stop remote work from stealing your life

How to Stop Remote Work from Stealing Your Life

Awareness and intention will help stop remote work from stealing your life.

It’s not your imagination: if the pandemic shifted your job to working from home, odds are, you’re working longer hours. For many of the leaders we’ve spoken with over the past months, WFH arrangements are sapping their energy and their team’s morale and mental health. To lead your team through these challenges, it’s vital that you stop remote work from stealing your life.

One of the best parts of working with so many business leaders around the world is seeing the concern and creativity of leaders to help their teams during the pandemic. There is no magic wand that will solve every challenge, but you can stop remote work from stealing your life by incorporating some combination of these approaches.

Six Practices to Stop Remote Work from Stealing Away Your Best Self

Tap into the Power of Ritual

You’ve likely heard of Parksinson’s Law: that work expands to fit the time allotted for it. That’s a big problem when time seems unlimited.

One way to stop remote work from stealing your life is to clearly define the time in which it must happen. If you know you can’t work before or after a certain time, you’ll write that email in half the time, shorten or eliminate meetings, and spend less time on social media.

Without that clear definition, it’s easy to start work while you’re blearily reading emails in bed while waking up, keep on working through breakfast, and stumble into the evening without ever having stopped.

That’s a poor way to live (nor is it a good way to be a productive team member).

Tap into the power of rituals to create a “container” for your work. Writers are famous for rituals they use to define their work. Victor Hugo would take off his clothes to write and put them on again once he was done (not recommended for those Zoom calls!)

One IT manager we spoke with said his powerful work-from-home ritual was simply to pack his lunch. He’d eat breakfast with his family, prepare his lunch, put it in a cooler bag, and then take it with him the 15 feet to his desk. That would signal the start of the workday.

Perhaps you light a candle to start and blow it out during breaks, lunch, or at the end of the day. Others set a timer. Find a ritual that tells your body and mind when it’s working and when it’s not.

Shift Out of Crisis Mode

Another factor that has contributed to the expansion of remote work is the feeling of crisis. As the virus first spread and shelter-in-place orders went out, most businesses and teams faced legitimate crises.

  • How will we maintain enough cash?
  • Will we survive this?
  • How can we get everyone working from home quickly enough?
  • How do we keep our people safe?
  • Will I keep my job?

A crisis energizes people. It provides clarity, focus, and adrenalin. It disrupts inertia and sparks innovation. Everyone rallies together and you can achieve amazing results. Some leaders love crisis-productivity so much that they manufacture drama and drive everyone nuts with constant fire drills.

But the power of crisis is limited. You can’t maintain that energy, focus, and adrenalin forever. It’s like sprinting. You sprint 400 meters. You can’t sprint a marathon.

Shifting out of crisis mode is difficult when the initial crisis isn’t over. The pandemic is a slow-moving economic and social crisis that isn’t over in a week, a month, or possibly even a year.

To stop remote work from stealing your life, shift out of crisis mode. Sometimes deep breathing, meditation, prayer, time in nature, or conversation with good friends are enough to make this shift.

A ceremony can also help. Declare the crisis of initial response “completed” and define the next stage, including the level of energy, effort, and overall health you expect of yourself and your team.

Still struggling to shift back to a gear you can maintain? Make two lists: what you can control and what’s outside of your control. Highlight your M.I.T.s (Most Important Things) on the first list. Release the second list (burn it, flush it, shred it, or delete it) and release yourself from having to work on the things you can’t control.

Find your focus on specific actions you can take toward the M.I.T.s where you can make a difference.

If, after these practices, you’re still finding it difficult to shift down, a conversation with a mental health professional can help.

Practice Mini-Experiments

One fun way to maintain your sense of life, build culture, and personal/professional development is a technique Karin learned from Susie, an executive whose company cultivated the technique of personal mini-experiments.

In short, you choose a behavior you want to try out. The criteria are that it has to be easy to do—and it has to scare you or make you uncomfortable. You commit to practice the new behavior for two to four weeks and see what happens.

For example: Susie described how she had a tendency to over-prepare for meetings. So her mini-experiment was to limit her preparation time to one hour. She worried that she would be under-prepared, but she discovered she did as well as ever–and now she had reclaimed many hours.

As the pandemic has progressed, we’ve heard leaders share their own mini-experiments:

  • Giving themselves permission to put down their phone and have lunch with their family for 30-45 minutes.
  • Starting a garden.
  • Waking up 30 minutes earlier for exercise, reflection, or to try a hobby.
  • Saying no to opportunities.

