I’m flying out early Thursday morning to speak at the University of North Carolina about remote work. The two talks use some material from my book, mixed with my personal experience as a remote manager and employee. I’m honored to speak about how to survive and thrive as a remote manager and employee. I’m also looking forward to networking with colleagues I met during my MBA program. I’ll be jet lagged but it’s going to be totally worth it. Chapel Hill is a lovely place.
Not Everyone Wants to be a Digital Nomad
Even though I can work from anywhere with wifi, I usually work inside my home. I like my home office. As someone said on Twitter the other day, when people say they want to travel and work, they usually mean a few trips a year. I am definitely in that category. The last time I had to travel for work was 2014. Flying out of country twice in the space of two weeks is a refreshing change of pace–but I’m glad it isn’t my lifestyle.
The Kids Don’t Like my Work Trips
My son informed me that I ‘have too many trips,’ and the comment made me feel both guilty and grateful. Guilty because I am really looking forward to mixing and mingling without having to worry about cooking dinner or getting people off to school. Grateful because my son has no idea how much more of me he sees because I work from home. I like that my children can take my presence for granted.
I also like that while I can work while traveling, I don’t have to. I could complete my analyst duties while waiting in the airport, or late at night after the UNC event, but I won’t. It’s unplug time. In between my talks and the seminars I’ll attend, I plan to catch up on my New York Times subscription, knit, and perhaps write the start of the next book that is churning in my back brain. All these things are possible because I work for a company with a great vacation policy.
Or maybe I won’t do any of that. Maybe I’ll be too busy connecting in person with the people and the place I haven’t seen since 2014. I’m going to keep the next few days wide open for serendipity. I’m sure there will be plenty to tell you when I get back.
I’ve been looking forward to this week of vacation since mid-February. It’s the busy season at work, and between that and additional work responsibilities, I’ve spent the last few months rushing from task to task in an effort to keep things from crashing to the ground.
I can go into hyper-drive and get an amazing amount of work done in a short amount of time–I am both a mother and a project manager, which is the same as saying I am magic–but I can only do it for so long before I run out of gas. I passed that point at the end of February. Since then, I’ve used chocolate and caffeine to prop me up until I could take a break.
This week is my break. And yet, even knowing that I need a break, I’ve been tempted to fill the free time with all of the things I’ve neglected while work has been busy. And I don’t mean cleaning. That’s pretty easy to ignore.
It’s the fun stuff that’s calling to me. The kids and I should explore Vancouver! I should go back to learning the ukulele! I should write all the things! I should make time to exercise every day, and maybe cook better, more elaborate meals. I want to film a really fun idea I have for a social media video for my book, and go on a reading binge, and start my kids on 5k run training, and sew a shirt for me and a skirt for my daughter, and…you get the picture.
I am a goal-driven person, and I like getting stuff done, but even I knew that cramming all of this stuff into my week would send me on a one way trip to insanity-land. And my kids (who are on spring break) would be miserable.
Manufacturing misery seemed like a poor way to spend my vacation, so I settled on a loose plan of exercising for 15 minutes in the morning, and writing for 30 minutes or so before my kids got up. I would then take my children to one kid-friendly activity out of the house. The rest of the time would be free for whatever floated our boat.
On Monday we walked on the beach. On Tuesday we played at the pool for hours. On Wednesday we had cinnamon rolls, and found new books to read at the bookstore. Today we’re going to Science World, and Friday we might try our hand at making soap. I’ve knit a lot, read some, and neglected the morning exercise in favor of reading in bed. In short, I’ve spent the better part of my week well rested and unstressed.
It’s glorious. I hope to hang on to this feeling when I go back to work next week. Who knows? Maybe I’ll have enough energy at the end of the work day to pick up the ol’ uke again.
Remote workers get to take charge of the rhythm of their days. It’s what keeps many of us working in our office of one.
Recently on Twitter, someone asked what would have to change if remote workers stopped working from home. For some reason the question really caught my attention. Here is my list of things I would have to give up if I went back to a traditional office.
#1: Singing While I Work
Nothing helps me power through a a tedious job quite like belting out some of my favorite tunes. I’m sure I had a different coping mechanism when I worked in cubical land, but I can’t remember what it was so (probably) it was less awesome. Sadly, it wouldn’t matter how much I enjoy Lady Marmalade. No one wants to hear that in an open office.
I’ve heard of offices where you can’t listen to music at all. A friend of mine works at an office where you aren’t even allowed to wear headphones. I wouldn’t last long in a place that uses that level of micro control over its employees.
#2: The Continuous (Audible) Commentary
I would either have to learn to be less judgmental or go back to filtering what I say. It isn’t that I talk to myself per se–I’m more like that person who watches a movie and says stuff like ‘Watch out!’ to the characters on the screen. Only, my commentary is more along the lines of ‘oh no you didn’t just try that,’ as I’m reading my email.
