Advice to involuntarily remote workers from someone with [almost] seven years of remote experience

As I’ve alluded to at various points—see here, here, and here—I have been working remotely since leaving academic life almost seven years ago. I had, in fact, been planning an entry on how I believe remote work is going to have substantial—and generally quite positive—social and economic effects but now, out of a most unexpected corner, comes the entry of millions of people, almost all involuntarily, into remote work. So something less abstract seems in order.

Before—or as an alternative to—going through my suggestions, avail yourselves of the increasing large literature on this, most of it fairly consistent: for example this and this and certainly this and more generally everything you can find of interest under the “Resources” tab here, And get on the https://weworkremotely.com/  email list for ever more links. Ignorance is no excuse: this approach has been developing rapidly over the past decade.

The points below are listed roughly in the order of priority, though of course I expect you will read the whole thing since you’ve got plenty of time and no one is looking over your shoulder at what you are reading, right? You hope: see points 3 and 4.

1. Loneliness and isolation are likely to be your biggest problem

One recent article—link lost, alas—I read said that in 2020, we’ve essentially solved all of the problems of remote work except one: loneliness and isolation. This invariably is rated as the most important downside by remote workers—see here and here—even those who otherwise thoroughly embrace the approach. Be very, very aware of it.

It is not inevitable—well, no more so than you encounter (and your degree of comfort with) solitude/loneliness in other parts of your life—but for those who are suddenly and involuntarily remote, I’m guessing the issue will quickly become a serious public mental health issue. Newspapers are already full of articles on “Telecommuting really sucks!” Like after about three days.

As with almost every point in this essay, the approach for dealing with loneliness will vary dramatically with the individual. The INTJ types of the data science world will, often as not, find the transition fairly easy, and largely positive, though it is still a transition. [1] The ESFPs without a good work-life balance will wonder what befell them.

For a start, however, take the following observation: If you are familiar with traditional rural communities where homes are widely spread apart and mechanized agriculture is largely a solitary pursuit, you will also be familiar with the little cafes—they probably have espresso machines now—where every morning there are clusters of [usually] men in overalls and caps sharing at least coffee and sometimes breakfast, and plenty of conversation and old jokes, before they head back to a day of work alone on the farm. And beyond that there are little rural bars in the middle of nowhere that are packed with cars on the weekends, and there are little churches one knows literally from cradle to grave [2], and there are active parent-teacher associations, and in the old days, various fraternal organizations: all the institutions Bob Putnam described in Bowling Alone that decayed with the suburbanization of post-industrial society. These situations were not ideal and can be too-easily romanticized—like on fabulously successful public radio programs—but are an evolved response to what could otherwise have been a much more lonely life. Not one of these is a co-working space.

2. Togetherness may well be your second biggest problem

When you reach my age and watch people retire, a very common issue is the couple who were very happy and well-adjusted when they spent most of the daylight hours in a workplace with other people, and go batshit crazy when they are together 24/7. Some find useful ways around this, typically through community volunteer work, but others divorce, and still others continue in lives of quiet desperation and/or addiction. [3]

If you are sharing space with another person, whether in a committed relationship or even just out of convenience, are you suddenly in this world. Possibly with children in the mix as well. I’ve no personal advice on this, as both my independently-employed wife and I have our own offices, but on the positive side—as much of David Brooks’s writing in recent years, such as his auspiciously timed curent article in The Atlantic, has noted—during most of human existence, we’ve worked day after day in the presence of the same group of people, and clearly have evolved the social, cultural, and cognitive tools to cope with this.[4] Even if several generations of Fredrick Taylor- and Alfred Sloan-inspired managers have done everything in their power to adapt humans, or some shadow thereof, to the conditions of Lancashire cotton mills in the 1820s, even—or particularly—if the workspace is an open office configuration of a unicorn tech company in the 2020s.

3. Schedule your in-work downtime: you need it

In my previous entry, I mentioned the issue of deep work and the fact that it is tiring and consequently in limited supply.[5] Let me generalize this: as you transition from a working environment where there are constant interruptions to one with no interruptions [6], you need to systematically, not randomly, provide the downtime for yourself. 

