Working from home — how these 6 people are making it

COVID-19 has changed everyone’s life. With the uncertainties of the economy, being able to keep your job and working from home seems like a luxury. I recently interviewed some of my colleagues who have various experiences at WFH and managing people remotely. I’m writing this to just share their thoughts and experiences. This isn’t about telling you what you should do, but simply let you know that we’re all in this together.

The beings who were generous to share their WFH experiences

From a high level, the questions I asked them are around the human side of the story: how they are making it, what they enjoy about WFH, what their challenges are, from both personal and work perspectives.

Q1: When was the last time you went out of your house/apartment?

“I stepped out to get groceries from our smaller neighborhood store. Because I knew all the big stores will have too many people. I blocked time on my work calendar at 2 p.m. and then left, hoping there won’t be a lot of people. It’s a small store. I’m pretty sure people touched a lot of things. All I had to do was to make sure I don’t touch my face.”

“I went out only 3 times in the past five weeks. Last Saturday I needed to pick up and drop off something to my friends. We tried to keep the social distancing. Then it turned out, during this situation, people are helping each other more. They gave me a handmade cloth mask in return. Another friend gave me some hand spray because I was complaining I couldn’t get any hand sanitizer anywhere. This is a time when we start trading and helping each other more.💚

“ I didn’t have some essentials for two or three days. On Monday evening I went to a liquor store.🍻

“We went for a walk with the dog. The dog helps us to get out a little bit more.”

“I’ve gone to Home Depot. It was a customer pick up outside where they just bring the stuff and put it in the back of my truck.”

Q2: These days, what do you enjoy about working from home?

“I really enjoy knowing that at this company my team has been able to continue being productive to a large extent. I don’t think things have slowed down. We have all the tools we need to continue. Not every profession is like this, because there’s a lot of people who can’t all scatter and do their work on computers. I feel fortunate.

A peace of mind. I can’t even imagine the frontline or grocery store workers who go out and come in contact with so many people every day.”

“The nice thing is knowing that my family is nearby… I can just step out for two minutes and my son will come and give me a hug.”

For people who can work from home, this situation also gives them more flexibility in terms of socializing with friends.

“One thing kinda nice is that a lot of my friends who I communicate with online and were working office jobs during the day, now are working from home. So they have a little bit more freedom on doing something together when we all take a break. This week on Wednesday, I just went downstairs and played a really quick game of DOTA with all my friends. That’s nice because they can do that now”

One thing I found surprising is that some people think working remotely makes them feel more connected with the team.

“In a strange way, I’ve had better visibility being a remote worker because you can’t be shy. You have to be outgoing, have meetings, and make the connections. Where in the office, it can be intimidating to approach more senior colleagues.”

“I don’t work from home a lot because I usually feel being left out. In the office, people have lots of casual conversations. But now everyone is working from home. So I don’t feel that anymore. Instead, we’re more connected in other ways. We chat with each other a lot. There are also virtual lunch parties to just get each other to stay connected.”

Q3: What’s something that sparks joy on your desk, or wherever you work at home?

Q4: What do you do when you need to take a break?

That’s been the problem for me… People think you’re available all the time. Because in this situation, they know you’re not going outside… So there are a lot of meetings. For the first few weeks, I didn’t take any breaks intentionally. What I do now… one example is… In the office, I used to have a bottle of water next to me so I drink enough water… My wife made a comment. Why don’t you just take a two minutes break, walk over and fill up your glass of water.”

“I try to take the dog outside. That’s a double-edged sword working from home; in a sense, it’s difficult to disconnect and walk away from your desk. Or it’s easier to say yes to late meetings… I got up in the middle of dinner and jumped onto a meeting to help somebody because I was like, oh it’s fine, I’ll do that… My favorite and my least favorite part of working from home, the office is always accessible.”

Q5: What would you say is the biggest challenge when working from home?

“Wanting to be there for the team and my colleagues, but I need to figure out a good balance between work and personal life.”

“When everybody is working from home, the constraints on how long you’re going to work each day becomes ambiguous. When it’s just me fully remote on the team, and everyone else is at the office, it’s kind of a mothership. Then they all go home at some point around the same time. Now there’s not gonna be a time when that mothership shuts down. Each day tends to run a little longer than it used to.

Besides mixing up personal and work schedules, without that face to face connection in the office, good communication becomes extremely critical.

It is absolutely communication. The hardest thing is making sure that people are communicating and understand how to use all the different tools we have effectively when everyone is remote… Instant messaging tools are great. It’s the analogy of having a face to face conversation.”

For people with kids, it’s also a challenge to keep their kids occupied during their work hours, which leads to the following question…

Q6: How do you keep your kids occupied when you work from home these days?

“They have school work to do during the day…We’re trying to keep a normal school day going… We do watch a lot of stuff on TV, but not cartoons. They have a lot of playtimes. They build stuff with legos and do a lot of art. So they’re being creative. Out of school hours, it’s free for all. The kids can do whatever they want, go nuts!”

