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For five years I reported to a boss I had only seen in person on a few occasions. I wore sweatpants all morning and rarely put on makeup. My commute was rolling over in bed and grabbing my laptop to speak with coworkers that lived across three continents and a number of different time zones. And in 2018 I accepted a new job and returned to work in an office.
A remote job is a dream for most who have a long commute, wear uncomfortable work clothing, or want to live wherever they please. Technological advances allowed me to work for a company on another continent, without relocating. In the age or COVID-19, many employers who had been skeptical of remote work before have been forced to embrace this alternative to the office.
When I decided to get back into an office, I was nervous it would be a shock to my system. Instead, I have found that I had instead built soft skills that were now a major asset back in an office.
As a self-proclaimed introvert, I thought I had hit the jackpot working from home. The stress of meetings, public speaking, and networking was in my past. This was true for about a year, but then I realized how much more work I now had to do to grow my professional network and keep my communication skills sharp. My ambition outweighed my desire to stay inside on the couch.
To compensate for my lack of natural local network, I signed up for face-to-face networking events and was forced to confront every uncomfortable feeling I had avoided when I first started working remotely. However, these events felt too forced and uncomfortable, so I started looking for an alternative.
While in-person networking events were invaluable for my professional development and future job searches, learning how to tap my friends and connections all over the country via social media was arguably a more important skill set. Learning how best to send a cold email to a potential contact or hiring manager was much easier than having to think on the fly in a networking event and remember all the points that I had wanted to ask about. This also meant that the people I was reaching out to were able to reply in their own time. I wasn’t trying to make a first impression at a busy event where there was only a short amount of time to stand out. It was also so much easier to add another person to the conversation or share my contact information. This was also a great way to learn more about what my friends and family do, and how they have built their own careers.
Quantifying My Work
Working from home was the first time when my effort was only something I could see. I could get up early and stay up all night working on something, and if it wasn’t done by the deadline it didn’t really matter how much time I had put in. Since sharing this frustration with friends in an office environment I have learned this is not at all unique to a remote position. As you advance in your career, defining your value to the team matters less and less about the time or effort, and instead, the goals reached.
My reviews with managers were much more metric-driven because they could only judge me on my final product, having literally never seen the hard work I put into something. Finding the right ways to measure my productivity and success not only helped me when I worked remote, but was also strong data to bring up when I interviewed for a new role.
Time Management and How to Unplug
While I didn’t strike out to new cities every week as some digital nomads do, I was able to work from Tokyo and Lisbon during my remote career. I was also able to work from my parents’ home around the holidays and take cheaper flights during normal work hours. However, I found that for the first few years of my remote career I only took a handful of full vacation or sick days. Instead, I would add work days within my planned trips, instead of fully taking a break, and I wasn’t the only remote employee to do this.
When my home was my office, I was always at work. On days when I woke up with a cold and would have previously considered calling in sick, I would now log into work remotely like normal. Part of this was my desire to be a good employee and a coworker everyone could rely on. However, I would catch myself answering non-urgent emails during dinner with my family, on days that I had requested off, and even holidays. By always being ‘on call’ I wasn’t giving myself a break from work.
In a major step, I set my work email and messaging apps like slack and skype to do not disturb for at least 3 hours around dinner and then again when I was getting ready to sleep. I would fully remove email notifications during a vacation so I was able to enjoy time with my family or exploring a new city. When I was really sick I would let my team know and then close my laptop before going back to sleep. Letting go of the anxiety around answering emails within the first ten minutes they were received was a huge weight off my shoulders, and set a needed boundary between my work and life.
Now that I am back in an office it is easier to find that line between work and home, but have slipped back into checking my emails as I receive them. A trick my friend taught me is reading the subject line of each message and deciding if this needs to be addressed right now. Most questions are better left alone until I am back at work to address them in greater length.
Conversation is a powerful tool for inspiration and problem-solving with team members. The remote team chat room was mostly work-related metrics and discussion, but didn’t exactly inspire more dialogue around future issues or problems not related to our team. There is also a disconnect to colleagues on other teams, who might actually work in a physical work environment and have face time with each other. At first, I was only aware of a very small circle of coworkers that existed in my team chat room, and I was funneling all of my larger questions to my manager, as I didn’t know who else to ask.
As I started to get more familiar with the company, I wondered how I could expand my reach and be more of a team player. If I saw a project I was interested in joining come up in a meeting it was my responsibility to reach out and get involved on my own time. That team might not have even known I had skills they could leverage, or even who I am. I found my voice in meetings, asking questions, or bringing up points that were important to my role because I wasn’t always sure if the question had been asked.
In an office full-time, the collaborations are more organic but are often still done between coworkers who are already familiar with each other. As an introverted person, the self-confidence I built up when working remotely has been a huge asset in throwing myself into a new crowd and looking for opportunities to work with other teams. Being aware of what every team is working on is a stretch, but familiarizing yourself with the main projects or goals can be a good starting point.
Back in an Office
Overall, I chose to leave my home office and get back into an office because the right job happened to be in an office. I was also interested in getting back before I defined myself as only a remote-based employee. While I was nervous about how I might adjust, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the skills I had developed while working at home had made me a stronger individual contributor.
The biggest lesson I learned from my years of experience working remotely was to be flexible. I quickly transitioned back to my home office during COVID-19 and I was able to offer my learnings to those around me who might be working from home for the first time. Make the most of this time remote so you can take the lessons back with you to the office when the doors are open again.
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