People who have always worked in a busy office environment miss this: they figure “wow, I’ve got 100% control of my time!” and think that means they will be working optimally for that 100%. For a while, yes, you might, particularly if there is some really neat project you’ve been waiting a long time to find time for.  (Though conversely, you might be dazzled and confused by the new situation from Day 1 and watch your productivity plummet.) But this burst of productivity won’t last indefinitely. And at that point, you need a plan. [7]

Once again, there are probably as many ways to deal with this as there are personalities, but you need to take into consideration at least the following

  • What are your optimal times of day for doing your best work?: protect these [8]
  • How long—be realistic—can you sustain productive work on various tasks you need to do? (this will vary a great deal depending on the task)
  • What type of break from work is most effective and can be done on a regular basis? 

It took me a while to realize the importance of this, and in the absence of systematic breaks, I’d fall into these unpredictable but sometimes extended periods of procrastination, made even worse as now I’m surrounded by technologies insidiously designed to distract me, when I really should have just gone for a walk. So now I just go for a walk, or two or three walks during the day. My doctor, meanwhile, is thrilled with this behavior. 

That’s me: there are plenty of other alternatives, but just make sure they refresh you and the time you spend on them is more or less predictable: Predictability, as in “getting back to work,” is an advantage of walking or running, or a class at a gym or yoga studio, or going to a coffee shop to make a purchase (watch the accumulating calories. And your A1C results). Predictability is most decidedly not a characteristic of YouTube or browsing social media.

4. Be very suspicious of any software or hardware your employer wants in your home

I’m already seeing articles—typically in “Business” sections which presumably the hoi polloi are not expected to read—from managers confidently asserting “I’m okay with our people working remotely, because our software records every keystroke they enter and every web page they visit! [maniacal laughter]” These articles are not [all] from Chinese sources. Mr. Orwell, 1984 is calling, and not the one where UVA made the Final Four.

If you are in a corporate environment, I would suggest being very suspicious of any unconventional software your employer wants you to install on your own computer[s]—I’d be inclined to refuse this if such autonomy is possible—and any corporate-configured hardware you bring home. Not insanely paranoid: Faraday cages are probably overkill, though a soundproof box with a lid may not be. Same with masking tape over the camera when it is not in use.[10] And don’t think about what your loveable boss might install: think about that creepy guy in tech support.[11]

Enough said. Though I’m guessing we will start seeing stories about unpleasant experiences along these lines in the near future.

5. Use video conferencing. And the mute option.

I’m a big fan of video conferencing, and most definitely was not a fan of audio-only teleconferences. However, there are effective and ineffective ways to do this. There seems to have developed a fairly high consensus in the remote-work world on best-practices, and at the top of the list:

  • Unless there are bandwidth issues, video is on for everyone for the entire meeting
  • Everyone is connecting from their office computer: meetings where half the group is sitting in a conference room (and thus not really remote) are a disaster
  • Stay on mute unless you are talking [12]. And be sure to turn mute back on after you stop: many embarrassing stories devolve on failures to do this. [13]

I’ve been doing fine—well, no one has complained—with the built-in mic [14] and camera on my computers (an iMac and a MacBook Air), though many people recommend buying a good camera and mic separately to get good quality. I use over-ear bluetooth headphones; others are content with wired or bluetooth earbuds.

The one thing that took me quite some time to get right was video lighting levels: contemporary cameras can make do with remarkably little light, but the results do not necessary look pleasant. I generally just use natural light in my office, which has high windows, and it took quite a bit of experimenting, and purchasing an additional desk light I use almost exclusively when I’m doing video, to get things so I don’t appear to be auditioning for a B-grade monster movie.

Sharing desktops and presentations remotely introduces another level of complexity—and for screen-sharing, still more opportunities for embarrassing experiences—and frankly I’d stick with tried-and-true software for doing this—the likes of Zoom and Hangout—not something the boss’s cousin Jason’s start-up just released. [15] Alas, this  involves installing software that accesses your mic and camera: we must be cautious. If you are a large company (or government agency, for godsakes), pay the subscriptions for the fully-functional versions of the damn software! [16]

6. Dedicated space if you can find it

After a brief and unintentional experiment with working from home, I’ve always had a separate office, four in total, two of which I was very happy with (including where I am currently writing this and I’ve now been almost five years), one which was too socially isolated, even for me, and one in a co-working situation which did not work out (but fortunately I was renting that by the month).[17]

