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REMOTE CONTROL

How to fix five of the most common pain points of working from home

REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane
You win some, you lose some.
  • Cate Huston
By Cate Huston

Engineering director, DuckDuckGo

Over the past couple of weeks there has been so much conversation about how to work remotely, missing the key phrase during a global pandemic, which I’m not sure any of us has the answer to.

Meanwhile, a lot of people are struggling, even those who already have been working remotely for awhile. In situations like these, it can be helpful to break apart the different threads that people struggle with.

These typically are:

  • Ergonomics
  • Systems
  • Focus
  • Context
  • Human contact

Ergonomics for the at-home worker

In a strong contender for most horrifying setup, last week I saw a tweet from someone whose workspace was a laptop on a laundry hamper next to their front door. This is a far cry from the average office monitor, desk, and chair and I can’t imagine it’s comfortable.

There’s a reason why almost every work-from-home article, everywhere, contains the advice to have a nice, dedicated desk, set up ideally in a dedicated room in your home. It’s because otherwise you’re likely to be uncomfortable during work, which makes it hard to focus and eventually leaves you in pain.

Of course, people committed to that #remoteworklyfe have been working on that for a long time. They often live in bigger places and have a dedicated space. If remote work is a sudden surprise occurrence in the one-bedroom apartment you share with your partner, or the four-bedroom you share with three roommates… well it’s going to be a rougher time.

In situations where you can’t get the ideal setup, figure out where you can spend two blocks of time, four hours each, every work day. Maybe the kitchen counter and high stool is ok for the morning, and the afternoon will be a corner of the sofa with the pillows rearranged for more back support. Move about as much as you can, and stretch. For voice-only meetings, try standing up and walking around, and if you have an exercise ball, there’s a back stretch here that may help. Listen to your body, and change up what you’re trying depending on how you feel.

Facilities management

Offices typically have people who work on making the space work. They quietly ensure that the wifi works, that packages get delivered, that everything gets cleaned, that the drinks fridge remains stocked, and there’s always coffee. When you’re working from home, the person who does all that is… you.

If your wifi goes down, you will have to restart the router, try six different things, and eventually make a phone call. If someone arrives with a delivery, guess who will have to let them in? If there’s no coffee, you will be both the hapless victim and fixer of this terrible crisis. These things can be super distracting. Over time, people develop systems and backup plans—a different cable provider, a mobile data plan to be used as backup, scheduling deliveries for the rare days with no meetings.  Eventually, you get a better idea of what necessities you need for spending vast quantities of time at home.

There may be little you can do to change your home internet or mobile data plan, and perhaps your work-from-home situation will be temporary enough that changing things up won’t be worth it in any case. However, you can stock in your home the things that are important to you. Personally, I have a habit of buying myself fresh flowers each week, I’ve invested in some nice diffusers (better for you than candles), and I keep a selection of nice teas and snacks on hand.

It’s also worth considering what other habits will better support you during the day—e.g. making sure you load and run the dishwasher each night, so you’re never short of a clean mug in the morning. When I worked in an office, if my home was a mess in the morning, I would just leave it and forget about it until the end of the day. Working from home, if my home is a mess I’m reminded of it constantly. As a result, I’m vastly tidier than I used to be!

Staying focused

Why was your focus better in an open-plan office than it is in your peaceful apartment? You’re actually free from many distractions!

Focus is often a product of ritual; you used to go to an office expecting to focus, and you used to come home expecting to relax. The morning and evening commutes were in fact a form of transition between the two. Maybe the presence of other focused people working was helpful to you. Maybe you experienced more clarity about what’s going on, or felt a stronger sense of purpose being around others working toward the same goals.

Even when people are “used” to working from home, there is ample opportunity for distractions to set in. Like, for example, a global pandemic, the collective freakouts on the internet and in your team Slack channel, and the existential angst that ensues. Or maybe you are used to starting your day with a workout, but your gym shut down.

The first thing is to understand what’s disrupting your focus.

If it’s the upheaval of your rituals, how can you create new ones? Can you create a new “commute” with a pre-workday walk around the block?

If you’re not feeling functional, what would help you become functional? What is a source of stress and/or anxiety and what practical step could you take to neutralize or at least lessen it?

If your life has been disrupted, how can you rebuild some semblance of normality and routine? If a full day seems impossible, how can you carve out four hours of good focus time? How about six?

What is the one thing you want to get done today? Write it down on a Post-it note, and focus on getting that thing done (and when you do, maybe you can end your day there).

Context and your new lack thereof

In an office, there’s plentiful context about what’s going on, and about people’s availability. When we move to a distributed context, there is a sharp reduction in the set of observable behaviors, and you may only know what people will tell you.

This can be really challenging, because it leaves so much open to people’s imagination. In an office, if you don’t chat to your manager for a few days but see her rushing around and rarely at her desk, the neglect doesn’t feel personal. In a distributed environment, that context is missing and some people will assume the worst.

There are several things you can do to improve context for your team:

  • Try text-based standups, including a discussion about how people are feeling.
  • Ask your manager to post weekly notes to share the broader context of what they’re working on and how everything ties together.
  • Start every meeting with a check-in: How is everyone doing?
  • Encourage watercooler chat (in a separate channel).
  • Reshare important things and add your own commentary in Slack (or whatever messaging platform your team uses).
  • Pay attention to what people don’t know; it is a form of feedback for which aspects of communication you can improve upon.

Creating human connection

Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, we all need human connection. Extroverts may thrive on the bustle of an office, and struggle with the relative quiet of a home office (or laundry basket). Introverts may enjoy the peace and quiet of working from home, but miss the deeper connections.

There’s a minimum level of human interaction we get from going to an office, and some of us are happy to reduce it, but none of us should cut it down entirely—isolation isn’t good for anyone.

Some ideas for connecting with other people at work when you’re working from home:

  • Schedule ad-hoc 1:1 meetings. There’s a useful tool called Donut that will generate random pairings from members in a slack channel.
  • Schedule remote lunches with people who you would usually go to lunch or grab coffee with. Set a time, and jump on a video chat while you eat.

It’s never good to rely exclusively on work for human connection, so also be sure to consider your connections outside of work.

  • Spend time with local friends if possible. My friends and I have been going for walks together in the evening; spending time outside is good for your mood, and safer (certainly during a pandemic) than going to a bar or restaurant.
  • Every day, or every week, set aside some time and text a few friends you haven’t spoken to lately.
  • Schedule phone calls!
  • Schedule a remote movie night. Hit play on Netflix at the same time, and text each other through it.

Remote work isn’t for everyone, but if last week was terrible, then this week, try and forgive yourself and make it a little better. It might never be the right thing for you long term, but my hope is that if you think about which of these are currently pain points for you, you can take things week by week, addressing them a bit at a time, and gradually see things improve.

Good luck! I believe in you. And by the end of all this, you just might believe in remote work.

Cate Huston is an engineering manager at Automattic, where she has led the mobile and Jetpack teams.

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