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Zoom In, Zoom Out

We call it work from home (WFH), remote, virtual - all describing work outside the company’s office. These terms are reserved for what is emerging as a new class of “privilege” - the knowledge workers - who are able to work and earn in the convenience of their home. 

This kind of work creates counter-intuitive tensions:

  • No commute, no need to even put on the bottom part of work clothes? Yet we feel we accomplish less than hoped for and spend more time managing work relationships than doing actual work

  • Eager to set your own schedule? Only to find ourselves never really disconnecting

  • Spend more time with spouses and kids? Even that gets old with everyone coalescing in tight quarters, home-schooling, and barks during calls

  • Constantly talking with colleagues, friends, virtual book clubs, and drinks? Yet the sense of isolation is palpable

The fact is many of us feel tired by the end of the day. A few possible reasons: 

Lost sense of presence: This is a neuropsychological phenomenon describing our ability to recognize that our environment is external to us and that we are not just imagining it. With the video, that sense is missing and we find it unsettling.

Focused in 2D: the screen brought the faces of many at once so much closer, it eliminated the view of their bodies and flattened our experience to two dimensions. We are losing subtle cues, signals, and we have to work harder to fill in the missing parts of our communications. 

Interruptions and exposures: video brings people (at times strangers) into our homes and it feels intrusive. We are conscious when interruptions happen and stressed anticipating them. After a while, we stop noticing this tension and start feeling it as headaches and other body’s responses to stress. 

Here are a few things to consider doing to preserve vitality, minimize fatigue, increase resilience:

As an individual: 

  • Do 20x20x20: Every 20 min of screen look at something that is 20 ft away for 20 seconds. Reduce your eye strain and use it as a break at the same time.

  • Go “voice”: Not every call needs to be on video. Switch to voice. While you are at it, go for a walk. Your body and mind will thank you.

  • Set boundaries: it is easy to fill the commute time with more calls and work, but you need to create book-ends to your workday and strictly enforce your switching on and off. 

For your team: 

  • Err on the side of trust: Find time to build trust and co-create new norms and ways of working. Lead by example and trust that people will do what they have to do. Make it safe to ask for help and fail. 

  • Actively fight passive resistance: conflicts are expected in any working group, but they are more difficult to spot and resolve when everyone is distributed. Create space for everyone to air grievances and resolve disagreements. A weekly venting-call anyone? 

  • Build a digital watercooler: in absence of physical collocation random encounters that generate crazy new ideas disappear. Be intentional about creating the moments of serendipity, be that “office hours open lines,” long-form writing, virtual book-clubs, and happy hours.

For your organization: 

  • Smart automation: finally there is an openness to invest in technology. Don’t rush to automate crappy processes just because you can. This is your opportunity to use human-centered design to rethink the workflow and use technology as a complexity shredder, not generator.

  • Think with your head and heart: you could project that business travel will be indefinitely halted, that discretionary spending on conferences or education is not coming back, that the number of office buildings can be halved. The balance sheet might get healthy, but your employment brand might never recover. 

  • Take stock: crisis gave permission to bend rules and give up formalities. Time to evaluate what works (localized decision making), what goes (lengthy approvals), and what needs to be carefully evaluated (algorithms trained on BC (before COVID) data) 

The future is not forecastable, nor predictable. We do, however, know that those who are putting their lives at risk on the frontline wish they had our WFH problems. Reprioritize, do what’s right, and don’t forget to breathe in, breathe out…

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