Onboarding: notes from a remote-team newbie, part 4

Hi, I’m Holly. I just started at Open Door Teams, and this is my first full-time remote position. ODT is a remote (or, a better word, I think, is ‘dispersed’ - more on that below) team. I’m keeping a journal of impressions, frustrations, victories, failures, and general observations as I progress through the phases of Onboarding Newbie to Remote Team Wonderworker. I have permission to be both blunt and truthful. Please follow along. I welcome your comments and insights.

work-life balance work-life boundaries remote work

There’s something happening in my living room.

Materially speaking, it’s this: two men are replacing the old, defunct electric fireplace that serves as the primary source of heat in my small house. More abstractly: a boundary is dissolving. A boundary that’s been in place since I was sixteen and first reported for duty at the Dairy Queen on New Road in Waco, Texas. It’s one that’s ubiquitous in our post-industrial world: work and home are separate, ought to be separate, and the more separate, the better.

Except they aren’t anymore. Not for me. And I’m starting to wonder how useful the division was in the first place.

Two men, a fireplace, and the end of an era...

Where once there was Work and Home, now there’s a strange new hybrid of the two. Wome. Hork? Workhome, perhaps.

Whatever we call it, it flies in the face of the long-accepted, rarely questioned professional dictate to leave your personal life at the door—something I got very good at over the years. Almost as if when I crossed the workplace threshold I became someone else, someone with unique, work-driven perspectives, priorities, and methods. Work Holly, let’s say. Historically, Work Holly hasn’t had to care about things like fireplaces or the men who install them making a mess in the living room. After all, that’s Home Holly’s turf. Only now that the living room is right down the hall from where I work, I can’t check it at the door like a coat to be picked up on my way out. I’m aware of what’s going on in there. And the awareness is distracting.

I don’t mean the noise. Although, yes, two dudes lumbering in and out of the house, drilling and knocking things about is noisy. But the bigger distraction is the effort it takes to stay Work Holly while firmly ensconced in Home Holly’s territory.

Division is distraction.

This is a fair (and timely) illustration of why dispersed feels to me like the most accurate descriptor of teams that work off-site. Remote just means we work from somewhere that isn’t a company building. Dispersed hints at the way this approach to work spreads out the professional so that it bleeds into the personal. And, at least in this instance, vice versa. It’s dispersal in more ways than one, is what I’m saying.

Then again, maybe it only feels like that because I’m fighting it.

David Burkus writes in Harvard Business Review that “ … maintaining strict distinctions between work roles and home roles might actually be what is causing our feelings of stress to set in. Instead of leaving work at the office and home at the door, integrating both might be a better strategy for enhancements in well-being and performance.” Which begs the question: what if Work Holly and Home Holly joined forces? It’s likely that this morning would’ve been a lot smoother. I mean, it never even occurred to me to simply start work a bit later today. That’s the sort of idea Home Holly might come up with. But there’s no room for that kind of thinking in the way I plan my workdays. I do it like this:

  • Take stock
    At the end of my work session, I consider what I accomplished and what I didn’t. I think about next steps, blockers, etc. What can I reasonably expect to do tomorrow? I ask myself.

  • Plan
    I move current-day tasks that still need my attention to the next day’s plan. Or to a different day. Whatever makes the most sense.

  • Plan some more
    I survey my Pivotal Tracker—one of the project management tools we use here at Open Door Teams—and add tasks to the next day’s plan based on what I need to/want to/am able to work on next.

What I don’t do is consider what’s going on at home. Which means I cut myself off from both the singular realities of my home—the place I work—and the skill set necessary to navigate them. Counter-productive, don’t you think? Not to mention wasteful. I would’ve saved a fair amount of time if I’d put dinner in the slow cooker while the whole fireplace thing was happening instead of stubbornly sitting at my desk, trying to ignore the plaintive call of Home Holly.

Work and home are better together.

I keep thinking about those old Reese’s commercials where two people would bump into each other and end up with their snacks—chocolate for one, peanut butter for the other—mixed together. Tempers would flare but all’s well that ends well because, as everyone knows, chocolate tastes good with peanut butter. The flavors enhance each other. And the more I think about it, the more it seems that work and home are like chocolate and peanut butter: better together.

When I worked onsite and wanted a cup of tea, I’d go to the break room, put the water on to boil, and wipe down the counter or sweep the floor while I waited. These days when I want a cup of tea, it’s my own kitchen that gets tidied up while I wait. And when I’m struggling with a particularly challenging bit of work there’s always laundry to fold or a cat to brush—precisely the kinds of tasks that aid focus and creativity. Also the kinds of tasks that were not available to me at my onsite jobs.

In other words, both versions of me miss out when we operate separately. Because despite what they told me at Dairy Queen, work and home compliment each other. Or they can, anyway. As long as we don’t insist on trying to keep them separate.

(So maybe remote’s the better descriptor after all.)


Next up: part five | Photos by Scott Webb and Roman Bozhko