Remote work is not a fad.
We are (thankfully) in the midst of a total paradigm shift around work. Others are saying remote work will finally be accepted and valued. Others are sharing basic tips to stay connected and successful. I have my own suggestions, crafted from a lifetime of working at home.
In the past 5 days working from home I taught 1 workshop, created a project timeline, reviewed a presentation, wrote a brief, and connected with clients and students. It isn’t all roses however. Colleagues are losing clients daily; only 1 week into social distancing we fear losing all work and income.
Assuming we get work, and can focus, let’s focus on the brighter side of remote work.
What works for me.
- A dedicated spot for work (not shared) is key. And a privilege.
- Scheduling calls early enough in the day to get going, but not too early I’m not prepped.
- Having actual “office” supplies at home. White boards, stickies, note cards. The kids will find them fun!
- Try to not work slumped in bed, hunched over your laptop.
- Hiding your scissors and sharpies from the kids. (I remember mom’s reactions when we took her good pair from every location she had them with a new understanding).
- Eating out or ordering delivery treats (Fridays=Fried Egg Sandwiches)
- When two have meetings in the home–get clear over when your calls are loose, essential and when to enact DO NOT DISTURB. (If you are mother who works remotely be prepared DO NOT DISTURB is a nice suggestion your kids will promptly ignore, while steam comes from your ears).
- Remember working from home was not designed to work with other people home ALL day and night with you!
Recognizing the value of flex-work.
In between projects, I’ve been reflecting on my journey as a work-from-home creator and manager. I come from parents who forged their own path, building their businesses from home. For decades, I made working remotely successful for me, my teams, clients, and family.
Flex work and home offices have been around long before video conferencing existed. I am not talking about Joe writing little women by candlelight in her attic. There’s great value in a flexible work culture. Treat everyone like adults. It’s proven by top researchers to be better for companies and their employees. It also helps the earth.
It’s not actually complicated. The trick is to know yourself well and figure out the ways you can fit work in and around life. Communicate often and clearly with coworkers, employees, and clients. And above all, trust each other and yourself. And remember, remote work was meant to work best without kids at home.
Flexible work is about more than just being remote.
You know the commercials about fun fleece for the whole family? Well, my first real job in fashion was designing girls' fleece and more as an assistant designer. And at this first real corporate job, I stayed in the office quite often until 2am. I was stuck there after more senior designers were done “working”, (including my boss we’ll call Kim). They would only leave after ordering expensive take-out and talking for hours about nothing.
The hours from 5pm to 9pm, in my humble opinion, could have been wrapped by 6pm. Kim and the others just needed a bit of focus but instead, they saw work as their social time too. When they had finally finished their yapping they did manage 30 minutes of solid work.
Kim finally dumped work on my desk (picture a literal 1-foot high pile of papers and fabrics) before she headed home to sleep. They were delivered with condescending, vague instructions. I would sigh when everyone had left.
Getting down to business, I put on my cheap headphones, played my Discman and typed in solitude.
I would spend 10pm-2am reviewing print samples from overseas. I spent hours sending comments about colors, repeats and registration, via email. I would write detailed lists to factories in strange structured ‘English for Chinese factories’. Then I would take a fancy car service home to Brooklyn (pre-Lyft days) and have to still be at my desk the next day by 9am. We all need beauty sleep after all.
The cars and meals were something I could expense. The dent in my life and boredom I felt, not so much.
In art school, I had many nights up late working on projects. But I was not waiting on others and twiddling my thumbs. At this job, I sat idle for 3 hours stuck in an office trying to find menial tasks to keep busy. And everyone else just hung out like it was a high school cafeteria.
The lack of control at that corporate design job, aided by my micromanaging boss Kim, left its mark. I simply had to find a job where I could have some control over where and when I worked. Managers and leaders take note–It’s not only boring for your employees to wait on you or be stuck on your schedule, but it’s a waste of money.
Since the 80s, my mom worked from home.
I am certainly biased toward working from home. The seed for autonomy and agency over my work life was planted way before I experienced several micro-mangers before and after Kim. It has been with me since childhood.
I grew up with an actual dedicated home office built off the corner of my house. It had a separate entrance, but also double doors to our living room. My mom had started working out of this dark wood paneled closet of a room starting in 1982. I learned quickly Do not bother me, I am on a call! meant this is real work (not that I listened well).
My parents remodeled and doubled its size and mom was FT exclusively out of the home office by the mid-1980s. All afternoon while I tried to do homework and watch General Hospital and Oprah, our phone would ring off the hook with work calls for my mom from Manhattan.
My mother (who is approaching 70!) still works out of her Florida home writing and connecting with people all over the country, including some of the same people she started working with back in the 80s. To this day, one of her colleagues (40 years and counting) still asks how my sister and I are every time they talk.
My dad did too.
It wasn’t just my mom who made an income within a few feet of our kitchen. After my dad left his corp exec job in the late 80s he often worked from home as well. A songwriter and dreamer, whatever his latest passion was, he always had a dedicated spot to work on his venture du jour. (He made a full-on darkroom in our guest bathroom).
A musician all his life, he usually had a mini recording studio/home office in the smallest bedroom of his latest rental apartment or house. He used it for a quick, focused hideaway to write songs.
