A woman wraps her arm around a shiba inu dog while working from home on a laptop and touchpad.
Image: © iana_kolesnikova/Stock.adobe.com

Retraining your brain to work from home

12 Apr 2021

Getting the most out of the flexibility of working from home requires rigid discipline, writes Elaine Burke.

My favourite joke about the gigantic container ship stuck in the Suez Canal (and there were many) came from illustrator Chaz Hutton. With a simple drawing he turned the ship into a representation of himself, stuck between banks of procrastination, blocking the workflow of the canal, while a tiny digger working to release the ship was labelled: ‘Me writing a to-do list.’

I sent the image to my fellow to-do list addicts, knowing they would get a kick out of seeing themselves so embarrassingly well illustrated. To those outside these groups, we’re likely considered ‘organised’. But organisation is so often just another way of not getting things done.

Yes, to-do lists, routines and productivity tools can be great for keeping your workflow on track. They can also be a bit like a tiny digger trying to free a 400m-long 220,000-ton mega ship. Part of the comedy of the Suez Canal situation was that this was about the best that could be done for the Ever Given. But for our own workflows, a bit of discipline would serve us better than frantic, futile digging.

While it’s often recommended to break down and prioritise tasks, digging into a to-do list when there’s an insurmountable workload to be getting on with can leave you feeling more overwhelmed than when you started. Sometimes we need to free ourselves from the lists and the productivity tips and just focus on the work. Picking a task from the pile and doing it will edge you closer to completion of the monstrous workload than taking the same time to try and organise it.

‘The office brings with it embedded, invisible cues for better work practices’

This is a hard lesson for to-do listers like myself to learn. And it’s among the many hard truths I’ve had to come to terms while working from home this past year.

While there’s little doubt this past year has changed the way we work forever, the backlash to the idea of permanent remote working has started to come thick and fast in the opinion pages. Often I’ve found these columnists willingly side-step the fact that a year of working from home during a pandemic is quite different to what the reality of working from home permanently might look like. However, many have also raised the very valid point that remote working can be more stressful for some and bring a higher risk of overwork and burnout.

As well as the much-lauded benefit of human interaction, the office brings with it embedded, invisible cues for better work practices. I couldn’t work too late into the night in the office simply because I would have needed dinner at some point. Many evenings, it was a rumbling stomach that pulled me out of task and back to reality, where it was long past time to clock off. Offices can be made welcoming and comforting but they are nothing compared to the warmth of home, which will always draw you back eventually. But now work is at home and the structures that used to prevent me overworking have melted away.

I also don’t have my pace-setting colleagues around me. Even if your tasks are individual, working physically alongside others creates a rhythm that keeps people in step like an invisible metronome. Other people I’ve worked with are far better than me at the discipline of taking regular breaks, and being around them was a good influence. When we move in time, we notice when others have stopped and receive the signal that we should be wrapping up too.

‘Some of us are terrible at taking responsibility for our own productivity’

The fact is, some of us are terrible at taking responsibility for our own productivity. The booming market of productivity tech is testament to that. There are tools that even recognise that this inability to manage work extends to work-life balance. Some of us would rather have an AI tell us to take a break than develop the discipline in ourselves.

If you’re of this disposition, working from home can present a huge challenge. Right now, good managers will be concerned with the risk of burnout among these team members. But the solution isn’t in the tech.

Productivity tech is a tool best used by those who know how to wield it. But those who are struggling with the fundamentals of work-life balance need to right themselves before they can step forward with these new tools on hand.

It starts with realistic goal setting. You need to own up to what’s really manageable in your workload and make sure what you’ve taken on is actually humanly possible in the time available.

Once you’ve had that hard look at your workload, and whittled it down to what’s realistic, you need to be disciplined about tackling it. If you’ve decided it should only take a week, a day, or an hour to complete something, complete it in that time. Either that can be done with discipline, or it’s impossible and you need to revisit the realistic goal-setting step.

Most importantly for working from home, you also need to start managing breaks and clocking off when it’s time without the helpful rhythms of the office to help you. If a task isn’t done, and can’t be in the coming minutes, it’s still time to log off when it’s time to log off.

This is all easier said than done, but the saying is still very important. It needs to be said often and it should come from the top.

Managers need to help remote working employees build the scaffolds they need to keep them on balance, even if they are just temporary structures for now. You can’t, on one hand, advise an employee against overwork unless the other hand is helping them to overcome it with the necessary support. This means keeping a keen eye out for overwork, acknowledging it when you see it and starting a conversation to bring it to an end. It also means ensuring your team knows that they won’t face backlash for non-completion of a task that wasn’t possible without overwork.

Of course, work still needs to be done, and for that I recommend offering your team the guiding principle: “I don’t want it perfect, I want it Tuesday.” Because, as any good manager will know, ‘perfect’ doesn’t exist.

Changing someone’s deeply engrained work habits is no easy task. In fact, you could redraw Chaz Hutton’s comic with the tiny digger now representing the manager trying to nudge a colleague back on balance. And, while that might seem too big a job, remember that Ever Given was freed eventually. It may not have been a perfect job, but it was done.

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Elaine Burke
By Elaine Burke

Elaine Burke was editor of Silicon Republic until 2023, and is now the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. Elaine joined Silicon Republic in 2011 as a journalist covering gadgets, new media and tech jobs. She later served as managing editor before stepping up as editor in 2019. She comes from a background in publishing and is known for being particularly pernickety when it comes to spelling and grammar – earning her the nickname, Critical Red Pen.

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