#3: Wearing What I Want
The dress code at Douglas HQ is whatever I say it is. I am not one of those folks who wears pajamas all day. I usually rock a button down top and jeans, paired with fabulous hand-knitted socks. There is the occasional ‘top hat Friday.’ The added fabulousness makes up for the workout clothes I wear while I cool down from my run.
I enjoy getting dressed for work. My clothes are as comfortable as they are appropriate for my role. I can take a surprise video call at any hour of my workday without feeling like 10 pounds crammed into a five pound sack.
#4: My Office, My Rules
I have a large medal and racing bib holder on the wall behind my office chair. My office is filled with plants, a rowdy Beta fish named Mac, and books on knitwear design, management, and running. I have a funky orange throw on my office chair. My office is full of color, pictures of my kids, and souvenirs from the places and people I have visited over the years.
My office pleases me. And I don’t have to explain to anyone why I have a pair of robots dressed like Wesley and Buttercup from the Princess Bride. I keep them out of camera range. I feel that if you have to ask, then you won’t understand the answer anyway.
#5: Enforceable Focus Time
My entire career has been spent in roles where I am the nexus between people and processes. To put it in less lofty terms, I’m a choke point for several different departments. Back in my old office days I would voluntarily get into work at 6am on Fridays just so I could work without getting my elbow jogged every 3 minutes. I would eat lunch out so people wouldn’t drop by my cube to ask work questions while I was eating.
Now, when I want focus time, I turn off all of my notifications. If I work while eating my lunch, it’s because I chose to go running on my lunch break. My time isn’t always my own, but generally I am the boss of the rhythm of my day. All jokes about singing and top hats aside (though that stuff is totally true) THIS is why I love my remote office.
At the end of the day, working remotely allows me to be myself at work. I can indulge in my love of wacky office decorations and pop music knowing that my choices don’t impinge on anyone else’s concentration. I love the freedom to concentrate or connect with others on my own terms. It’s a lifestyle I wouldn’t willingly give up.
Remote employees are more successful balancing work and life if their managers do the same.
Sometimes the Company is the Problem
Before my husband started working at his present place of employment, the interviewer highlighted the firm’s pro work/life balance stance. Unlike the majority of architecture firms, this one did not require long hours at the office. This sounded good, but we took it with a grain of salt.
Wanting to appear keen, my husband showed up early on his first day of work. Hardly anyone was there. Still wanting to appear keen, he attempted to stay late to work on his first project. The work day ends at 5:30, and at 5:45 someone came around to tell him that he might want to wrap it up because all of the lights in the building turn off at 6pm.
Everyone in that office knows how to operate a light switch. In theory, then, an employee could turn the lights back on and keep working. However, the senior partners were sending a clear message. You don’t have to go home, but we don’t want you to stay here. And people don’t.
When Is It Safe to Log Off for the Day?
I’ve worked remotely for eight years, and I’ll admit that I fight a tendency to work long hours. There have been some years when I’ve consistently worked past the time when I should have logged off for the day. Generally, this isn’t because I lacked the discipline to overcome this tendency. I also fight the tendency to buy too much yarn or eat cupcakes for dinner. I have plenty of experience overcoming these urges. Just as I can skip the cupcakes in favor of a vegetable curry, I have the ability to log off from my remote job and spend time with my family. The question that any worker–remote or not–has to answer is, when does it feel safe to log off of work?
For employees, work is a power arrangement. Our ability to pay rent, feed our kids, and buy necessities depends on a regular paycheck. Most of us are exquisitely sensitive to whether we are working “enough” to keep our jobs.
My husband’s company has an unambiguous way to demonstrate when its employees cross the ‘you’ve worked enough’ threshold. Managers in distributed teams have to find other ways to demonstrate when it’s safe to log off. Let’s consider a few possibilities.
How Leadership Can Communicate When It’s Safe to Log Off
Celebrate different schedules. One of the joys of a remote office is its flexibility. Alternative schedules shouldn’t be reserved solely for working mothers or part-time caregivers. Senior leaders could make a point of working an alternate schedule a few times a month, and share what they do during their flex time. Something as simple as sharing pictures from your walk on the company Slack channel demonstrates that employees can use flex time to enjoy life.
Turn the metaphorical lights off. In the remote workforce, no one can see you leave. If you are a people manager, consider making it a practice to tell your team when you leave for the day. Something as simple as ‘I’ve put in my eight hours, I’ll see you all tomorrow,’ communicates your definition of a work day.
Use your vacation days. Nothing says ‘it’s okay to stop working’ quite like demonstrating that you expect people to use–really use–their vacation days. How do you demonstrate this? My director makes a point of taking occasional half days, in addition to full weeks of vacation. He tells his team that we can call him on his personal cell if there’s an emergency, but otherwise he will be away from his computer. How often do you unplug from your job? Your team knows the answer to this question.
