I left the technology company I co-founded five years ago to start my new online business. I was very fortunate to be able to work from home – no more long commutes, or endless meetings that produced little innovation, and best of all, I left work politics behind.
Soon after I started working from home, my life turned over on its heels. My otherwise very healthy wife became extremely ill. Her illness required 24/7 care until she finally passed away after an 18-month struggle with a neurological disease. I also have a disabled son who lives with me.
When I thought that I was going to enjoy the incredible freedom of entrepreneurship and the pleasure of a home office, I found myself juggling a demanding schedule to balance my life in every arena one can imagine. Now, in addition to working on my start-up, I had to juggle doctor visits. I had to do so for my son as well because his mother managed his healthcare needs. Besides doctor visits, I now had to shop, cook, clean, control every aspect of family life (including bathing and dressing my wife), and still work on my business. The business is distributed. All my business colleagues work remotely across the entire globe and continue to do so.
My aspirations and unfortunate personal circumstances defined my work-at-home life. Yours is characterized by the sudden appearance of an invisible enemy – Covid-19 – that has disrupted our work life in ways we could only imagine, or perhaps not.
How does one work from home? What are some guidelines to consider? My new normal began five years ago. Yours may have just started.
In this new normal, working from home means, business lunches are out, watercooler meetings have gone, and hallway encounters are non-existent. We have the comfort of the home and a flexible schedule. But we also have to juggle a spouse’s plan, care for your children, or a sick family member, homeschool your children, and keep your work on target. Working from home has many advantages, but it has many drawbacks. There is the potential for stress, loneliness, deep concern about the future, and uncertainty.
Having been in the trenches, I thought I would share some considerations as you settle in to this new normal?
Make Your Homeworld Sacred.
Begin your day with routine (some say develop rituals) – check emails, the news, and family schedule. Be attentive and make the most of the moment. Establish time boundaries for tasks. While you may have flexibility, create time frames for the responsibilities of the day. Remember that you will run into many evening and night hours – this will be the new norm for many, especially if you are also homeschooling.
Never Socially Distant, only Physically.
Have frequent check-ins. Call your colleagues and friends to stay in touch and also to build relational cadence. Never hesitate to share musings and lighthearted humor.
Change your language from “I,” “me,” and “mine” to “us and “our.” Remind everyone, “You have their backs,” “We’re in it together.”
Have Zoom (or other digital tools) dinners and other social activities.
The shift to the home-office is sudden. We are in a disruptive environment – imagine thinking of home as turbulent? I call it so because new adjustments are required to be able to work and balance family life. Nothing could be more critical than to eat well. Hillary Potkewitz (Wall Street Journal, March 25, 2020) refers to this as “Strike a Work-Food Balance.” Guard against ‘grazing’ – we are not animals, we have to be disciplined.
Rest and exercise are close seconds. It is vital that you stand up, stretch, take a walk to feel the freshness of the air and the sun. Nourish your spiritual life. And rest well.
Life in the “new” office requires access to the technology resources that help to get your work done. Access to high-speed internet and numerous digital channels like email, Whatsapp, Slack, Zoom, Skype WeChat, WebEx, Facetime, phone, and so forth will be your lifeline to communicate and connect. All these channels will impose new behavioral requirements, which I will come to shortly.
You are no longer privy to hallway exchanges, eavesdropping on conversations in the cafeteria, or being part of a vibrant informal network of communications. You are not only distant, but you could easily slip into isolation. Therefore, you should check-in with others frequently and find out what is happening at the “old” office – the “Mothership.”
To survive the isolation, perhaps to even defeat it, you should have group huddles. The huddles also help to alleviate any internal scripts of doubt and conspiracies about the politics of the “old” office. Frequent and transparent communication is vital to maintaining mental health and being informed.
Work From Home Behaviors.
The ability to build relationships and maintain connectedness requires the ability to empathize and build trust.
Empathy is an enabling human emotion skill that can be learned and leads to successful relationship building. It is a human-centered approach that always focuses on needs, including those under the radar. It is your social radar and the degree to which you can take on the pace, posture, and facial expression of another person you occupy their emotional space and begin to experience emotional attunement. When this happens, you are experiencing empathy.
This ability is not as natural to demonstrate in the digital world as it is in the natural environment. I have written about empathy as a core foundational requirement in organizations. In the digital world, our behaviors will be different. Here are a few considerations.
In digital communications, feelings are conveyed in the form of:
- Personal language
- Short sentences
- Casual style
- Non-technical and informal writing
- Positive emoticons
To be successful in building relationships through digital channels requires cognitive flex – continuous adaptation to our virtual and technology-mediated reality. The objective in this reality is to go beyond transactions. When we move past deals, we will engage others. We can do this when we build trust, which is the foundation of all relationships. To build trust, we should be attentive to the elements that help us achieve this outcome. Here are a few considerations.
- Be transparent and reliable
- Offer constructive and positive feedback
- Admit mistakes
- Be vulnerable to others
- Show you care
- Be personal
- Opt for video calls instead of conference calls
- Share personal stories
- Mention your hobbies
- Communicate consistently
- Ask questions
- Share information and expertise
- Provide feedback
- Ensure your expectations and other’s expectations are congruent
- Make the rules of engagement explicit and course-correct as needed
- Ask three questions
- What is working well?
- What is not working well?
- What can be done to ensure success?
- Be willing and generous in sharing your knowledge
- Be collaborative
- Willingly share your industry expertise and experience
- Give time and energy
- Reference the contributions of others
- Respect clients’, customers, colleague’s time, opinions, and ideas.
- Say what you mean.
- Do what you say.
Your Family Is In It Too.
Working from home with family members around is the part that requires the most adjustment. You are at home, and with Covid-19, so are your family members. This unique circumstance requires an enormous change. It is not unusual when I meet with my senior management team every week that a dog barks or a young child is heard crying or lovingly calling. We have even heard large clocks chime, just like “Big Ben” in London.
The insertions of the child, dog, and clock are part of the new landscape. Get used to it. I call it having ‘cognitive flex’ – continuously adjusting and adapting.
I also propose that in this new normal, our capacity to display empathy and build trust will be vital to our personal and professional success – they will be critical in our new’ work at home’ environment, And so, we developed training modules in empathy and trust to help adjust to the world we live in now.
When done well, working from home can be fun and very gratifying. I submit that the world of tomorrow will never be the same.