I’ve never enjoyed working from home. I’ve always found it more intense, more stressful, and just, well, generally more. Sure, I’d work from home if I had to (snow storms etc), but in the 16 years I’ve been employed I’d always favour being at work when real work was needed — even when it was on a weekend for just a few hours.
Working from home forced an increased intensity of work: Respond Faster to questions (always at my desk!), actively participate in more conversations, working longer because of course I could use my recovered commute time — otherwise I look like I’m slacking, right? These were self-imposed expectations — I’m not sure any of my employers actually expected that (certainly not my current one) but it was there, unspoken whispers.
Then the pandemic happened.
Working from home is one of the most visible changes of The Distancing. With no-way to safely gather in a physical space to stop, drop, and collaborate, those with the privilege of being able to work from home have to. It’s unclear if this shift is going to be forever (at least for some job types), or just for the next half-decade. But living every day under the cloud of expectations of increased productivity and constant availability is unsustainable.
After two weeks of the lockdown, I was starting to feel burnt out. Those high (mostly self-imposed) expectations, increased intensity, and running at ones mental redline had started to take their toll. I wrote down some observations after those two weeks to try and get a little perspective as to some day-today causes:
- No breaks between meetings When you’re in the office, there’s an implicit break between meetings as you physically move to another room. Now, you’re finishing on the dot, and immediately you are into another meeting — it’s just a click away. It’s been eye-opening to realize how much I used the time moving between meetings to mentally reset.
- Meetings over run, and no-one stops Meetings no longer get kicked out of a conference room, which means people can talk forever, unless all participants have to go somewhere else. FOMO encourages this (I heavily afflicted by FOMO), as well as the reality that those hallways conversations that happened as you walked to another meeting were where so much work actually happened.
- Multiple, concurrent realtime group conversations In the office, you have one conversation at a time, with those physically around you. Now you end up in 2+ conversations as there is no signal or cue for others that you’re already dedicating 90% of your brain to a conversation, so you end up being drawn into those additional, concurrent, conversations.
- Everyone can join Group conversations that in-person resulted in a decision that was sometimes circulated, are now open in the public, and often (unintentionally) pull in more people to participate (see previous point). Everyone can be present, even if they weren’t before. More people, more conversation, more noise, less signal.
- Lunch is no longer a break (even when you take a break) Because of the continuous intensity, lunch becomes a release valve — but in many cases, not in a take-a-break way. Previously, people left the workspace and socialized. Now it’s the time to send Slack messages & e-mail to follow up from all those no-moment-to-breath back-to-back meetings. Upon your return from a lunch-break, your inbox & instant messages are on 🔥
- There’s no end to the day Our home lives have been turned upside down, many of us spending much of the working day taking care of family. But the implicit assumption is that of course you’re still going to put a full eight hours in. So, you work later after hours, to make up the difference. (See the Microsoft Office teams pull request completion time)
- Workaholism All things being equal, I’d work all the time. Part of my management technique has been ‘I’m at home. Not work’, and avoiding working from home. Now work is just sitting there in my home office saying ‘Come on. Do some more work… you’ll be able to get ahead’. I won’t, and I shouldn’t, but merely resisting that takes energy — even when you succeed, the energy used to resist this is significant.
That’s before you acknowledge that the outside world, is changing hour by hour, in a way that does impact your life, requiring immediate re-planning & assessment.
We’re well into what is clearly going to be at least a 24-month work from home situation. I’ve found some techniques that have tempered — but not eliminated — my stress, anxiety, and burn out:
- Blocked out specific parts of my calendar to create some space breathable space. If you use Office 365, I highly recommend turning on “Focus Plan” to automatically ensure you don’t get overbooked.
- Disabled Slack & e-mail notifications on my phone — even during the workday. I’ve also disabled red-dot on Slack for work email, except for DMs & mentions. Don’t tempt my lizard-fomo brain!
- Asked people to schedule meetings 5 min delayed start or early end. Shortly after I started doing this informally, my employer made it a formal policy. Reality is that it only happens about 25% of the time (and people still blow past the end of a meeting)
- Started my workday a little later, and finishing a little earlier (8:30 start, 17:00-17:30 stop). Initially, I’d fallen into ‘start when I’d have left for work, stop when I’d have left for home’, which was really 7:30-6:15, and it wasn’t working. Upside, I was no longer eating my breakfast at my desk reviewing e-mails!
- Made heavy use of ‘remind me’ in slack to follow up on conversations rather than participating actively. Remind me, and get back to it end of the day/next day.
- Consciously & intentionally using Slack status messages to convey when I’m not at my desk (and why) for more than a potty break.
There is no simple solution, nor is there one-size fits all. We all have unique situations that put different pressure on how we plan our day. We are also all individuals who have different preferences & desires. Hopefully, my rumination and unsolicited pontification at least sparks a thought for ways to mange your workday.
Prepublication addendum: Via my boss at work, I came across a Harvard Business Review article “Microsoft Analysed Data on Its Newly Remote Workforce”. To my surprised it meshed really well with what I wrote above. If you would like a more data-driven, less opinion-based version, I would recommend taking a quick read!