There’s been a theory developing about working from home since long before social distancing became a dire necessity. That theory suggests that we should have already been doing it to some degree all along. Not for the reasons that we’re currently doing it but because it’s actually more efficient.
This is a difficult time for everyone because we’re all going without things we need. We need to be able to see and hug our families. We need to socialize with our friends. We need to get out of our homes and see more of the world. We need to be around other people. At some point, life becomes demonstrably harder to enjoy without these things, and we’re all struggling with that. But, if you’re grouping “office life” with those things, it’s likely because you’ve been conditioned to believe that you need it.
Of course, there are situations where close physical proximity is crucial to accomplishing something as a team or business. In a few industries, these situations are commonplace. In others, they come up a few times a month. In many others, they are actually very rare, but companies will manufacture necessary attendance through meetings or supplies and equipment that remain in the office.
I can only speak for myself as someone who spent some of my career in various office environments and the rest as an independent contractor determining my own schedule and workspace. I’m going to put this in fairly dramatic terms: I believe the reasons office environments are the established norms in most industries are motivated by corporate control and fear. Think about the last time you were the first person to leave the office on any given workday. Could you feel the eyeballs staring as you walked out the door? Does that seem healthy when you think about it?
Office environments naturally set up hierarchies similar to school environments where your peers are like your classmates and anyone above you is like a teacher or principal; authority figures with bigger offices and better parking spaces. Close physical proximity allows managers to keep a watchful eye over their employees, but it also makes that monitoring seem more necessary than it is and makes their job seem more important than it is.
That’s not to say that the manager who you’ve come to see as a legitimate friend is a bad person or specifically trying to exploit you. These systems have been in place for a long time and fear-based motivation develops organically. It’s just generally assumed that tasks will be completed more efficiently if people are in a space where they’re not allowed to do anything else, but evidence suggests otherwise. In 2017, a two-year Stanford study on work-from-home versus office environments that incorporated a company of 16,000 employees was completed and the results did not suggest a give and take. The data pointed toward much greater degrees of efficiency when employees worked from home, not to mention a $2,000 saving per employee for the employer in reduced office space.
Perhaps your employer will see this as an opportunity to establish a more sensible compromise than five days a week at the office. Or perhaps you disagree with the general premise that I’ve laid out. But either way, you’re going to need to adjust your mindset for the time being. So it’s worth looking into what you can take advantage of now that no one is watching you work.
Your tasks and your schedule are now in a relationship.
Healthy relationships require compromise and trial and error. Perhaps you work most efficiently from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., or perhaps you just think that because it’s all you’ve ever known. If you’ve been going into an office for years, then individual tasks can begin to blur into one big category of “work.” Strip away the idea of being “clocked in” and you see a task for what it is: something you need to accomplish by a certain date.
You’re expected to be creative in your execution of a task so why not be creative in how you go about accomplishing it? Maybe you’ll realize that you come up with a fresh perspective if you walk away from a project every 45 minutes. Maybe you’ll find that sometimes you get hours of momentum if you chip away at something late at night. And this is going to sound crazy, but if you stay up late working on something, you can sleep in the next morning (!).
Work tasks are taking time away from your personal life one way or another. Try being the one who decides which hours it’s taking from you. If you’re meeting deadlines with good work, no one is going to be there to tell you no.
Mental health doesn’t have to take a backseat.
Ultimately, you’re the one who can understand what’s good for your mental health, and now’s the time to figure that out. Your work can now be scheduled around the conclusions you come to. Maybe, it’s something small, like having a cup of coffee and a snack at 2 p.m. every day. Maybe you like working outside. Maybe you like reading in the middle of the day. If you’re able to do that without falling behind, then do it as much as possible.
Imagine turning on some speakers and playing your favorite album at the office? You can do that now. Would having a video conference or phone call with a therapist every week be good for you? You can do that in the middle of the day. We might owe our employers work, but they don’t get to decide what’s good for us.
No commute means banked time.
Working from home can be tough to get used to. I understand that. Maybe you have kids in the house distracting you in the morning. Maybe it’s just hard to adjust to a new work environment. So when you sit down at your desk or workspace and realize you’ve let 45 minutes pass without making any progress on anything, I’d ask you to not be so hard on yourself. For some of you, you’d still be in traffic on the way to the office if you’d had to go in.
A lack of commute is saving you money. It’s returning hours back to your day. It’s lowering your stress. Studies have shown that continuous freeway or subway sounds are occurring at a volume our ears weren’t designed for and have long-term effects on our health.
If your commute home was helpful in letting you decompress, then don’t just walk from your desk straight to your couch when you wrap up work for the day. A 10-20 minute walk around your neighborhood to take your mind off work goes a long way in establishing some balance in your life.
Your colleagues aren’t gone.
Of course, it’s still important to be able to see the people you work with periodically, and hopefully that will become feasible again in the near future, but until then we still have the resources available to stay in touch. Zoom and Skype meetings can start to feel as routine as regular meetings, but on an individual basis, your colleagues are just a phone call away. You’re both just trying to accomplish your specific tasks and might be able to help each other out.
I have a manager/editor I would normally see about twice a week. When there’s been any possibility for a misunderstanding during the past month, we’ve just given each other a call, and I’ve noticed it’s been particularly informal. We tend to spend the first five minutes catching up and joking around, the next five minutes addressing the issue, and we always wrap things up on a good note.
Part of your manager’s job was to keep an eye on you and motivate you to work. That’s been taken away from them, so just by asking questions or requesting quick phone calls you’re providing them a sense of relief that you’re staying motivated. I also don’t have to tell you that calling and checking in on your peers or finding out if there’s anything you can do to help with their workload is a welcome gift during these times.
Photo by @halla.arabi/Twenty20.com