Working from home: the yin and yang

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Don’t do this. Terrible ergonomics. Photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST on Unsplash.


It’s Sunday morning as I write this. I’ve just returned from walking the dog in a strong gale. That same wind is now squeezing itself through the rubber seals around the skylight above me. It sounds like I am on a boat.

This desk that I am writing from has been in more frequent use recently. Over the last few months, there have been numerous changes at work that are making us a more remote-friendly department.

  • My manager is now remote (-5 hours) as we have been through a merger.
  • I now have two of the teams in my division located in Germany (+1 hour).
  • I’m collaborating on projects where most of the discussion is via Slack and video call.
  • We are encouraging our staff to ask for the flexibility they desire to make their lives better.

Now, I am aware that there are many of you that work remotely, or have had flexibility in their work for an exceedingly long time.

However, this transition is new to us, and new to me as well. In earlier stages of the company, our founding CTO was staunchly against staff not being in the office. Perhaps that was the correct attitude to have when the future of the business was still uncertain.

The task at hand now, although still time critical and important, has become more of a marathon than a sprint. We’re also much bigger.

At the time of writing, the company is around 550 staff globally, and working with colleagues across time zones is the norm. This, plus the increased flexibility in our work days – which I believe is as important for retaining staff as good pay – means that physical proximity is becoming less important.

Life and happiness

Around the time of the merger, we moved into a bigger house further away from the centre of the city, and I now have a proper space in which to work comfortably. I’m very productive here.

Initially, after shifting my meetings around, I created a meeting-free Friday which I worked from home. I’ve now done a similar thing with Tuesdays, meaning that I have three fairly “shallow” days at work, mostly filled with meetings, coupled with two “deep” days at home where I make real progress on projects.

Before I spend the rest of the article highlighting the hard parts of this arrangement, let me say that this is one of the best things that I’ve done with my routine:

  • I spend 2 hours less a week commuting.
  • I feel happier.
  • I am definitely more productive by ring fencing my time.
  • I appreciate the office and my colleagues more when I am there.
  • I have a better understanding of the common frustrations of not being physically present in the HQ office.

But, adjusting has been difficult, and I wanted to write about the challenges of being away from the office which have been both physical and mental.

Physical considerations

Let’s get the physical challenges out of the way first, because in some way they are the easiest to remedy.

Set up

Firstly, if you’re going to be working from home with regularity, you need to make sure that you have a place to work that is comfortable and ergonomic. Working from home shouldn’t mean hunching over the coffee table on your laptop.

If you want to look after your body, and especially your arms and hands, you’ll need a desk at the correct height, and a comfortable chair that ensures that your eyes are aligned with the right part of your screen. You can use an ergonomics calculator for this.

And don’t brush it off as something that won’t happen to you: RSI is very real. You might not experience any for years, but it’s challenging and frustrating to reverse if you do get it. I never use laptop keyboards whenever I can help it. Any extended period of typing is done sitting at a desk with a keyboard.

When I started working from home regularly, my home desk had a stool which had been fine for light occasional use. But after a whole day on the stool my back and shoulders were aching tremendously, so we’ve recently invested in a high quality chair. The last couple of weeks have been extremely comfortable.

Making sure you move

When you commute to work, you forget that you do a lot of moving: from your bed to your mode of transport, to some destination hub, to the office, and back again. While you’re in the office, you’re walking around from your desk to the kitchen, to meeting rooms, and you’re probably popping out for a coffee at some point during the day, and walking out to get some lunch too. All of those steps add up.

On my first day working from home, without realizing, I didn’t leave the house. Apart from visiting the bathroom and the kitchen a few times, I’d been completely idle. I’d probably walked less than a hundred steps.

Therefore you need to ensure that you’re doing enough physical activity. Perhaps you could use the period of the day where you usually commute to fit in walking or running, and do the same at lunch time. If you don’t, then you can end up feeling stagnant and house-bound, which isn’t good for your physical or mental health.

On to that.

Mental considerations

The physical considerations are important, but not as important as the mental ones.

Don’t regress

I spent a lot of time on a computer as a teenager (is it any wonder I ended up in technology?) and I vividly remember the feeling of having spent yet another day of the summer vacation glued to the screen, whether to play video games, spend hours chatting on IRC, or just twiddling my thumbs while the 56K modem loaded pages slowly.

As I eventually rolled into bed, I felt lethargic yet wired from drinking too many soft drinks, and I was gradually becoming more unfit. Yes, the room also smelled like teenage boy. Yuck.

What I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t let working from home make you regress into sitting around in your pants because people can only see your top half on video call. That might be what you think you want, but it’s not what you need.

The mind plays tricks

A combination of worry, guilt and not looking after yourself properly can cause issues. You’ll need to:

  • Ensure that you have healthy habits for your mind.
  • Deal with how you think others are perceiving you.
  • Battle FOMO.
  • Reason with guilt from all angles.
  • Create a separation between work and life.

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Creating healthy habits

I’ve mentioned the pants anecdote in jest, and I mean British pants, not American pants. But you need to create healthy habits when working from home in order to look after your mental health. Make your working from home day closer to what you do when you go into the office, rather than what a teenager does over the summer holiday.

Most of these habits are simple:

  • Get up and go to bed at the usual time.
  • Get outside, multiple times a day. Go for a walk before and after work.
  • Take a lunch break, and again, go outside.
  • Make sure you’re eating a proper breakfast and lunch and not just snacking on whatever you find in the cupboard.
  • Take regular screen breaks and stretch your body and legs.
  • Do some exercise to divide the day into chunks. A 20 minute run can reset your brain.