Enjoy a Hobby

Your mini-experiment might take the form of a hobby. One way to keep remote work from stealing your life is to have somewhere else to focus. David, who already enjoyed baking bread, used our extended time at home to join the ranks of sourdough bakers. It refreshes him and keeps him going between long days of leadership development.

Bread might not be your thing, but what might you do that would be fun and absorb some of your attention?

stop remote work from stealing your life

Make Team Agreements

One of the powerful tools we’ve seen many leaders use is to establish team norms of shared expectations about how they will work together. Examples include:

  • An international team that decided they will not schedule meetings after 7 pm for any participant. This forces them to be efficient with the time they have.
  • Other teams that have declared no-meetings-days such as Wednesdays or Fridays.
  • A commitment to always leave 15 or 30 minutes between online meetings.
  • Clarifying what communications tools to use for specific content. What can wait, and what needs to be discussed promptly? What should be an IM, an email, a phone call, and what must be a video meeting?

These discussions and commitments help everyone use their time more effectively.

Use the Flexibility

Working from home gives us opportunities. Where can you use the flexibility to restore your energy and relationships? Can you take an exercise break mid-morning? Can you meet your partner, child, or neighbor for a 15-minute break? Perhaps a walking meeting?

We talked with a team leader whose team all leave their work-from-home desks and walk while they meet by phone for 30 minutes.

Your Turn

For many, working from home during the pandemic is more difficult than traditional remote work. The challenges of family members unloading the dishwasher while you’re on a call, ad hoc workspace, concerns about illness, and social isolation add extra layers of complexity and stress.

If you’re working remotely, in order to lead your team and help them maintain their health and productivity, it’s vital that you stop remote work from stealing your best self. Energy, confidence, and empathy are hard to find when you’re strung out and exhausted from unending work.

We would love to hear from you. What techniques have you and your team used to stop remote work from stealing your life? Leave us a comment and tell us what’s working for you!

See Also:

What Your Employees Are Yearning For in a Remote One-on-One

How to overcome one of the biggest challenges of working from home

How to Overcome One of the Biggest Challenges of Working From Home

The Harvard Business Review article,  The Implications of Working Without an Office covers great research about the benefits and challenges of working from home. I highly recommend it.  If nothing else to validate those mixed emotions you’re having.

Because if you’re like every client we talk to, this new working from home model isn’t ideal. But it’s not a disaster.

The big challenge is not that people are forced to work from home. It’s that they’re working from home in a pandemic with children crawling all over them. Their other routines are disrupted. They can’t see people they love. All in an unstable economy. And of course, there’s the emotional investment in the very important conversations about racial equity and injustice.

People are tired. Worn thin. Scared. Lonely. Overwhelmed.

And Yet …

And with all that going on, the research shows many people are feeling more productive.

Since all-virtual work began, employee stress, negative emotions, and task-related conflict have all been steadily falling; each is down at least 10%. At the same time, employees have experienced an approximately 10% improvement in self-efficacy and their capacity to pay attention to their work. A couple of months in, employees reported that they were “falling into a consistent routine,” “forming a pattern [of work time and breaks] with my coworkers,” and “learning what makes me the most productive and how I can best manage my time and energy.” One employee even noted, “I think it’s weird how normal everything has become — the virtual meetings, the emails, everyone looking grungy.” Another stated that it just became “business as usual.”

Comments made by everyone from frontline employees to CEOs revealed a slew of perceived benefits from working from home. One CEO told us he “hoped this put an end to the ‘fly across the country for a one-hour meeting’ expectation forever.” Others reported that they had “more focus time,” “shorter meetings,” and “more flexible time with family” — and, most commonly, were “not missing the daily commute.” By the eighth week, many employees reported getting “into the groove of working from home” and “wanting to continue” working virtually. Several even said, “I love it.”

And if your teams are like the many employees being surveyed by HR departments all over the globe,  you’re hearing, “I’d prefer to work from home at least some of the time.”  Particularly once we’re past this pandemic and the kids are back in school where they belong 😉

Lost Informal Collaboration: One Big Challenge of Working From Home

One of the biggest challenges of working from home is lost informal communication that leads to spontaneous collaboration, best practice sharing, and new ideas.

One key reason to think twice before going down that path (a long term shift to WFH) is the loss of unplanned interactions that lead to important outcomes. Physical offices cause people who don’t normally work with each other to connect accidentally — bumping into each other in the hallway or the cafeteria — and that interaction sparks new ideas.

This is worth considering and being deliberate about addressing.

