it out. 

I've found that these tweaks can save your sanity and overall physical health as well. If you have the ability to take a short walk in a way that observes shelter-in-place guidelines, do so. Take some time to exercise, listen to music, go into an area outside if possible and breathe a little bit. Whether or not this is a temporary situation or perhaps a more permanent part of your reality, I encourage you to take some time and set parameters so that your work life and your personal life have some separation, even in this time where it all to easily can blur into one. In any event, this is coming from someone who has fallen short on all of the accounts above at one point or another, hence why I suggest these; I have failed so you don't have to ;).


Robert Day said...

I've always suited up for work, mainly because I spent the first thirty years of my working life in business environments that demanded it. I then spent five years as a freelance where I needed to project the right corporate image. So I just don't do dressing down, almost for any workplace or quasi-workplace situation.

About a year ago, I got a whole blog post out of this subject which you may find interesting:

Michael Larsen said...

That’s great advice, thank you :). I likewise found that as I appeared on video calls it helped to set a professional tone to be “ready for business”. Granted I don’t wear a suit and tie but it just helps my outlook when I suit up for work. On days when I don’t I feel a difference. It also tends to blend the work day into the rest of the day. I seem to lose focus and my workdays run much longer when I don’t dress for it. Hope that makes sense :).

Karlo Smid said...

Hi Michael, thank you for the post!

I would like to back up your advice on number 4.

Having none work breaks comes with remote work, and we must not feel guilty doing it. It is not cheating.
Even when you do not have children, there is still household work:
do the laundry, make grocery shopping on your schedule time.

These are privileges of remote work.

As long as you do your contracted hours during the day, breaks are very welcome. They help you a lot to make your family members and your employer very happy!

Regards, Karlo.