Remote work has long-been a controversial subject in the business world due to the conventional view that people are more productive in an office environment. Then COVID-19 happened. Between the quarantines and shelter-in-place orders, non-remote organizations were forced to either close shop or allow their staff to operate remotely. And with that, millions of people entered into a new normal of working from home — myself included.
After almost a year of work from home due to COVID-19, and with a vaccine becoming more widely available, it seems like a good moment to reflect on the lessons I have learned from remote work and how to use that knowledge moving forward. There are many lived experiences to share and incorporate, but this post is for someone who is relatively new to working remotely from home like me.
Compartmentalization is Key
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is the importance of compartmentalizing. Most people develop a “work identity” distinct from their “home identity.” Traditionally, the commute to work, and the office environment itself, facilitates people’s ability to keep their home and work selves separate. But working at home blurs this divide, often making it difficult to maintain a proper perspective and context.
Working remotely can make it easier to fall into routines that are hard to find a work/life balance. You might find yourself working past normal hours and sacrificing personal and family responsibilities for your job. This can have a negative impact on your home life. There have been many days where I’ve stayed at my desk longer than I should have. If not for my wife telling me to turn off my computer and get out of my office, I may have kept going all night.
Others slide to the opposite extreme and sleep in, binge on Netflix, or do chores around the house instead of working. This has a negative impact on your work life. I’ve learned—and my coworkers agree— that coding in bed does not work for most people. Self-discipline and self-direction are often required to continue being productive for work.
What are the best ways I’ve found to compartmentalize? I switch on a standing lamp next to my workspace as a signal to know it’s “work time.” You can try a Himalayan salt lamp, candle, or something similar, and when it’s on, it signals work time. While the signal is on, you’re not watching TV, not doing chores, and not doing anything but focused on working. When the signal is off, you can go relax and separate yourself from work. Whatever you use, make it a routine and stick to it.
Establish some boundaries with anyone you live with about interactions during your workday. While they may understand that you’re working, the close proximity can lead your housemates to invade your time during the work hours. You may need to remind them more than once and set up agreements together.
This is where having some kind of physical indicator of work hours comes in handy because anyone in your space is reminded that you’re working. I tell the people I live with to please not disturb me during work hours, especially when my standing lamp signal is on. We’ve also recently started to write whiteboard messages somewhere easily noticeable near the entrances of our workspaces to visually indicate why we cannot be disturbed.
Humans are social creatures, and in the pre-COVID-19 days, I often found myself attending meetups, networking events, and hangouts with friends. I got to meet people from all walks of life, so these opportunities gave me new perspectives and confidence.
This has no longer been possible during the pandemic. Physically isolating oneself to your pod is now a survival behavior. In-person meetings are not recommended until all parties are fully vaccinated, so what’s a remote worker to do?
I’ve gotten my social fix by participating in virtual happy hours with coworkers and friends, online meetups, and virtual board game sessions. Being in outdoor spaces has also been particularly important to my mental health, such as visiting state parks and local botanical gardens that enforce limited, timed entries with social distancing policies.
Make Time for Breaks
It’s important to take breaks for both your physical and mental health. In a home environment, it’s easy to lose track of time, especially when you’re engaged in deep work. This is fine for short periods of time, but it will take a toll on your mind and body if you avoid regular breaks to stretch and relax your eyes.
On average, I take 15-minute breaks at least every 4 hours, excluding lunch. My breaks include using the restroom, doing small chores, playing the bass, grabbing a snack, making tea or coffee, reducing eye strain by looking at faraway objects outside, or walking and biking around my neighborhood. This helps me come back with fresh thoughts and feeling recharged.
If you find yourself working remotely like me, I recommend trying out the things I shared. What worked for you – what didn’t? If COVID-19 forced you to work remotely, what did you learn? I would love to hear how others’ experiences compares to mine. Connect with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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