“It’s kinda nice because within a certain number of hours they’re also trying to focus on a computer. So I feel like they’re working with me now. But we’re fortunate... We have a yard outside where they can play in. We can go on walks together or up into the hill, away from other people. We play board games and watch movies. We’d normally do a lot more outdoor road trips on the weekends but now we’re staying put.”

If your kid is young, you might have to be more “flexible”.

“For the first two/three weeks I suffered a lot. I wanted to do most of my work during the day. But it turned out to be not realistic because my kid kept me busy during the day. So now I just move the things that I need to focus on to the evening after she goes to bed… To keep her entertained, I found some online resources, like teaching the kids to doodle or reading books for them. There are also online dancing classes. During the day, I allow myself to spend a couple of hours doing those with her.

Q7: How do you keep yourself focused, or not get distracted when working?

“That’s not a problem for me. If I have enough stuff that I enjoy working on, that just keeps me busy. The stuff I’m doing now, it’s stuff I enjoy doing. I would probably be doing it for giggles. Being interested in the work is the most important to stay focused.

If you can, having a dedicated space to separate your work and personal life also helps.

“I need a dedicated space. When I walk into my office, I’m at work. And it’s kind of closed off, so I don’t get distracted too much during the day.”

If those two don’t necessarily apply to you, here’re some other methods you could try!

“So lately I’m using the DO NOT DISTURB thing in Webex Teams (the collaboration software we use). People would still ping me. But at least from my perspective, I could focus on my work. Another aspect is just blocking the calendar so that other people know I’m busy with something.”

“Keeping track of priorities. Reviewing what’s on my todo list every day. I like the 20/80 rule, where you try to prioritize the 20% of things that have the biggest impact… I also have a notepad or a paper for distractions. A lot of times, when I’m working, I’ll be like oh there’s something I could do or I need to do… Instead of letting that derail you away from your focus, I just write it down. So then when working, you’re like, oh you know what? I need to like add fertilizer to my trees outside. Ok, I can write it down. I captured it and I don’t have to worry about it. I know that list is gonna be there when I’m done working.”

“It’s hard… This is cliche but have you heard of Tomato Timer? It’s a tool to help you develop the habit of being focused. There’re some apps too. I downloaded an app. You will grow a tree if you don’t touch your phone for 25 mins. But within the 25 mins, if you use your phone, the tree would die LOL… It also forces you to take breaks. I usually turn on DO NOT DISTURB during that 25 mins and then respond to messages during the break.”

Q8: How are you keeping connected with your team or people you work with?

“The people I work closely with, I just chat with them all the time. Matt (someone he works closely with) and I are probably on video calls for a total of five to six hours a week.”

“On a personal level, our team is really good about it. We have a lot of social spaces (group chats) and even a recurring video meeting that’s more of a brainstorm-type meeting… We collaborate a lot over video.”

Or simply, you might end up having more virtual meetings with your team than before. And that helps.

“Because of this WFH situation, the number of meetings has just gone up a lot… Because of that, I talk to everybody multiple times a day.”

Q9: How do you build credibility and maintain that trust when you don’t have that in-person connection anymore?

“I had that problem in the past. Since I was remote, the team didn’t necessarily always have visibility into what I was working on… One thing I do is if I have something, even purely brainstorming or whatever comes to my mind, I put on the MIRO board. I share the link with whoever the stakeholders are. That helps because then people start seeing my work. I can start getting feedback early on as well, which is always nice.”

“Eh…you do it with results. Effective communication. It’s no difference in Webex Teams or an email to be polite, cordial, informative, and humble. That is a behavior that transcends the communication medium. So yea being a great team player, and also delivering results.

“I love getting to know people on a personal level… During the first couple minutes of a meeting, breaking the ice vs. jumping right in. And I try keeping things on a lighter side when I can. I often reach out to new team members to get to know them… I truly believe you can build strong relationships using video meetings. One example, I had been on my team only a few months and had only met two coworkers in person before. They threw me a bridal shower online. When I finally did meet them at an on-site, it’s like I had met them already because we built that type of relationship.”

Q10: For managers, how do you keep your team together these days?

“I try to encourage more team virtual activities every week. Just get together. Do some co-activities which are not work-related. We block people’s calendars… Even when I can’t join because of meeting conflicts, I still try to join for the last ten minutes to chat with the team… Every meeting we start, especially if it’s my team, we spend the first five minutes or even ten to just acknowledge we’re in this situation together. Don’t act like it’s all business as usual.”

“Some of the things I’ve seen that work best for remote management is making sure to keep the plan visualized in front of your team’s eyeballs somehow. Having regular check-ins. If you do work with a kanban board, revisit and share it. Where things are at, what the plan is and who’s responsible for what. Some project management fundamentals are just making sure that the whole team has a clarity of purpose, clarify of responsibility and clarity of the plan… I’m not perfect at it, but I know that works.”

Q11: For managers, what do you care the most about your team these days?

