Pandemics, Productivity and Personal Space
Taking a break from the strictly serious and career oriented blog posts here to write something that I think we really all need to be talking about; the challenges and lessons of working remotely during a pandemic.
I want to start this by saying that I know the ability to write about this is coming from a place of significant privilege. I have been fortunate enough to continue working throughout this pandemic, I haven't had the added worries of financial stress added to me nor have I had to worry about a roof over my head. But I think it was put well that, we're all in the same storm but in very different boats. I in no way intend to diminish or ignore the hardships that so many others have endured but I also think that it is important to discuss how this situation has impacted those of us who have been working remotely for the past few months, and possibly for the foreseeable future for many of us.
With that said, I also know that some people are absolutely thriving in this new world. Some of my friends and colleagues have been having a better time than usual and have actually found themselves to be more productive. I am not one of those people. I also know that I am not alone there. Many of us have been struggling to figure out a new balance, to draw a line between work and home, and to just keep ourselves sane and moving forward. So to those of you reading this in the same boat just know, I feel you.
So let's dig into it. What has it been like for me working from home for the past .. nearly 5 months? It's been rough. I'm young, I'm early into my career, I'm trying to save money but I also love my personal space. That has lead me to living in a one bedroom apartment on my own.
When we moved to Work From Home on March 13, I thought this would last a couple of weeks maximum (yes, we can all take a break and just laugh here). I had gotten rid of my old desk from university only a month before. So, I was going to be working from my kitchen table and the couch for a couple of weeks, no big deal. Well, it quickly became obvious that was not going to be the case so now I had to order a new desk during a pandemic, get it set up and find space for it... That space for it came in the form of a section of wall sort of between my kitchen and living room. Not exactly ideal for the "Ensure you have a separate and dedicated space for working" advice we were all being given for how to work effectively from home. But that was fine, we could make it work.
The first couple of weeks of working from home (or living at work as some people call it) were going okay, albeit less productive than my in office time. But everyone was feeling that way! Everyone I talked to was saying how they felt less productive, couldn't focus etc etc etc. But this was only going to be for a couple of weeks so that would be okay and would even out, right? Fortunately for many of us, we've found ways to work from home more effectively than in those first few weeks, partially out of necessity. But if many of us are being completely honest, we're still not at 100% of the productivity we were in the office. The impact of this on those who are aware of this and who feel guilty for it is that it's causing many people to work insane hours to "make up for it". There is this new mentality around "Oh I was distracted for 10 minutes, I have to make that time up later"but I find that many are going to extremes. They're working an extra 2 hours to make up for a couple of minutes of distraction throughout the day and it is not sustainable. So, we're all now struggling to find this balance between working and existing outside of work.
And then the isolation aspect kicked in. For some people they just wanted a ten minute break from their kids, some needed just a little bit of personal space that didn't have their significant other in it, some of us just wanted to see one single other human being after weeks alone, most people desperately wanted to see their people (friends, families, neighbours, organization members etc). It was easy to pretend that this was a "personal" issue that we were all dealing with, but it wasn't and isn't. Teams and organizations work effectively when people are working together, when you have cohesion. Sure, video conferencing has made that significantly easier than it would have been in the past but it still isn't truly enough. You miss out on so many aspects of communication that we have come to rely on through a screen. So, the lack of interaction with people outside of our homes started to wear on us as well. But, at least we had video calls so we could work through it.
The issue is, all of these things kept stacking up. There was always a silver lining if you asked leaders or influencers or any positivity/motivational coach. And sure, it absolutely could have always been worse. But it still sucked. My revelation and improvement over the past few months came with that realization. That this sucked and that, most importantly, it was allowed to suck. Social media was still shoving positivity down our throats so hard we were all choking on it, but I chose to remove myself from it all. I allowed the shittiness of this situation to wash over me and to just exist. When I stopped trying to find the positivity in every situation and I accepted that this situation was (to quote the most over used term of 2020) unprecedented, my life improved drastically.
Instead of trying to fix things I couldn't control, I focussed on the things I could to make other aspects of my days less crappy. I started to work out again, even if it wasn't in the gym like I wanted it to be I could still do something to get moving. I started to set hard start and end times for myself for work, to stop myself from over working and burning out, obviously these were ignored during specific work pushes but they were a general guideline at least. I also stopped using my desk or computer after work entirely. That was never something I did pre-pandemic and by moving away for good at the end of the day I could still create some distance between work and home even if the line was still going to be a bit blurry. But by not pretending that everything was okay all the time I stopped wasting my energy on things I couldn't control. I let myself have bad days, but looked forward to the better days again. It was miraculous how much more energy and how much more positive I could actually be when I stopped forcing it.
So, that's all well and good when you're in a pandemic but what have I actually learned?
First, things are allowed to suck. It's okay to be upset when things aren't going well and by embracing that you're about to get a much clearer picture of whats going on instead of pretending everything is okay. That's important to do during any situation, and is something to remember in and out of work.
Second, stop trying to force things to work. Everyone went into this situation expecting things to run the exact same way that they did in the office, but this wasn't the office. Be willing to adapt to new situations and admit that maybe things aren't possible that were in the past.
Lastly, what works for you may not work for others. Just because there were certain things I could change that made my life easier in the pandemic does not mean that will work for others. It's important to remember that it's okay to give advice (when it's asked for), but you have to keep in mind that it may not work out the same way twice or for someone else and that's ok.
The whole world is upside down right now, for more reasons that a pandemic and working from home. We need to remember that and embrace it. We need to learn from everything that is happening right now and figure out how we can use what we're learning to make our lives, and the lives of those around us a little bit better. It's okay if you don't feel okay right now, very few of us do.