Curious
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Curious

Working From Home Effectively

What I’ve learned from 10.5 months of having my office in my home

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I’ve always dubbed the place that I live “my hovel.” The label makes me and my friends laugh. When I feel that where I live is a hermitage, it becomes a home. In my hovel, I have a bin filled with knitting and needlepoint materials, a wall plastered with my sketches and drawings, a bed where I have rested deeply at the end of long days and tousled in anxiety on the difficult ones.

In March of 2020, a new visitor arrived at my hovel for a stay: my office. At the time, I did not know how long this visitor would be in town, but I absolutely didn’t expect it to last through 2021. Within a day, my home (and the homes of millions of others) was no longer only a private and safe enclave; it was also a shared space, where I had to let my work life blend with my personal life.

I let my responsibilities, colleagues, and work identity ford the threshold into my personal life in a way that I never had before. In a way that I was candidly afraid to do before this pandemic. And similarly, my responsibilities, colleagues, and identity let a bit more of me in. I found my monthly reports contained more witty quips and fun facts about my life, as opposed to my overtly formal writing style. I met the children of my team members, heard the yelps of new puppies punctuate my presentations. I let more of who I am in my private life influence who I want to be in my professional life. When you spend enough time on work calls in your living room, it becomes hard to delineate two separate versions of your identity, and so, they begin to converge.

Not even to mention how much the pandemic has changed our personal lives. Not only has work entered our homes, but our personal lives are now mostly constrained to the safety of our residence. My point in writing this article is to tell myself what I wish I had known in March: to write a letter to my younger self. These tips range from practical to heartfelt, and I’ve decided to link one song that relates to each of them (which I hope you’ll listen to, time permitting). It’s been a difficult 10.5 months, and these are the things that worked for me. I’d be very curious to hear what worked for you, especially if it’s not on this list already.

Talk It Up: make casual chit-chat a skill.

All my life, I’ve feared wasting another person’s time. I know a lot of other young professionals feel the same way. You don’t want to derail a productive meeting by talking about your new obsession with Bridgerton or drone on about your sourdough baking hobby. You could be talking about the first quarter, or which vendor deserves your business, or who needs more coaching on their performance. You could be doing business with that time you’re “wasting.”

But often, I think we forget how much we’ve lost about normal work life during this pandemic. Maybe it’s in what we’ve lost where we find justification for carrying on with chitchat, even making it a priority in most meetings. Here’s what we are going without right now:

  • Getting ready on a normal schedule. I don’t know about you, but I consistently work half the day in my PJs, with my curls entirely out of sorts. I no longer take the time to listen to NPR as I pin my hair up and reflect on how I want to change the world that day. I de-barnacle myself from my bed and turn on my computer to start the day.
  • Commuting. Gone are the days of spending 30 minutes getting from door-to-door. I no longer narrate my metro ride with podcasts to listen to how other people see the world. I don’t make eye contact or strike up a conversation with the myriad coworkers I share a train car with.
  • Futzing around. I spent at least an hour of lunch and likely a second hour at some point in the day dilly-dallying with my coworkers, whispering about work or gossip or timid predictions of the future. Sometimes we’d be holding a fresh cup of Starbucks, or sometimes we’d perch like birds on each other’s desks, tweeting away.

If we add all of this time up, we’ve lost hours of chitchat time in this WFH lifestyle.

Why is chitchat important, though? Maybe this is good! Maybe we’re getting rid of inefficiency, the antichrist of capitalism. Or, maybe, it’s getting harder and harder to get to know each other. Chitchat is where I typically divulge little tidbits about myself, let my personal life into my professional life. For example, my horrific luck with dating. On the surface, it’s a funny story of unfortunate circumstances. More subtly, though, I can express my standards and even my shortcomings. Gossip and chitchat are how I learn if someone is trustworthy and how I demonstrate that I’m worthy of trust. It’s one bridge to build so someone may come to me with that same level of vulnerability, maybe divulge that they are in over their head with their assignment, or struggling to find direction in their career.

Thus, to correct this, we must supplement what we’ve lost. I’m trying to actively seek out opportunities to chat with my coworkers, during many of my calls, or with IM throughout the day. My friend Emily and I exchange the most obscure GIFs we can find each Thursday morning. I try to get on my calls 3 minutes early, ask how everyone is doing, ask for updates on what they told me about the previous day. And I actively work against my fear of being goofy in public forums, cracking a joke, or sending a funny picture to lighten the mood.

I Turn My Camera On.

The first of our family zoom calls, this photo taken in late March.

I could probably write a dedicated post to this tenant alone; there's a lot to say. This argument may be more controversial, as I know many of my coworkers loathe turning on their camera. Even more legitimately, turning on your camera physically welcomes your team into your home. It’s crossing a privacy threshold. This is why it should seldom ever be a requirement. However, I have found that if I can get myself dressed and feeling confident, turning my camera on during my work calls has many benefits.

