What You Need to Know About Long-Term Remote Work
The coronavirus pandemic has thrown much of the world onto an unfamiliar path. Though no-one knows exactly what the next months will hold, it’s a pretty safe bet that many of us can expect to work remotely for the foreseeable future.
Of course, many of us have at least dabbled in remote work already — a day here, a week there — but working remotely for longer periods brings its own challenges and benefits, much like a marathon does compared to a sprint.
Having mostly worked from home for the past nine or so years, I want to share some of my own experiences. My hope is that they will be useful for people to navigate their new, more enduring remote work situation, especially from a psychological perspective. So here’s what I think you need to know in order to brace for months of remote work.
Oh, and in case you find yourself in a leadership position, you may be interested in this talk I gave at the Nomad Summit in Cancun last year. It’s specifically focused on the benefits, challenges and strategies of remote leadership.
1. After a few weeks, you may start to feel a bit… weird
When you first think about it, remoteness really shouldn’t feel weird. Modern tools like video conferencing and Slack help you stay in close contact with your colleagues wherever you are. But still, being in the same physical space just has a certain je ne sais quoi which doesn’t quite carry over distance. And when you lose it, you gradually start to go through a kind of withdrawal.
Don’t Mince Your Meaning
As a result, after a few weeks of working from home, you may start to feel a bit, well, weird. Maybe you find yourself a bit more on-edge and anxious than usual, for example? Or if you’re the type to obsess over what others think of you, this trait could go into overdrive and even manifest as feelings of slight paranoia, where you mull over the most innocuous comments from colleagues: “What did she mean by that?!” What’s more, FOMO can rear its head, and you may start to feel pointedly left out of certain conversations and events.
So where does this weirdness come from, more specifically? I’m pretty sure one reason is simply that many of the nuances of human communication are stripped away when put into writing. Without that playful tone, inflection, gesture or twinkle in your eye you meant to convey your good intentions, I personally tend to find misunderstandings becoming more common, and increasingly frustrating.
Send Upbeat Emails
This seems to be broadly in line with research conducted by Daniel Goleman. He found that emails have a built-in negativity bias: the recipient will always understand the content in a more negative tone than the sender intended. So if you write a friendly message, the person on the other end will interpret it as neutral. And if your message is neutral in tone, the recipient will see it as hostile. What’s worse, since the same dynamic applies when you read their response, the tone and intensity of the exchange can easily escalate out of hand.
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Now, you might think: “OK Ben, but surely video calls are close enough to the real thing?” Well, you’d think so, but I think you’d agree with me when I say that we’re not quite there yet, are we? Sure, you can see faces and hear the nuances in their speech, even joke around a bit. But you’ll probably find that in the majority of calls, some ineffable part of the connection you feel with the other people is still lost. It’s like you can’t quite sense the ambiance in the room, which sometimes results in a kind of mutual tone-deafness.
Here are my tips for mitigating this potential weirdness:
Use (and Choose) Your Words
Be extra mindful in your written communications – they probably just became the primary way you interact with the world! If this sounds hard, the good news is that there’s also a huge benefit to writing: it’s easy to review and edit your messages before sending. So take this as an opportunity to make your communications more mindful. One practical tip I quite like is from the wonderful book Search Inside Yourself by Chade-Meng Tan: whenever you get a message that triggers an emotional reaction, don’t respond immediately. Instead, take a breath, find your zen, and draft the nicest answer you can possibly imagine (even if you have to grit your teeth). Know that you don’t have to send it, this is just an exercise. But don’t be surprised if upon review, you find that it’s actually pretty good, and more often than not the right response to send. This kind of mindful communication should help keep misunderstandings and interpersonal conflicts to a minimum.
This may sound too simple to work, but before joining a video meeting, take a moment to imagine yourself in the room with the other participants. Perhaps bring to mind a previous face-to-face meeting you’ve had with them. Try to feel the same sense of connection you felt then, and with any luck, you may just carry a bit of that feeling into your remote meeting experience.
You now have limited channels to connect with your colleagues, so make the most of them. When you’re not in deep work, why not try to be extra responsive on Slack and see how it goes? There’s no way for colleagues to come and tap you on the shoulder when they need to, and there’s a need for that kind of channel too, even when you’re remote. Also, I’d say there’s no need to keep it too formal – if you normally joke around with your colleagues face to face, you should totally keep goofing off on digital channels too! Humor is, in my opinion, one of the most, if not THE MOST, important parts of a workplace being enjoyable. In fact, I don’t know if there’d be any workplace so horrible that wouldn’t be redeemed if working there was non-stop hilarious. So don’t put it on hold just because everyone is remote — it’s especially important in these unusual and tense times. (One thing to bear in mind: Be careful with sarcasm.)
And most importantly, remember that feeling a bit weird after some weeks of remote work is not weird – in my experience, and having spoken to others, it actually seems to be pretty much par for the course. Rest assured, it does get better over time. And you’re not alone. You probably have many colleagues in the same boat, so they will understand.
