On the Psychological Demands of Working From Home

As the angst and stir-craziness start to set in from the world suddenly being forced into lockdown, I’ve seen a lot of articles about working from home, by people in all walks of life, from programmers to astronauts. Most of them offer practical beginner advice, like go outside, plan a schedule, etc. etc. That’s all good advice to take in, but after a few weeks, you’re probably realizing there’s a lot more to making this work well. As the reality of our predicament is starting to sink in, it’s important to start thinking about the psychological demands of working from home. I’ve spent the better part of my 25 year career working from home, and when I started thinking about what, if any, wisdom I could share on how to make it work well, found that I’d come up with a lot of the same things I’d already shared in a post two years ago, Living With Depression in Tech. Working at home has some fantastic benefits, but also challenges that go far beyond basic discipline development. Being productive and successful at home comes down to changing your perspective – focusing on the impacts you’re having, believing in what you’re doing, and finding ways to grow and thrive on your own so that you can maintain your drive over the long haul.

Believe in What You Are Doing

I’ve previously written about seeking impact, and not credit, in your work. This starts with believing in what you are doing; that is, do what defines you. You probably wouldn’t be doing it if you didn’t see value in the first place, so focus on how your job affects the bigger picture; how your work affects the people relying on you, and ultimately how what you’re doing impacts the world, whether it’s on a small scale or large one. I’m very fortunate to have a job and a company that I can believe in, where I know I’m making an impact on the world (even if it’s rarely ever visible). I’ve pursued that kind of impact much of my life. Regardless of what your job is, there is some population that is benefiting from it, and you are impacting their lives. If you love what you do, identifying this should be easy.

Instead of thinking about the immediate tasks at hand that you have to get done, consider the bigger picture of the impact you’re making. This will give you the confidence to carry on when you’re stressed out or having trouble focusing. Confidence can be really hard to come by in competitive fields like tech. I’ve only seen one consistent pattern of success, and that is to seek impact rather than credit. Whether or not anyone recognizes all that you do is irrelevant. What’s important is that you are accomplishing what’s important to you and your mission, and making an impact in areas you want to impact, and in the lives of people you want to impact. Those people might never know your name, but they’re ultimately the lives you care most about impacting. Think about those people when you’re sitting there with some mundane task in front of you.

When you chase after impact instead of credit, things get a lot clearer about your mission, and it becomes a lot easier to work in a vacuum, where your work may not be immediately visible to others. You’re more inclined to share what you know with others, and contribute because you know it’ll go further and even inspire others. You’ll help advance other people because you’ll know that you had a hand in the impact they’re making too.

Focus on one thing: Doing good work. Meaningful work that is satisfying, and the impact it will have on other people. Be a philanthropist with your knowledge, a freight train with your work, and indifferent about your reputation. If you seek impact first and foremost, that’s what you’re going to make. Again, this is all about your perspective.

Communicate Well

Especially now, it’s important to stay connected to people you work with. From a management perspective, having a more active feedback loop than the norm can be a particularly sensitive need for someone who’s isolated. Especially when times are tough, it’s hard to know if you’re doing a good job. Anxiety can build up to ridiculous levels when you don’t get enough feedback, and during stressful times like these, you can read too much into a dry spell of communication to even start worrying about losing your job.

Such anxiety can be a huge, demotivating stressor if you haven’t gotten any feedback in a while, and so the antidote is to keep communication open with managers, making sure they understand what you need in a regular [and honest/open] feedback loop, frequent stand-up, and whatever else will help keep you motivated to keep going. A good manager will work to step up their communication with you to a level that you need; it’s in his or her best interests too, as your performance is one of the things they’ll be judged on. Make sure your manager understands your communication needs in a time like this are going to be different, and don’t be afraid to admit that to yourself.

I’ve previously written that asynchronous communication can really help to think through complex problems, and that’s true – but as you struggle to migrate from in-person meetings, maintaining synchronous communication is probably better advice for times like now. Being able to focus on one thing (such as the task at hand) rather than being split up between a dozen different topics, will help to keep momentum going. If you can get everyone on the same page and synchronously communicate through a task, you’ll have more luck than fragmenting your communication during a time when people are likely to get distracted. This is a good time to schedule video meetings or have a group chat going, and to bring everyone together in small bursts of collaboration, rather than waiting for emails to be exchanged.

Keep Growing and Be Creative

As being isolated starts to take its toll, there are healthy and unhealthy ways to manage the depression that can set in. The unhealthy mechanisms are easier and provide a high; an anesthesia to try and forget the predicament the world is in right now. Many are destructive in the end. Try to stay motivated by immersing yourself in continuing to grow in healthier ways. One of the things that got most of us into tech, for example, was the thrill of the challenge. Being creative is incredibly good therapy for anyone struggling in isolation. It helps to light up your brain, countering the effects that depression has in turning it off. Challenges grow you, rather than destroy you, and can build your confidence and spirits back up. Finding new personal projects to spend time on can give you something to really sink your teeth into, to enjoy and also feel smart at, and eventually feel that same excitement in owning it.

You’d probably be surprised at what else your mind is capable of simply because you’re an intelligent person. Writing and music have always been therapeutic channels of expression for me, but in addition to therapy, there’s a need for growth. I spent a year fixing up old pinball tables, taught myself how to take professional photography, speak Norwegian, read Greek, and a dozen other things that just seemed like good challenges to keep myself growing. When you’re in your lows and feeling completely demotivated, you can dig into a new challenge to take your mind off the current reality.

For deeper technical learning, the best way to learn is to get involved in research that’s above your skillset and out of reach – a different kind of challenge. There are a bunch of great free online college classes you can take / watch to expand your learning. I’ve got stacks of college texts, architecture manuals, and books on data types, algorithms, machine learning, and anything else I can get my hands on. If you’re up for a challenge, another approach that’s worked for me is to dig into some random research paper and try to learn about the area of research, then reproduce their results. There are papers, source code, hardware, and plenty of resources out there to dig into. Find something challenging and be willing to learn. One of the great benefits to this is that you become more proficient at learning itself!

There is a Light at the End of the Tunnel

This is a difficult time for everyone, and it’s easy to let the isolation and desperation take over. Remember, this too shall pass. We’ll get past this, we’ll be able to see friends, family, and coworkers again, and will be able to better appreciate the value of a hug or a smile, conversation, and a meal out with friends. While we have some tough times ahead, the world is going to go on, and we’re going to find our way back to natural human interactions. This is temporary. You can do this. Hang in there, and be kind to one another. Even though you may feel isolated, we can all still be together through this.