Making sure that everybody is taking care of themselves. There’s a lot of anxiety about the current situation. I know I feel it. I think it’s important to not let the work become more important than people’s well being… Everyone’s trying to do a good job and a good teammate. People want to show hey I can do this… Also, not everybody has a home office. If all they have is a hardwood chair to sit on or a bench, or they don’t have a good place to work that has good ergonomics, we want to guard against that. I’m all for taking care of the health and well being. Our company has provided some good mental health recommendations and I try to point the team towards those resources. This is kind of an extraordinary circumstance and we can’t expect that everything is just gonna work. Everyone can just go work from home and pretends nothing is happening. So having an understanding of that and have realistic expectations, I think, is important.”

“I’ve been trying at least once in a while to ask among our team and see how everything is doing. Stressing with the other leads to talk to their teams. Make it very clear that if anyone has any needs, they should feel free to just reach out. The other part is being a little more mindful of others… One example is in meetings people mute and unmute their microphones all the time because they have kids showing up. It’s okay and let them be. People just have to accept the reality that it’s not easy to work from home when your whole family is home. And it’s ok.”

Q12: What’s something that you miss about working in the office?

“I do miss the energy you get being around people in the same location. You’re able to feed off other people’s energy a little bit more. It’s easier to interrupt somebody for better or worse… In terms of building a good team, you can’t beat the in-person human connection with somebody.

“Probably the actual face time. I do appreciate it when I can go to workshops, on-sites, or events and see people in person… And maybe all the snacks you guys had in the San Francisco office. That was pretty amazing. I thought to myself, I could get used to this LOL.”

“All the food I used to go eat outside with the team. One thing I like about our team is that we bond over food… The non-work related stuff which keeps us connected… The accidental bumping into folks. Now I have to intentionally plan to talk to this other person in this other group.”

With all that said, you might also just start loving WFH and don’t want to go back to the office.

“There’re a lot of people in one place who are all different people, who think differently and behave differently. For me, it’s difficult to work on with the noise going on… There are lots of distractions. There are snacks. There’ are drinks. If there is something I overhear and it gets my attention, I just gotta go and talk about it. I can’t help it…”

Q13. Alright last question, what’s your recommendation or what would you say to people who just started WFH because of COVID-19?

“The main thing I’d say is it’s not as bad as it sounds or as good as it sounds. I’d say it’s what you make out of it, right? … I bought a new chair. Sitting for long hours is also a challenge, so you need to have good support… Also, physical mobility is very important, compared to your mental sanity. Do these small things, like a reason for going to the kitchen and things like that… Apart from you being a remote employee, the rest of the organization also needs to grow up and have the mentality of this is okay. If the whole organization and the senior leaders behave in such a fashion, it’s gonna make most people more comfortable.

“If they can, maybe get a comfortable setup. I don’t have space to set up a desk. So I just use the coffee table or the kitchen counter. I’d say get a comfortable setting with either a big screen or a comfortable chair and desk. Stock up coffee too ☕️

“Share your work. When working in the office, there’s a continuous exchange of ideas going on… When working at home, you don’t wanna end up making your process a waterfall model… Share your work early and often. Try to minimize communication barriers. Get more people to have visibility of what you’re doing.

“Give it time. You’ll get more comfortable and start to adjust. It’s about training yourself to work differently, so be patient with yourself. Set boundaries for family members if you can. It’s easy for them to see you’re home and forget that you are working, which can be stressful managing to be in two places (or mindsets) at once. Another piece of advice, if you need to step away for an extended time, let your team know. You can’t over-communicate; everyone is adjusting to this new way of work.”

Socialize online. At least during the day with your coworkers, go have conversations with them. Treat it like a water cooler conversation and don’t be afraid to engage people. Overshare the stuff you’re working on. Ask for feedback all the time. Always always always communicate. That’s the key.”

Define a solid routine for yourself as much as you can. Create those time constraints. The worst thing you can do is to just get out of bed and then start working on your laptop in bed. You have to separate your work from the rest of your life… Not everyone is able to, but if you can, create a workspace. So when you’re at that space, you’re working. And you’re able to physically leave that space to take breaks…If there’s one investment you can make, invest in good internet. Look for the good upload speed. That’s where everybody gets tripped up. Video calls make it easier to understand people’s intent behind, but what’s more important is just being able to hear people talking. The other thing is to invest in a headset that has a microphone that will cancel the background noise. It makes such a big difference when you can hear the people you’re talking to clearly. And when you’re speaking, you don’t have to worry about background noise. You don’t have to dance with the mute button. It makes it so much less stressful.”

I hope by now you realize that we’re all trying to adjust ourselves and live through this. Whatever you’re struggling with also applies to other people and it’s fine. Let’s just do our best, be kind, and stay safe! 💚

And thanks again to all colleagues and friends who spent the time sharing their experiences! :)

UX Lead for Webex Assistant, a multi-modal conversational AI at Cisco Collaboration. 👨🏻‍💻 www.thousandworks.com

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