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Attention: What Is Remote Work? Not This.

“I am working more hours now than I did before. I am exhausted. Remote work is exhausting; I honestly can’t wait to get back to the office.” This was the sentiment of my colleague last week. She’s not alone. The pendulum has swung from excitement about the advantages of working remotely full time … to disdain. Here’s the catch—what you are experiencing right now is not remote work.

Prior to COVID-19, a smaller but growing percentage of the workforce had the opportunity to engage in remote working. Now, millions of workers globally have been transitioned overnight from office workers to home workers—more than 16 million, according to Slack. Not just regular home workers, but home workers during a global pandemic. With Facebook and Google announcing in May that they’ll allow employees to work from home until 2021 and Twitter announcing permanent work-from-home options, this isn’t changing anytime soon—in fact, Google declared a company-wide holiday in May to help employees address pandemic-related burnout.

What is remote work? As an advocate of the future of remote work, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge everyone who is now working from their home as a result of the pandemic and share a message about this new work experience. Nothing you are experiencing right now is normal. This is not remote work.

No Commute, New Pain Points

COVID-19 has accelerated an unprecedented transformational shift in our lives. Overnight, traditional offices shut down, and you, like millions of other people worldwide, were suddenly working from your home. Many of you had no home office; no comfortable headset for the hours of calls; no tastefully decorated wall to serve as your Zoom background; and probably not even a desk, an ergonomic chair, or a designated workspace. Your internet bandwidth and connectivity may not be optimized for the 24/7 connection of multiple devices as the world’s distributed teams compete for bandwidth across different time zones. You may not have been familiar with online collaboration tools or maybe didn’t even know what Zoom was before now. Even if you did have experience with online collaboration tools, chances are your colleagues didn’t. Now you must learn how to collaborate while working from home. Understandably, you weren’t prepared for this. No one was, and that includes your manager.

You might be feeling that you are not getting the support you need. Your manager might not have experience managing a remote team and may be asking more of you. They may be having difficulty learning to trust that you will remain a productive employee because they can’t see you physically at your desk. It might feel like they are trying to lift and shift your in-office work into your work-from-home experience. Those two experiences, however, are not the same environment and shouldn’t be treated as such.

Under the right circumstances, the benefits of a remote work environment are numerous. Remote work:

  • Constitutes the freedom to do your work from anywhere
  • Provides flexibility when you work
  • Provides access to a diverse global pool of talent
  • Creates opportunities for jobs unbounded by geography

In a 2018 Indeed survey, remote workers reported an increase in:

  • Productivity
  • Happiness
  • Work morale
  • Work-life balance

If working from home is new for you, here are a few simple best practices to help set you up for success:

  • Establish a workspace that is comfortable for you. If you are in a smaller space shared with your family, establish boundaries for your area and protocols for interruptions. A reversible sign reading either “available” or “busy” can work wonders.
  • Communication is mission critical when working remotely. Be transparent, direct, and honest with your manager. Establish a cadence and work etiquette that supports your needs—hours online and output goals should be part of that conversation. Above all, make sure you have an open dialogue with your manager to ensure you are aligned on expectations.
  • Technology is your friend, but don’t be afraid to speak up if you are not comfortable or need help learning how to use it.
  • You are not in this alone. Stay connected with your team, and use video meetings when possible. Keep yourself on mute when you are not speaking to minimize distractions. One trick is to move the active speaker panel of your video chat to the top of your screen under your webcam—this makes it appear that you are making eye contact with the group.

The Current Situation vs. the Future

The remote work environment gives you choices—right now, you have no choices. You are quarantined. There is no working from comfortable co-working spaces. No sipping lattes at the coffee shop. No catching up on emails on the plane or working from airport lounges. You are sharing spaces with new colleagues—your family—while dealing with new distractions and fears. You are playing teacher, cook, cleaner, spouse, and parent. You have not been given the opportunity to find the best working environment where you can be most productive.

Right now, the hours are longer, the distractions are stronger, and concentration is fleeting. You have unprecedented emotional strains as your world has shifted beneath you. Your lives and your work are now virtual.

We will, one day soon, reach a stable environment where we may have an opportunity to receive the many benefits that come with remote work. Until then, try not to confuse the current situation and all its challenges with real remote work. Try not to let the current situation overshadow the value a remote work lifestyle has to offer you. Try not to label this experience as remote work, but rather, recognize it for what it is—working from home during an unprecedented time for which no rule books are available. Remember, work is what you do, not where you go.

About the Authors

Keith Keating
With a career spanning over 20 years in learning & development, Keith Keating holds a Master’s Degree in Leadership and has experience in a myriad of areas ranging from Instructional Design, Leadership Coaching, Operations Management, and Process Transformation. More recently Keith has been leading clients on the development and execution of their global learning strategies. Regardless of the role, at the heart of everything Keith does centers around problem solving. He studied Design Thinking at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and found Design Thinking was a perfect tool to add to his problem solving "toolkit". Since then, Keith has been utilizing Design Thinking to help clients tap into understanding and resolving unmet customer needs.

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