Recently there have been a flurry of articles and tweet threads about remote work, perhaps because we are at the one year mark when it was forced upon most of us. It is likely no surprise that I have OPINIONS about this topic.
The background: I have been working remotely, from a home office, since 2008. And I love it. My biggest fear when I accepted my current role (which I’ve now been at for about 13 months) was the expectation that I’d have to be in the office every day. (And yes, I may be at least partially responsible for the pandemic happening and sending us all back home because my sheer will can really be that strong. Some day I’ll tell you about the time I made an annoying plane crash in a lake just by the power of negative thinking.)
First things first, a reminder, because we need to be reminded of this daily: none of what has gone on in the past year or right now is normal. You are not working from home. You are trapped at home with your work. And some of you are also trapped there with other people, and some of those other people may be dependent on you for a lot of things that have nothing to do with your work. So let’s not pretend we learned anything this year about how to work from home because none of us were doing that. We were surviving a pandemic and all manner of social injustice and trying to work through it as well.
So, with that disclaimer, here are five ways I make remote work work for me.
Protect your time
This one comes first, because none of the rest matters if you can’t do this. (And yes, this applies to in-office work as well.)
Remember back when you were fondly wishing for that proverbial “seat at the table”? And then got that higher level role and you found out the table was just an eternal meeting? And then you realized you were spending all day in meetings but not actually getting any work done?
I can say with absolute conviction that for vast majority of us, we don’t need to be in all these meetings. We just need to be in some of them. The right meetings. I don’t know why we suck so much at asynchronous communication. Maybe it’s because we stopped writing letters and started texting and no one learns how to write long form in school and our education system sucks and people are lazy OR we’ve been wired to default to meetings because it was implied by some mediocre white dude with an ego problem early in our career that meeting invites were a marker of importance and now everyone has FOMO.
It doesn’t matter. Once you reach a certain level in your career, you are going to find people playing calendar tetris and not JUST scheduling you nonstop as if you don’t have to like, you know, occasionally pee and maybe eat and maybe take a few minutes a day to huddle in a ball under your desk and cry a little (oh, is that just me?), they will ALSO eventually start double and triple booking you and force you to figure out whose shit list you most want to be on because you can’t be at all three meetings at once.
So this means YES I’M GOING TO SAY IT, blocking out whatever amount of time you need in whatever chunks work best for you on your calendar. And then you protect those precious time blocks by whatever means necessary. STOP WHINING I SAID BY WHATEVER MEANS NECESSARY. If you can get your team to agree on standard quiet times for flow work, you are already doing better than almost everyone else out there, so good for you. (really. you deserve a cookie. I mean it.) It is absolutely easier to do this as a group, because then everyone has free time at the same time, and you can use that shared time for meetings or collaborative working sessions or whatever it is you little bunnies do together. Listen, companies could relatively easily create organization-level guidelines to support more flow work, and leadership could model that behavior, but we all know they won’t. So take your time back.
This about setting healthy boundaries. If you don’t know what those are, it’s time to talk to a therapist. It only took me like fifty years to figure this out so I don’t know what your problem is.
This is what it looks like for me: My schedule is chaotic from week to week (I accept this as part of the role I’m in even if I don’t like it, we don’t all get to be precious), so I do this on late Friday for the next week. And yep, some weeks I’m already over-scheduled so I suck it up and have a bad week. I love me a good two-hour block a few times a week (my ideal would be daily); I would much rather have six one-hour meetings stacked back-to-back (I’m a grown up and I’ll take care of my bodily functions as needed), than have eight thirty-minute meetings every hour, on the hour. I cannot get anything substantive done in thirty minutes, I’m not a fucking Domino’s Pizza; the context shifting alone takes that much time.
Side note, yes this math is based on a “standard” eight-hour work day but I don’t really believe in that either but I also don’t have time for that rant right now so just humor me.
So, how do you know what works for you?
Learn your own healthy patterns and process
Like I said above, for “work at desk” work (more on what doesn’t fall in that category later), I really do best with two-hour chunks. That gives me time to context shift and then actually get some shit done. One thing I’ve gotten much better at is time blocking specific work to fit into the time I have rather than letting the work I have to do dictate the time I need.
Yes, I said what I said.
For example, say I have to put together a pitch deck for a new potential client (I hate this, but yes, in this role this is something I do a LOT). Depending on how much content I need to include, I’ll block out the appropriate amount of time and then when that time is up the fucking deck is DONE. You get what you get and you don’t get upset. Yes, this is hard, but you’ll get better at it. Nothing, and I mean nothing, has gotten me over the cognitive barrier of “perfect thinking” like time blocking has. And what I’ve realized is that spending more time doesn’t necessarily make the work that much better (if at all). Try it. I dare you.
But what about “thinking work”? Most of my work is around strategy, which basically means complex problem solving. And, well, I’m sorry to say that for me, not only does this type of work NOT fit nicely into time blocks, it doesn’t go well sitting at a desk, in front of a screen. Not for me. I have never figured out a problem or had a key insight while sitting at my desk.
