Extreme loneliness or the perfect balance? How to work from home and stay healthy

More and more people are working where they live, attracted by the promise of flexibility, efficiency and no commute. But does this come at a cost to their wellbeing?

When Sean Blanda started working remotely in 2017, the allure of a “digital nomad” lifestyle – working at your laptop on the beach, say – wasn’t lost on him. The ability to work flexibly, be that at home or wherever else life may take you, is the dream for every disgruntled employee who has to fit in school pickups, dentist appointments and long commutes around office hours.

But after two years of working from home, Blanda, an editorial director for a tech company based in Philadelphia, knows only too well the many pitfalls of this way of life, with the greatest being isolation.

“You’ll need a lot of quiet self-confidence,” he recently wrote on Twitter. “You won’t get the positive reinforcement you’d normally rely on from body language and the ‘vibe’ from being in an office.”

Beyond the lack of interaction with colleagues – there are no ideas by osmosis, no overhearing others talking – there is also the lack of interaction with the wider world. “The main way most of us are connected to our local, geographical communities is through work,” Blanda says. “When you remove that – when you’re not commuting, you don’t bump shoulders, you don’t meet the guy who happens to have a cousin on your block and now you’re friends – you have to work harder to feel connected.”

More and more people are working where they live and living where they work, attracted by the promise of greater flexibility. In the UK there are 4.8 million freelancers, mostly home-based workers, making up a significant 15% of the workforce, and companies are increasingly allowing employees to work remotely.

But there are problems with blurring the line between work and home, as London-based academic Frances Holliss, who teaches at the Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design, found during her systematic analysis of “the work-home” for her doctoral thesis. After interviewing everyone from a professional juggler to a building surveyor who worked out of a garden shed, Holliss found some common disadvantages and negative impacts: mental health suffered (anxiety, stress, depression), isolation was rife (not being in a team), and it was hard to have self-discipline (proximity of the fridge and biscuit tin; not enough exercise; difficulty in setting boundaries between work and life).

Working alone may mean greater flexibility and fewer interruptions, but it is in those small interactions with colleagues – where people become multifaceted, as opposed to the flattened, disembodied personas of online avatars – that connections are made. The entire workforce at InVision, the tech company that Blanda works for, operates remotely, so he makes sure to start online meetings by asking his colleagues about their weekend plans or their families. “It’s about depth,” he says. When you’re hardly ever in the same room, it’s the only way to really get to know each other – and to build trust.

The loneliness that comes with the territory is one of the reasons that freelance editor Louise Goss, based in Northamptonshire, recently launched the Homeworker, a new magazine catering for those in what she calls “a hidden economy” – all the people plugging away in their domiciles. Beyond the obvious interest in curating relevant resources, from support with self-assessment tax returns to desk-based pilates, Goss also wanted to foster a sense of community: “Just that feeling that, even though you’re on your own, you’re not alone.”

Of course, the biggest hurdle when you are alone is that there is no one to help you regain perspective when things are not going to plan. Not knowing when to say no to work – or how to switch off for the day – can quickly lead to being overwhelmed. Figuring out how to balance life and work in the same space is difficult for everyone, although research published last month by the Hans Böckler Foundation in Germany suggests women have it harder.

Contrary to the received wisdom that working from home equals more flexibility for parents, this study found that, for mothers, it basically means more childcare: three whole extra hours a week, to be exact. The home-based fathers the study polled, meanwhile, just got extra work done – but scarcely more time with the kids. If juggling sickness, school plays, inset days and the never-ending summer holidays with a full-time office job is difficult enough for a parent to manage, trying to do anything that requires brain power from your kitchen table in the midst of tiny people is – well, to call it “challenging” seems disingenuous. It’s impossible.

Dana Denis-Smith founded her legal services company, Obelisk Support, in 2010 to address this conundrum. The journalist and lawyer turned entrepreneur was struck by how antiquated the nine-to-five office-based model seemed in the contemporary service economy, noting how many women were excluded as a result. Professions such as hers in particular struggled to accommodate the flexibility that the first 15 or so years of having children generally require. “No one wants me,” seasoned lawyers would tell her, or “I’m just a mum.” Denis-Smith’s solution was to come up with a system to keep them in the game. Obelisk is a legal agency of sorts, connecting a pool of home-based lawyers – who decide exactly how much work they want to take on – with any company needing ad-hoc legal support.

