For those of you who weren’t around at the time I submit that the early 19th century had much to admire. Particularly the fact that most people lived and worked at home then. Leaving aside such matters as plagues, wars, racism, unequal rights and other forms of injustice we have an opportunity, 200 years later, to emulate those days. Covid-19 has forced many of us to try it, willing or not. Somewhere between 25% and 45%, of employed people (depending on the data source) in advanced countries are currently full-time, at-home teleworkers.
Yet it still seems that many people are having problems getting adjusted to their new situation. In a previous blog I discussed the physical aspects of setting up the home office. Now it’s time to think about the psychological rearrangements.
The physical setup
The following comments are made assuming that you have already set up a reasonably quiet and secure home office. With a door or other soundproofing barrier between you and the rest of the family/roomies. If not, please review the notes in that earlier blog.
Remember that in the early, pre-industrial revolution 19th century most people worked at or very near home. Cities were sized by this empirical rule: their diameter was roughly equal to twice the distance covered by the main form of transportation in half an hour. So when walking was the main form of transport cities tended to be about 6 miles (3.75 km) or less in diameter. The radius of activity of most people tended to be less than half that distance.
But on to some of the psychological issues.
One of the most common problems new teleworkers have is separating their work from the rest of their lives. It’s not a great idea to have them inextricably mixed. That’s liable to lead to burnout. So often some way to distinguish between work and non-work time is needed.
Many veteran teleworkers have devised a meta-commute; a ploy that clearly separates their work time from the rest of their lives. An article by Angela Haupt in the 24 February 2021 Washington Post lists some possibilities. I personally try to get in a 1.5 mile walk at least three days a week (half an hour each time) to help me disconnect from, or get ready for, my home office. Others dress as if they were going to the old office and then walk around the block to get them in the mood. Whatever method you use, make sure that your work- and rest-of-your-life times are clearly separate.
The next most common problem of remote working is the feeling of being isolated, left out of the social interactions of the former office. (Although for some that’s a feature, not a bug.) Although the available array of information technologies is much, much improved over what was available in the 1970s, it’s still not the same as face-to-face interaction.
To combat this problem I suggest that all concerned, both remote workers and their supervisors, make an extra effort to ensure that there is frequent, quality communication, especially among teams. We were worried about this issue from the beginning of our telecommuting tests in 1973 but found that the telecommuters tended to automatically take on the proactive task of keeping in touch. To the point where they often knew more of about office gossip than their full-time in-office colleagues.
Furthermore, as Covid-19 or its replacement pandemic is finally suppressed, many teleworkers will go back to the office one or two days per week. Thus the role of the office becomes that of encouraging face-to-face interaction among employees. The solo work activities are best done from the home office.
Although the communications media may change it is important to keep some semblance of your former communication patterns in place. This includes with whom as well as when you communicate with others. For example, one of the reasons teleworkers are more productive is that they suffer fewer interruptions. So setting up a schedule of when you and your team members are available to be interrupted helps maximize the uninterrupted periods. Make sure that all of your former contacts are kept in touch.
Another major, productivity-reducing problem is the meeting. Unfortunately, Zoom and similar teleconferences seem to have blossomed to soak up all the on-line time available. This may be partially in response to the desires to keep in touch after the sudden disruption of normal office activity. After participating in a few, I suspect that the main reason for Zoom overload is simply poor meeting execution. Meetings should be no longer than 45 minutes, with the main topic strictly stated ahead of time and strictly adhered to. As Elon Musk is quoted as saying: if you’re not contributing or learning something, leave.
As the time returns when you will actually be able to commute to the office you may want to reallocate when you perform certain tasks. Specifically, reserve the tasks that need face-to-face interaction for those in-office days. The at-home time then becomes the period when you are free to concentrate, invent, or just assimilate what has been happening.
Meanwhile spend more of your recovered commute time in the community where you live, mask and all. Get to know the neighborhoods where you live but didn’t have time to explore. Expand your acquaintances.
As you resolve these issues and become accustomed to the new ways of operating you will find your stress levels reducing, your sense of creativity increasing and the rest of your life improving. That’s not just theory, we’ve tested it. Returning to the better aspects of the 19th century works!