Craft a coverage plan for your team. My boss reminds us when we’re getting close to major holidays or the summer months, and asks us to get our vacation requests in so he can coordinate coverage. Our team coverage plans assume that we won’t contact the person on vacation. Consider how you can do the same on your team. If a member of your team were suddenly hospitalized, you would find a way to cover for him or her. Do the same for someone on vacation.
No company can solve all of its employees’ work/life balance problems. However, leadership CAN model a healthy flexibility, and clearly demonstrate that it’s safe to log off for the day. That way, employees can focus on building the cues they need to end work on time without worrying that doing so will jeopardize their jobs. This leads to better outcomes for both the company and the employee.
Can you think of other ways distributed companies can demonstrate livable hours? I would love to hear about it in the comments.
This has been one of those days where I’ve spent all day frantically not getting quite enough done. As I write this, it’s Wednesday evening, and I am studiously ignoring the lack of a dinner plan in favor of writing a blog post before I have to drive my kid to dance class.
Remote work usually gives me more time to enjoy my life. Ditching the commute lets me cuddle my kids, knit most evenings, and run in the middle of the day. But there are some days–some weeks if we think about summer–when working from home means I’m constantly fighting interruptions.
I’m not talking about family interruptions though I have my share of those. When you work in a traditional office, people can usually look up and see that you’re busy. Either you’re frantically typing away at email, answering the phone, or speaking to someone standing at your desk–or attempting to do all three.
In the remote office no one can see that your instant messenger is pinging with three different conversations and that your email is blowing up. No one else in your office of one can tell those folks that you are on another line and can’t answer right now. There’s just you.
Wouldn’t it be great if our email and instant messaging apps had a way of telling people that you are currently busy, and added an expected wait time for a response? Something along the lines of ‘I’m sorry, but Teresa is responding to 2 different gChats and a Slack channel right now, and is unavailable. If this is an urgent matter, please resend your message via email, with the word URGENT in the title,’ would be genius.
The key here is that it needs to happen automatically. I can (and do) tell people that they are my fourth instant message ping and I need to get back to them, but typing that out takes time and focus away from the other three conversations I’m having. There is only so much juggling I can do before I start sounding like an idiot. Or feeling like the little old lady who lived in a shoe, who had so many chats going she didn’t know what to do. That’s how that goes, right?
Of course, this functionality might already be out there. If you’ve heard of it, let me know because I would love to use it.
I spent the better part of two days not getting access to a work system. Of all the things I didn’t think of when I went remote, tech issues are probably in the top ten. When your computer crashes at a typical office, you can move to a different computer. If the internet drops or the power fails, everyone is at least in the same boat.
The closest thing remote workers have to a company-wide power outage is if a shared system stops working. Otherwise, tech issues are localized. This means that a company can continue operations even during a natural disaster–employees in unaffected parts of the world can take over for those that may need to evacuate.
The down side is that when you have a tech issue, you are more or less on your own. I can’t take my computer to the tech team and stand there until they fix it. It’s a lot easier to put off my particular issue, or ignore me to answer a phone call. Or, as happened at the end of my workday, stop texting with me when my problem isn’t easy to solve. Side note: Ghosting in the middle of a work conversation is still rude even if the conversation is in instant messenger.
To be successful in this environment, you need to become your own tech support. Or at least become tech support adjacent. Some companies (like mine) will lock you out of certain computer functions in the name of security. If this is your situation, there are still things you can do to help the tech team find what’s broken.
Try to figure out what the problem is NOT. Restart your computer. Restart your modem. Consider resetting your password. The faster you can move away from tech asking you ‘did you turn it on?’ the faster you will arrive at a solution.
Some apps have code embedded in their error reports. I found out last year that sometimes, this code is invisible unless you select everything on your screen. Copying the error code(s) and including that in the email or support ticket can save time.
Document EXACTLY where things went pear shaped. I save myself a lot of aggravation if I write down my problem in a separate doc so that I can cut and paste it when I’m asked repeatedly to describe my problem.
Tech issues seem to drag out longer than when you can’t visit tech support in person. Don’t make the mistake of suffering in silence. Your colleague may know how to fix your problem, or have a work around. If nothing else she may have a moment to let you vent. This may not resolve the issue, but the shared experience may lead to a work friendship. And that’s something.
Yesterday I had to tell the kids that today’s morning cuddle needed to happen an hour earlier than usual. I had a meeting with someone who works on Eastern time, and that meant an early start for my Pacific time zone self.
I promised my son that I would wake him up in time to cuddle. If I didn’t, the boy would be up at 1am, checking to see if it was time yet, and nobody wanted that.