Even on a Saturday he would go work on lyrics or a melody.
While he worked, my sister and I tried not to kill each other playing cards or watching the one VHS we had (I don’t think I have seen the Little Mermaid since). I am sure we bothered him 1000 times. Eventually, he would emerge from his tiny home office, ready to play or share what he wrote. Today, only 5 days into home-bound life I am having to get more creative fitting in work.
My first job was in my mom’s home office.
I too have worked from home since I was 16.
My first job was actually in middle school, working for my mom. Slowly copying 1 page at a time as an ancient copier went back and forth at glacial speed. Then I was promoted to helping file papers in large law books, when prints of updated laws came in the mail. I quickly abandoned this newfound responsibility (boring!) so my mom had to outsource and hire my best friend (now a tenured professor at Vanderbilt).
These resources at home spoiled me. School projects were WAY easier when you had a copier for free at home. Job applications for internships-how about a fax right downstairs!
It works for me.
I have found ways to be successful in my own way. It requires a supportive circle, working around societal norms or familial expectations. I am a boundary pusher. Should is my least favorite word. I fit in creative pursuits (if I am able) when inspiration strikes or a deadline looms.
“Who was made for 9–5? Certainly not me, and I’m betting, really, no one. I start later, work later and love to finish work at home with fresh eyes. As a night owl, this suits my ability to work later in the day. There is something about being in my own environment that helps my brain focus and find flow.
At my first creative job in the 90s, I quickly started taking design work “home” from NYC to upstate NY, sending back hand-drawn prints in repeat (patterns) and sketches via FedEx (yes, kids, pre-internet). Working on my portfolio for design school, my peak performance hours were about 10pm to 2am.
When I met my partner I was so happy to have someone in my life that was tech-savvy and willing to communicate ad nauseam via text and email. When we discovered we had matching Ikea desks and he cooed over my 2 Macs, I knew it was a good match.
We moved in together; I got a new desk. We would spend hours working late, sharing music, problems we solved, and office drama. Our first house had 2 basement offices (bedrooms) that were in earshot of each other. By this time I was freelancing again; my room was in more regular use. I remember the co-working evenings we shared down there, trading work stories and music, fondly.
Motherhood solidified my need for flexibility at work.
When we had kids it felt natural that I would continue to freelance and fit in work around them. I felt lucky that I could be around during their first few years. Working from home with so much flexibility wasn’t perfect. It meant I never napped when the baby slept because that’s when I worked.
Granted, I only had income from the work I could manage (on top of the invisible unpaid labor). I didn’t get paid time off, health insurance, or maternity leave. But, it did afford me several summers of pure flexible joy. I spent every day with my firstborn at parks and fountains.
It wasn’t until my second was born things changed. I really needed to leave the house for an office in order to get work done. I continued to work from home whenever possible.
I had many insane agency jobs over the past 15 years. I would put in full-time hours in the studio and then some. And most nights, I was putting in a second work shift at home.
My partner and I continued to work in the evenings to “make up” time “lost” having lives outside of the office.
Eventually, something had to give. In 2019 I started working for myself and never looked back.
Families and pets are great (distractions).
I occasionally succumb to the mom-shame of an 80's working woman. Proving I am so “professional” I try and pretend I don’t have a family while on a call. Honestly, I can only pretend briefly. Then reality for #WFHLife hits again, with barking dogs and doorbells.
There’s payback for interrupting my mom 30+ years ago, and she did it with far less support. My children mouth something to me while I am on a call; I lose my train of thought and get hot. I think, why don’t you go bug dad on his call? When they get home early they think it’s cute to wave to my new clients and give a quick hug (Ok, it is, but only if moms and dads do it equally!)
Even when trying to write an article about the ups and downs of remote life, interruptions occur: for tissue paper, snacks, fighting over screens, more snacks, help with math, just one more hug, the sitter arriving. Can you open this? Cut my nails! What about the party? (14x and counting).
What works for me when collaborating:* **
*Note this will not always work in a pandemic. **Revised a year later in 2021–it was a nice wish list at least).
- When possible, state your preferred boundaries and hours that work best for you.
- Clearly communicate your peak times early and often so people will learn how to best communicate and work with you.
- Working at clients' houses or studios.
- Making sure I let sitters know when I have calls, and if I need kids out of the house.
- Slack, GSuite, Airtable, and Zoom are my tools du jour.
But what can you do when you are distracted over and over? Threaten. Offer a treat, in a minute. Throw your whiteboard and “fun” dry-erase markers at them, and double down to finish your thoughts. Remember, working at home is like working at the office. You do the best you can.
- Set up their own workspace/secret hideout.
- You will never please everyone.
- Show your kids the value of hard work, space, and listening.
- Have them do homework with you or read next to you.
- Give them “projects” like go build me an airplane hanger using every single magnet tile.
- Read or show them what you are working on. If you are lucky, they will likely glaze over and walk away.
- Take a break. The universe is telling you to slow down. Or your partner is telling you (for the 100th time).
One thing is certain. The computer (and you) aren’t going anywhere. There’s a lot to stress about right now; getting it all done should not be one of them.
Rest, drink water, find joy and delight. Help others. Support small businesses. Stay connected and take care of each other.