Thinking About Remote Work
In amongst all the tragedy and trauma of our current circumstance, I find some solace in the newfound solidarity formed and felt in our communities—individuals of many disparate circumstances coming together and lending their expertise to support and uplift each other. I have felt the growth of the online community of workers particularly acutely, as thousands of Canadians bring their daily routines onto the internet and transition to being remote workers. This is a field in which I have some expertise; I have spent the last six years working from a home office for various companies, and many of the newfound frustrations of my friends and family trying out remote work for the first time are very familiar to me. As such I'd like to offer a few thoughts, to both give better definition to the problems we face, and also to offer a few solutions wherever I have some experience.
Working from home, working distributed
Although an exhaustive analysis is outside the scope of this document, I think it's constructive to consider our new work circumstances in two dimensions rather than lumping it all together under "remote work." First, we are now working from home: this means dealing with distractions, new challenges to our work life balance, and other largely environmental complications to our processes. Secondly, we are working distributed, newly remote from our peers and collaborators: this comes with issues of communication and organization, and of staying on top of information that used to be at our literal physical fingertips. I think by considering our new circumstances through this lens we can move beyond listicles of tips and tricks, and instead provide a framework for more deeply understanding our challenges at hand and finding solutions tailored to our individual needs.
Working From Home
Although I’m a fan of and advocate for the many advantages of working from home (notably, no corporate policies against your cat sleeping on your desk), I’m more than happy to acknowledge that it also comes with its fair share of challenges and drawbacks. The loss of enforced boundaries is a common frustration for people newly transitioning to working from home, and somehow it can be simultaneously challenging to avoid the distractions and temptations of the home while also frustrating to find ways to disengage from work and not let it bleed into the rest of your life. Similarly, those new to home offices will find themselves suddenly deprived of the many enriching aspects of office life (as strange as that may sound) that exist at the margins of work and that provide essential social and physical variety to our lives.
Boundaries of Work
Boundaries are going to come in a few different forms but the first, and most obvious, category to address is physical boundaries. Not that you have to build up blockades to keep out your family, but a clear definition of where you work and where you don't will give you great mileage for both defining to others when you're in "work mode" and not to be distracted, and also for training your brain to reflexively understand the same and help you find that "flow" that's so much easier in a dedicated collocated office. Again, maybe you don't have a home office, or maybe not even a desk, but that doesn't mean you can't carve out a dedicated space for thinking and working. Maybe between 9am and 5pm the kitchen table is strictly off limits to non-workers, or maybe for the duration of staying at home you only sit in your comfiest chair when you're working.
And that nicely brings us to barriers around time—if the table stops being an office at 5pm, then you have to leave that office and go back to real life. It's so easy to just keep going when you don't have to physically leave work behind, but by all appearances this is going to be much more of a marathon than a sprint, and making sure that you're not accidentally burning yourself out is going to be critical to your long term health. The inverse also applies —you should be very cautious about allowing yourself to take on other tasks during your work hours, like tidying up around the house or taking time for video games (not that you shouldn’t at all, just that you should be conservative and deliberate in your choices). If you're already struggling to remain focused, giving yourself more chances to feel more 'at home' rather than 'at work' will further cement your mentality of not being singularly focused the way you would be in an office.
Finally, social boundaries play a critical role as well. Those who aren't working from home—but are home with you—are likely not going to immediately appreciate how important and how hard it is to keep a clear(ish) work-life divide. That doesn't mean you can't plan and enjoy moments with the people around you, but if the people around you feel they have unfettered access to your person, it's on you to have the willpower to say no to them each and every time, and pretty often it'll be all too easy to say yes. Being clear and up front about the requirements of your job and the times when you'll be occupied, prevents regular interrupts and distractions and makes the times that you do surprise them with an afternoon break all the more special.
The other, subtler change you have to account for when you start working from home is the loss of the margins around your work that existed when you were in an office. There's a significant portion of your day between the moment you leave for work to the time when you get home that isn't occupied with what would traditionally be considered 'work,' and while much of that time is spent on things that are frustrating and unnecessary (I'm looking at you, commute), there are significant segments that are remarkably critical to our health and happiness. The first thing that you may notice is that you are significantly less active than you were before. Although office activities aren't exactly a rigorous workout, the bustle of getting to your place of work, shuffling between meetings and events, and running to the bathroom that is for some reason on the opposite side of the building is a lot more active than rolling out of bed and grabbing your laptop (in my experience, the difference between about 3500 and 500 steps a day). If you're not that active, like me, then you've just lost a meaningful percentage of your daily exercise (about 30% if we're aiming for 10k steps and going by my numbers), and finding a way to replace that is important for staving off sluggishness and fatigue. If you struggle sticking to exercise regimes, I find replacing the lost activity with other 'movement with purpose' is easier to maintain; when I'm having a hard time with motivation I'll allocate an hour in the afternoons for tidying or minor projects around the house. It keeps me moving when I'm not up for going for a run, and has the added bonus of making my home slightly less of a disaster.
Another significant loss in transitioning to working from home is the loss of social contact. You may not chat a lot with your colleagues, you may not even like most of them, but your day was likely still punctuated with casual social interactions that have just disappeared entirely. I'm sure a psychologist could get into a lot more detail about how social deprivation affects us and why humans just aren't wired for it, but those little moments when you said hello as you rolled into the office, or chatted after a meeting, or paused to catch up in a hallway, those were important. It can be hard to understand at first why something feels off, but in time you'll likely find just how much you appreciate what little casual social contact you have left. Fostering these connections, and making deliberate time for interactions that previously would have been incidental (I personally favour leaning into casual catch-ups during the start of calls, as we wait for everyone to get on and ready), is a valuable investment in your mental health and, as I'll cover in the next section, an equally valuable investment in your productivity.
