Once upon a time, there was something called a “water cooler.” It was a machine about the size of a small human that dispensed refrigerated liquid, producing the occasional bubble as its contents shifted. But more than that, it was a totem—a communal marker of socialization. Before lockdowns and quarantines, before social distancing and sheltering in place, people used to leave their homes, travel to offices, and gather around the water cooler to make small talk, tell stories, and opine about the latest episode of Game of Thrones.
Back then, people shared workspaces and wore stiff, uncomfortable clothing known as “business casual attire.” They talked, worked, and commuted in close proximity to one another—often closer than six feet apart, and usually without masks on.
It was a simpler time. A cough was just a cough. Shopping at the supermarket wasn’t a terrifying, potentially life-threatening experience. And water coolers littered the land, drawing countless teams together every day for idle conversation and chit-chat.
Legend has it the water coolers are still out there, bubbling in unlit hallways, waiting for us to return.
Welcome to the post-water cooler world.
As the world enters Week Whatever of the COVID-19 crisis, the pre-coronavirus era is starting to feel like a myth. Call it the “before times” or the “old world”; it’s growing more distant by the day, and it isn’t clear when—or if—we’re ever going back. Right now, millions of Americans are stuck at home, navigating a new, entirely remote reality. They’re creating, communicating, and collaborating from their houses and apartments.
Unless you’re an essential service worker, that includes you. Assuming you’re one of the lucky ones who hasn’t been laid off or furloughed, you’re no doubt becoming accustomed to Zoom meetings and Slack chats, and the room, desk, dining table, or corner of the bed you call your home office.
You’re also likely feeling—how I should put this?—less than happy. Restless. Listless. Isolated. Anxious. Depressed. Lonely. The reality of the situation—we’re living through a pandemic—is difficult for anyone to cope with. On a good day, it’s a distraction; other days, it’s an inescapable nightmare. And then there are the challenges of homeschooling, wrangling kids and pets, living with spouses and partners, the endless cooking and cleaning…
Did I mention braving the supermarket?
It’s a surreal time to be alive. If you feel like you’re just barely holding up, take solace in the fact that millions of people out there feel just like you and are going through the same thing. And if you’re struggling with the transition to working from home, you’re definitely not alone.
To help you better adjust to this new way of doing business, we’ve scoured the internet for remote work success stories and blunders—the good, the bad, and the ugly of working from home. Learn what to do (and equally as important, what not to do) or just let some of these triumphs and mishaps brighten your day.
“An astounding productivity boost.”
Does working from home improve productivity? A few years ago, Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom set out to answer that question. He designed an experiment that split a workforce of 500 employees into two groups—on-site workers and telecommuters. Here’s what his research showed, as reported by Inc.:
“Bloom expected the positives and negatives to offset each other. But he was wrong.
Instead, the robust, nearly two-year study showed an astounding productivity boost among the telecommuters equivalent to a full day’s work. Turns out work-from-home employees work a true full-shift (or more) versus being late to the office or leaving early multiple times a week and found it less distracting and easier to concentrate at home.
Additionally (and incredibly), employee attrition decreased by 50 percent among the telecommuters, they took shorter breaks, had fewer sick days, and took less time off. Not to mention the reduced carbon emissions from fewer autos clogging up the morning commute.
Oh, and by the way, the company saved almost $2,000 per employee on rent by reducing the amount of HQ office space.”
“My life is rich beyond measure.”
Another major benefit of working from home: more time with the kids. Peter Fritz of Office Anywhere writes:
“The only way to build a lasting bond with your children is through the application of time and attention. It isn’t enough to be there – you have to be present, too. Instead of occasional appearances punctuated with fanfare and gifts, it’s the slow, steady and consistent presence that really counts. Kids don’t want performances, they want love, empathy and a steady hand. They want an example to follow. My mum and dad gave me those, and I’ve done my best to give the same to my kids.
Today, the same principles that cemented the bond between my girls and I apply to my son, Tommy.
Despite offers to return to corporate life, and opportunities to pursue businesses with potentially big payoffs, I remain steadfastly committed to seeing my son every day. Not just an hour or two before bed, but every morning when I walk him to school, and every afternoon when I pick him up again. Most nights, we also play together or watch a movie in our home cinema. We go to bed at the same time and often giggle ourselves to sleep—just like we did last night. I might not be wealthy, but my life is rich beyond measure.”