But I’m the exception here: surveys indicate that by far most remote workers do so from home—though usually from dedicated space, the suburban above-garage “bonus room” and/or “guest room” being favorites—and, presumably, working from home will be the short-term solution for most people who are involuntarily remote. [18]

Which, like the loneliness/togetherness issue, is going to take a lot of individual adaptation and the primary thing I advise is reading the blogs and other materials from experienced remote workers to get ideas. But working from the dining room table and/or the couch will get very tiresome very quickly, on many different dimensions, as we are already seeing in assorted first-person accounts/diatribes. 

Literally as I was composing this, and quite independently, one of the folks in our CTO group posted to our Slack channel what his company, in addition to cancelling all travel until 1-Aug-2020, is providing for their newly remote workers:

All employees who need to work remotely are authorized to spend $1,000 outfitting their home for remote work. For example, if you do not currently have a comfortable headset with a microphone, or a chair and desk that you can sit in, you should get one. We trust you to use this budget judiciously.

The point on chairs is critical: your dining room chair will kill your butt, and your couch will kill your lower back. 

The temporary—and worse, unpredictably temporary—nature of these involuntary transitions to remote work is quite problematic: most regular small office spaces (if you can find them at a fair price) require a lease of at least a year, though you might be able to find something monthly, and a lot of spaces that could be easily adapted in pre-internet days—many a successful novel has been written in a converted little garden shed in the back corner of a property—run into issues with the need for internet access—though as we’ve all noticed from seeing our neighbor’s printer as an option for our connections, wireless has quite quite an extended reach now [19]—and may require more electrical outlets than may be prudent from an extension cord. [20]

7. Now is a very good time to assess your work-life balance

One of the best articles I’ve read recently—alas, I’ve misplaced the link—on the advantages of remote work emphasized that no, the people you work with may not be the best group of people to socialize with, and if your company is trying to persuade you that they are, and is trying to merge the domains of work and play, you are probably being exploited. This is not to say you can’t have friends at work, but if these are your only friends—they have been chosen for you by HR, eh?—you are in a vulnerable situation. And don’t forget who HR works for: not you.

Wrapping us neatly back to the opening key: you need a community—”communities”, really, and broadly defined—that goes beyond the workplace, and the re-development of such communities may be one of the major effects of remote work. These take time—for mature adults, easily years to get to a point where there is a deep level of understanding, history, trust, and interdependence—and usually involve an assortment of missteps and experimentation to find what really interests you and binds you with other people but, well, every journey starts with a single step, right? Again, just read Putnam, David Brooks and Arthur Brooks on this.[17] Or talk to your [great?-]grandparents about how things worked in the good-old-days.

 

So, I know a whole lot for you didn’t want this, but you may, like so many long-time remote workers, come to enjoy its many advantages such as the possibility of living in areas with a low cost of living, minimal (or zero) commutes, and competing for employment in a national or international market. Meanwhile, stay safe, don’t believe most of the crap circulating on social media, check on your neighbors, particularly if they are older,  live long and prosper.

Footnotes

1. If these terms are unfamiliar, you are not an INTJ. If folks are correct in arguing that in many organizations, introverts provide most of the value while extraverts take most of the credit, covid-19 may unexpectedly provide one of those “you don’t know who is swimming naked until the tide goes out” moments.

2: Except when they are Protestant and split—10% on profoundly esoteric issues of theology and 90% on soap-opera-grade issues of personality—upon passing Dunbar’s number.

3: Suicide increases dramatically for men in this condition; I will not speculate on the occurrence of homicide and abuse, though I suspect it can also be quite serious.

4. Brooks also makes the interesting observation that self-selected “tribes”—which of course we Boomers figured we invented, just like sex and wild music, as hippies in the 1960s—are historically common based on DNA analyses of ancient burials. 

5. For the past six weeks I’ve been working intensely on a complex set of programming problems—first fruits of this are here—and periodically frustrated that I usually just get in four or five hours of really good work per day. Darn: over the hill. Then checked my logs for a similar project eight years ago during a period of largely unstructured time while on a research Fulbright in Norway: same numbers.