Denis-Smith set up her company at the same time as she had her first child: “It was very hard,” she says. In the beginning she had to work nights, from 11pm through to when her daughter woke up at 4am. Her husband would bring her a coffee in bed; she would catch an hour’s sleep.

The baby and her business grew in tandem – more business each year meant she could get more childcare – until five years ago, she finally went full-time and took an office. The whole undertaking has been a constant balancing act between giving her all and giving herself a break, as well as not being shy to ask for help. “It’s about staying confident,” says Denis-Smith, “and not letting it feel like you’re failing in any way.”

Self-confidence is key to successful home-based working of any stripe, as is knowing how to communicate clearly (so your distant bosses and colleagues know what you are up to), learning to work consistently (in the absence of feedback you might otherwise receive in an office environment) and, crucially, recognising when you need to go for a walk, work out or otherwise just take a break.

For Germany-based architect and interior designer Judith Simone Wahle, who has worked from home for six years, mastering this has brought its own rewards: realising your own system is working is empowering, she says. “It makes you strong, seeing you can manage it all.”

That often means getting the small things right, such as having a clearly defined workspace and a routine. Wahle starts work only once she has showered, got dressed and put her shoes on (curiously, she’s not the only remote worker who mentions the need for shoes). As she puts it: “How can you do planning applications, and still be in your pyjamas? It just doesn’t feel right.”

Engineer Isabelle Santaella, 50, learned this the hard way. She had spent the 25 years she worked at a digital security company in La Ciotat, southern France, wishing she were at home. About two years ago, she finally took the plunge and quit her job to set up a permaculture homestead in her backyard. The psychological landing was brutal: the anxiety she felt about not knowing how to manage her time and her crippling fear of failure sent her straight to the doctor in tears.

About 18 months into her new working life, her former colleagues can testify to how happy she now is, she says. She has learned to temper her expectations of herself and to let work go, and the impact on her wellbeing has been obvious. “I haven’t been ill once, I’ve lost weight, I feel great,” she says. Plus she gets to feed her chickens in her PJs every morning.

Santaella talks about the psychologist’s notion of congruence: your daily life being in sync with what is going on inside. “It’s about not doing a job I hate: I’m no longer in conflict with myself.” It’s also about being at home, literally: she says she would not have made this change if farming involved commuting to fields elsewhere. “We worked so hard to make our house a home,” she says. “It’s where I feel best.”

Blanda goes for a similarly domestic comparison, likening working from home to cooking from scratch: it might take a while to figure out what you are doing in the kitchen, but once you have nailed it, your meal will almost always taste better.

In spite of the obvious challenges and tough learning curve of bringing your work home, it seems it is worth it: the vast majority of remote workers report enjoying the way they live and work. Of the 100-odd remote workers Holliss interviewed for her studies, only about six said that they would return to the office given the chance. Everyone else loved it. And that may be about as good as working life can get.

This post was originally published at The Guardian.

Anatomy of a bad meeting

A horse suddenly came galloping quickly down the road. It seemed as though the man had somewhere important to go.

Another man, who was standing alongside the road, shouted, “Where are you going?” and the man on the horse replied,

“I don’t know! Ask the horse!

As we’ve previously discovered, poor meetings -if not not tamed- can run away with our productivity, focus and engagement for the rest of the day.

So now the question is: how do we know we have a bad meeting on our hands?

Luckily for us, academics have been asking that same question. And found some answers.

Below is a list of behavioural markers that make up a bad meeting (please notice that these behaviours are not just confined to the actual meeting, but start before and continue after the meeting)

  • Functionally homogenous groups can generate poorer solutions during problem solving because of their ability to consider a smaller range of possible solutions.
  • Attendees that come to the meeting unprepared without having read the agenda add to the low quality of meeting and discussion.
  • Arriving late to a meeting spurs negative social reactions and behavioral intentions and reduces objective meeting quality.
  • Low-performing employees participate less than high-performers in meetings.
  • Lack of humor and laughter patterns stimulate negative behaviors and group performance.
  • Complaining is contagious, and group meeting with complainers perform poorly.
  • Managers can hurt employee engagement by making meetings irrelevant, long, and non-participatory.
  • Interactional unfairness (one sided talking) in meetings can make attendees’ participation in meetings more likely.
  • Failing to debrief meetings can hinder creating a climate of psychological safety.
  • Negative team interactions in meetings predict organizational failure.
  • (Dis)satisfaction with meetings is related to overall job satisfaction

Interested in learning how to track some or all of the above markers?