4 Ways to Foster Deliberate Collaboration in Your Work From Home Team

1. Ensure you have meaningful shared goals and measures.

If your employees are only being measured by their own KPIs (or stack-ranked against their peers), you’re already fighting an uphill battle when it comes to collaboration. Now add “out-of-sight,” and it’s natural for people to keep their head down, focus on their own work and forget about the “team,” which is a generous use of the word in this case. If you want your team collaborating, ensure they have some shared goals, and shared skin in the game.

If your success depends on your peer’s success, you are far more likely to pick up the phone and see how you can help.

2. Create deliberate time for collaboration and I.D.E.A. sharing.

The challenge of depending on spontaneous collaboration, even in an office setting, is that it might not happen.

Don’t leave collaboration to chance. We’ve been amazed at the incredible ingenuity that’s coming out of quick, focused zoom breakout room sessions where cross-functional teams come together and ask important “How can we?” questions and share their best thinking. With the right set-up, even twenty minutes in focused conversation is enough to get people sharing micro-innovations and solutions.

This is more than just asking “Does anyone have any ideas?” at the end of the meeting. Start with clarity about where you need a great idea, and then give them tools to vet and share them.

3. Enable asynchronous communication.

In his book, Remote: Office Not Required, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson describe the best practice they use at their company 37signals.

At 37signals we’ve institutionalized this through a weekly discussion thread on the subject, “What have you been working on?” Everyone chimes in with a few lines about what they’ve done over the past week and what’s intended for the next week. It’s not a precise, rigorous estimation process, and it doesn’t attempt to deal with coordination. It simply aims to make everyone feel like they’re in the same galley and not in their own little rowboat. It also serves as a friendly reminder that we are all in it to make progress. Nobody wants to the one to report that “This week was spent completing Halo 4, eating leftover pizza, and catching up on Jersey Shore.” We all have a natural instinct to avoid letting our team down, so when the commitment becomes visual, it gets reinforced.

4.Train in cross-functional cohorts.

We’re in our third year of an award-winning cohort-based, live-online leadership development program (see my interview with Michelle Braden on why this worked).  We run this 7-month program in cohorts of 20 or so employees from 6 countries across a wide variety of functions. It’s highly interactive so it’s easy to share best practices and work through challenges together. Although participants are not people who would normally work together, they build deep relationships and learn an incredible amount about other areas of the business—all while honing their leadership skills—all without ever being in the same room.

Remote team collaboration requires a bit more intentionality, but with just a bit of focus, you can actually get more collaboration than waiting for people to bump into each other in the hallway.

Your turn.

What are your favorite ways to overcome the biggest challenges of working from home?

Face Time or Face Time?

“We live in a world that is connected 24X7, but loneliness is at an all time high. We are trying to find our way”

Elizabeth Lindsey, Explorer and Way Finder, see her 2012 TEDxWomen talk

I walked into his office with a long list of updates to cover. We realized we hadn’t seen each other in quite a while, and both commented on how much better it is that we could do so much virtually. The video conferences and conference calls were working quite well. It’s much more productive without all the travel. It’s a huge relief to avoid long road trips for short meetings.

And then we both realized, almost simultaneously that what we needed to talk about most was not on the list. It must have been the look in my eyes. That look would never have been noticed over a video conference. We had one of the best conversations ever, we both left with some important next steps. We both felt better. We never got to the list I had walked in with.

Somethings are just better in person.

Face Time Choices

I know this, I feel the same thing with my team. And yet of course there are tradeoffs. Time, travel costs, travel fatigue.

I was particularly stuck by Michele Cushatt’s recent post, Why Face Time (the real kind) Matters, I agree with her insights. Technology is great for keeping us connected, and it can also be abused. I find it ridiculous when people will dial into a conference call when most of the participants are sitting in the same building. As Michele says, Because there’s “something magical about being face-to-face with another living, breathing human.”

So here’s the rub.

You can’t have face time with all the people that matter at the same time.

If you travel to be with your team, you miss having dinner with your family or reading a book at bedtime or the homework frustration. Of course you can Skype or use “Face Time”.. even with a bed time story, but it’s just not the same.

If you chose to call into the meeting, you miss that important conversation that would have happened on the break. You may also miss the chance to bump into your old boss in the cafeteria who has a great new opportunity that would be just right for you. You miss the important trust that’s built by a team hanging out together.

Of course, there are lots of important approaches to maximizing remote relationships. Remote teams and employees can be very productive. I share some of this in my post,  Long Distance Leadership: Can Distance Drive Engagement and Results,. After years of leading remote teams, I also know it is vital to “show up in person more than is practical.”

So, what’s the right ratio? What’s the right time? How do you know it’s time to get on a plane? How do you choose between face time and face time?

The amount of time between visits?
The stage of the relationship or team?
The personalities involved?
The current results?