There is no shortage of tips, blogs, etc being published at the moment that are offering well-meaning advice for working from home. We like to think a bit differently here at Axenic and the following blog post from Axenic Senior Consultant Tory Young is not another one of those. Instead Tory has generously shared his experiences of working from home over the years and some of the more creative ways he has kept his sanity, productivity and most importantly – his work-life balance while working from home.
We’ve all been slammed face-first into a new normal working from home full-time routine and so have our clients. We’re all trying to figure out what the new work-life balance looks like. I’ve seen more after-hours emails from my clients than I ever have. I’ve also had several conversations with some of my co-workers who have said “I’ve still got a few more things to do tonight…” at 5 PM. This combination of circumstances may encourage you to pick up some bad habits as your work-life and home-life have suddenly collided. If you don’t read any more of this message, please do this one thing. When you’re thinking about working past 5 PM, start applying a quick test to the work to see if it’s really worth it. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it actually is! However most of the time, it can wait.
Test 1: Would you miss your usual train to do this one last thing? If you were still in the office, would you actually take the later train home? The crowded one…The one you dread taking (You know the one). Would you work that extra 30 minutes and end up spending an extra hour in rush hour traffic?
Test 2: Would you call your friend or partner to say “Sorry, I’ll be an hour late. I have to work on this one last thing.” ?
Why do I feel so passionately about this? Here’s a little story…
This was a common occurrence in the Young household. “Are you still working?” “Woah. Is it really 7:30 PM…again?”
Several years ago I got my first real security opportunity and I was thrilled to be involved. I was learning a ton, I felt important. I felt like my work really meant something. But, after a few months, I started to hear ” Are you still working?” from my wife. I would get lost in my work and lose track of time. As things got even more chaotic it was often 8:30, 9:30 or even midnight when I finally walked away from my desk. I always thought “If I just finish this, I’ll be able to get started on the next thing tomorrow”. Which turned into “If I start looking at the next thing tonight, I’ll have a bigger jump on it tomorrow.”
I always justified this to myself because I genuinely liked the work I was doing. It’s fun. It’s interesting. I’m enjoying it. They need my help. The problem with that mindset is – it never ends. There’s always one more thing. Looking back, I lost a year of my life. I barely remember it outside the context of work. That year of my life was punctuated with work trips, late nights, datacentre builds and weekends answering emails. I hit rock bottom, believe it or not, I actually answered an email about offsite backup tape storage while in a canoe floating down the river on my vacation. The reality of my situation was that none of it was really urgent. It would all be there in the morning and nobody was pushing me to do this to myself.
I managed to change my behaviour and continued working from home for another 3 years of my career. So, what did I change?
- Stop working at the same time every day. Close the laptop. Shut off the monitor. Walk away. Lock up the keyboard. Have your partner hide the batteries to your mouse. Do whatever you have to do. Keep a schedule and stick to it.
- Make someone hold you accountable. Ask someone in your household to help by asking you why you’re still at your desk at 6:00 PM. Then you’ll have to convince them that it’s worth continuing. Once you hear your explanation out loud you may change your mind.
- Your home-place is now your workplace. Worlds have collided. Do your best to compartmentalise. Have a dedicated workspace. If you can, don’t use your workspace for anything else but work. Given the situation we’re in, this may be impossible but try to achieve the goal in your own way. Throw a sheet over your work equipment when you’re not using it. Keep it from invading your home life. Out of sight, out of mind.
- Doing a few chores between 8-5 isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It will absolutely improve your post-5 PM life. If you’re preparing for a meeting, think of different ways to ask your questions while you’re folding laundry for 10 or 20 minutes. Think about the best way to model some information while stacking dishes. You’re never going to come up with that perfect concise description of a difficult concept while staring at a screen. You have to replace that 10-minute trip for coffee somehow. This is one instance where blending your work and home life is beneficial. Do something mundane and useful but think about work. Kill two birds with one stone, but never the other way around. “I’ll just work while I watch a movie with the kids” isn’t the same!
- Eat lunch at the same time. Block it out on your calendar. It helps if you actually cook lunch. If your partner and kids are there, cook with them. Eat with them. Spend an hour on lunch and take a break. If you’re alone, put on some tunes. Enjoy the process of cooking and eating a hot meal. You will look forward to this time and you’ll welcome the break and be more productive afterwards because of it. There have been way too many times where I thought “I’ll just do this one more thing” and I end up missing lunch only to be met with a wall of meetings I forgot about. Then I’m hungry, I’m angry and miserable. I already know some of you are guilty of this, you know who you are! This is the easiest bad habit to start in or out of the office.
- Warm up a little before you have to talk at length. Talk to yourself out loud. Have imaginary conversations with your next client. Sing in the shower. Talk to your pets. Talk to your partner. Talk to your kids. Yell to the neighbours in their bubble. There are some mornings where the very first thing you say out loud is on an 8:00 AM conference call and you find yourself struggling. Don’t take those “Good mornings.” and “How was your weekend?” chats we have all day for granted. The point is, you’ve got to do a little warm-up before you jump right into a meeting. It’s really hard to be articulate when you haven’t said much all day.
- Five minute concerts/dance parties. Online meetings are stressful. It’s awkward, it’s tiring and it’s mentally taxing. Shake it off when it’s over. Put on your favourite tunes and put on those dancing shoes. Play air guitar. Do you remember that super awkward 80s dance scene from The Breakfast Club? Yes, that one. Do that. You deserve a reward. Seriously though, you have to replace that 10 or 15 minute walk back from the client’s office where you can decompress. Don’t hang up from one call and jump straight into the next task. Do something else for a few minutes. Don’t be the “I have to jump to the next call” person every day. Try to schedule your meetings as if you’ve still got that 10 or 15 minute walk back to the office. Do what you want with this time but decompress and prepare yourself mentally for your next thing. As for me, it’s dance party time!
- Consider your impact on others work-life balance. You may be able to answer that one email after hours and go back to what you were doing without causing much disruption. However, the recipient of that message may feel compelled to get you the answer to your question right away. They may think “I have the time. I may as well.” or they may think “I need to prove myself. I’ll go the extra mile!”. Stop. Break the chain. Write yourself a note and send that email in the morning. It’s better for you, it’s better for them.
- You’re likely in a household with at least 1 other person right now. Let people know your schedule even if it’s just a quick reminder to the people in your house “Hey, I’m going to be on a call with a client for about an hour. It starts in about 15 minutes.” You’re likely in your office/bedroom/kitchen wherever you’re working all day long. It’s unrealistic to expect people to leave you alone all day. If you don’t remind them what the important times are, people won’t remember, and they’ll show up when it’s least convenient.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking. What is Tory’s after-call dance party like? Sorry but the dance party is invite only! You’re also probably thinking, some of these points are pretty black and white views. Of course, there are grey areas and you can absolutely strike a middle-ground. The point here is to build habits, compartmentalise and figure out what works for you. These worked for me, take from it what you can, discard the rest and finally – well done for reading right through to the end – happy working from home.