Sign up here to trial myMeeting.info within your team or organization.

The shadow side of remote work: blurring of boundaries

At GapJumpers we’ve worked remotely for five years. Our employees live all over the world and are scattered across timezones, so remote working was always the most practical options for us.

Working remotely has much upside: flexibility, more hours in your day (since you don’t commute) and being able to manage your workflow according to your preferences and personal situation, especially when it comes to things like caring for family partners, or kids.

But there is a shadow side to remote working, that many organisations and teams might run up against as they moved to 100% remote in the last few weeks.

The physical office, in ways we often take for granted, acts like a big boundary between work and life.

While we have email to bother us at all times of the day and week, for a large part, when we get out of the office, start our commute home, we create space between work and ourselves.

“I’d love to, but lets reschedule this meeting for tomorrow, because I’m heading out the door” is something we lose when we move to remote.

We might find ourselves taking calls at times outside of the normal work hours (both before or after).

Or we might sneak in that one meeting on our day off, because we subconsciously feel like that day off (in the crisis that we find ourselves) does not count, and we like being a team player more than being seen as selfish.

Without some serious boundaries, working from home means the office will seep into your life and make you feel like work is 24/7, while also making you doubt whether you are actually getting any work done.

As team leaders it is important to agree and set boundaries for your team so that you ensure they stay engaged, productive and retain a sense of work life balance.

The first and most important one is to make it ok for people to say no, without it being held against them (because we don’t always know what the home situation is like).

If you’d like to know whether your teams work life balance is getting skewed, tracking meeting markers can be a good start.

Meeting Recovery Syndrome

Every week, employees spend about six hours in meetings, while the average manager meets for a staggering 23 hours.

The result is not only hundreds of billions of wasted dollars, but an exacerbation of what organisational psychologists call:

“meeting recovery syndrome”

This is the time we spent cooling off and regaining focus after a (useless) meeting.

When we sit through an ineffective meeting our focus is essentially being drained away, taking on average 45 mins to recover after a poor meeting.

Meetings sap stamina, productivity and employee wellbeing  if they last too long, fail to engage or turn into one-sided lectures.

So besides being a nice pub quiz fact, why is this important?

Because since going full remote due to the Corona Virus, many people are seeing an increase in communication.

From to chat, email and yes, from virtual meetings.

So as managers, team leader, HR it is important to know how well or poorly this increased communication is being conducted.

This will give you a map to better serve your team and organisations as they get used to 100% remote working and meeting.

Interested in learning how to track key markers that can trigger MRS and its adverse impact on productivity and engagement?

Sign up here for a free beta test of the tool within your organisations or to learn more.

7 Ways to Recover From Too Many Online Meetings During the Day

How to bounce back quickly when virtual meetings are sapping your mental energy.

As most startup founders and entrepreneurs can tell you these days, meeting hangovers are real. Right now people are meeting online for everything from work, to happy hours with friends, to therapy sessions or even working out. A large number of these meetings can seriously deplete your precious resources.

One of the primary obstacles to recovering from meetings is the time it takes to switch from one point of focus (the meeting) to another (deeper work). After a fruitless or stressful meeting, your productivity is drained as your resources are reallocated to deal with the resulting mental stress. 

The end result is that it often takes longer to fully engage in the next piece of work — I’ve noticed it takes me half an hour or 45 minutes. Add in multiple meetings per week (sometimes per day), and you might lose hours of productivity in a week, forcing you into overtime just to get your actual work done.

Here are seven tactics you can use to conquer meeting recovery syndrome and bounce back quickly when meetings sap your mental and physical resources. 

1. Reduce the time you spend in meetings.

The most obvious place to start is with the meetings themselves. You can reduce the time you and your team spend in pointless meetings by following a few strategic guidelines: 

  • Only hold essential meetings. If the issue can be handled by chat or email, do it that way and then disseminate the results to the wider team. 
  • Format your meetings to be short and succinct, with an agenda consisting of only two or three salient action items. 
  • Include only the people necessary to the planned discussion. Again, use email to disseminate short conclusions and summarize decisions made to others. 
  • Provide a way to record the minutes for the meeting, either through technology or a separate individual. 
  • Finally, set hard-and-fast rules about meeting length. If a meeting is to last 30 minutes, it is over by 30 minutes and one second. No exceptions. 

