by Jeff Gilles
on March 17, 2020
With so many people around the world finding themselves staying home indefinitely, this week marks a radical shift in how lots of people work.
I’ve been working from home full-time since August of 2018, and 80 percent of the time for about a year before that. At first, it was a struggle. At this point, I can't quite imagine how I'll ever end up back in a “normal” work arrangement again. Here are some principles and “life hacks” that I've found useful.
The end goal in working from home is the same as the end goal in a traditional workplace setting—do great work. Meet or exceed the expectations that your manager and your company set for you. Produce effective output. Represent the company well.
Too often, companies believe (overtly or subtly) in “presenteeism”—i.e., your job is to be present and look busy. It's natural to use presence or busy-ness as a proxy for effectiveness. But it's wrong and it's insidious, especially for all of us who are not physically co-located with our colleagues or manager right now. At the end of the day, a good manager wants her direct reports to do a great job, to collaborate well, and to make her look good by extension.
Let's start with that goal in mind and work backward.
Many of the conventions of an on-premises workplace have evolved around assumptions that are unique to that world. For instance, people catch rush-hour express trains, meet during times that they're all together, and eat lunch at roughly the same time to make it social. Even something as simple as a deadline being “close of business” has some of this bias built in.
To make working from home great, try to question these assumptions to tailor the work to your situation. This could involve the structure of the workday, your physical office setup (or setups), and how you interact with coworkers. Thinking hard about these things can yield breakthroughs.
My initial WFH experience was an attempt to recreate my in-the-office workday in a different location. This included the time I “arrived” and the time I “left.” And as with many of history's adoptions of new technology, it wasn't all that effective. I didn't take into consideration the differences between the two situations, and my work (and my wellness) suffered.
At some point, I noticed two conflicting pulls: My kids are all off to school by 7:30 a.m., so I would love to start into my work by 8. But 90 percent of my coworkers are a time zone ahead, so to them, it's only 7 a.m. On the other side of the workday, finishing by 4:30 or 5:00 (an eight- to nine-hour day depending on my lunch break) meant that my coworkers were still working and cramming in those end-of-day tasks after I'd “gone home.”
This led me to question the half-hour lunch break, and to arrive at a new standard workday: 8 a.m. - noon and 2 - 6 p.m., with a two-hour lunch. This long lunch allows me to do something meaningful in the middle of the day: running to the grocery store, exercising and showering, gardening, or grabbing a leisurely lunch with friends. Being available until 6 p.m. my time is easier on my teammates, and I typically finish the day energized rather than drained, thanks to the break.
You will surely have different life needs and work needs than me. But the principle is the same—figure out what in your weekday life could benefit from time flexibility and see what you can do to accommodate it. Maybe you can take work calls in the evening after the kids are in bed, to stay in contact with people around the world. Some might take a break from 3-6 p.m. to pick up kids and make dinner, or leave early to commute to happy hour or an after-work meetup. Such things can make your life and relationships better, make you happier, and still be compatible with producing great work.
I subscribe to the belief that we mostly under-communicate at work. Being remote amplifies this immensely. We humans have nonverbal communication capabilities that we forget about. Seeing a coworker's boisterous (or slumping) body language or hearing them sniffling from seasonal allergies will inform our communication strategy with them. Being blind to those signals makes us harder for them to talk to. With remote work, you can lose most or all of that nonverbal communication, along with the verbal chitchat that happens throughout the workday.
As a remote worker, then, you have to find ways to communicate more intentionally. Here are some key practices that I've adopted:
More scheduled one-on-ones. With my boss and with my colleagues, I rely more heavily on scheduled one-on-ones. When I managed remote workers, I did three 30-minute check-ins per week with the remote employees (versus just one for their co-located peers). This helped to fill in the “hallway chatter” that they weren't privy to. I currently have every-three-weeks syncs with several remote coworkers, just to catch up, cross-pollinate between our departments, build relationships, and keep ourselves sane. This is a “tax” of sorts on your time devoted to work, no doubt about it. But it's ultimately a necessary cost of doing business that will ultimately make both of you more effective and engaged.
Open your calendar, files, etc. By default, my Outlook calendar would only show my colleagues when I'm busy, but not what I'm doing. I changed this default, and so should you. Your boss and coworkers will benefit from seeing the “limited details” setting on your calendar as a means of passive communication. Similarly, having your work product easily accessible to your peers and boss allows you to demonstrate the great work you're doing. This can be as simple as using a shared folder or a cloud-based company drive. It will make you easier to work with and counteract that insidious “presenteeism.”
Use your webcam. Webcams can be awkward when you're not used to them. My advice? Get over it. Putting your face on the screen tells everyone that you're “in the room” and you're engaged with the rest of them. It shows that you're not goofing off (ahem … don't goof off while you're on the call). It reminds them that you're a talented member of the team that's available to participate in what they're doing.
If you're like me, you don't naturally like to make waves and be seen as pushy. But self-advocacy is critical to being an effective remote worker. Be aware when coworkers are unknowingly biased towards those in the room and respectfully call them out, both for your sake and the sake of the other remote participants. I'm usually the one to ask, “should I be seeing something on your screen?” or “can you use the screen rather than the whiteboard?” Tell them when their audio is having issues or their video camera is askew. Train them to not have substantial post-meeting discussions in the room after they've disconnected you. I've seen these bad behaviors diminish over time as my colleagues have become more aware of their unconscious biases.
You also will find you need to be a little more diligent than your co-workers about keeping track of what you're working on and letting others know. I felt like a showoff at first, but the alternative is being perceived as someone who's not carrying their weight, and that's much worse. And, frankly, if you're not producing good work that's worth bragging about, you need to address that first, anyway.
Working from home is a skill. I used to be pretty bad at it, and if you haven't done it much before, you will be too. But I was honest with myself, and after much foot-dragging, I held myself accountable for the things that weren't working well for me. Don't let yourself think that you are the only one with self-control struggles, or feelings of loneliness or lethargy. Many people, even those that look like they've got their world under control, struggle with those things.
Through experimentation and research, and the mantra, “if it's stupid and it works, it's not stupid,” I discovered what worked for me. Take thoughtful notes each day (or each Friday afternoon, like I do), documenting what's going well, what needs work, and planning strategies for how to address it. If you need more exercise, block your weekday calendar Sunday night to make it happen, and hold to it. If you need to eat less junk food, make it less accessible during the workday. My favorite “life hack” was turning on “parental controls” on my own cellphone to keep me off my favorite time-wasting websites.
The better “you” that you can be, the better employee you will be. Schedule in a power nap. Take a midday hike with your dog when the weather is glorious. Watch a TED talk or a webinar while you walk on your treadmill. Taking care of your own needs will give you the energy to kick butt on your work, deliver results, and be your best self.
Jeff Gilles joined Relativity’s Solutions team in 2016, where he consults with Relativity customers on their workflows, speaks at Relativity Fest and on Webinars, and consults with our Relativity Analytics teams. He works from his home in Northern Virginia.
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