How to be… not in a meeting and 10% more comfortable

A friend of mine wrote to me today and talked about how working from home was going, something along the lines of endless Zoom meetings, and lots of good moments, but also low moments, missing having colleagues around to ask something or bounce ideas off.

Many people I know are feeling that way, and in addition many are also juggling working in provisional set ups (sofas are not necessarily comfortable 6 hours into a long day), working from home surrounded by (small) people and, oh yes, a global pandemic to boot. All risk registers have long turned to red.

I struggle just the same, with my personal circumstances, my work, coping with uncertainty… and as a relatively healthy and employed person, I am fortunate indeed.

But… I do know some answers to the question of how to make what many are missing when working remotely happen when you are stuck working online and I want to share some examples of what has worked for me:

Spend time online, not in a meeting

The first time I really started to spend time working with someone online outside of meetings was when my colleague Martin joined our organisation (Martin won’t mind me writing about this, as we blog about working as a virtual team regularly). He and I are a senior staff team of two and so from the start I knew that being able to work together well was going to be really important. We started off having regular catch ups, meetings and so forth, but things weren’t working as well as we wanted them to – we didn’t have enough time to bounce ideas off each other. So we started getting into the habit to work together online, for example on a long or repetitive tasks, to share our screens, and to work together and chat alongside it. Over time, we started to get comfortable working together without being distracted or limited by the technology and the quality of our thinking increased rapidly.

For me, there are a couple of things that make this work:

  • by sharing a screen or looking at something other than ourselves on video, we have something else to focus on together rather than just ourselves. It is less confrontational and formal, it feels less like a meeting. It’s still important to look at something together however, so that we don’t disengage and get distracted by emails…
  • spending time together outside of meetings or catch ups happens easily when you are based in the same space and as its not planned or accounted for, you are probably not even aware of how much time you would spend talking with others. Video meetings are exhausting, and people have the tendency to schedule too many of them, but booking out an hour or two every week when we do not have meetings but work or think about something practical, creates a very different mode of engagement
  • building trust and having conversations about difficult things or things we are not sure about or things we worry about is much easier when you have regular interactions that are informal, but still productive. The time we spend working together gives us that space. For us, over time, this became a huge benefit and translates into working practice across the team.

Be your own best work colleague/you are your own worst work colleague

Working from home, particularly under less than ideal circumstances, means you are both constantly confronted by everyone and everything from your personal life and also yourself. I found out pretty quickly that I don’t like myself as my own and only work colleague very much. I talk too much, I don’t take enough breaks, I am bad at jokes and when I am hungry I get in a bad mood quickly.

Without the balancing effect of other people around me who are also working (and that is an important bit as people, however loved, who are not working, don’t ‘count’ as colleagues), spending every day with just myself was a bit of a shock to the system and I know many who feel similar. Here are some things I have found helpful to become a better work colleague for myself:

  • Saying good morning: I like greeting people, seeing them on the way to work, saying hello. I missed this a lot when I started working from home, so I always start each day at work saying good morning online. I find it grates if the first thing I get is a chat that starts with “Hi, can you help me with this problem” or “Oh no, see what’s happened now…” or “I’m so tired today”. All valid of course, but my usual response is, “Good morning, X, hello to you. How are you doing? I’ve just arrived at my desk, so I’ll have a look at … just as soon as I have said hi to everyone” or something like that.
  • Breaks and snacks: we use a ‘water cooler’ chat channel to share things like what kind of biscuits we are having as a snack or pictures of our pets. I often use the fact that others are having a break as a prompt to have a break myself, to go and make a cup of tea, stand outside for a moment if its dry. Getting up and moving about really helps both my body and my mind and is something that I forget to do if left to my own devices.
  • Dress for others: OK, so at the time of writing this may be harder to achieve than it normally is, but it can be helpful to dress for others as if you were meeting them in person. I often dress according to what meetings I may have that day, for a specific person I am catching up with or a team meeting and so on. I would normally “dress for myself” if you know what I mean, but when you are at home on your own or with your family for weeks on end, that becomes more of a challenge as you may not get past sweatpants and t-shirts.

Consider how you could be 10% more comfortable

I had a wonderful yoga teacher for a couple of years and one of the things she taught me was to pause and consider how I could make myself 10% more comfortable. It may sound a bit trite, but I found it to be a powerful tool, particularly when you are working from home. Small changes such as a thingy to help with screen glare (technical term), a cushion at your back, a colourful coaster or mouse mat, a change in position… these things can make a small but important difference to how stressed, tense and sensitive I am at work.

I find I can loose my sense of humour or perspective rapidly when my back aches or I can’t see the screen properly… and things that start out as quite small niggles can quickly escalate when everyone is less than comfortable. In these times, when everyone is under pressure, everyone deserves compassion, everyone wants to be reassured, it is a powerful tool to try and make things 10% more comfortable. 10% is always achievable. 10% does make a difference. 10% a day or a week or even a month does add up.

The 10% thing also encourages me to remember that whilst most of what I do might be digital, I am most definitely made of flesh and blood and aching bones. Few people feel their best just now and many feel up and down and thoroughly discombobulated. We are far from ‘business as normal’ even if we are achieving many things and people are working hard – no matter how well we are coping, we could probably all do with 10% more comfort.

So there you are. Take care.

Dedicated to my friend Margaret who inspired this post.