What I Learned Working Remotely For Two Months

I’ve been working remotely — mostly from home — for the past two months. Certain circumstances in my job gave me the opportunity and one of them is a project in Thailand which I was managing. I’ve always seen remote work as something positive and productive. It helps the company save on costs while mostly leveraging on the employee and how he or she can save on time commuting to and from work and perhaps expenses on food.

It’s been something I’ve continuously fought for in our organization which was met with resistance due mostly to convention and distrust.

One thing I quickly noticed while working remotely is how more productive I am compared to being in the office. I don’t have issues with the daily commute as I live five minutes away from the office — ten on bad days. But I just find there are too many distractions in the office especially with an open-office floor plan.

I work like a diesel engine. Working slowly, gathering enough momentum before really gaining any kind of traction in a task. And I find that when I get distracted — whether by a question, an invitation to get a quick bite, or a simple water-cooler chat — it derails me so much that it’s hard for me to get back to, more so focus on, what I was previously doing.

Remote, finally

Working remotely helped a lot but with it came some drawbacks. One is having to pay for parking whereas parking was free in the office granting you come in early. Two, coffee isn’t free and food is more expensive since I’m usually working at a coffee shop. Three, I have to actually pay to use the internet.

In a progressive organization, these would’ve been reimbursable but since remote work wasn’t really met with open arms in ours, these ended up as out-of-pocket expenses.

To save on costs, I decided to work from home instead. It was a great and obvious choice if you think about it. Parking was once again free. Coffee and food, served with love by my wife. Internet was fast and I was already paying for it monthly so it’s not really an additional cost.

Now if you know anything about me, you’d know that we have two kids: a 9-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy , both homeschooled , which means they’re pretty much at home most, if not the entirety, of the day. This proved to be more than a challenge as with the previous setup we had, when I worked at a local coffee shop, was that I spent the entire morning there until lunch and come home at around 1 or 2 in the afternoon — in which the two kids would be deep in the middle of their naps already.

We live in a small house with two floors and an attic. There isn’t really a private office space of sort I can use without getting distracted so all five of us had to adjust — including our 7-year-old Chihuahua. At mornings, I work upstairs in our bedroom. There’s a small table enough to fit my Mac, a cup of coffee, and my phone. Add anything else and it would be too crowded already. In the afternoon, we switch. The kids go upstairs and I work at the dining area.

This explains why my face has been missing in video conferences the past two months. I really didn’t feel like giving other people a tour of our sanctuary.

How I work

The great thing I learned about working remotely is that you tend to work more intentionally unlike in offices where everyone always have their guards up — on the lookout if their immediate supervisor is anywhere near — not wanting to be seen doing nothing. Working remotely on the other hand is only working when you need to. After all, who is there to check if I’ve had my face stuck in front of my computer for 9 hours straight?

Or maybe that’s just me, because I have kids. Maybe some poor software engineer would happily sit still in front of their computer at home waiting for someone to give them something to do — I’m not sure.

I get to inbox zero daily by using labels or folders so my daily routine looks something like:

  • Check email first thing and run through each of the new ones
  • Mark emails that needs my action (or reply) with the label “Take Action”
  • Mark emails that are interesting with the label “Read Later”
  • After that first pass, I go and check emails with the label “To Follow Up” and see whether anything needs following up
  • Work on items under the “Take Action” label; either removing the label once the task is done (or once I’ve replied to it) or marking it with a new label “To Follow Up” in case I need to hear back from that person

And that’s basically how I go through my work day, at least the tasks I need to do. Everything else is gravy.

I typically check emails twice or thrice (max) in a day. Once in the morning and another one or two times in the afternoon. And after my initial run (see above) I usually close my laptop and check for updates using my phone. This now gives me time to interact with my family.

Work-life balance is a myth

There is beauty and, sure enough, challenges that comes with working from home. The obvious ones, you get to spend more time with your family. Though I quickly found out that the same thing that makes working from home amazing is the same exact thing that would make me go insane.

My wife Nouelle told me, when we agreed on the setup, we will be fighting in no time. And true to her words, we did. Mostly because of me. I’ve been so used to working in the office from 9 to 5 that I never knew how to act accordingly at home within those hours.

I mostly ignored my kids and fiddled on my phone waiting for something work-related to do. It’s not that I was ignoring them by choice. I was just having a fish-out-of-water experience. Obviously, this didn’t sit well with Nouelle and I’m pretty sure our kids — as excited as they were when they found out I’ll be spending more time at home — now resent the idea.

There’s a lot of books, articles, and discussions about work-life balance yet here it was, right in front of me, the best experiment anyone could ever ask for to finding out how to balance the two.

I have to admit, it took some time (and a lot of fights) before I finally figured it out. Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg once said, “There is no such thing as work-life balance. There is work, there is life, and there is no balance,” or simply put: work is just a part of life.

I chose to be there for my family first and foremost even between 9 o’clock in the morning and five in the afternoon. I figured, if I were to be flagged by the company for doing this, then it wasn’t the right organization to be a part of in the first place.

In the end, it all worked out. I managed to close out the remaining project while learning a whole new lot from my kids. I improved on my patience and mindfulness, now more aware of the things happening around me instead of just going through the ebbs and flows of life aimlessly.

I found out that our 9-year-old can do her schoolwork on her own and watched her with such amazement. Every time she gets a perfect score, I lift her up and try (to the best of my physical ability, which isn’t saying much) to throw her up in the air and catch her repeatedly which she enjoys very much. She draws and paints like a true artist and I look forward to seeing her collection in a gallery some day.

Our 4-year-old is what you’d get if you mix a TED talk and parkour. He talks a lot—and I mean a lot—and can easily wreak havoc if you try to take your eyes off him. He naps exactly after lunch and gets up for another 17-minute dialogue on things I might’ve missed. At night, he volunteers to lead the prayer, starts with thanking God then goes off to re-tell everything that happened that day. They fight from time to time but which siblings don’t, right?

My wife is an amazing specimen. I tried as much as I can to help with the chores while I was working but most of the time I just watched her do everything — cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner, clean up, homeschool the kids, fold and sort the laundry, write a blog entry, read a book, workout, etc. — with grace and dedication. I was the distraction to her nine-to-five but I never heard her complain and that’s why I am lucky to have her.

To remote or not to remote

I now have a chance (yet again) to build something from scratch. Will I still advocate for remote work? You bet. Only this time, there will be some adjustments — minor tweaks, if you will.

Remote work is frowned upon by management because it circumvents convention so they stick with what works (or what seems to work) which is to force employees to stay in the office for 40 hours a week carefully policed by biometrics and physical time sheets. But does it have to be either/or?

Jim Collins coined the term “tyranny of the OR” which dictates that one must choose from two seemingly contradictory strategies. One concept I’ve come across is what they call ‘core hours’ where employees are required to physically be in the office at these hours (typically from 10am to 2pm) but outside of that, they are free to work wherever and whenever they choose.

This encourages some face time which helps in making meetings more productive but at the same time it also allows for some freedom. I’ve been thinking of implementing this while also taking it a notch further by choosing just 3 or 4 days in a week that will have core hours. Other days, everyone’s free to work wherever and whenever they choose.

If results and productivity are what we’re really after and every person we hire is someone we’d love (not just like) to work with then we should support them whichever way we can. After all, everyone has one goal and that is to make the organization’s vision a reality.

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