The Remote Work Learning Curve: Here’s What You Need To Know

By now, you’ve heard of COVID-19 and its increasingly devastating impact on the global community. If your inbox looks anything like mine, it’s filled with all kinds of organizations sending out updated information about sanitation, cancellations, closures, waived fees, many companies moving to remote work, and, in some cases, words of comfort, too.

This pandemic is an unprecedented event in our modern society, and naturally, fear and anxiety is high for all of us. You are not alone. 

As companies and educational institutions rapidly look to remote work to maintain as much normalcy and societal functioning, remote work veterans are considering how we can best help with this mass transition. While for many, working from home has long been the dream, there is an undeniable learning curve when transitioning from a traditional work environment to a remote work environment. As we’ve watched things unfold over the last week, the topic has been a regular discussion amongst the Cardsmith team. 

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While there are a lot of resources available on how to work remotely, our team specifically wanted to share the stuff that we’ve learned the hard way.

The ability to work remotely can be a blessing, especially in dire times like these, but keeping oneself safe and sane can be an uphill battle–especially when tensions are high.

The Obvious Challenges 

Starting your day 

While jokes about working pantsless abound amongst remote workers, most remote work veterans will tell you that over time, the appeal of working in pajamas (or less!) loses its sheen quickly.

One of the most difficult aspects of working remotely is delineating between home life and work life; it’s easy to let it all meld into one, which is a great way to undermine your focus and your crucial work/life balance. 

Start your days off on the right foot with a consistent morning routine. 

While this will vary from person to person and what works for you best (along with other accommodations for children, etc.), here is what I do every day to kickstart a solid work day: 

  • Wake up at around the same time every day
  • Make coffee (or tea)
  • Write my morning pages
  • Listen to the news while I get ready for the day
  • Shower and change into new clothes
    • Typically, I change into what I refer to as my “work pajamas.” They’re still cozy and easy to wear, but they’re distinct from my regular sleeping clothes. This helps me mentally keep a gap between sleep time and work time while still remaining comfortable.
  • Eat something for breakfast, even if it’s just a banana or a quick protein bar
  • Open up my computer and set up my to-do list for the day

While this is pretty adjustable (sometimes I do end up sleeping in a little more, or have to run an errand, etc.), I try to keep it consistent. It helps me mentally prepare for the day ahead, clears my mind to focus on work, and allows me to create a separate headspace for the work hours ahead.

Scheduling

Although so many of us humans benefit greatly from consistency and some structure, we also relish the opportunity to let it go. If you aren’t accountable to an office, it can be easy to sleep in, let things slide, and keep a very loose schedule. This is a mistake. While some flexibility is fine, outlining your work hours and sticking to them as closely as possible is the best way to stay productive and protect your non-working time. 

This is also an opportunity to figure out the best way to maximize your time, which can be a challenge when you are initially making this transition. Spend your first or second week working from home using this time budget exercise to help you maximize your productivity and keep your personal priorities equally weighted in what you do. 

Boundaries are more important than ever. Depending on how your team is transitioning to remote work, you may find yourself using a chat tool like Slack (or something equivalent). One of the first things you need to learn how to do is mute the tool. Whether you’re stepping away from work for the day, or even just head down in a project that requires concentration, do not be afraid to mute the team chat. 

Communication

It’s a cliché to say so, but communication is really what it is all about, and getting comfortable with asynchronous communication when you’re most familiar with face-to-face exchanges can be challenging. 

In our age of instant communication, the little ping notification can feel like a lot of pressure to respond immediately. Waiting for a team member’s response to your questions or feedback can be stress-inducing as well. 

Remember: most things aren’t emergencies, even if you aren’t in the same office. 

Muting the team chat and being able to separate oneself from constant communication is absolutely crucial–but that doesn’t mean you should just disappear. Before you mute, it’s always a good idea to share what you are up to with your team. 

Whether it’s “I’m taking a quick break and will be back in ten,” or “I’m working on x for the next hour and will be head down — muting Slack until then,” letting your team know what’s going on will help alleviate everyone’s anxiety. You can work (or leave work) in peace, and your coworkers and boss know you didn’t simply bail on whatever you were supposed to be working on. 

It’s also good to have a game plan in case there is an emergency. Even if Slack is muted, let your coworkers know that they can text you if there really is something that requires immediate attention.

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Take breaks

More so than ever, when you work from home, it’s vital to schedule time for lunch and taking breaks. When you’re working remotely, you don’t have the built-in opportunity to get your steps in by stopping by the kitchen, grab some coffee, and say hello to Jennifer from down the hall. It can be all too easy to chain yourself to your workspace, hunched over and stressed out, without ever getting up to stretch your legs and let your brain rest.

Taking breaks helps with creativity, productivity, and problem solving. Even if we are all self-quarantined, at this moment, you can still step outside and walk around the block (just keep a healthy distance from anyone out there on the street, don’t touch your face, and wash your hands).

You can still stand up and take a moment to do a little bit of stretching.

If you can, take a ten minute break every hour, and let your eyes look at something other than a computer screen.

Also, keep an eye out on Twitter and Instagram for relevant opportunities to take breaks and stay active.

People like Erik Hinton are streaming yoga classes for anyone to attend, and apps like Down Dog Yoga are offering temporary free access to their resources for folks who are currently quarantined at home. Celebrity trainer Phil Catudal is offering free full workouts on Instagram as well. (And of course, if you have the funds to tip folks offering free services, please do so.)

Watch your snacks and hydrate

How many times in your life have you walked over to the refrigerator, opened it, and said to yourself, “Why am I doing this? I’m not even hungry. Just bored.” 

It’s an easy impulse — a snack here, a snack there. 