Working in a distributed manner is likely something that most folks have at least some passing familiarity with, even if they haven't had to be particularly thoughtful about it before. Any time you're working with someone who isn't in the seat right next to you, you're dealing with some degree of distribution, although for most people this is generally with others with whom they are more professionally distanced, rather than close collaborators. The uniqueness of the current situation comes from the rapid displacement of previously collocated collaborators—people with whom you are expected to be tightly integrated are suddenly inaccessible in ways you likely haven't had to cope with before. Bridging that gap—making your team as accessible as it is integrated—is fully possible (and the crux of successful distributed organizations), but the transition is extremely jarring when we have an established set of norms that rely on seeing each other in person on a daily basis.
If there's one thing to focus on when trying to reconnect a team that's been recently distributed, it's re-establishing a sense of presence. An enormous component of the accessibility that exists between members of a collocated team is their immediate knowledge of their coworkers location and status. A quick glance can instantly establish whether a team mate is at work, and furthermore whether they're readily interruptible, based on whether they're wearing headphones, posture, and many other small cues that are obvious in person. That immediate understanding of the presence of one's colleagues makes choosing when and how to engage with them about as low friction as possible, as opposed to when they're on the other side of the internet and it may be hard to establish whether a coworker is even in "the office" that day or not. There are a myriad of ways to communicate presence remotely—status messages in your favourite chat app, announcing your arrival/departure in a public channel, and automated activity trackers that exist in many modern tools (like Slack or Teams)—be considerate of what works for you and your team and make sure that it is used widely and consistently.
Tools and Technology
There's a whole separate blog post to be written on the best tooling for distributed work, so once again for the sake of brevity I'll stick to the core concepts and personal highlights as best I can. When it comes to sharing information you’re generally going to have tooling that fits into three categories: synchronous communication (video/phone calls), asynchronous communication (chat/email), and information repositories (Jira/Google Docs); and broadly these map to three different modes of exchange: freeform exploration/debate, structured discussion, and the establishment of a referenceable library of information. The boundaries and definitions of each category are not firm, the study of communication and its mediums is deep, broad, and outside of the scope of this post, but understanding your toolset through that lens may help you better select which tool is most appropriate (just because that meeting could have been an email doesn’t mean it should have been). Similarly, this perspective can be used to maximize the ease of access to any given information source. To clarify with some examples, consider the barriers in play when an individual is looking to either video conference with a colleague, or extract documented knowledge from a google doc. To reduce friction hindering them from starting a conference call you may need to focus on ensuring that they know who to contact, that they are comfortable reaching out to the domain expert, and they know when the individual with the required knowledge is available. On the opposite end of the spectrum, to reduce friction when sourcing information from an information repository like a google doc, you should focus on good naming, searchability, and on ensuring that in your information library there exists only a single source of truth for each piece of information (or at least that duplicates don’t contradict each other).
Although I’ve excluded matters of hardware entirely from this discussion so far (in short, a good mic, HD camera, and fast and hardwired internet valuable additions if available), I would like to make one specific recommendation. Given that you can’t always rely upon your coworkers to have high quality hardware of their own, I find a set of good headphones to be invaluable for making out the more muddled speakers on a call. The flip side of this of course is that headphones have the disadvantage of muffling your own voice, which many people find disconcerting and distracting while speaking. It turns out that you can have the best of both worlds—get a nice mic with aux out, and wire your headphones through that. This way the audio of your voice that the mic is picking up will be looped back to your ears sufficiently quickly that it’s almost indistinguishable from hearing yourself speak with no headphones on at all, and lets you hear people clearly without impediments to your own speech.
Keeping teams social
Perhaps the least obvious aspect of interconnectedness and accessibility of a team is the social component—the ways we reduce the friction in our teams' communication by being friendly with each other. Reaching out to a friend, even if they're less accessible in other ways, is almost always preferable to connecting with someone with whom your relationship has soured (or didn't exist in the first place). Not that you should necessarily be trying to force a team to become best buddies, but it is crucial to recognize the value derived from the socialization amongst your members—specifically the ways in which it eases the processes of outreach and communication. We tend to implicitly acknowledge this with collocated groups in the form of team events, where we ostensibly build camaraderie. Certainly those are valuable, and their digital analog—the Zoom cocktail hour—can be useful as well, but there's an enormous amount of invisible socialization that goes on in the office that we should also attempt to replicate for our distributed workers. Moments like walking to meetings together, chatting over coffee, and exchanging thoughts at a shared desk, tragically, have no obvious analogue. Instead we must engineer space for alternative activities. As I mentioned before I'm particularly partial to the start-of-meeting social which, despite initially feeling like a waste of time (at least to some) pays significant social dividends in time. That supplemented with a generous allocation of semi-social 1-1 meetings keeps me feeling connected with my organization socially, as well as professionally. And if you are the individual in charge of a team, I strongly recommend ramping up loosely structured meetings like standups and planning sessions where you can leave ample room for social margins to keep your team talking.
In a team that is tightly integrated, one of the primary goals of the teams' organizers should be making the act of drawing upon the knowledge of a collaborator as low-friction as possible. By considering our tools, practices, and processes through that lens of accessibility, it is possible to make considerable improvements to our collective experience as distributed workers.
A Final Thought
As I mentioned before, there are many invaluable posts written by incredibly thoughtful people espousing theories of remote work, or providing lists of helpful advice for managing your new situation. The challenge then is not how to find advice, but to find advice that works for you—successful remote work is a deeply personal matter and there are few one-size-fits-all solutions. Instead, I hope that this post can provide some guidance to help you sift through your thoughts on being a remote worker and what works best for you when it comes to staying focused at home, and connected at work.