DUBAI: Confession time. I do 30 to 40 sit-ups while my home computer takes a few minutes to connect to the office server. I try to do it daily, thanks to a yoga mat nearby. That's one thing work-from-home affords me, something I've never been able to do in the office.
As I write this, it's Day 157 of working from home (from March 20, 2020), when the nationwide sterilisation drive started.
Here’s my home office: A dinner table, around which a makeshift quarantine bunker had been assembled. For outfit of the day, just shorts and shirt (changing to office top during daily team meetings).
There’s a yoga mat next to the sofa. A big can of ground, roasted Timmy's in the kitchen cabinet, alongside cup noodles, for emergencies.
Getting work done
Much work can be done the remote way. News organisations, by nature, have always done a remote-work gig. The virus has forced work-from-home teams to function like news teams.
That’s good news. In a survey of remote workers by Morning Consult and The New York Times, 86 percent said they were satisfied working from home.
Upside of remote work
1. Work gets done (for some)
There’s no doubt that great value is being created by work from home all over the world. Shifting hours is helpful for some.
2 Avoids work-related spread of infections
Amidst the current pandemic, there’s no question the coronavirus has been a boon for remote work. Many pundits say there’s no turning back. Millions of office workers, fearful of viral infection and loss of job, have collectively re-discovered and bumped up their productivity with remote work. Many managers are surprised.
3. Better job satisfaction
Most employees are generally satisfied with remote work. Surveys show that even when it’s safe for offices to reopen, most want to return only part of the time and continue working at home several days a week. Some companies have realized better outcomes in key performance indicators, after tweaking the ways they operated on remote work basis.
4. Major shift: flexible work hours, wider talent pool
For some, as the lines between work and life blur, shifting hours is helpful, because they can take time during the day for things like exercise or child care. For business managers, there’s a key benefit to remote in staffing process. When you hire remotely, you can get the best talent around and not just the best talent that wants to live in a certain place.
5. New, effective routines created
Many have found new routines (shorter group teleconferences, but more one-on-one meetings, for example) that they want to continue when they return to offices. Surveys show most people say that even when it’s safe for offices to reopen, they want to return only part of the time and continue working at home several days a week.
6. Ease of one-to-many, one-on-one meetings
Another upside is remote work makes mass meetings possible. It also encourages one-on-one meetings between managers and employees — people who had those got their work done more quickly, probably because they were clearer on their priorities, can harness one-on-ones. Huge companies do organise meetings among hundreds, even thousands of people. Smaller firms can also take advantage of the capability.
7. Increased collaboration
Video conferencing can be maximized for greater collaboration, without it being too intrusive. So whether a team allows members to pick their hours or not, one remote work practice that’s effect is to set a specific time for collaboration (brainstorming, follow-up sessions) perhaps in the mornings, when people are fresh.
8. A new challenge to everyone
Remote work may pose a challenge to managers. But many have openly embraced, even celebrated, it. In a way, the shift to a remote work force has become inevitable — companies like Facebook and Twitter have announced that their people can do remote work “forever”. News teams, by nature (like astronauts), have allowed remote work forever. Occasionally, team members are forced to come together for coffee or chai, and samosas — or mutton rolls.
La’Kita Williams, founder of CoCreate Work, an executive coaching and consulting firm, told the New York Times: “Some bigger companies who started remote work said it failed, but one of the reasons it failed is they didn’t build the type of culture that successfully supported it,” she said.
Williams advises against long meetings of an hour or more. Back-to-back meetings were problematic, too. People can get overwhelmed, whether in face-to-face meeting or in virtual ones.
Tweaking remote work, through clear messaging, division of roles, providing for breaks in between — for restroom, snack or checking phone messages — can lead to better outcomes. Emma Williams is Microsoft’s corporate vice president for modern workplace transformations. She told the paper that a 400-person team working on business software at Microsoft has seen an 11 percent decrease in hour-plus meetings — and a 22-percent spike in 30-minute meetings. One-on-one meetings have increased 18 percent too.
True, the pandemic has shut the world down. The internet remained up and running. The lightning-quick transition to a remote-work economy will not be easy for everyone. There are winners and losers. Winning starts with the choices we all make.
Downsides of remote work
It's easy to feel you’re part of an organisation's bigger picture when you’re in one physical place — an office environment — and brainstorming with coworkers every day. But this has become an impossibility with the lockdowns. Psychologists staying engaged with daily work could be an important source of stimulation for isolated individuals.
2. Decreased employee visibility
You’re people could be asleep or out on a limb, when they say they’re working. Daily team meetings and brainstorming are helpful. They provide mental stimulation (in addition to home brewed coffee). But at home, the kind of office banter one gets from office, from lobby small-talks, may be lacking.
Solution: Ring up people in your workgroup for a smallchat.
3. Decreased work-life balance
The always-on grind can be one tough challenge. As the hours turned into days, and days into weeks, and weeks into months, before the world knew it, September is already close by. Now, the so-called “cabin fever” is starting to kick in. Perhaps popping up in the office, for a face-to-face (instead of Zoom to Zoom) interaction with another human unrelated to me, could help this time? But not so fast. Discuss with your team ways to ensure that the risk of getting or spreading infection is kept to the absolute minimum.
Solution: Think of the months you already endured in isolation and the off-chance that all of that may crumble in one moment of bravado or carelessness. Occupational psychologists prescribe the observance of work-life boundaries, both in an office or a remote setting. It’s true that time flies when you’re engrossed with work. Set boundaries, do stretching in between, get good sunlight early in the morning, exercise, sleep well. Another solution: use a tool that allows people to write messages to colleagues that aren’t sent until the next workday.