2. Get in the habit of self-debriefing after a meeting.

A little objective debrief after meetings helps you to pinpoint both what’s going right and what can be improved. After each meeting, ask some probing questions, such as: 

  • Who participated? Who was relatively silent? 
  • Was there a significant degree of distraction, perhaps accompanied by side discussions?
  • Did the main discussion get sidetracked significantly? 

Also consider what went well. At what point were participants most engaged? What were you discussing and what exactly was going on then? Through these questions, figure out what worked and what didn’t, then use that information to tweak how you run future meetings to be shorter and more efficient.

3. Schedule strictly meeting-free time periods.

Reserve certain time periods (your most productive ones, preferably) for deep work, and resolve to schedule no meetings during these time periods. 

The simple act of scheduling meeting-free times in your calendar that are dedicated solely to this type of work activity helps you relax, knowing you won’t be diverted into other activities that cause distractions and impede focus.

4.  Meditate every day.

A regular and consistent meditation practice can help you maintain focus and mindful attention throughout the day. In particular, many studies show that mindfulness meditation improves your cognitive abilities. A consistent meditative practice may even help slow and stave off age-related mental decline

5. Start each day with exercise.

Research proves that regularly scheduled workouts help build mental acuity and focus all day long.

Regular exercise and movement help improve cognitive skills and focus in a number of both direct and indirect ways, including reducing inflammation, improving sleep and increasing the supply of oxygen to your brain by forming new blood vessels.

Any simple, low-impact aerobic activity will help build focus. Try walking or cycling, as well as mind-body movement disciplines such as yoga and Pilates. 

6. Try out intermittent fasting.

The underlying premise of intermittent fasting (or IF) is that you refrain from eating anything at all for a certain number of hours in each 24-hour day — anywhere from 14 to 18 — and confining all calorie intake to the remaining hours of the day. 

While this may seem counterintuitive, IF may actually aid daytime focus. Because your body is no longer allocating significant physical resources to the digestive process, you have more resources available for attentive focus and deeper levels of work.

There are a lot of variations on this method, and some may not necessarily be the most healthful approaches for everybody. So it’s important to do your research and discuss this approach with your doctor if you’re concerned about how IF might impact existing conditions. 

7. Take regular breaks throughout the day. 

It may seem counterintuitive, but making a habit of taking a few minutes each hour to stand up, walk away from your computer, stretch and get water helps you maintain a deeper level of focus throughout the day.

At a minimum, get up and walk around for a few minutes every hour to change your physical and mental state. Disengaging for brief periods helps you maintain focus throughout your workday. 

Don’t let meetings ruin your workday.

Meetings are essential for the success of your company, but as with everything, too much of a good thing can wreak havoc over time. Learn to manage your focus and attention as the mental resources they actually are, and you’ll find it’s easier to switch directions and dive back into more meaningful work tasks. 

This post was originally published on Entrepreneur.

How to Get People to Actually Participate in Virtual Meetings

These days it’s hard to get people to pay attention in any meeting, but when people aren’t in the same room, it can be especially difficult. And it’s particularly annoying when you make a nine-minute argument, pause for an expected reaction, and get: “I’m not sure I followed you” which might as well mean: “I was shampooing my cat and didn’t realize I would be called on.”

Let’s face it, most meetings have always sucked because there’s often little to zero accountability for engagement. When we are together in a room, we often compensate with coercive eye contact. Participants feel some obligation to feign interest (even if they’re staring at their phones). In situations where you can’t demand attention with ocular oppression, you have to learn to do what we should’ve mastered long ago: create voluntary engagement. In other words, you have to create structured opportunities for attendees to engage fully.

There are four broad reasons to hold a meeting: to influence others, to make decisions, to solve problems, or to strengthen relationships. Since all of these are active processes, passive passengers in a meeting rarely do quality work. The precondition for effective meetings — virtual or otherwise — is voluntary engagement.

We’ve spent the last few years studying virtual training sessions to understand why most virtual gatherings bore groups into a coma. As we’ve done so, we’ve discovered and tested five rules that lead to predictably better meeting outcomes. In one study we did, comparing 200 attendees of a face-to-face experience with 200 of a virtual experience, we found that when these rules are applied, 86% of participants report as high or higher levels of engagement as in face-to-face meetings. And we’ve now applied these rules with over 15,000 meeting participants.

