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Break free from the grind of "too much work"
I am writing this from an Airbnb in northern Minnesota. My setup isn’t ideal — my laptop is perched on a too-squishy bed and the coffee is weak — but I’m otherwise enjoying my surroundings.
While many people head somewhere warm for spring break, we stayed within driving distance of home. Yesterday we took a winding road to visit a lighthouse, played games, and watched a movie.
Our vacations have revolved around the school year for many years, which means long breaks with each new season. And even though traveling with kids is often the opposite of “relaxing,” the change of scenery is welcomed.
As a remote employee, I could work while traveling. But I don’t. Since my entire career has been with small employers and coverage looks different than in a large company, I’ll usually do a few brief email check-ins, but nothing more. I recognize the need to step away.
Remote work isn’t inherently tied to better boundaries between work life and personal life, but they are closely related. It’s a myth that remote work forces employees to be “always on” because access to the tools needed to do the job are readily available. But it doesn’t have to be — and shouldn’t be — that way. If anything, remote work can create the necessary separation to make rest and recharging easy.
Office culture breeds hustle culture
One of my favorite Twitter accounts is The Nap Ministry. She tweets about naps, rest, and breaking free from hustle culture and grind culture.
I entered the workforce in a time of push, push, push. Two years out of college, the Great Recession hit and my company laid off 1/3 of its employees. I made the cut but watching many hardworking people let go only fueled my drive to prove myself invaluable. By the time I took time off, I was ready to collapse.
The most hustle-driven times in my career were when I was the only remote employee in my department. Everyone else was in the office and could benefit from seeing each other. They could poke their heads over cubicles or talk loudly to prove how hard they were working. I didn’t have that benefit. And so I updated our internal ticketing system with lengthy notes and sent an overabundance of emails to show just how hard I worked.
But working in an office is only a guarantee of presence — not productivity. Having sight to colleagues incurs judgment about how time is spent. Who comes in early? Who stays late? Who takes the most phone calls during the day? Who complains the loudest about their workload?
Yet none of these are indicators of results. When my company first went fully remote in 2010, many people mimicked the behavior I’d adopted years ago: constant updates and other forms of virtual presenteeism to “prove” that they were working hard.
Eventually, these habits fell away. We learned to recognize the difference between noise and results.
And many people become more protective of their personal time as a byproduct of remote work. It might be tempting to stay late at an office when a colleague is also staying late. But if your kid appears at your side and asks, “What’s for dinner?” it’s easier to step away.
Eventually, I began to put up my own boundaries around work and personal time, but it took a profound loss in my life for me to reach that point.
Rest needs to be respected
I remember joining a meeting from my cell phone while in an airport with my family. We had a planned vacation and I was asked to join a call. There was no emergency by any means, but the CEO wanted me to be included. Eager to please, I said, “Yes.”
It took a long time for me to prioritize my time away from work (both for vacations and personal time). It didn’t help that my employer didn’t respect the boundary either. Emails would continue to flood in, many demanding my attention. I finally disconnected my email from my phone while I was on vacation as a self-imposed limitation.
But I had colleagues that never reached that point. They’d go for years without taking a true vacation. Employers pushed the boundaries and they weren’t in a position of power to push back.
And I’ll admit that power worked in my favor. As I was promoted within the company, it was easier for me to step away and not feel guilty. Those that were in senior roles enjoyed this privilege. But those doing much of the day-to-day work, particularly with customers, had less flexibility.
I remember thinking, “Why don’t they just take time off?” But company structure as a whole worked against them. Even as a fully remote environment, it wasn’t designed to protect everyone’s time away from work equally.
Setting boundaries in remote work
In the early days of the pandemic, I know many people (parents in particular) who struggled with remote work. It was a recipe for chaos since the sudden shift lacked a lot of intention that is necessary for thriving remote cultures, compounded by kids home due to school closures.
But now, surveys are overwhelmingly clear: people don’t want to be forced back into the office. They want the freedom to choose if and when they will return, with many opting for fully remote. Those that are doing remote work correctly have found that remote work shouldn’t replicate an office.
Personal boundaries are necessary, of course. An employer can’t force an employee to disconnect at the end of the day. But the employer should also lead by example, in response time expectations, redundancy plans so employees can freely take time off, and respecting the times that employees step away from work.
I had a colleague who only had one peer that would have been able to provide adequate coverage for part of his responsibilities. And that person was a jerk; the employee was afraid to ask for help. A manager should have stepped in for the employee and facilitated the time off coverage (we’ll save commentary on working with jerks for another day).
The message in this type of remote environment is: “It’s your responsibility to ensure your work is covered.” That’s an unhealthy approach to time off because it sets up an imbalance where some employees are never able to step away. It’s the employee’s responsibility to identify the work the coverage needed, but the employee and manager should work together on a plan.
I benefit now from my own boundaries and a remote work culture that supports rest and fully stepping away. Since I also do freelance work, I have to plan accordingly (also a topic that merits discussion on its own). Any check-ins I do are brief and my choice.
To anyone reading: I hope you rest. I hope you know that you deserve rest. I hope that you have (or find) remote work that supports rest.
In the News: Companies that support remote work see exponential growth
Some companies have simply exploded along with the rise in remote work. Zoom was already a go-to platform for many professionals and it deepened its reach into other industries like education. Remote people management software Lattice is another example. The company has seen 150% year-on-year growth in its own workforce since its founding in 2013 and also recently announced its move to a remote-first work model.
While collaboration tools are essential, there are logistics of working remotely that are often overlooked — or companies don’t have a good process in place for equipping work-from-home employees. Firstbase combines software and hardware, shipping at-home setups to new employees.
Led by CEO Chris Herd, a fierce remote work advocate, Firstbase raised a Series A round of funding last year and has now announced a Series B. While this was a desperate need for logistics at the onset of the pandemic, that need will never go away as companies hire and expand. Gone are the days when new employees begin work on their first day and don’t have the tools they need.
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