In March 2020, at the start of the pandemic and lockdown in the UK, James Edmondson, wrote a personal reflection on adjusting to working from home. He talked of the “low-level, chronic anxiety” he felt at being away from his desk at any point.
While, as a society, we have started to get used to long-term remote working by now, there are still challenges that individuals face everyday. For some, there is this worry about not being seen to be working. Statistically, we know that we tend to work longer hours when we are based at home. An Owl labs report in 2021 found 55% of respondents say they work more hours remotely than at the office. This ONS report finds those who work from home are generally doing at least 6 hours unpaid overtime a week compared to only 3.6 hours for those who never work at home.
Remote work expert, Rowena Hennigan, says she has seen people operate with unhealthy boundaries due to underlying fears about how they are perceived to be working and performing.
“I worked with one girl who set up an imaginary meeting with herself on the Teams system so it looked as if she was having a meeting so she could justify taking a break.”
This kind of behaviour is where we see a misperception about what working remotely entails. Hennigan says, in her experience, these concerns are also unfounded. “There are very few companies tracking or expecting people to sit for nine hours at the desk.” In fact, she has found the opposite with employers actively encouraging practises such as walking meetings, wellbeing days, and Friday afternoons off.
The freedom of remote working
With the privilege of flexible working comes responsibility and the need to self-manage and self-lead. The ability to do this starts with a level of self-awareness so that you notice when you are not taking good care of yourself and working at the expense of your health and wellbeing.
Hennigan has worked remotely since 2007. She puts remote working down to saving her career when she and her husband moved to Spain for the sake of their daughter’s health. In the earlier days of remote, she was working in the telecommunications industry, moving around on freelance contracts, occasionally “booting up the laptop from a cabin in Fiji.”
She stresses that working remotely as experienced since 2020, has not been true remote working in that it has not always been fully flexible. Working from home is really synonymous with working from anywhere and Hennigan herself, works mostly from a coworking space where she lives in Zaragoza.
Now that more of us are able to do it, she says it is time we look at how we do it successfully for the good of individuals and organisations.
With flexibility comes responsibility
Self-care and looking after our wellbeing are not buzzphrases, they are fundamental to the success of remote working.
The fully remote companies such as GitLab share openly about their core values. GitLab have a strong rest ethic and encourage time off for productivity and performance.
Doist is another fully remote business with people working in more than 50 cities around the world. They stipulate 40 hour weeks, but these can be done asynchronously with no set hours. They also have a generous vacation policy, and reimbursement for gym memberships and healthy snacks.
When we see the value companies place on looking after their employees, we can see how as individual remote workers, we need to put our wellbeing high on the priority list. This involves being able to manage and lead ourselves effectively.
Hennigan agrees. “Remote work gives us massive flexibility but it also gives us huge responsibility for our own self-management… Where we can work from our house for as many hours as we want, why do we choose to overwork? Why do we choose to sit at the machine, bleary eyed rather than going for that walk?”
Self-regulation and self-leadership when working remotely
To be successful in remote working, we need more self-awareness but then, importantly, we need to take action to make the adjustment. This self-regulation is our ability to monitor and manage our emotions and behaviours in a healthy and productive manner.
“There is a big difference between noticing you need to change something and actually changing it,” says Hennigan who journals and works with a coach for accountability. “You can do lots of journalling and writing things down. But the important piece is the action, the self-adjustment, and the accountability.”
While we are trained in how to do our jobs and become skilled in our work, nobody is teaching us how to work remotely. It requires certain competencies to do it well.
Competencies for remote work
In 2018, Roberta Sawatzky and her son, Nathan, conducted a year-long research programme into the competencies for successful remote working.
Of these, one of the most important competencies was the ability to self-direct and take responsibility for decisions. While important in the work context, this is also something remote workers need to do for themselves when assessing their own work-life balance.
Other competencies including discipline, communication, and taking the initiative. These further promote the importance of self-leadership when working remotely and take action when it matters.
Prior to the pandemic, many remote workers were those who chose to be so due to being freelance or taking jobs with remote first companies. The onset of Coronavirus and the ensuing Great Resignation has seen more people than ever working away from the office.
“The freelance world has exploded. More people have chosen it and so there are more people who perhaps haven’t got the experience or maturity to be thinking about things like healthy routines,” notes Hennigan. “On top of that, there is this second layer of crisis and anxiety with the pandemic and a third layer is the addiction to technology.”
When she began remote working, she never picked up emails on her phone and parents were not juggling a Zoom call in the car while on the school run. “We rely on technology but this situation has exacerbated it because we are having to use it all the time.”
Switching off and the right to disconnect
One of the ways we can self-regulate is by noticing when we are having too much screen time and giving our eyes and brains a break.
With burnout and mental health being such a serious issue in the workplace, Hennigan believes the Government needs to step in to mandate the right to disconnect.
It already exists in law in France, Spain and Italy and it’s thought more countries will follow suit. “The Government’s are moving and I believe they should be because it’s a public health issue, states Hennigan. “We’re in a massive crisis, we’ve got to proactively stop mental health issues because no country’s health system is going to handle what’s coming.”
Back to basics
Encouraging healthier working practises for remote workers is not always about complex ideas and models. Small daily actions create a ripple effect, something James Clear talks bout in his book, Atomic Habits. The compound effect of getting just 1% better every day results in a 37% improvement over the course the year.
“People always worry about the bigger things but it’s often the small things,” says Hennigan, who cites just drinking more water each day to be better hydrated as a simple action that can transform how you think, feel, and behave.
These things become less obvious to us when we are working alone at home. Hennigan says, “In the office environment, people might come up to you, and say, ‘Hey, look at you slouching, have you been for a break yet? Do you fancy a coffee?’”
Each day she has her own list of non-negotiable that she does to feel good and stay productive.
“I stand outside on the terrace, I take a swim every other day, I have lunch in the kitchen,” she says and she is halfway through her second bottle of water when we speak. “It’s the little things.”
If she has had an intense day, she is disciplined about having no more screen-time after work to self-regulate.
Give yourself stars
Self-leadership requires extra effort and while we often hear about the importance of looking after ourselves, we often don’t recognise or thank ourselves when we do
“There’s hippy talk of gratitude lists but thank yourself for the simple things you do,” she adds. “Acknowledge that you got up and took that morning walk, had a break and did your cross stitch. It is those micro moments that matter and add up.”
She does this herself each night. “I write down that I do the good things. I give myself stars and some small treats to reward myself!”
Acknowledging that you have done well and kept up with healthy habits motivates us to maintain those habits.
Remote working involves working to aid the coherence of the dispersed team but above all, and in order to achieve that, we need to learn how to self-lead and take responsibility for ourselves.