Here’s what works.

Let’s take Raul, a mid-level manager, who is about to lead a 15-minute virtual presentation to 16 of his peers scattered from North to South America. His goal is to convince them they should identify some global sales opportunities from each of their regional account portfolios, then cooperate in pursuing them. To avoid a passive lecture and engage the group, he plans to use 18 slides. Here are the rules Raul should follow.

1. The 60-second rule.

First, never engage a group in solving a problem until they have felt the problem. Do something in the first 60 seconds to help them experience it. You might share shocking or provocative statistics, anecdotes, or analogies that dramatize the problem. For example, Raul could share a statistic showing average global deal sizes for a competitor that provokes a sense of inferiority with the group. He could share an anecdote about a frustrated customer who discontinued purchasing because the team failed to offer global pricing and support. Or, he could engage emotions by making an analogy to whales who feed far more effectively when they work together to encircle large schools of krill— and then take turns gorging on the feast. No matter what tactic you use, your goal is to make sure the group empathetically understands the problem (or opportunity) before you try to solve it.

2. The responsibility rule.

When people enter any social setting, they tacitly work to determine their role. For example, when you enter a movie theater, you unconsciously define your role as observer — you are there to be entertained. When you enter the gym, you are an actor — you are there to work out. The biggest engagement threat in virtual meetings is allowing team members to unconsciously take the role of observer. Many already happily defined their role this way when they received the meeting invite. To counteract this implicit decision, create an experience of shared responsibility early on in your presentation. Don’t do it by saying, “Okay, I want this to be a conversation, not a presentation. I need all of you to be involved.” That rarely works. Instead, create an opportunity for them to take meaningful responsibility. This is best done using the next rule.

3. The nowhere to hide rule.

Research shows that a person appearing to have a heart attack on a subway is less likely to get help the more people there are on the train. Social psychologists refer to this phenomenon as diffusion of responsibility. If everyone is responsible, then no one feels responsible. Avoid this in your meeting by giving people tasks that they can actively engage in so there is nowhere to hide. Define a problem that can be solved quickly, assign people to groups of two or three (max). Give them a medium with which to communicate with one another (video conference, Slack channel, messaging platform, audio breakouts). If you’re on a virtual meeting platform that allows for breakout groups, use them liberally. Give them a very limited time frame to take on a highly structured and brief task. For example, three minutes into his pitch, Raul could say something like, “The next slide shows who your partner will be. I want you to take two minutes in your breakout group to identify a global regret: a client you believe you could have had a much bigger deal with if we had worked together better in the past 12 months.” Next, he could ask everyone to type their answers into the chat pod, and/or call on one or two to share their example over the phone.

4. The MVP rule.

Nothing disengages a group more reliably than assaulting them with slide after slide of mind-numbing data organized in endless bullet points. It doesn’t matter how smart or sophisticated the group is, if your goal is engagement, you must mix facts and stories. We encourage people to determine the Minimum Viable PowerPoint (MVP) deck they need. In other words, select the least amount of data you need to inform and engage the group. Don’t add a single slide more. A side benefit of this rule is that it forces you to engage the attendees. If you have too many slides, you feel enslaved to “getting through them.” If Raul has 18 minutes to get his job done, 15 slides is far too many. He should be able to make his case with one or two slides, then use any additional slides to accomplish the tasks in rules 1-3 above.

5. The 5-minute rule.

Never go longer than 5 minutes without giving the group another problem to solve. Participants are in rooms scattered hither and yon with dozens of tempting distractions. If you don’t sustain a continual expectation of meaningful involvement, they will retreat into that alluring observer role, and you’ll have to work hard to bring them back. In his 15-minute presentation, Raul should have 2-3 brief, well-defined, and meaningful engagement opportunities. For example, he could wrap up his presentation with a group-generated list of options, then throw out a polling/voting opportunity to determine the team’s opinion about where to begin.

The truth is these rules should already be second nature, no matter what kind of meeting you’re leading. But the stakes are even higher today when team members are out of sight and their minds are free to wander. Following these five rules will dramatically and immediately change the productivity of any virtual gathering.

This post was originally published on Harvard Business Review.