Three Longs & Three Shorts

Why Remote Work Is So Hard – and How It Can Be Fixed

We have been featuring quite a few pieces on Working From Home (WFH) for it affects most of us in a meaningful way and looks likely to stay this way for a while. Earlier this month, we featured a piece on the long unhappy history of WFH.As a response to that, one of our readers shared this piece from none other than Cal Newport, someone who has done some elaborate thinking about how to make our work more effective. Cal Newport, the author of the brilliant book Deep Work, takes a more constructive view of WFH. In this piece, Cal does recognise the challenges of WFH – lack of face time with co-workers and its implications on organisational culture and the loss of office as a default place for most people to build social ties as that’s the place you end up spending most of your waking hours. But he recommends some useful tools and techniques to improve our WFH experience which can also address the issue of productivity killers (excessive emails, instant messages, social media) that have crept into our worklife from even before the pandemic.
“an obvious problem with telecommuting: the loss of face-to-face interaction…A successful workplace depends on “interactions and experiences that are only possible” in the office, such as “hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.”
Face-to-face interactions help people communicate and bond, but that’s only part of their value. The knowledge work pursued in many modern offices—thinking, investigating, synthesizing, writing, planning, organizing, and so on—tends to be fuzzy and disorganized compared to the structured processes of, say, industrial manufacturing. In many offices, tasks are assigned haphazardly, and there are few systematic ways to track who is working on what or find out how the work is going. In such a chaotic work environment, there are profound advantages to gathering people together in one place. In person, for instance, the social cost of asking someone to take on a task is amplified; this friction gives colleagues reason to be thoughtful about the number of tasks they pass off to others. In a remote workplace, in which co-workers are reduced to abstract e-mail addresses or Slack handles, it’s easier for them to overload each other in an effort to declare victory over their own rapidly filling in-boxes. (This may be one of the reasons that, in our current moment of coronavirus-induced telework, so many people—even those without kids underfoot—feel busier than before, despite the absence of time-consuming commutes.) In other ways, meanwhile, offices can be helpfully frictionless. Drawn-out e-mail conversations can be cut short with just a few minutes of spontaneous hallway conversation. When we work remotely, this kind of ad-hoc coördination becomes harder to organize, and decisions start to drag.
…Even if a team solves the logistical challenges of remote work, it must confront the psychological ones… For many people, the rituals of the commute—podcasts on the train, hellos in the elevator—serve as a similar preparation for the day’s work. Without them, it becomes easy to lose track of the distinction between professional and personal life. Work time becomes more scattered, and leisure time less pure. There’s a reason so many professional writers stretch their budgets to lease private offices, even though, on paper, the extra expense seems unnecessary. They knew what many socially distancing knowledge workers are now discovering: deep work requires some degree of separation.
…All this is to say nothing of the pleasures of office life itself. In an age when community-based social ties are increasingly frayed, the office is where many adults interact with other adults. Perhaps, encoded in our genes after millennia of tribal coöperation, there is instinctual excitement at working side by side with others toward a shared goal. An e-mail that reads “Job well done!” is not the same as a smile. These benefits of the office—these subtle affirmations of our humanity—were easy to overlook, until we abruptly found ourselves deprived of them.
…As a newly minted remote worker, you may find that demands on your attention are actually more incessant and intrusive than they used to be—a natural consequence when a workplace depends more than ever on phone calls, e-mails, and video conferences. You might respond by consolidating all of your appointments into a given half of the day—say, between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.—preserving the other hours, by default, for actually working on the items discussed. This might be a good moment to try out scheduling software, such as Calendly or Acuity, which replaces e-mail exchanges about when to meet with an appointment-booking interface that reduces scheduling to a single click…. Perhaps you’ll adopt a Darwin-esque morning walk around the neighborhood—a reasonable approximation of a ramble around your country estate—or move your home office from the main floor of your house to a corner of your basement, sacrificing convenience for quiet.
Those who want to venture even deeper into the world of personal productivity might try “time blocking,” an organizational strategy dating back at least to Benjamin Franklin, who wrote about it in his autobiography. In this approach, you assign your work to specific blocks of time in which you’ll execute it. This stands in contrast to the standard strategy, which is to drive your day off lists, appointments, and incoming messages. Time-blocked schedules can be intense, since you must constantly focus on not taking too much time to execute any given task. But they add structure to otherwise chaotic workdays, and can significantly increase the amount you’re able to do in a limited amount of time.
Organization-level innovations will also be needed. Newly remote companies might consider acting like software developers, and moving project planning out of e-mail and Slack and into more agile, structured systems. Web services such as Trello, Microsoft Flow, and Asana allow all of a team’s tasks to appear as cards on a digital bulletin board, so that everyone can see who’s working on what and how it’s going. That sort of transparency fights overload by eliminating the haphazard assignment of work; it also encourages a culture in which people work deeply on a smaller number of tasks at a time—an especially meaningful improvement for remote workers, whose days can otherwise be propelled by pileups of ambiguous demands.
Managers may need to rethink how meetings work. A browser plug-in called Clockwise helps teams organize them in a “batched” fashion, so that they occur back to back, preserving as much uninterrupted time as possible on each employee’s individual calendar. (Matt Martin, the company’s C.E.O., says that Clockwise saw sign-ups increase by forty-two per cent in March and April—a period during which, according to its internal data, newly remote workers have been spending more time in meetings and struggling with more fragmented schedules.) Alternatively, a team might channel the flood of check-ins by borrowing the idea of “office hours” from academia. In this system, workers post regular times during which they’ll be available for unscheduled calls or video conferences. If a colleague has an ambiguous question or request, she simply waits until office hours come around to talk it through. As I wrote last year, the software company Basecamp has been using this strategy for years with extraordinary success: the inconvenience of waiting for office hours to begin is greatly outweighed by the control each individual regains over her schedule.”