“Make sure you’re wearing pants.”
Here’s a brief (no pun intended) but unforgettable blunder from an anonymous work-from-homer:
“If someone knocks on the door and you want to open it while on a video call, make sure you’re wearing pants.
It happened once and that was enough”
Twitter user @ChristinaKerby had a similar experience:
“Pro-tip: if you and your husband are both working from home, check to see if he’s on a four-way video call BEFORE running past the office naked to get a towel from the linen closet. #RealStory #COVID19 #WFH”
“You have to get out or you’ll go insane.”
Not everyone is anti-working-in-underwear. Dave Mosher, a journalist who worked remotely for two years, enjoyed the freedom to wear whatever he wanted, but offers another piece of advice:
“I loved the ability to talk to very important sources in my underwear. Jokes aside (maybe): Working from home eliminated my commute, plus the time and frustration it involved. For many people who work from home, ‘no commute’ means priceless sanity and more than an hour back in our pockets. We can spend that time and energy toward family, fun, or more hustling in our line of work.
But you have to get out or you’ll go insane. Exercise outside.”
Sheryl Garratt echoes Mosher’s thoughts in a blog post on The Creative Life:
“Being out in the fresh air wakes us up. Moving gets our mind working. Even on a cold, rainy day.
If you already start your day with a run, the gym or a swim, bravo. If not, you might want to try going out for a quick walk before you sit down to work. Not a morning person? Then go after lunch. But make sure you get outside and move at some point in your working day. You’ll get more done.
A walk can also be a great way to focus on a specific work problem, or to just clear your mind and let a solution pop up.”
“I wasn’t muted.”
Reddit user Entidus shares this poetic work-from-home horror story:
“My worst nightmare at work happened today…
I was working from home, in a conference call and I thought I was muted.
I wasn’t muted.
I slowly just want to sink and die now.”
Entidus isn’t alone. Here’s Daniel Taroy of Vanity Fair:
“just started talking to my cat in the middle of a 68-person zoom meeting—and I wasn’t muted!!! send the meteor!!!!”
“I could mute them without being rude.”
That mute button really can come in handy. Cailey Rizzo writes for Travel + Leisure:
“For a long time, when I heard the ping of a Slack message or saw a new email pop up, I’d stop what I was doing and check it. Most of the time, it was just a courtesy ‘thank you’ email or a colleague asking how my weekend went. These little distractions are the norm in a work-from-home setting, but it took me a while to realize how detrimental they were to my productivity and that I could mute them without being rude.
All it took was a message letting my team know that I was going to do a couple of hours of focused work. The effect improved my productivity and allowed me to efficiently tackle big projects that often get pushed aside for those small, more ‘urgent’ tasks and communications.”
“Socially connect with others.”
Other times, you have to make an effort to un-mute yourself. Here’s a tip from a recent post on the Vault blog about the biggest challenges of working from home:
“Interacting with other people is a positive aspect of many jobs. Yes, you’re there to work, but social contact is also important and can help with productivity. Having a feed in your chosen communication app devoted to unrelated to work topics could help.
Two ways the recruiting firm HiringThing creates these missed water-cooler moments are:
- “Week Preview Meetings,” which are Monday meetings where people discuss work plans for the week, and are also allowed to talk about weekend events and other non-work-related things.
- “Happy Fun Time,” which includes fun activities curated by a company’s HR team such as answering workplace trivia and posting fun throwback images.
The point is to make sure to take the time while you’re working remotely to socially connect with others. This is more important now than ever, with so many people alone, working from home.”
“Always make it a point to overcommunicate.”
Tom Papomoronis, an entrepreneur who started working from home in 2010, shared this tip with CNBC:
“Even on the slowest days, successful people who work from home always make it a point to overcommunicate.
As someone who has managed a team from home for several years, making sure everyone takes part in the conversation about what they’re working on, assignment statuses, as well as their concerns and issues, gives me peace of mind. It ensures that nothing gets lost in translation and that no one feels neglected.
You don’t have to be constantly checking and replying to emails (unless they’re urgent). At the very least, have regular check-ins with your manager and team—through Slack, phone calls, emails. Get out of your comfort zone, talk about your goals for the week. Ask for—and give—direct feedback.
