(Or, the Remote Experience as Experienced By Me)
A simple question
When I stopped, per the request of my genuinely interested and concerned boss (who I’m fairly sure is bucking for some kind of Boss of the Year award), to think about what it’s like to work remotely, what first came to mind was a whole list of semi-comical pros and cons:
PRO: You never have to muster the foresight to pack a lunch again.
CON: No more free Friday lunches with your co-workers.
PRO: No one to distract you with idle gossip when you’re trying to concentrate despite the fact the caffeine hasn’t kicked in yet.
CON: You miss the announcement and general reaction when your co-worker makes the 15 Hottest Guys in SEO list.
And so forth.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I was able to find a Con for every Pro and vice versa.
Which meant either that I missed my calling as a lawyer after all or that I was approaching the question wrong.
Because surely working from a little apartment just outside Chicago had altered something in the balance of my life.
And of course, there is a great deal of research that has gone into the topic.
Mack (maybe there’s a plaque or some kind of fancy certificate that goes with that boss thing) has done a lot of reading on how to accommodate remote employees, to ease the transitions, to make them feel included.
If that’s the kind of advice you’re looking for, go talk to her. She’s been doing a pretty good job of it.
But as it turns out, when I thought about it, it wasn’t really my professional life that had borne the brunt of the changes.
Oh sure, there are the communication glitches and missing the subtle shifts in office dynamics and the loss of the occasional office outing.
Plus, y’know, there was the setting up of a home office a thousand miles away while trying to finish a seriously major project and figure out the specifications of a new job title (and not just new to me but to the company).
None of that has been what you would call a walk in the park (unless it was a post-apocalyptic park inhabited by mutant carnivorous deer and you happen to have a chronic limp).
But really, that’s all stuff that time and technology can mostly overcome. The liberal application of email and various chat and video conferencing applications makes the world a smaller place.
Especially when your boss really is shooting for that trophy and does things like send you flowers and care packages with 5 lb tubs of Red Vines and the occasional stuffed llama.
Also, hey, pro tip for remote attendance at long meetings: hand-written notes. Maybe this only works for me, but actually using a pen and paper to make a record of what’s going on in meetings I can’t physically attend helps bridge the disconnect that comes from a day of staring at other people talking on a screen.
No, the real adjustments I’ve had to make aren’t so much professional as they are psychological.
No, there’s no need for the men in white coats.
At least, no more than there ever was.
The real problems I’ve encountered have been not so much dissociation between myself and work as over-association between the two.
After all, I live and cook and clean and fold my laundry in the same space that I edit blog posts and brainstorm strategies and email clients.
Without a TV, how do I deny the allure of my big-screened iMac for watching movies when it’s so conveniently placed in my living room? But it’s hard to take someone seriously once you’ve seen them in their mouldering sweats, right? How do I go back to considering it just a work computer?
And so it begins.
A case in point
For example, there’s a time difference between here and Fort Collins so I typically work 10 to 6 rather than 9 to 5, to keep pace with everyone else. That’s a personal choice, because most days, I’m sure Mack wouldn’t mind if I stuck to my business hours and not theirs.
But, hey! I’m not a morning person, so I’m not complaining and it does make it a little easier to be synced up to everyone else for the sake of meetings and greetings and other things that end in -eetings. (Are there other things?)
But, y’know, I’m not a morning person. So back when I had to hit the office at 9 am, I didn’t have any time for straggling between getting up, getting ready, and getting to work.
Now that I can be a little more leisurely in the waking, with a little extra time and no extra distance to travel, the morning drive to ‘git up’n’git’ (as some hayseed cartoon character somewhere has surely said) is just not there.
Plus, I live alone so there’s no one looking over my shoulder.
Why not linger a little over breakfast? Read an extra chapter in that book? Enjoy your whole cup of tea at the table rather than carrying it half full to the desk. You can make up the extra fifteen minutes later.
These are not dangerous or seditious occupations, but it’s a slippery slope.
