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Remote Work Rules

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Remote Is the New Normal #

On March 19th, I optimistically predicted that we would be “out” of the pandemic and back to our offices in 50 days. That took us to May 8th, which just so happened to be the date that many local governments (Montreal, Canada included) and companies began their messaging about slowly and defensively returning to work.

Back in March, when all of this was still so fresh, I didn’t think the pandemic would turn out to be all that serious. Nor did I think that we’d still be far away from things settling down come May. Now I am confident that another 50 days is far too short for this to play out, and it will likely be 100 days until we start to see significant change.

So why did I pick 50? It is a round number, and it quickly liberated me from contemplating on the duration of the isolation order. It is important to reduce cognitive strain during this period of adapting to change. These sorts of divisions are small steps which add up! Having a system of thought can help to reduce ongoing cognitive strain and decision fatigue. As this period of instability is a long, ongoing evolution toward remote adaptation, I’ve broken it down into phases. I’ve I will describe my phases of remote adaptation in the sections that follow.

Phases of Remote Adaptation #

Phase 1 is replication. In this phase, those that are relocating from a workplace to a work-from-home place try to recreate the traditional and get reconnected. We think about what we miss most, and we fixate on certain aspects of the change. Things just don’t feel the same as they used to, so we seek out tools to help us imitate the in-workplace experience. We think about where and how we have conversations, and we start to notice that we are spending more time than ever on Meet or Hangouts or Slack or Zoom or FaceTime or email. There is a great deal of uncertainty in Phase 1. This uncertainty drives us to replicate our previous experiences in our new ‘remote’ workplace. In my discussions with others, and looking at my own notes, this phase has been marked with depression, regret, guilt, and longing.

We have since moved from Phase 1 to Phase 2 of this working-from-home period. A reduction in the daily uncertainty marks Phase 2. I’ve spoken with a lot of people about this, and many of them agree that this transition has been marked with depression, regret, and guilt. There are psychological and emotional tolls of being confined in these circumstances, none of which are very well understood. It is hard to compare the current work-from-home situation to any voluntary remote work we may have encountered in the past.

Phase 2 is growing. In this phase, we move out of trying to replicate our previous experience and grow toward what works better remotely. This often involves reflecting on what we love about this time and what we will take from this into the future. For me, that has been far more yoga, far more food-making, and far more time online with friends and family.

It is interesting to reflect and contemplate in Phase 2. We have the luxury of change. This phase allows us to renegotiate all the patterns we had previously set; patterns of work and social patterns with change. Phase 2 is about being connected. It requires challenging the norms from Phase 1 and breaking the conventions of the ‘before-time’. It’s about committing to a remote-first work mentality, learning and mentoring through self-motivation and determination, and a dedication to documentation and knowledge recording.

There are several questions to reflect on in Phase 2:

  • When we think about our work, are we more independent when we are in the workplace or at home?
  • How does our personal schedule change?
  • When we share information, with whom do we share it?
  • Who’s left out of the conversation?
  • Are we spending more of our time in asynchronous (i.e., email) or synchronous (i.e., Zoom) communication?
  • As we shift from informal to formal communication channels, how do our thoughts and ideas change?
  • Are we as open to sharing fragile, fresh ideas given the change in the collaborative medium?
  • What can/should we expect from people?

Phase 3 is prioritization. This phase unfolds when processes are designed specifically for remote-first work. What functions do we have that support the remote work-life balance? Two questions are most important to consider in this phase:

  • What rules about remote work?  - The things we enjoy are likely to be different for everyone, but many of us may be enjoying more time to work on our personal hobbies or enjoying the break from our regular commute. And for some, what rules might be … nothing.
  • What doesn’t rule about remote work? - Again, very personal, but some common refrains are “it feels hard” and “there’s uncertainty.” It’s a lot more challenging to refocus a meeting that has gone off the rails. We spend much more time managing our own (and our respective families) time, well-being, motivation, meals, exercise, and social activities.

Phase 4 is renormalization. In this phase, we find a new platform of stability. Phase 4 will be marked with comfort, collaboration and reignited curiosities. From this stability, we will start to envision and plan for how to  transition out of 100% remote work. We will start to answer questions such as: where and how will meetings happen in the future? and, how do we want our workplace to feel?

We are reinventing ourselves. Reinvention means that we self-actualize and realize that there are opportunities in remote work. When circumstances force constraints, innovation happens. What can we do now that we couldn’t do before? I propose that with blurred boundaries comes personal freedom. We can take advantage of that. What does it look like to genuinely measure our work contribution through impact and value added, instead of time and hours added? How can we better measure contributions from individuals to collective projects?

Getting Back #

These phases demarcate a journey of contemplation. We arrive having considered our personal principles and ideologies that align our future work-selves. This arrival requires a shift in mindset and a shift in the approach to work as we know it.

The future of work—at least in the short term—requires that we assume goodness in our peers and our employees. We must find solace in the (un)certainty. We must develop empathy for those who aren’t near us physically. We must stay in motion. We must have conversations that are not about work or the lockdown.

And by doing so we can separate, in time and space, the self that is working and the self that is not working.