I joined Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work earlier this year with a heap of excitement and a hint of trepidation. The kind that accompanies any new job worth having. I’d be working on engaging projects with the added bonus of doing so from home as a mostly remote worker. After meeting my new team and getting my marching orders, I shook off the jitters and got down to work. My first few weeks were quite productive. I was thrilled to begin research. I began jotting down ideas to promote my work and outlining a rough draft of my first white paper. I was inspired to write blog posts for the first time in years. Then everything sputtered to a crawl. I hit a wall. My chest tightened with anxiety.
Staring into the abyss of a blank Word document was a heart-sinking experience. I was working from home on assignments that engaged and challenged me. What was the problem? Like any consultant worth his/her salt, I set out to resolve the issue armed with high speed internet and a library card. Thankfully the wisdom of the internet and sage advice from colleagues pulled me back from the brink and into a pretty productive groove. I imagine this same scenario happens to many of my remote working comrades. If the future of work is as amorphous and geographically flexible as we think it will be the ability to work efficiently outside of office settings is matter of the utmost importance. So, I decided to share a few insights I learned along the way.
PUT YOUR PHONE DOWN!
You pick up your phone an average of 89 times per day. Even if it were just for 30 seconds, you’d lose 45 minutes of your day. But we know thats not the case. Average screen time after picking up your phone is likely a few minutes. Then it takes an additional couple of minutes to get back in the flow of things to write, read, or analyze your actual work. Even as I’m writing this, I’m reminded of the importance of practicing what I preach. I finally got in the groove of writing this piece when I turned my phone screen down and resisted the urge to pick it back up at the end of each sentence or whenever I felt “stuck” on an idea. “Do Not Disturb” and screen time limiting apps are a major help for the remote worker to remain focused throughout the day.
Even without the addictive super computers in our pockets, we’ve got all the distraction we could ever want on our laptops. Incessant pinging of emails, IMs, and update requests distract us from work just as easily as notifications on our phones. The best counter I have found to this devil of distraction is the Pomodoro Method. Taken from the kitchen timers of the same name, the process involves setting a 25 minute timer for work intervals, or “sprints” as we like to call them in the tech industry. During this time, no activity other than work is to take place. Rest for 5 minutes, then resume sprinting. After 4 Pomodoro cycles, I will take a longer break of 20 minutes or so. This gives me time to walk around a bit, stretch or grab a snack. Of course, the timing can be tweaked to fit your needs, but 25 minutes is a good starting point because its long enough for to get in the groove of working, but short enough that the anxiety of checking phone notifications or responding to any other distraction doesn’t overwhelm. I find that with consistency, I work for longer intervals and sometimes skip the breaks altogether. While mastery of self is the primary trait for remote workers to develop, we all still need connections with colleagues for additional insight and inspiration.
With so many busy schedules, this task can be among the most difficult. Emails are good for most communication. And surprisingly effective at conveying a lot when done in a well thought out manner. But aside from updates or simple asks, emails fall short of the benefit of calls or even face to face meetings. I try to chat with a colleague once a week about work. This offers the opportunity to vent about issues, work through tough problems, and brainstorm ideas that I haven’t fully fleshed out yet. I find that most times when I want to explore a topic more or need advice on something, I’ve got a colleague with prior experience or resources to offer on the issue.
But connecting intentionally extends beyond conversations with co-workers. Some of my best creative and strategic breakthroughs came via conversations with friends and family discussing things that may not relate to my work at all. This is akin to running into folks from other departments at the water cooler and learning about things from their point of view. In the absence of such water cooler moments, it is of paramount importance for remoter workers to find a place that serves that purpose for them.
While I’m thankful to no longer wrestle with Atlanta traffic to and from my work place, I do occasionally miss the hustle and bustle of traveling for work. I’m an avid people watcher so the airport was a perfect place for me to observe and glean new perspectives about how my clients could better connect with their customers or react to changing tides of culture and technology. My biweekly jaunts through the airport served an important role for me. I’d gotten to the point of recognizing crew members on my flights and reached “regular” status at my favorite airport eateries. Everybody knew my name! And they were always glad I came, or at least acted like it. The airport had become my “third place” as coined by Ray Oldenburg.
With home as the “first place” and work as the “second place” Oldenburg posits that people and communities need the “third place” as a location that fosters broader and more creative interaction. These places anchor communities as public places where visitors can see familiar faces and make new acquaintances. Recreating this phenomenon for a growing contingent of remote workers that would rather be at home will be paramount for any society reliant on them to foster relationships for empathetic and creative connections.
The data overwhelmingly suggests that people working from home are happier AND more productive. The argument has been made enough, and in convincing fashion. Companies lagging behind on work from home policies risk losing the arms race of talent acquisition. The coworking spaces that have grown sprouted up across bustling tech hubs in recent years shed light on how larger organizations can remodel their culture and HR practices to accommodate the workers of the future. Workers should be able to leave the proverbial nest when it suits them but always feel welcomed when they return to HQ for those key in person engagements. Both workers and organizations preparing for the future of work must collaborate on how best to implement these policies in a way that benefits all parties involved.