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Staying Remotely Human While Working Remotely

With more of us working from home, a lot of people are finding themselves in their pajamas on a Tuesday answering work emails. This may sound like a boon to some, while others may find it isolating - and a little creepy. Regardless, if you’re lucky enough to have the chance, working from home takes some getting used to.

At this point in our collective experience, we’ve gone beyond, “How do you stay productive?” and landed somewhere closer to, “How do we stay human when we’re shut off from so many of the people that hold us accountable for being a person?”

At Spool, we’re built for distanced communication. Some folks do work locally in the office in Evanston, but most of us are out here in Chicago, New York, LA and our clients are all over the country. We know from ‘telecommuting’ because we’re built on the principle that you don’t need a fancy office and a foosball table to get sh*t done. That said, we’re also no stranger to the pitfalls of boundary bleed, digital-only communication and isolation.

The New York Times recently published a piece on how working from home is overrated. And I get that. But whether you’re relishing the extra time spent with your laptop and cat or itching to get back into the Purrell-smelling arms of collaboration, there are some very simple things to you can do to keep up your productivity and your humanity.

Boundary Bleed

Whether we deal with stress by Netflix-binging or overworking, boundary-bleed is emotionally dangerous for those who are approaching remote work like a kind of secret vacation. It’s pretty easy to go from working on your couch in your sweats to watching all ten episodes of Love Is Blind, ordering in and not working at all until you realize you’re late for a call and Will they believe you had another call that ran over? No. No, they will not.

On the flip side, you could also find yourself working through dinner or after you put the kids down - just like you did before. Now that the thin veil between home and office is completely obliterated, those who tend to Slack during bedtime will have to show even more restraint than usual.

The advice here is something you’ve probably heard before. Get dressed in the morning. Take a shower and put makeup on, if that’s something you usually do. Have an actual breakfast before sitting down in front of your computer and have a very specific end to your day where you sign off as much as you can. In other words, create your own boundaries. And respect others’ boundaries too. What a great opportunity to institute the No-Midnight-Emails policy!

Look, there’s nothing wrong with checking your morning email while watching Live! With Kelly and Ryan. But then turn the streaming off. Sit down and do the things. The bonus is you can get up and take tech breaks, make grilled cheese for lunch or sing Italian ballads out the window with your neighbors.

The boundaries that once existed by transporting yourself physically from one building to another aren’t there to keep you accountable. The schedule that helps keep your mind from wandering the streets like an inebriated college student in Vegas doesn’t exist. In order to keep your own boundaries clear, it’s best to set up a real work day as much as you can.

Digital-Only Communication

Whether your company’s VPN is up to the challenge of mass distanced communication is just one more thing we can’t control. What we can wrangle is how we handle remote communication.

The perils of digital communication are nothing new. And in working remotely, there’s no chance to smile at someone at the coffee machine and remind them that you’re a human being with emotions - and so are they.

Your team may be setting up daily stand ups or some other kind of check in. My advice - use your video. And when you have a Slack or Zoom video call, actually turn on the camera. There’s nothing crappier than getting on a video chat to stare at pulsating profile photos. Trust me, you need to see these people’s faces. And they need to see yours.

When we see each other’s facial expressions, communication is easier and more clear. That’s just science. Depending on how casual or formal your workplace is, it can also be nice to get a feeling of where your coworkers are. What is the light like, do they have the same mug they have at work, are there kids running around off screen? That really has nothing to do with the work you’re doing. That’s just human.

Is it sometimes annoying when my daughter crawls under my desk while I'm working? Kinda. But when she sits on my lap and waves at my co-workers, the smiles spread across the screen. And I can tell you from years of experience, none of my clients or coworkers know that I am always wearing pajama pants and have bare feet.

Not only will being on video chat give you a solid reason to wash your face and get dressed (at least from the waist up), it plays the extremely important roll of humanizing our co-workers.

In the office, you may see someone in the hall way or at the elevator and have a conversation that can turn around a whole project - or turn your day around. So this is your chance to interact. Those two minutes of bullsh*t, waste of productive time conversation you have before the meeting really starts - that’s where the humanity is going to happen. That’s where ideas start, it’s where collaboration starts, and frankly, it’s what’s going to get us through this collective mess.


Now let’s address the Marxist elephant in the room - alienation. From the work, from your coworkers, from society. All of it applies, and it’s not just because of capitalism this time. (Ok, well, maybe. But that’s a different article.) Isolation is obviously a larger issue whether we’re being asked to engage in the suspiciously Goop-like “social distancing” or ordered to more ominously “shelter-in-place.” Now that we’re efficient remote workers, we’ve even less reason to interact with other human faces and talk about something other than deadlines, deals, and deliverables.

Practically, this is where your video conferencing comes in again. A lesser simulacrum of contact, it offers us a chance to be empathetic, compassionate, lighthearted and brilliant. This is what we miss the most when we distance ourselves from other human-germ-machines. This is way safer for the collective, but it can be alienating and sad.

I’m going to encourage you to go beyond your regularly scheduled conference calls. Have meetings when you don’t need them. I know this doesn’t sound productive. But do it. Check in with the people you normally see and talk to at work all the time. Prioritize this, put it on the calendar. It is just as important, if not more important, than nailing down that deliverable. This is our humanity and connection to other people and it’s part of what makes you YOU.

* * * * *

I have one other thought that has less to do with being productive and, surprise, more to do with being human: What if this were a collective opportunity? I am aware of how crappy that might sound. I debated writing it at all. I have to admit that I am having trouble painting a silver lining on any of this. But the truth is, those of us who work remotely are privileged and it’s our responsibility to take the health of our community seriously. So, besides being a good citizen, working remotely might be a personal opportunity.

We are living in a cult of busyness. We love the hustle. It is a badge of honor to work all hours, to be available, to be ON all the time. And our lives and our families are suffering for it. If you do have the opportunity to work remotely, what if this were your chance to reset? We complain about being busy, about not having enough time to do what we REALLY want to do. Now a lot of the busyness is being taken away from us, like it or not. You no longer have a commute. You no longer have to be at the office all day. You are home. This could be your chance to slow down and ask the big questions. Like, when you’re not at work, who are you?

Carrie Ingoglia is a Creative Director at Spool