Many of us are nearly through our second month working from home during the pandemic, and if you’re like me, it’s been difficult to navigate how to be a good employee and maintain focus.
Every week, there’s something new to worry about. Are my loved ones staying safe and healthy? Will I still have a job? If so, will my salary be cut? Why is my throat suddenly itchy?
At my agency, we’ve always had a very flexible remote working policy, so we didn’t have much to worry about in terms of logistics. The biggest challenge for me was changing my daily routine and my mentality toward working. And for the company as a whole, we’ve had to learn how we can best support one another from a distance.
Can company culture exist online?
It’s awesome that we live in a time where we can connect with one another so easily across locations, but no matter how many Zoom calls and happy hours you have, it’s just not the same as sharing a physical space with your team (at least, when that’s what you’re used to). Meeting and interacting with people face to face helps us connect and empathize with each other better.
While I do miss my teammates and love seeing their faces on my screen, I don’t always love calling in to our huge Zoom calls. I don’t like being put on the spot, and in a Zoom call of 20 people, only 2-3 people can really talk at a time, as opposed to a meeting room where multiple conversations between smaller groups of people can occur simultaneously.
And of course, without being in the same room as my coworkers, I lose the ability to read any physical cues such as someone’s body language or facial expressions. This makes collaboration and presentations even harder. For example, during our regular show and tells, I can present my work and read the room – are people interested in what’s on the screen? Are they confused by what I’m saying (in which case I would elaborate or clarify)? Does it look like someone wants to ask me a question (I would then pause and allow them to speak up)?
"Company parties or the office ping pong table weren't solely responsible for our culture before, just like Zoom calls and online happy hours aren't now."
I also miss the opportunities to engage in “water cooler” conversations with my teammates as I bump into them in the kitchen or pass by their desk. Now that our interactions are limited to the digital space, it means I have to be much more intentional about keeping in touch. And I haven’t been great at this. Before, I’d happily chat with my desk neighbors or whoever happens to be eating lunch at the same time as I am, but now I’m mostly talking with the people who are working on the same project I am. It’s not hard to shoot my teammates a DM, but it feels strange for me to message them just wanting to chat without a work-related purpose.
In comparison to other workplaces, I’d say our team is tight-knit. We attend each other's birthday parties and dinner parties; some of us work out together, and others have even taken vacations together. We’re a family, and one of the reasons I love working where I do is because of the genuine culture I’ve become a part of. But the longer we’re forced to be apart, I wonder how much we’ll lose.
Company parties or the office ping pong table weren't solely responsible for our culture before, just like Zoom calls and online happy hours aren't now. What makes the culture are the people. So I've concluded I need to step up and do my part in maintaining my work relationships, beyond the scheduled events. While I might feel uncomfortable randomly messaging coworkers to ask them how their weekend was, or scheduling my own one-on-one call with them, a unique situation like the one we’re in requires changing my mentality.
How do I maintain a work/life balance during this time?
I’ll first preface this by saying I’m in a comfortable living situation; I don’t have any children and I don’t live with a Craigslist roommate (although I have in the past!). Next, I’ll say that a bulk of my sanity has been retained thanks to the expectations my company has already set for employees. Like any good relationship, there’s trust. We are trusted to get our work done and do it well, and in return, we have a lot of flexibility.
Yet after the first week of our mandated work from home schedule, I felt exhausted and sad due to the sudden shift in my daily routine, along with my growing anxiety around the unknowns of our company, economy and global health. So in the weeks to come, I set two goals for myself: creating a new daily routine and setting boundaries for myself.
"It’s much harder to 'leave work' when the area where you do all your work is just a few feet away from where you’d normally relax and unwind."
Creating a new daily routine
While I used to love waking up and eating breakfast while watching the news on TV, these days I choose to eat breakfast while reading a book or journaling. Personally, I hate watching or reading the news now – there’s just an overload of information that doesn’t seem to do me any good. Instead, I’ve found that beginning my day with some reflection and intention-setting while journaling, or consumption of some inspiring content (I’m currently reading Becoming by Michelle Obama), has done wonders for my day. If I do decide to tune into any COVID-related news, it’s usually in the form of an email newsletter I like that discusses business and finance, or a short YouTube clip from John Oliver (the humor really helps bring some lightness to the serious situation we’re in!).
I also do my best to maintain the breaks I would normally take if I were working in the office. That means an hour or so for lunch, and a few breaks in the morning and afternoon. Usually, I’ll use this time to walk my dog, which doubles as getting some fresh air and physical exercise since I’ve undoubtedly become more sedentary these past few weeks. Taking my breaks as usual also gives me some semblance of continuity from my pre-COVID life.
Setting boundaries for myself
When working remotely, we don’t have the luxury of physically “leaving work.” You know that feeling when you’ve had a hard day and finally leave the office to enjoy a nice dinner or drink out, or maybe just relax on your couch for a bit? It doesn’t seem so significant at the time, but now I really miss those moments. It’s much harder to “leave work” when the area where you do all your work is just a few feet away (or maybe in the same area for some) from where you’d normally relax and unwind. What we do physically has a strong influence on our mental states, so now that that element of physicality is gone, I need to work that much harder to make a mental switch from “work mode” to “home mode.”
While I’m no workaholic, it can be difficult to commit to “home mode” after I’ve logged off for the day. I’m probably using my computer in the evenings for one reason or another, and I’m definitely using my phone, both of which have my work email, Slack workspaces, and access to work files. When we’re stuck at home, we’re all more likely to be using our screens, and what’s one more reply to my client or one quick design fix? I’ve had to learn that adhering to the boundaries I’ve set is important for my well-being and for client expectations, even if I do slip up and give in once in a while.
I’ve also found it useful to turn on Do Not Disturb mode for Slack while working. I used to do this at the office if I was in deep flow, but now I find myself in DND mode much more often. While I enjoy seeing all the memes my coworkers are sending and catching up on our many Slack channels, it seems there’s been an increase in online noise since we’re all desperate for social interaction of any sort. It’s easy to get sucked into Slack threads, but 30 minutes later I realize I didn’t get anything done and now I’m even more stressed than before.
Likewise, I use a Chrome plugin that allows me to create blacklists during working hours. Included in my blacklist are any social media and news sites. Early on during our work from home mandate, I found myself scrolling through Twitter or Reddit under the guise of “reading news” when I was really just being unproductive.
Lastly, an important learning for me is letting go of the idea that working from home means working 24/7 because I have “nothing else to do.” I’ve felt guilty taking my regular breaks, fearing I’ll miss a Slack DM or that someone will be wondering why I’m not online, even though that has literally never happened during my time at Funsize. Now, more than ever, we need to prioritize our mental, emotional, and physical health, and for me that means knowing when to work and when to rest.
I'm Terri Lee, a designer, poi lover and podcast enthusiast from Austin.