Highlights of this passage: Actual challenges in reality, Suggestions on improving our remote working experience
You may jump straight to those sections if you just want to read those points.
It has always been my dream to work remotely since I joined the tech field.
Time = Loyalty? Time = Quality Work?
I don’t believe that selling my precious time to a company will show my loyalty and good quality of work. Clocking in and out on time (or OT is an even better idea to some people), staying at the same place, pretending that I’m occupied with jobs even when I have completed my work. These just don’t make sense to me, AT ALL.
My Imaginations and Dreams
I think a cozy environment can help to stimulate ideas. Thus, I don’t really like sticking to a place for too long, especially when brainstorming is needed. I would dream of cafe hopping, working from different environments from now and then.
There is a saying “the best travel mode is to live with local people”, then you will be able to experience their actual lives and cultures. Wow, sounds cool, right? I even dream of renting a place with good internet connectivity in any of my interested cities, working in the daytime and experiencing life like a local after work (or whichever timing which suits the timezone), just like any digital nomad would do.
Remote: Office Not Required
I came to this book and it is just like gospel to me!
Pandemic Strikes Malaysia
Just before I could take any actions, Covid-19 strikes and the whole world is impacted. In 2020, Movement Control Order (MCO) was declared in Malaysia, and just like most of the countries in the world, we were on lockdown. Just a few days before MCO was declared, my company had already declared that we will be working from home until further notice.
This is where “my dreams have finally come true”. My company still practises work from home(WFH) or hybrid mode even after MCO was lifted.
I’m not going to focus on the pros and cons of working remotely here, as there is a handful of information available online. I’m just going to share about my WFH experience for the past 2 years and my two cents towards this working mode.
I was truly excited at the very beginning. Wow! we can finally
a. save up commute time (super bad jam in KL)
b. sleep better (my company emphasizes work life balance, of course)
c. work according to our perfect timing (the best performance timing differs)
d. have more quality time for family and overselves.
Actual challenges in reality
After a week or two, I started to face challenges at work.
1. My task was delayed as I couldn’t get enough responses from team member(s) on time.
This is totally understandable as some members were involved in multiple projects.
When we are working physically in an office, we can easily tell if one is really busy with something, going for a break or we can just simply walk to our colleagues and ask for a quick confirmation whenever there is a chance.
We can hardly know their availability precisely when working remotely. Regardless of the urgency of our enquiries, quick answer or so, all we can do is just to WAIT. Waiting for a response online or waiting for others to answer a phone call. As it turns out, I have to re-adjust my time to complete the task on time.
2. Miscommunication and spending too much time communicating.
Of course, we know that video or conference calls could be the most straightforward solution to reduce miscommunication.
However, internet connectivity can be unstable and causes poor video calls sometimes. Besides, some colleagues, especially those who are involved in multiple projects can hardly spare extra time for any video call as their schedules are already packed with scheduled calls and meetups.
Therefore writing could be the best option left. Team members can just read and reply to you when they are available.
There was one experience when I needed some technical help and a second opinion from my team. So I spent time writing up the question, double checking it and posting it. Instead of getting an answer, I received even more questions from the team. Spending time answering their clarifications and waiting for their next responses has eaten up so much time! Eventually, I couldn’t get the help on time as the delivery time had reached. I was a little discouraged.
After a few months or nearly a year working from home, I started to
3. Get bored as there is less interaction between colleagues.
When working physically in the office, we can just simply grab some snacks, walk around and chat with anyone in the pantry or at their seats. We can even go for lunch together!
We can only interact more closely with those who work on the same project when it comes to working remotely.
As it turns out, I realised that I don’t even know most of the new joiners. Less fun, less joy.
4. Start practising an unhealthy lifestyle unconsciously.
With some scenarios mentioned above, I ended up having longer working hour unconsciously.
I spent more time on communications: reading and writing messages, understanding and clarifying requirements, attending sprint plannings, daily stand-ups, backlog grooming, retrospective, and some extra technical discussions online. It could be even more tiring as everything has to be done online via video calls or any communication application.
Furthermore, working as a mobile application developer, my programming tasks can only be completed on a computer. As you can imagine, I could have been keeping the same posture, staring at the same screen, typing and clicking at the same spot, with a high level of concentration for long hours.
Sometimes, the entire communication or meeting process can take up the whole working day. In order to deliver my work within the given time frame, I somehow tend to put in extra time to work.