Working from home can make you not look after yourself. You need to make sure that you do.

Ignoring how you think others may perceive you

When you’re at home, the anxiety can creep in. What are your colleagues thinking that you’re up to when they see that your desk is empty? Do they really think that you’re working from home because you’re slacking off, rather than working more deeply and productively than you can in the office?

It’s hard. These thoughts may rise and fall throughout the day. They are often just figments of your imagination. We are going through a culture shift. We are not used to it.

This shift towards a flexible working culture does not happen overnight. It takes time. As each default face to face meeting begins to turn into a Slack interaction or video call, and as each instinct to walk over to a desk and interrupt someone turns into a message left asynchronously, people will adapt.

Everyone will need to adapt in our industry or they will miss out on hiring talented people who just don’t happen to live near their office.

Bad attitudes towards remote work will change.

People who think that those that work from home, or those that work shifted hours, are in some way lazy or not “hustling as hard” as those who boast about getting into the office at 7AM and going home at 8PM leaving their partner to pick up the pieces, will eventually become remnants of a time when we didn’t use technology and trust to their full advantage.

These people are part of the past. Forget about them, because forward-thinking workplaces already are.

You are a smart person. You know how productive you are and what makes you work at your best. Do what’s right for you and it will follow that you will do what is right for the company.

Embrace your flexibility and be proud it makes you a better employee. Let your work do the talking.

Battling FOMO

Regardless of how used to flexible working a company is, when you put humans together in the same place, they talk. Humans love talking. This means that you will miss out on a number of interesting impromptu conversations that happen around the coffee machine.

I try to deal with this by simulating these impromptu discussions via Slack. If I haven’t had a chat with someone working on orthogonal projects of interest for a while, I’ll just drop them a message to ask how they’re doing and if there’s anything I can help with. See if you can lurk in more Slack channels than you actually contribute towards so you can browse the day to day conversation.

For those that work mostly or completely remotely to one another, a technique that I’ve seen my colleagues use is a meeting that’s dropped in as a virtual coffee. It’s 30 minutes on a video call with no agenda – and preferably a coffee – and allows both of your minds to wander and discuss items that you’re working on.

So yes, you’ll need to work a bit harder to keep abreast of developments. But it’s easy to do so if you’re proactive.

Dealing with situational guilt

The guilt is real. There are plenty of articles about this subject. There are numerous types of guilt that I have experienced Рand still regularly experience Рwhen being at home. Your mileage may vary here, but here are some that come to mind.

  • The guilt of being at home but not doing any errands. You’re at home, your partner isn’t. You’re busy, but there is a pile of dirty laundry, dishes to do from last night, and you know there’s that stuff you didn’t tidy up yesterday. It sits there in the back of your mind. When my partner comes home to find it all left as it was this morning, what is she going to think of me? (Fortunately for me, nothing.)
  • The guilt of the privilege of your situation compared to others. I think about people who are doing difficult jobs that may never get the option to work from home: teachers, cleaners, builders, you name it. A circular argument commences reassuring myself that I am completely within my means to use this privilege, which is followed by a counter argument of whether we all just have it too easy in this sector. It spins.
  • The guilt of doing anything non-work related. If I use my lunch break to pick up the groceries, is that unfair because my colleagues in the office are unable to do this? What if I did actually whip the vacuum round, or get on top of the washing in-between working? Is this a breach of some unwritten contract? More guilt.

Depending on how used you are to remote working, the above may seem ridiculous or familiar.

You just need to ensure that you’re being productive and doing a good job. If you use other slices of spare time during the day to get some errands done, then good for you: plenty of people stand around chatting in the office, or play foosball, or get distracted. It’s fine. It all nets out.

Creating separation between work and life

There’s a healthy habit that is important enough to have its own section: knowing how to draw the line between the your home life and the working day.

I am writing this blog post, which is very much a leisure time activity, from the same desk and location that I use for working from home. This has negative effects:

  • Work and life can blur: habits can form that mean you end up checking work email and Slack out of hours, because you’re physically in the same location. This has happened to me more frequently recently as my US colleagues send me messages that arrive during my evening time, and I often lack the willpower to not check them.
  • Physical locations can blur: Residual mental stress from the workday can begin to associate itself with an area of your home that should be for leisure. Going back to that desk to do something fun, like edit photos or tinker, can make you remember that frustrating meeting you had there earlier.

I wish that I could propose some kind of solution to this, other than having a home big enough that you can have a dedicated office that you only use for work and not leisure, but in reality, I don’t have a remedy.

The best you can do is try to keep your work between set hours, and mentally check out after that.

Close all of those windows and tabs and go and do something else. Close all of the work-related applications on your phone. Tell yourself that you’re done and get away from it.

Far away.

In summary

If you’ve not spent much time working from home, then it might appear to be a privilege with little ill effect. It certainly is a privilege, and one that I am very grateful for, but it isn’t for everyone, nor is it one without downsides.

You’ll need to learn how to balance work and home life, and try your best to prevent them from blurring together. You’ll have to work harder to stay on top of information that propagates in the physical world. Most importantly, you’ll need to be careful about looking after yourself.

Decades of working in offices takes a long time to unravel from, so take it one step at a time.

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