4. Lack of relationships among coworkers
Work from home can seem being stuck in a timewarp, where everything is the same all the time. The lines between work and life blur — as there’s no office to leave from each working day. With remote work, one thing missing is the ability to ask quick questions across a cubicle wall.
Solution: To compensate for this, some companies installed a “Slack” or “Teams” channel. Some employees have started hanging out on video while they’re working independently, so they can bring up questions or observations as they go.
5. Increased distractions
At home, there’s cooking, child-care, elderly care, groceries, housework — elements that are just not there in an office environment. For parents who have no househelp, this can be a challenge. But it’s a stretch of imagination to claim that this arrangement is fundamentally bad.
Solution: Block your time to do solid work. Also understand that distractions are part of life, and find ways to avoid it. Talk to your partner to share the burdens of child/elderly care and running the house. The fact that you’re alive, and probably happier, 6 months into this pandemic- belies that work-from-home claim as a “killer”. You could also be physically in the office, but your mind wanders around.
6. ‘Always on’ culture
There’s a tendency to get pigeonholed into a pattern or “culture” of employees believing they always need to be available. This is dangerous and counterproductive. Some companies now deliberately restrict meetings to between 10 am to 3 pm. It gives everyone mornings for focused work and the ability to schedule time for child care and other needs. Most things aren’t as urgent as you think; they just happen to be in your inbox. Unless you break news as your bread and butter, some things are not as urgent as they seem. The key is to find ways to maximize the system, instead of constantly finding holes in it — or blaming the virus. Adhere to work-life boundaries, instead of blurring it.
Solution: A good practice it to pass the ball entirely from person to person, as opposed to all of the team members being on all the time. Scheduling messages, sort of like pre-setting tweets. Have more one-on-one meetings. Some companies have even encouraged a rotating mandatory week off. Some companies now deliberately restrict meetings to between 10 am to 3 pm. It gives everyone mornings for focused work and the ability to schedule time for child care and other needs. Most things aren’t as urgent as you think; they just happen to be in your inbox. Unless you break news as your bread and butter, some things are not as urgent as they seem.
What did I learn?
Expect the unexpected. As humans encroach into the realm of animals (especial bats), anything can happen (or more virulent viruses can emerge, some scientists warn). COVID19 forced a change in the nature of office work, perhaps forever. Some experts say the office will never be the same. That’s probably a good thing, as long as work is not compromised.
1. Be grateful
The home confinement means you’re not being exposed to possible infection. You're alive. Yes, it’s a challenge to fit a new routine into a work-from-home lifestyle. When you feel bad about your work-from-home blues, just briefly remember the frontliners. Their lives and families are exposed directly to the same reason why we’re hunkered down at home: doctors, nurses, hospital staff, security professionals, service crew, construction people, transport, chemists, farmers, etc.
2. Block time for “me time"
Set time for exercise, household chores, family (video calls, too). This routine Catch some sunshine in the morning (free Vitamin D). All these helps.
3. Keep a regular routine
Dr Rachel Lewis, an occupational psychologist and reactor fo Affinity Health at Work, says an effective way to do this is to keep to a personal routine as similar to a “normal day at the office” as possible. A pre-work routine such as: setting your alarm, showering and getting dressed. It's a bit odd, but it helps.
4. Don’t work in your pyjamas
Dr Lewis warned that working in pyjamas is not good for either mental health or productivity. As long as you wear it (all the time at home?), the psychological boundary between work and home while homeworking is constantly blurred.
5. Block crazy thoughts from your mind
This is the biggest challenge in this pandemic. While the outbreak has already created much trouble for millions of people (travel bans, health scares and death for many) don’t torture yourself with dark thoughts (What if I can’t fly home anymore, or a loved one dies?). You need to keep your happy brain cells alive. And it starts in your head.
6. Follow the right posture and invite sunlight into your workspace
Follow the correct posture, know the height of your desk and screen, hand elevation and angles of your wrists to the keyboard. There are creative ways you can adapt your workstation. Be aware of the risks that your work could pose to others. Do you need to protect your work from others? Any risks or trip hazards you could address? Consider how could you maximise natural light and ventilation in your working area at home.
7. Learn something new
Welcome the extra time you spend at home (saved from long commutes to work and back). Even doctors, for example, have had to learn the tools of “teleconsulting” in order to keep their connection with patients (who might afraid to visit clinics or hospitals). There are plenty of training courses to make full use of any extra time you have. Coursera is a good starting point. It offers literally thousands of online courses from nameplate universities. They’re mostly free, or quite affordable.
10. Remote work is not for everybody
A colleague has been working faraway for four years. By nature, most news correspondents work remotely. Though it’s been a productive time for people like me, let's be realistic: it’s not for everyone. The jury is still out on whether a work-from-home set-up actually works, or is sustainable. Knowing the downsides helps. Some experts say that remote work may not be working for some companies — who are not doing it right.
11. Embrace change, to your advantage
That includes changing the way things work with the new reality. Instead of carrying over ways of doing things from the physical office to a remote work set-up, be open to some that need tweaking. For working parents, the circumstances of the crisis, including the lack of child care, anxiety about getting sick or losing a job and the inability to work in person, even if it’s desirable, can be daunting.
It doesn’t mean that since everyone is available online anytime, you can grab them all the time. Allow for breaks. Or encourage breaks. That also includes starting social video meetings — logging on while eating lunch to chat. Some teams have designated no-meeting days (during the workweek), for people to focus on a project — or simply recharge.
Good luck on your remote gig.