Unlike those days when we are working physically in the office, there is an office closure time. Everyone must leave the office and travel home physically and that’s the end of our working day.
But now, there is no clear cut of time. Moreover, we cannot travel anywhere during lockdowns. Unless we force ourselves to do so, most of us tend to continue working even after working hours.
I believe you can imagine what the outcomes are after practising this for more than one year.
Is it just your company? Is your company really that bad?
Hey, please don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining about my company.
In fact, as a tech company, remote working mode and flexible clock in time already exist since I first joined the company. As long as we are responsive and able to deliver our work with quality on time, the management does not really bother about the process.
However, I believe this is the first ever experience for the whole company to switch to 100% remote working mode in such a short notice period. Just note that not everyone, including myself, do not have prior experience of working remotely.
So it is normal and it is a good chance for us to grow and get used to it.
We are definitely having a better experience compared to 2 years ago.
Working remotely, aka WFH = Employee is lazy
I once saw a post from a local media agency, asking everyone to share their opinions on working from home in a social media post.
To my surprise, I saw an employer’s comment, which sounds something like this:
Working from home is just an excuse for the employees to be lazy. Working from home means doing nothing at home, but I need to pay them. They literally do nothing, so can I just not pay them?
Woah! I just can’t believe what I have just read!
This leads to the next phenomena in reality
5. Companies and teams are not remote working friendly and refuse to change.
Some companies or shops just cannot operate as usual as too many processes are still in manual methods, bound to a specific person or departments. Too many documents are only accessible in their physical company or shops.
When MCO is declared, they can hardly survive.
As a result, some traditional businesses or companies that failed to change cannot survive after the lockdowns.
Suggestions on improving our remote working experience
So if you really wish to improve the quality of your remote working experience, here are my 2 cents:
Company / Team Level:
1. Get your company or team ready for remote working — State task requirements clearly and make it accessible online
As mentioned earlier in the last item under actual challenges, some companies are not ready for remote working.
Make good use of the technology, get the documents available and accessible online. You may consider using systems like Google Workspace or Microsoft Sharepoint. Try out some project management tools available in the market. Some software did offer free access with limited access, purchase only if you need further support.
For text communication purposes, you may try tools like Slack, Discord and more. Most of these applications are available on desktop and phone. Not only that, the chat can be put into thread. Users can easily find the chat record and refer to a specific topic easily within a chat or topic thread.
2. Organise online or offline activities for your team members
To keep a good relationship among the team members, you may organise activities such as Townhall, online quiz games like Jackbox Party and so on. Lately, there are even softwares with virtual office like Gather.
It is even better if your team can meet physically sometimes. Organise trips, sports activities, team lunches and small gatherings.
Keep everyone connected!
3. Set a mutual time slot for technical help or discussions
Besides daily stand ups and other rituals to get the progress updates and planning, you may set an agreeable time slot for ad hoc discussion. Unless there is something very urgent on the plate, everyone MUST attend it.
The whole idea is to pre-book everyone’s time regardless of your time zone, working practice or working hours.
For example, the programming team may set a 1 hour slot at 2pm (GMT+8) each day. It could be 3pm for one of your team members who is working from Korea.
When everyone meets online at the agreed time, each can take turns to voice their issues. If there are more than one issues, team members can decide which issue to be prioritised within that hour or they can arrange for another time for the remaining issues. If there is no issue from anyone, the team may dismiss earlier.
1. Improve writing skills
Please don’t get me wrong, it is not about the language proficiency level. You need not be excellent at a language, as long as it is understandable, you are good.
Here are some tips:
a. Know your audience —
Avoid jargon if they are not from your field, for instance avoid technical terms when you are communicating with a business team. Use Layman’s terms instead.
Understand one’s behaviour and adjust your communication accordingly. Some people are born to be fast readers. They enjoy reading and are able to read and understand long passages in just a blink of an eye. On the other hand, reading can be a disaster to certain people. Some can understand better with illustrations and sketches. Try to look for a better approach, you may see the difference.
b. Provide enough context —
Give clear and sufficient context to the receiver in your writing.
Scenario : You are trying to ask for help (technical or programming questions)from someone in your company, who is not working on the same project with you.
Before jumping straight to your questions, please explain briefly on
i. Your goal or what you are trying to achieve: Give some background or the project requirements related to your question),
ii. Your blocker or issue,
iii. Your attempts: What solutions you have tried and outcomes of the attempt(attach with screenshots or error logs if necessary).