6. This sort of autonomy, of course, doesn’t apply to every job, but it does apply to many that are shifting to the involuntary-remote mode.

7. There’s a great deal of cautionary lore in the academic world on how during sabbaticals—ah, sabbaticals, now a distant memory for the majority of those in academic positions—months could be frittered away before you realized that you hadn’t transitioned to unstructured time, and by then the sabbatical would be almost over. Most decidedly not an urban legend!

8. Based on a discussion last week in our CTO group [9]—very much like those rural cafes except we’re not wearing caps and overalls and there is a mix of genders—the “optimal time” for deep work varies wildly between people, but the key is knowing when it is, and if you can control when meetings are scheduled, do this during your down time, not your creative time.

9. I’m locally an honorary CTO based on my past experience with project management. We meet monthly, not daily, and I learn a great deal from these folks, who are mostly real CTOs working for companies with revenues in the $1M to $100M range. Few of which you’ve heard of, but these are abundant in Charlottesville. Bits of their wisdom now goes into this blog.

10. Audio: if Alexa or Siri are already in your home, that horse has left the barn. A stampede of horses.

11. Look, I am fully aware that remote security issues are real: I’ve worked remotely on multiple projects where our most probable security threats were at the nation-state level—and nation-states that are rather adept at this sort of thing—and countering that is a pain, and my PMs could tell you that I was not always the most patient or happiest of campers about the situation, though after a while it becomes routine. But we did this—successfully as far as I know—with well-known, standard open tools on the client side (and generally the server side as well), and current industry best-practices, not recommendations dating to high school. This is a totally different situation than being asked to install unknown software acquired by IT after a pitch by some fast-talking sleazeball over drinks at a trade show in Vegas: you don’t want that stuff in your home.

12. I have endless stories of attempted audio connections going badly, though my favorite remains someone attempting to give a presentation by audio while parked next to a railroad and then one of those multi-mile-long trains came by. Experienced readers of this blog will be shocked, shocked to learn this occurred in the context of a DARPA project.

13. Though with video, we are no longer treated to the once-common experience of someone forgetting to mute and soon transmitting the unmistakable sounds of a restroom.

14. microphone

15. Had a really bad experience on those lines a few months back…though it was with an academic institution and they were probably trying to save money. But I do not completely dismiss the possibility of cousin Jason’s startup.

16. Oh, if I only had a lifetime collection of out-takes of bad remote presentation experiences, mostly with government agencies and institutions with billions of dollars in their budgets. A decade—well, it seemed like a decade—of the infamous Clippy. Suggestions for software updates that refused to go away. Advertising popping up for kitchen gadgets. Though at least it wasn’t for sex toys. Multi-million-dollar bespoke networking installations that crashed despite the heroic efforts of on-site tech support and we were reduced to straining to hear and speak to a cell phone placed forlornly on the floor in the middle of a conference room.

17.  My costs, for 200 sq ft (20 sq m), have consistently been around $5000/year, which The Economist reports to be the average that corporations spend per employee on space. Though guessing most of those employees don’t have 200 sq ft. Nor a door, windows, or natural light. 

18. It will be curious to see what involuntary remote work does for co-working spaces: if these have sufficient room that one can maintain a reasonable distance, they would not necessarily be a covid-19 hazard, and may be the only short-term alternative to working from the kitchen table. But they do involve mingling with strangers. Assuming one is okay with the distractions of co-working spaces in the first place: I’m not. All that said, there are probably a whole lot of people happy now that they never had the opportunity to buy into WeWork’s IPO.

19. Reliable internet is an absolute must, particularly for video conferencing but even in day-to-day work if you are constantly consulting the web. The internet in my office has been gradually and erratically deteriorating, presumably due in part to unmet bandwidth issues (thanks, CenturyLink…) and it can be really annoying.

20. I have this dream of the vast acreage of now-defunct shopping centers—a major one here just gave up the ghost last week—being redeveloped as walkable/bikeable mixed-use centers with offices (not co-working spaces) in a wide variety of sizes oriented to individuals and small companies doing remote work: just having people around and informal gathering spaces—remember those rural cafes—goes a long way to solving the isolation issue. But that’s not going to happen in the next couple of months.

21. And give her credit, Hillary Clinton

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