Because then those fifteen minutes get delayed. It’s 6 pm, so I walk the 4 seconds over to my kitchen and make dinner. I bring it back to the desk, so I can watch last night’s episode of Arrow while I eat (don’t look at me like that; everyone has guilty pleasures) and then I’ll be able to put in those fifteen minutes easily.
Except after Arrow, I remember that I didn’t ever get around to watching last week’s Reign (now you can give me that look. Judgment is totally warranted).
And then suddenly it’s 9 pm and I’m getting back to work. But it’s 9, so I’m going to go change into something a little more comfortable.
So now I’m back at my desk and finishing up the thing that I was working on.
But it’s also night time, in my living room, and I’m wearing the raggedy yoga pants that double as pjs, sitting in front of the computer that I was just using to watch the wildly inaccurate exploits of the Queen of Scots.
So, now I’m flipping back and forth between doing the work and reading snarky TV reviews. But hey, the work gets done, so it’s all good in the end, right?
It’s not so much the result that’s the problem here, it’s the mindset. (Well, I did say it was psychological, didn’t I?).
Because once you start seamlessly blending your work-and-play space like that, it’s hard to transition back. It seeps into the day as well as the night. The work gets done but because you’re never just working, it still feels you’re always kinda working.
This is the remote-ness problem that I’ve been having.
More than feelings of alienation and isolation, more than worries about my suddenly sedentary lifestyle, I struggle with this giant muddle of work and home and project time and personal time.
The best trick that I’ve figured out to dealing with all of those things is this pretty simple and obvious: boundaries.
And by boundaries, I don’t just mean things like: work during work hours, play during play.
This is psychological warfare, people, waged against my own brain. We gotta go deeper than that.
This is the ritual I’ve worked out, with three simple rules: Shower, Clothes, Doors.
I don’t just mean to watch your hygiene. (Although, y’know, do that). This rule is about starting the day right. I learned quickly not to get up, mosey out of bed, turn on my computer, check my email, put on the kettle, pour the cereal, and so on.
Separate your morning stuff from your work stuff. Get up. Take your shower. Eat your breakfast. Brush your teeth.
Then sit down at your computer and start the clock.
Tempting though the alternative may be, this is hard-and-fast rule for me:
Do NOT Work In Your Pajamas.
(Unless you are the Doctor. In which case, carry on).
If working from home is a slippery slope, jimjams are the skates that send you careening down it.
No, of course I’m not exaggerating.
This is the easiest boundary to enforce and remarkably helpful in resetting your brain. Clothes are for work. Jammies are for not-work.
If you’re wearing real pants and a shirt with no holes? You should be working.
If you’re wearing anything with an elastic waistband, it’s okay to log into Netflix.
(Note: this only applies to time spent at home. Please wear real pants when you go out, even if you’re not working).
Fortunately, I live in a one bedroom and not a studio, so I actually do have doors. But even if you don’t, the spirit of the rule is this:
During the day, work business is done in the office area. Anything personal goes into the other room.
For example, say I forgot to pay a bill online last night and it’s due today. I don’t use my work computer to log-in and pay it. I go for my personal computer in the other room and do it there. That way, I’ve got a physical boundary between what I’m doing for work and my personal list.
Likewise, say my mom calls. If I need to talk to her, I don’t sit in my desk chair to take the call. I walk it into another part of the apartment.
And so on.
Be a grownup
I know, I know. These are really simplistic rules. Maybe even juvenile. But see, that’s the real thing I’ve realized through this whole working remotely thing: it’s not for kids.
It takes self-discipline and self-regulation and the will to actively seek out social interaction and other things that have not traditionally been my strength. And sometimes it takes really dumb but easily enforceable rules.
So my remote experience hasn’t really been about my job, at all. (I’m sure that’s not always the case, but, seriously, Mack wants the medal, I’m telling you).
It’s been about finally proving to myself that I’m an adult.
With real pants and everything.