This will save everyone’s time. Less clarification is needed and you can get the answers other than those possible ways that you have tried on.
c. KISS — Keep It Simple and Short
Imagine that you have a packed schedule and you have spare 30 mins to address an issue. Someone wrote you a 3 page long message. For sure, you will not prioritise this issue as you won’t be able to solve it in 30mins time.
We need to find a balance for not being long winded and not being too brief with no context till no one can understand what is going on without further clarifications.
2. Expect delays and plan ahead
Do expect delays on responses. Plan ahead if you know that it is urgent. Give a dateline with enough buffer time for others to respond.
If you need to approach certain people, you may check their schedule beforehand. Say if your company is using Google Calendar, check their schedule.
If a discussion session is needed, propose a discussion time slot with the discussion items. So that they can go through and prepare accordingly before the meetup.
3. Prepare your working environment
Every individual is unique.
Some people can only concentrate after performing certain rituals like dressing up or making themselves a cup of good coffee or tea. If this is you, get yourself dressed up even if you are working from home! Go make yourself a good coffee!
Create a working environment for yourself. Some may have their own dedicated room or dedicated desk. Some prefer to work in a cafe or co-working space. Some need background music to concentrate.
If you are staying with your family, you may discuss your working hours with your family members. So that you can stay concentrated without disturb.
4. Get a good internet package and stay connected.
Imagine you are having a video call with your team members and you keep disconnecting during a presentation due to unstable internet connections, you are wasting everyone’s time.
5. Be responsive and responsible
We are all adults. After all, everything is based on trust. Be responsive to emails and messages during working hour (or any minimum mutual working hour at least). Read and respond to messages.
If you know there is an internet service interruption beforehand, proceed to a nearby cafe or stay connected with your phone data plan. Inform your team at least and arrange accordingly.
6. Set a cut off time.
Working is not the only reason that we live for. We have families and pastime interests. If you have a tendency of overworking, set an alarm.
Leave your working desk and go get some life.
Work life balance.
7. Beware of your sitting posture and working behaviour
After working from home for a year, I always have a headache and it is getting severe. From the symptoms that I had, I thought it could be migraine. Eventually, I decided to seek medical aid.
Long story short, I went for physiotherapy sessions. My condition improved significantly after a few sessions and daily exercises. So here are are some tips:
a. Get a good chair, table and tools that supports a good posture:
Good doesn’t mean that it must be expensive. Some expensive ergonomic chairs don’t really come with good back support. Get a chair that can support your back with no further bending. If there are wheels on the chair, make sure that it is stable and not moving too much so that your sitting posture can be maintained.
When we are typing or using a mouse, make sure that our elbow and wrist are supported. The elbow should be in L shape to the supported chair handle or desk. Our wrist should be in a comfortable position. We will bend our wrist when the mouse or keyboard is too high or too low. Eventually, this position will cause numbness and pain.To achieve this, you may get a chair or table with adjustable height. You can also get a keyboard tray according to your condition.
Next, try to keep our eyes straight. You may adjust your monitor height. As an app developer, I bought a table phone holder as well.
Get a foot rest if necessary. If your leg is hanging in the air, please get a footer. Some people may get swollen legs after hanging in the air for too long.
b. Move around and do some stretching every 30mins to 1 hour
I know this sounds like Mission Impossible to us whenever we are so focused on work. However, please bear in mind that moving and exercise is human’s nature by default. Lack of exercise is one of the major root causes of many modern lifestyle diseases.
Believe me, a 15 mins stretching per day at the end of the day ease my neck and stiff shoulders effectively. Of course, you can do more.
I actually saw more and more people having the side effects of a bad posture and unhealthy working lifestyle lately. If you realise, at least in Malaysia, more and more chiropractic and physiotherapy centres have been set up in the past 5 years.
Move your body before it is too late!
There is no perfect working mode. There are pros and cons for every working mode. It is important for us to prepare ourselves to adapt to each scenario.
Feel free to share your thoughts.
Today is my first day of working from the office by schedule after working remotely for 2 years plus. Malaysia has reopened our borders starting 1 April 2022. We will be in hybrid mode from now on.
Haha! I have been writing this since last Sunday to prepare myself mentally for today.
Happy exploring and stay safe!
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