In the grips of the current pandemic, “working from home” (WFH) is the new normal for white-collar workers, and a preview of our self-isolating future.
The high-tech industry has already embraced WFH, although some managers where challenged by it even as they practiced it (such as Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo and famous work-at-home mom, who subsequently banned it). Nay-sayers believed that workers needed to work side-by-side for collaboration. The debate over whether proximity boosts productivity or remote workers are more productive raged on until suddenly, irrevocably, the coronavirus made WFH necessary.
The question is no longer why to WFH, but how to do it successfully. Working from home is not for everyone, but it is a viable alternative for writers, media producers, training presenters, and many other knowledge-based jobs — especially jobs that produce results that managers can measure. It may be a better alternative in an age characterized by pandemics and overpopulation.
Hiring managers can be nervous about hiring someone who might spread their work out on the dining room table before dinner, or combine work time with child-watching, dog-watching, plumber-watching, or TV-watching. Some are simply uncomfortable if they don’t see me in the flesh working during the appointed hours, as if I punched a time clock.
Remember the “product” in “productivity”: measure the results rather than the hours worked in a particular day — the number of pages or chapters, the minutes of finished video, the milestones in sprints, and so on. Managers can get better at judging productivity by setting and monitoring specific goals rather than using the proxy of office attendance.
Keep in mind that workers at home are always available. We don’t have to take a day off to be home for the cable service or plumber. Even if sick, we can join a web conference without showing our faces and making others sick. If we have to run errands, we have more time to do it before and after work because we don’t waste time commuting. We can be indifferent to time zones, communicating with companies on the other side of the globe in our pajamas.
Managers may not realize how loyal WFH practitioners can be. We are less tempted to defect to another company down the street because with a remote worker, there is no company down the street. There is no need to switch for a better commute. It takes time for me to build trust with a manager, so there is a built-in disincentive for me to look elsewhere and have to build up that trust again.
As a technical writer, convenience, productivity, and the desire for a better life drove my decision to WFH and subsequently to live remotely. I can live wherever I want (I chose Hawaii). I’m more satisfied with my work because I can also lead a balanced life, with hours to spare every day for exercise, relaxation, and family life. I don’t waste time in lengthy commutes, so I can work up to 10 hours a day without upsetting this balance of work and life.
I remember with pride how I used to suit up and battle the morning commute to an on-site job. I recall gossiping over mid-afternoon coffee, yawning through endless meetings, gathering with associates for lunch, and then trying to get work done in an isolated cubicle with a weary afternoon brain. Now, I can be twice as productive at home, getting up at dawn and working with my most creative morning brain. I can also plan my work time to fit any time zone in the world, no matter where I live — which is an advantage when collaborating with people on the other side of the world.
In today’s workplaces, open, flexible, “activity-based” spaces are displacing cubicles, making us more visible and supposedly more accessible. But in my last on-site job, colleagues squeezed into workspaces were isolating themselves with headphones and using instant messaging to communicate to others in the same building (even on the same floor). As I headed to the restroom I had to dodge the walking zombies staring intently at their smartphones. The social aspects of working on-site have been rapidly disappearing beneath the veneer of productivity even before “social distancing” became a thing.
Collaboration can’t be forced. Interruptions derail us from our trains of thought. Whether they be social interactions or the ravings of a supervisor on a control-freak binge, interruptions are the enemy. Engineers understand this because they don’t want my questions to interrupt their work. Collaboration between technical writers and engineers has evolved to a process of organizing questions logically and delivering them more efficiently in emails, chats, or comments, in order to get useful answers.
It’s usually better to collaborate by email, chat, or live in a web conference, then it is to try to take notes in a fast-paced conversation face-to-face. Emails and document comments force people to condense their thoughts to writing. Tracking the information works better — these tools help you keep copious documentation of every meaningful work interaction, so that teams across space and time are always up to speed on what’s happening. You can record web conferences and interviews, turn on history for the chat sessions, and examine email threads, which is especially useful if participants have trouble understanding accents. (For example, I kept hearing an engineer say “bi-plane” in a conversation about data flow, but found in the context of an email that the word should be “pipeline”).
Setting up at home
If you can remember the 1960s, you know that your set and setting determine a good or bad trip. Set is the mental state you bring to the experience, like thoughts, moods, and expectations. Setting is the physical and social environment. The same is true for WFH: you must have a disciplined mindset to focus on work when at home, and you must have a decent setting for this work that minimizes interruptions and distractions.
Work/life balance is a tricky subject and there is no right answer, although there are many books on the subject. Here are two: There’s No Place Like Working From Home can help you deal with isolation and improve your home office workflow. Remote: Office Not Required covers the typical challenges of working from home, with tips for collaboration, scheduling meetings, and sharing ideas.
Your setting is equally important. A home office infrastructure is the key to success. It starts with high-speed internet, a fully equipped laptop or desktop with a microphone and webcam, and a quiet place to work. I keep a separate bedroom as a home office, which makes it easier to deduct home-office expenses from my taxes. I recommend a high-speed Wi-Fi router, a Mac which includes a microphone and webcam, Wi-Fi or online backup, and the software or services that your company (or client) uses to provide email, chat, web conferencing, and virtual private network (VPN) access. For example, I use Mac Mail and Google Mail, Slack and Gchat, Google Hangouts and Zoom, FaceTime, and a Cisco VPN client configured for my client’s internal network.
The most often cited drawback of working from home is loneliness. You can mitigate this drawback with more frequent webcam meetings with your colleagues. For tips, see Best Advice From 3,000 People Who Are Doing It Right.
A time to build
This sudden transition to working from home is extremely challenging for many people, but necessary for our economy. Pandemics like the coronavirus are likely to occur again. What we learn in the next few months could irrevocably shape the future of work and lifestyle.
And even if you don’t believe that large percentage of white-collar workers will be working from home in the near future, it is time for companies to build out the kind of technology and culture that makes remote work easier for those who want to take advantage of it.