Not All Remote Employees Have Trouble With Work/Life Balance

Remote employees are more successful balancing work and life if their managers do the same.

Sometimes the Company is the Problem


Photo by Jefferson Santos on Unsplash

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


Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

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.

How to Talk Smack about Your Co-Worker’s Superbowl Team

Without Losing the Relationship

I love to talk about the Seattle Seahawks with one of my coworkers. The Seahawks are her home team, and I hate them on principal. I’m not a big football fan–I’m in it for the Superbowl half time show–but the Seahawks got on my bad side after one particularly painful game against the San Francisco 49ers a few years ago, and now I root for whoever plays against them.

Talking smack about someone else’s sports team is a time honored way of building a human connection. And if you are a remote worker, it’s easier to build a connection with colleagues if you have something to talk about. But you have to be careful. Here are some things to keep in mind before you try to make friends with your remote colleague by talking smack about her sports team.

How Well Do You Know Your Co- Worker?

Does your coworker already joke with others about her team? Are you sure she’s joking? Some people have no sense of humor when it comes to sports. It’s also very hard to read tone in a text exchange. You may see the talk in the team Slack channel as playful and engaging. Your coworker may see it as harassment. Take the time to figure out if everyone is enjoying the banter before you target any particular person. And if you could rate smack talk on a scale of 1-10 in intensity, start off at level one and check to see how people react. Go slowly.

Start the Smack Talk Over Video

Video meetings are the best place to gauge your smack talk opportunities. Most remote meetings should begin with a few minutes of off-topic chit chat, and an upcoming game can be a good excuse to bond with your coworkers. Pay attention to visual cues and change your approach if necessary. Your coworker may enjoy an impassioned debate, but the rest of the attendees may find it distressing. If that’s the case, enjoy your smack talk one on one.

In one video meeting, I figured out that the head of my department enjoys bantering about the Dodgers. In a different meeting, I found out that a colleague hates LeBron James with the fiery heat of a thousand suns, and enjoys having a chance to explain why. I feel totally confident that if I try to talk smack about the Dodgers or LeBron James, a good time will be had by all. It’s nice to have colleagues to chat with during the day, especially as I work in an office of one. There may be no one else in my office space, but thanks to these incidental conversations, I don’t feel alone.

Talking smack about someone’s sports team is a time honored way of forging a human connection through friendly rivalry. If you keep your remote context in mind, then you and your remote coworkers can trade quips without ruining the relationship.

Remote Work Traffic Jam

Alexander Popov via Unsplash

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.

How to Host a Remote Work Party People Will Want to Attend

Working from home doesn’t have to mean partying alone. With a few tips you can party like it’s 1999.

Photo by Cristian Escobar on Unsplash

Working from home doesn’t have to mean partying alone. Thanks to video conferencing magic, you can host a great virtual party from the comfort of your laptop. My colleagues and I have been holding virtual parties since 2010. If you keep these tips in mind, you too can celebrate with your coworkers like it’s 1999.

Gift Exchange

Get the facts. Running a virtual gift exchange is as easy as pairing people up and sending shipping information. Make sure that people are comfortable giving out this information. If not, consider a gift card only gift exchange. Pro Tip: You will score major points if you buy those gift cards from a country specific chain. While your Canadian colleague will use a Starbucks card, sending her a gift card to David’s Tea or Tim Horton’s says ‘I cared enough to do a little research.’

Build in shipping time. This is particularly important if some colleagues live across country lines. You may also want to do an internet search for ‘postal strike’ before deciding how to ship to a colleague in a different country.

Buy (country) local. Did you know Amazon has 12 country-specific online stores? If you buy a gift for your Indian colleague in the Amazon India store, you will save time and money.

Happy Hours

Respect the time zone. London is five hours ahead of New York. Hawaii is three hours behind California. Your colleague in India may really like you, but he’s probably going to skip a 6am beer fest. Consider holding more than one party if time zones are too far apart. Your colleagues in other time zones will notice and appreciate your effort include them in the festivities.

Signal if alcohol is okay. This is especially true if you are the highest ranking person at the party. This can be as simple as saying ‘Bring your beverage of choice. I’ll be sipping my favourite chocolate porter.’

Bring talking points. Video happy hours can be fun, but you can’t have several conversations going on at the same time. You’ll overwhelm the audio. This can lead to awkward stretches of silence if you aren’t careful. Reach out ahead of time and ask one or two colleagues to help you keep the conversational ball rolling. You can also play ice breaker games if your team thinks that’s fun.

Working from Home Doesn’t Have to Mean Working Alone

Don’t let your status as a remote worker stop you from celebrating with your colleagues. Virtual parties can be a chance to network, an opportunity to build friendships, and a pleasant way to break up the work day. Do you have a great tip for hosting a fun virtual work party? Let me know in the comments.