2. There are actually fewer distractions at home than in the office
People I know who mostly work in the office often ask me how I’m able to focus with all the distractions at home. I’m more and more coming to realize that this question is based on an unvalidated assumption. If you think about it, isn’t the environment in the office far more distracting than at home? After all, colleagues pause by your desk to chitchat, loud conversations echo through the open office and then there’s that long stream of brief “Hellos” and “Goodbyes” each morning and evening.
And don’t get me wrong, I think these “distractions” are key part of what makes in-office work so rewarding and enjoyable in many ways. But the fact is that at home, these particular distractions shouldn’t occur.
Choose Your Own Distraction
Of course, what you do have at home is the possibility of staring wistfully out of the window, wandering around the house in your underwear and choosing to dust the undersides of your wall sockets. But unlike distractions in the office, none of these will come unbidden. To be distracted or not is completely in your own hands. (Well, unless you’re working with kids at home, then all bets are off.)
But if the office is usually an inherently more distracting environment, why do many people struggle to focus when they start working from home?
Focus on Why
Probably one reason is that the brain is an incredibly powerful association machine: you simply aren’t used to working in this environment; you’re primed to do anything but. So maybe go easy on yourself if you struggle with focus occasionally – it’ll get better real fast.
To avoid procrastination and distraction, my advice is to try to tap into your core motivation for work: the fundamental emotional reasons you choose to do this. Is there an outcome you really want to achieve? Are others depending on you? Is it to avoid stress later on? Focus on the why, and you may soon find it just as easy or even easier to focus at home than in the office!
3. There’s nothing to lose, so maybe also see this as an opportunity?
The current situation is so terrible for so many people that merely having to work remotely for the time being could be counted as a blessing. Nevertheless, one good way to cope can be to look for an opportunity in the remoteness.
Make Meetings Matter
One way to do this is by focusing on how you can adapt at work. For example, there are probably many kinds of work-related meetings that you’d much prefer to do face-to-face: giving feedback, facilitating big workshops, conducting interviews, hacky sack, to name a few.
So presuming that you’re now confined to working remotely, you really only have two options: either you postpone all of these indefinitely, or you get creative.
Just as an experiment, you could try to make these meetings work remotely too. Maybe a whiteboarding tool would help? Or asking everyone to prepare meticulously beforehand? Planning agendas more thoroughly and using more rigorous decision-making processes instead of just free-form discussion? If ever is the time to get creative with meetings, it’s now.
If you try this, you’ll definitely learn a lot. And who knows, you could even come away with some tools that you can even apply after you return to the office.
Focus on Growth
You can also take this remote period as a chance to focus on your own professional development. If you ever wanted to get into the habit of blocking off learning time to grow as a professional, now is a great opportunity. If in the office you would hesitate to put your feet up and read up on leadership or design or communications or something else for half an hour, at home this is surely not an issue. And thanks to the many little efficiencies of remoteness, you may be better able to block time for this. (And to hold onto it, which is the real catch with blocking off time, isn’t it?) And making regular time for focused learning – even a little bit of it – is one of the most simple and impactful habits you can adopt, in my opinion.
Take Care of Yourself
You can also see this as an opportunity to care for your physical and mental well-being. At home, you have more or less total control over your environment and can do many things you would perhaps hesitate to do in the office. This is a golden window to try out new habits and methods. For example: Set up a standing desk arrangement with cardboard boxes. Do periodic mini-workouts throughout the day. Take a meditation break after lunch. Do a couple of sun salutations every time you get up from your desk. Have a bok choy-watercress side salad with lunch every other day. Sing while you work. And could power-naps be right for you? What about cold showers? Now is a good time to experiment with what works for you.
Commute No More!
And don’t forget that you are now privy to one of the biggest benefits of remote work:
This fact alone can save you an hour or more of time – day, after day, after day. So you may want to think carefully about how to spend it.
A clearing has emerged in your normally packed days. If you act fast, you can probably fill it up with something that matters before it disappears into the amorphous blob of time required just to keep everything running smoothly.
Finally, with all this said, also remember that you’re experiencing unusual times right now, so definitely also feel free to go easy on yourself and just take it a day at a time.
4. Last but not least, don’t forget the basics:
Create a Routine
One of the cons of working from home is that without physical distance as a barrier, work thoughts can more easily migrate into your personal time. You may get stuck in a kind of limbo between work and free time: never really off, never fully on. Many people find this hurts their productivity and happiness in the long term. That’s why remote guides often recommend setting up a routine for your remote work: define clear start and end times for your working day and stick to them. I also turn off notifications and generally decline meetings outside of these hours, barring truly exceptional circumstances. I can’t speak for everyone, but personally, the more disciplined I am about this, the more benefits I tend to see – both in and out of work.
Set Up a Regular Workspace
Give yourself a workspace that’s easy to focus in. The fewer potential distractions there are in your immediate vicinity, the smaller the risk that your attention will be snagged and reeled in by something non-productive. Also, if you truly need to do deep work, let people know and close Slack and email. There are some serious Pavlovian mind games going on with those notifications they send, so make it easy on yourself and just forego the temptation entirely.
Thanks for reading, I hope you found some value in these thoughts.
Let’s stay healthy and careful out there!
If you want to learn more about how we’re trying to meet the challenges of a life lived remotely, check out our latest show, Checking In, on the Blinkist app.