We’re all guilty of it. The trick is to try and keep healthy snacks available, as much as possible, and keep an eye on your water intake. Building your own schedule means, again, creating and sticking to your own boundaries–and that includes lunch time and snack breaks. 

My go-to snacks include protein bars, fruit (apples, bananas, berries), greek yogurt, carrot sticks, beef jerky, and sunflower seeds. As for lunches: you can always do the classic leftovers from the night before, or get sandwich/wrap stuff. Even if you aren’t a sandwich person, it’s quick and easy in a pinch, and you can usually get some necessary protein and some veggies in there as well.

The Less Obvious Challenges 

Technology is imperfect 

Make no mistake: things will go wrong. 

Anyone who has worked remotely for any length of time knows that the best time for your technology to fail you is right when you’re about to jump into a meeting with someone or demonstrate something you need to show them.

Make sure to take a deep breath, don’t panic, and have a back-up alternative. While many of us use Zoom for conference calls, we always have Google Hangouts as a back-up. Slack also has both video and regular calling capability, too. If you haven’t used any of these before, I recommend getting familiar with at least a couple of them before diving into full usage. That way, when a technical blip happens, you can set up an alternative and pull everyone together in a pinch. 

People are imperfect

This is always true when it comes to remote work, but especially so right now. 

There are a lot of people new to working from home and are just now familiarizing themselves with these tools. With all of the school closures, folks will have children at home, who are also adjusting to our new normal. People are in close contact with their spouses and family members, in ways they haven’t been before. People who don’t have the space to set up a separate office in their home may be working from cramped quarters. People may be balancing all of the above. 

There will be background noise (PROTIP: use that mute button on yourself when you aren’t talking! There are also some great tools that can help with this), there will be interruptions, and there will be delays. There will be technical snafus. With so many people at home, the internet may slow down for all of us, bowing under the pressure of so much broadband usage. 

Not to mention that the unknowns right now will undoubtedly cause anxiety, fear, and depression in many. 

These are normal responses to abnormal circumstances

Our global community is facing a terrible pandemic that has already upended normal day to day life, which is turning everything we know upside down. The fears of illness, losing loved ones, lack of resources, the long-term economic and social impact of this event are all very real, and will influence the way we all operate. The adjustment to cabin fever, boredom, and being in constant close contact with spouses and family members we aren’t accustomed to being around 24/7 will absolutely play a role in every person’s productivity. 

Patience is key. Patience with yourself and patience with your colleagues, your superiors, your juniors, your clients, your vendors. We must be kind to ourselves and to others through this process. It is non-negotiable. So when something inevitably does go wrong, take a few deep breaths, remind yourself that this is manageable, and take the next step to making it go right. 

(And, again, communicate. If you’re feeling paralyzed, talk to a colleague about what’s going on with you. If any of these feelings causes you to run behind, communicate about it, rather than letting it fly right by you. And supervisors/managers/bosses: it’s time to be kind and anticipate this by mentally adding a little bit of a time buffer to deadlines.)

Know when to put down the news

Right now, days feel like weeks. Things are changing on a daily, if not hourly basis. What was once true this morning will not necessarily be the same this afternoon. 

With the computers we carry around in our pockets making the 24/7 news cycle more accessible than ever, it’s normal to keep checking back–over and over again. It’s absolutely vital that you carve out time to disconnect from the constant updates, as the stress will not only take a toll on your productivity (less important), but on your well-being (most important!). Make it a priority to step away when you feel your anxiety raising. The news will still be there. The updates will still be there. 

It is necessary to stay informed, but creating some healthy space between you and the endless cycle of bad news is a non-negotiable. Remind yourself, your colleagues, and your loved ones to take a break when needed.  

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Find ways to feel connected

There is never-ending irony in the way we live now: we can communicate more than ever, but it can be so easy to feel disconnected. This is especially true when you are working from home. 

Humans are social creatures. No matter how much you may like to joke about your own misanthropy (…just me?), our brains are wired to connect to each other. We are made happier and healthier by seeing each other’s faces, sharing our stories, and feeling like we are a part of something bigger than ourselves (i.e. community). 

Not to mention that problem solving, creativity, and teamwork require a foundation of positive feeling, particularly when you hit an obstacle. You and your team can still feel bonded to each other even when you’re physically at a distance. 

There are some specific tips for remote team bonding, and I highly recommend utilizing them. This is also a great time to start a virtual movie watching night or book club. Find ways to connect with your coworkers beyond merely discussing this client or that problem that needs to be solved. You’re not just workers; first and foremost, you are people. So connect like them. 

Additionally, make sure that, at least once a week, your team all gets together on video chat to say hello, to update everyone with what you’re working on, and to remember that beautiful faces behind the text you’re shooting off every work day. If you’re looking for some tips on how to make your weekly meetings more collaborative and engaging, check out this post on how we do it here at Cardsmith.

Aside from these more complicated tips that requires set up, you can also do one simple thing (recommended for both your colleagues and your friends): 

Schedule lunch or coffee dates with one or two people on your team. It’s not work time; it’s social time. Just as you might catch up with them over a cup of coffee in your office’s kitchen, you can both pour up a drink and video conference. Toast to each other. Talk about what new TV show you’re streaming while social distancing. Vent about the news. Tell each other what you appreciate about one another. 

Making the transition to remote work is a big shift in the most placid of times, much less in the midst of a pandemic. Be gentle with yourself and your colleagues as you go through this process. It will get easier with time.

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We must be kind to each other.

This ordeal is not going to be easy for any of us. We’re extraordinarily lucky to have all of the technology we have at this time, for so many reasons. While we may be social distancing in the physical realm, we can still keep in close contact otherwise. Right now, we must. More than ever.

While the fact that this is a global crisis is terrifying, it also means something very important: we are all in this together.

Featured image by bongkarn thanyakij from Pexels

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