Treat it as a casual update, rather than a formal meeting. It will also help you build more sustainable relationships with people you work with.”
“I’ve been feeling really lonely.”
Freelance writer Kaleigh Moore posted the following on her blog:
“For the most part, I love the fact that I get to work from home.
I get to walk my dog, wear sweatpants, and don’t have the office interruptions that are productivity’s worst nightmare. I can really knock out some writing assignments with long, uninterrupted stretches of silence.
But lately, I’ve been feeling really lonely. And I think this is something remote workers need to talk about more than we do.”
Her solution to loneliness? Acknowledge it—and make a habit of leaving the bubble:
“I know that it’s important for my mental health to step out of this environment every once in a while, so I’ve been trying to go work in a coffee shop once every week or so (to at least have the noise and scenery of human activity around me.)
Along with this, I’ve been making it a priority to go to exercise classes, where I get to interact with some familiar faces each week. I’m also working toward using the warm summer weekends as opportunities to travel—to get out of town and experience new things. That sometimes means taking on less work, too. I’m okay with that—I think this is important.
And finally, I’ve been asking fellow freelancers how they cope with loneliness. Just starting a dialogue about this helps me feel less alone.”
We can’t just moonwalk into a coffee shop and set up our laptops, but we can chat via FaceTime, Zoom, Join.me, or even just send messages via Slack to maintain our sense of connectivity.
“You need structure.”
Here’s another good tip from Tom Papomoronis:
“It’s easy to get distracted by personal matters when you’re working from home, because you’re so much more accessible to people outside of your worklife.
That’s why you need structure — a consistent schedule that you’re strict about — to prevent distractions from disturbing your workflow. The easiest way to do this is to create a to-do list for each day. It should include very specific, measurable and achievable tasks. You may need to adjust tomorrow’s list depending on what you get done today.
Maintaining structure also means setting boundaries. Of course, there are a few exceptions, such as if you’re a single parent with a newborn. But for the most part, be clear with your partner, friends or those you live with about your work schedule. Consider setting a ‘Do Not Disturb’ window of time where you can work freely without unnecessary interruptions.”
“Train your brain.”
And another bit of advice from Sheryl Garratt of The Creative Life:
“Have a routine of some sort to start/end the day. I meditate for a few minutes in the morning, check my calendar for appointments and go over my to-do list while playing music. Then I jump in and start.
When I’m done, I play a different soundtrack while clearing my desk, update my to-do list for tomorrow, turn my screen off then leave my study for the day. I try to do online shopping or web browsing for fun on my iPad, elsewhere in the house, so it’s clear that when I sit down at my iMac, I’m there to work.
I’m lucky in that I have a dedicated room to work in. If you’re using the kitchen table or in a corner of your bedroom, just clear your work stuff into a drawer or box once you’re done. Seemingly trivial tricks like sitting on a different side of the table when you eat can help to train your brain to know when this is a workspace, and when it is a dining/social space.”
“Suddenly it is a 16-hour day.”
Although many business leaders new to remote work fear that their teams will slack off, the opposite—overworking—tends to be a more common problem. Here’s what Mark Neuhausen, Technologist and Angel Investor, had to say on Quora:
“The worst parts of working from home were enforcing discipline on myself to not work all the time. It is easy to walk past the office and check my computer, respond to a few emails, jump on a call, and suddenly it is a 16-hour day. This is especially true when part of the team is halfway around the world. I also found that I enjoyed the human contact when I did go on business trips, whether to the home office, customer offices, or other company offices. It was energizing and evidence that humans are gregarious.”
How do you stay energized and avoid burnout when working from home? Home office furnishing company Set Your Office recommends the following:
“Since, in remote working, there is no external validation to know that you are doing a good job, start patting yourself on the back. Rather than waiting for someone else to do it, reward yourself whenever you hit a crucial task or objective. Once you’ve done something worthy of reward, treat yourself with anything that makes you happy.
Take a long break, or make yourself a fresh pot of coffee or go pamper yourself with some spa session or splurge in manicure and pedicure. You can even reward your extra effort by taking a small break to watch your favorite TV show. Give yourself the recognition you deserve. It not only makes you feel good but even works as a positive reinforcement for future tasks.”
Remember: you’re not alone.
How are you navigating the post-water cooler world? Need help going virtual, or looking to boost your team’s work-at-home performance?
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