  • Engagement improves. I find this to be particularly true during brainstorming sessions. When a significant number of people in my meeting have their cameras on, I’ve found irrefutable evidence that we have more creative and, therefore, productive meetings.
  • Gauge and express reactions organically. If you're like me and have a job where you have to discuss contentious information regularly, it really helps to see the face of who I am presenting to. Human beings are specially trained to read faces; there are entire brain centers devoted to the skill. And because we’re highly social creatures, we've learned which facial contortions correspond to which emotions. To put it simply, I can tell whether or not my idea is hosed if my boss has her camera on. Conversely, my boss can gauge my genuine reaction to her proposals if I show my face, which communicates on my behalf when I don’t want to explicitly use my words.
  • Joke validation. Listen, this one is trivial and stupid, but I swear it’s such an ego boost. If you crack a joke during this WFH situation, you will hear crickets 90% of the time because everyone is muted (even when they think they aren’t). If you’re trying to work on that chitchat, this silence can be deafening. Having someone’s camera on allows you to see a smile or a chuckle that takes the tension of embarrassment away.

So if you feel comfortable showing your team the four walls of your home (and no other personal circumstances deter you from doing so), be bold and hit the video cam button.

Take Me To The Pilot: take a vacation; it’s more important than ever.

Me, this past Tuesday, on a day skiing in the backcountry. I took the day off of work and didn’t think twice about it.

Let me preface this entire section with one thing: if you travel during this pandemic, please ensure you do absolutely everything to ensure your and others' safety. If you are unprepared to do so, do not travel.

I suppose it seems silly to use up vacation time when there's not much else to do besides sitting at home. I've often thought to myself:

“Just bank that time, once the pandemic is over, you’ll be able to take a long trip wherever you like.”

And that’s true; that strategy will work (providing you don’t have limits on how much vacation you can save up). At what cost, though?

I think we forget about why we take vacations now that we’re living and working at home. We take vacations to vacate our work. Not necessarily because we dislike working, or we need an escape, but we must entirely vacate the practice for a brief period of time. It gives us perspective on our work and our purpose, and it is a wonderful treatment for conditions like burnout. And burnout is likely more prevalent than it has ever been. If you do not allow yourself to leave work behind on a semi-regular basis, you may become sired to your responsibilities in a toxic way.

Furthermore, if you are in a leadership position, you have even more responsibility to take a vacation regularly. Otherwise, you set the expectation for your team that it is not acceptable to take time off work. I've also heard the plea:

“If I’m out of office, no one will run the ship properly. Things will fall apart.”

I hate to break it to you, but you are not that important; no one is. The world will continue to turn if you take a few days off of work. And if your team or office truly falls apart in your absence, that’s much more a reflection of a poorly functioning team than the harm of time off. It means you can trust no one to be accountable to the standard that you’re working at. Either lower your standards or improve the coaching you’re providing to your team. If you or your people have worked successfully throughout this pandemic, you all deserve time off, more so than you ever have before.

I Want to Break Free: take advantage of the flexibility, don’t feel guilty.

It’s no secret that working from home provides more flexibility than being in the office. It’s easy to cook yourself a nice lunch, work out on a more flexible schedule, even manage other personal meetings and appointments within your workday. And at the beginning, I felt ominous guilt about taking liberties with my newfound schedule. For example, scheduling a doctor’s appointment over my lunch break, I knew I might be detailed longer than the 1 hour I have off. Or agreeing to meet with a plumber during a work call. I felt that I was negatively taking advantage of the situation I was in.

But let’s talk about the situation we are in. As I said initially: when this pandemic began, I had no idea how long it would last. In fact, I presumed it would be over in a matter of 3 to 4 weeks. Now, about 10 months later, I look back and often think about all the decisions I would've made differently had I known how drastically my life would change. I would've never renewed my lease in June; I’ve spent not a day in my apartment since I re-signed. I would’ve probably moved to a new apartment in a new city, like Seattle, a city that I’ve always wanted to explore. I would’ve stayed there until I heard I had to go back to my office. I would’ve acquired a monitor way sooner had I understood how much it was hindering my productivity.

But none of those decisions would have been possible. I stand by every decision I made, given the information I had at the time. And so, as I stumble through this experience, making the best choices at each moment, choices that have huge impacts on my life and future, I am not going to worry about the 30 minutes I am late being back online after my doctor’s appointment. Because that doctor’s appointment isn’t in DC, it’s in Jackson, Wyoming, where I’ve now relocated. The doctor is a 30-minute drive either way from my home. And on the way, I have to help my mom pick up her prescription, because I now live with my parents. I live with them because I have a better chance of being happy here than where I was. The added flexibility is the small token of compensation for all that has changed.

Something Has Changed: openly and candidly acknowledge the challenges you’re facing.

I’m not the only one who has had to decide how to live and attempt to thrive in this new world. In fact, I can’t think of anyone who has been precluded from it. In the office, it’s important to acknowledge all we’ve been through and continue to wrestle with. Many of us aren’t even comfortable sharing the extent of the hardships we’ve faced this year. Loved ones lost to a horrible virus, financial strain, psychological turmoil from facing loneliness and isolation, a country in the throws of bipartisan disparity and insurrection. Work shouldn’t be a place where we pretend these things aren’t happening. We should never pretend like these things aren’t happening.

Instead, let us be compassionate and kind to one another. Be patient when someone is late from lunch or curt on a phone call. Offer to lend an ear when someone doesn’t seem like themselves and accept gracefully if they don’t take you up on the offer.

I’ve found that offering more of myself and the problems I’m wrestling with has brought me closer to those I share work with for 8.5 hours a day, 5 days a week. That following these small changes has made my computer less of a cold screen and more a warm portal. And it’s helped make “working from home” and the transiency that implies into “working,” with an entirely new definition and context attached. Because we’re not really “working from home” anymore, we’re simply “working,” and our hovels happen to be the implied accommodation.

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