So where/how do I do this work? It depends. A coworker used to joke “go take your dog for a walk” when I was struggling, because I get most of my ideas when I’m moving. I will sometimes listen to a relevant podcast or audible book while walking, or sometimes to a non-relevant podcast or book–they will still give me ideas, because for me it’s about making new connections and recognizing patterns, not finding the answers in the content–or sometimes I’ll just walk with the dog and enjoy the noise of the beautiful loud screaming children in my neighborhood. Some days I’ll end up with over five miles of “thinking walks.”
I can’t always walk because I live in Michigan, which is just THE WORST in the winter (seriously. THE WORST.) Sometimes I will sit and read a physical book; it often only takes a few pages. Sometimes I will randomly watch a TED talk (I know TED is bougie as hell but I still love those little nuggets for inspiration). Often I just need to see (or hear) a specific word or phrase and that will trigger something for me.
Then it’s the whiteboard, or I’ll take notes on my phone just to keep stuff flowing until I can get back in front of the whiteboard or a notebook. I generally need some time to lay things out in the analog world before I’m ready to get back into the digital space.
I already hear the wheels turning in your head…”but how do you do that on command, during the work day?”
Work/life balance doesn’t mean the same thing in creative work
I absolutely agree with work/life balance. I just don’t agree that work/life balance means I start and stop work at set times Monday-Friday, then shut the office door and only think happy non-productive but healthy and appropriate thoughts until the next shift. My brain does not work that way (boy is that an understatement if there ever was one), and I learned many years ago to stop fighting it. My brain is smarter than the rest of me and controls the rest of me so it would win that fight anyway.
I work when the ideas come, and while I have methods (some described above) to get the creative juices flowing, I’m only partially in control of the process. Also, my brain is really bad at working on one problem at a time, nicely teeing up the next idea as soon as I’m finished with the current one. Instead, my brain seems to works best when it has a number of different background processes running, working on different problems at one time — and then I start making connections because of that one quote in that one article I just read (or from a dream I had in the middle of the night) and then all the ideas start flooding out of me at once, often carrying new ideas (and new problems to solve) out with them.
And when that happens, I gotta grab those ideas fast, because if I don’t, I lose them. (I always lose a few — they seriously come at me FAST.) That means sometimes I’m whiteboarding at 3:00 AM, and some weeks I “work” a lot more than forty hours.
Understand bursts and busts are normal
For me, knowledge work, creative work, comes in bursts like that. I’ll be wildly productive (from an idea-generation perspective) for a short period of time, and then things will start tapering down, petering out, and I’ll be all out of good ideas again. Now, PAST KAREN would push for new ideas to keep coming, but I’ve learned that just like poop, it’s never a good idea to force ideas out (especially when you’ve just dumped a load of them).
What my brain really needs then is recovery time. I’ll still go to all those stupid fucking meetings, but I’ll take some extra time in the weeks following a burst to rest and recover. Think of it like a sports team; there is a reason they don’t compete all year long; teams have the off-season where they do whatever the fuck they want, they then have pre-season training where they start conditioning and practicing and regret all those things they did in the off-season, they peak their strength and endurance for the competitive season, and then the off-season comes around again. There’s a reason the day after a game is for recovery. My brain needs the same thing.
When I start feeling like reading a new book, or if I get an idea for a new talk, that’s a good sign I’m ready to start ramping up again.
So yes, to be explicit here, I’m saying on those recovery weeks, I often don’t work a full forty hours.
Which likely makes you nervous, and leads me to my last point:
Don’t ever feel guilty about how you get your work done.
Recovery is not slacking, it’s part of the process. It all balances out in the end.
Yep, I am a full time, W-2 employee, which means I have to log my time weekly. Rather than thinking in terms of hours, I think in terms of effort and focus and how it was divided that week, and I do the math to translate that into the structure that almost every employer in the USA still requires to count as full time work: forty hours a week.
Here’s the thing: I am 51 fucking years old. I have been working my entire adult life (and some before I was an adult). I am competent and self aware enough to know what I need to do my best work, and I’m no longer afraid to advocate for that. And what I’ve learned is that as long as I’m getting my work done, and that work is good, no one actually cares. And I do get my work done. And my work is good. And the fact that I can type “my work is good” without cringing says a lot about how much I’ve grown in the past few years.
And that, my friends, is why I love working remotely. It’s why I love working from home, in a space I have set up to support my own special unique funky wonky little creative process. It took time, and it took experimentation, and sometimes it’s really frustrating because knowledge work and problem solving are just inherently and consistently frustrating. And you know what else? What works for me might not work for you, but that’s OK — I don’t want everyone to work from home, or never go into an office — I want to encourage us all to just consider a more open and flexible work culture so each and everyone one of us can do our best work without compromising our health.
(but I do think the dog really helps the creative process and would recommend that universally)
Originally posted on my personal website at https://designinginward.com/how-i-make-remote-work-work/