I woke my son and daughter at the appointed time, and they followed me back to bed, still half asleep. My son was quite annoyed at the way work encroached on our family time. He’s never quite given up hoping that his father will take over my job so I can take care of him full time. He figures that if I just stopped taking video calls, no one would ever know the difference.
I transitioned to remote work while 7 months pregnant with my second child. I’ve had to take the occasional business trip, but for most of his life I’ve worked in the next room. I am at home when the kids leave for school. I am home when they come back again. During school vacations I am still there, doggedly trying to work as the kids stampede through the house and argue about who’s turn it is to play Minecraft.
My work/life situation is neither idyllic or horrific. I get to see my kids more than I would if I worked in a traditional office. I am happy for the opportunity, and aggravated at how often random people assume that working from home means they can give me things to do.
Of all the opportunities remote work bestows upon me, the morning cuddle is by far the most luxurious. It’s a little (okay a lot) squishy. The bed hasn’t grown the way our children have, so somebody is always balanced on the edge. My husband gets kneed in the back more often than anyone should have to deal with.
And yet I remember dropping off my infant daughter at daycare in the early morning dark, and picking her up again in the evening twilight, already nodding off to sleep. I hold a child in each arm, and I am grateful. Grateful that I replaced a morning commute with fighting over blankets and talking about weird dreams. Grateful that we can spend most mornings cuddled up together for a few minutes before we scatter to our various responsibilities. I hope my kids remember these times fondly.
In Buffer’s 2018 survey, 22% of surveyed remote workers said that loneliness was a top struggle, tying for first place alongside communication and collaboration issues. This is worrying on a couple of levels.
In an age where we are less likely to know our neighbors, workplace friendships have an increasingly important place in our social lives. The coworker you chat with today can become your movie buddy tomorrow. According to the folks at Gallup, having a best friend at work can also lead to better business performance, both in terms of profit and fewer safety incidents. Lonely workers, therefore, can miss out on a chance to feel fully engaged and to work at their full potential.
It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way
Working remotely doesn’t have to lead to loneliness. There are many remote workers who make work friends, and enjoy a sense of camaraderie with people whom they never meet in person. They may occasionally feel isolated, but they have a set of steps they follow to bring more human connection into their lives. Those steps vary, depending on work configuration and personality. What works for me may not work for you, and vice versa. If we share what works for us, then that may help someone else to think of a strategy that will work for them. Anything that can help someone to feel less isolated in their office of one is a good thing.
How You Can Help
And this is where you come in. I am conducting research on how remote workers make work friends. Can you spare five minutes to fill out this survey? Once I’ve compiled the data I will write up an article with a toolkit of resources for making friends at work, and share it. Together we can help remote workers feel less isolated.
Take some time to understand the problem before giving up on remote work.
Remote employment won’t work for everyone. Before you decide to give it up in favor of a more traditional office, take some time to clarify what isn’t working for you. You can start by asking yourself the following questions.
Is this Really a Work Culture Problem?
Do you dislike working from home, or is your employer making you miserable? This can be surprisingly hard to differentiate. Do you have a flexible work schedule, or does your boss require you to rigidly adhere to a specific set of hours? Are you expected to complete reports whose sole purpose is to “prove” you’re working? Does your company use tracking software to keep tabs on you?
None of these things, by themselves, necessarily point to a culture problem. Call centers record calls in order to train their agents. All employers require that you show up to work on a consistent basis.
The question is if you feel trusted to do your job. Can you leave your desk to make a cup of tea without the world falling apart? Does your work treat you like a slacker looking for an opportunity to loaf? If so, you may have a work culture problem.
Alternatively, you may have problematic boss. If the problem is your boss, you might consider transferring to a different department or role in the same company. If there is very little trust anywhere in your company, it may be time to move on. In both of these scenarios the problem lies with the people running the show, not with your home office.
Has Your Mental Health Taken a Hit?
Some people need to work in an office because it acts as an early warning system for their depression or other mental health issue. No one will notice if you don’t bother to shower when you work from home. This can be a godsend for those of us who run on our lunch breaks–I am often glad that no one, including my Betta fish, can smell me after I run–but this freedom can be disastrous for others. If you discover that you need to be surrounded by coworkers to keep your mental health in check, you are not alone. Many high-performing people do their best work in an office.
Other people find that remote work actually enhances their mental health. Before you ditch the home office, add mental health breaks to your day. Go for a run. Take a few minutes to work on a craft. Read a book. Lately I’ve been listening to audio books while running, and I come back to work refreshed. When you work in an office of one, you don’t have to explain why you decided to carve stamps on your coffee break. You get to do you.
Remote work may not be for everyone, but don’t be too quick to assume that it doesn’t work for you. Take some time to zero in on the specific cause of your unhappiness. It might be remote work. However, you might find that with a few tweaks, remote work allows you to live your best life.