Just over a month ago, Bruce Daisley, a former vice president of Twitter, published a book about improving office life called “Eat Sleep Work Repeat.” But now, deep in the coronavirus lockdown, many of us are trapped in an even more extreme cycle of “eat, sleep, work, repeat.” The common irritations of the office have been replaced by the demands of child care, the challenges of isolation and the constant fear of losing loved ones.
I spoke to Daisley from his apartment in London, where he’s holed up with an overstuffed refrigerator. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What are the biggest surprises people are facing as they start working from home?
A: A lot of us probably felt that remote working and working from home were going to be the future. It was going to be an answer to a lot of our problems. It’s gradually dawning on us that remote work holds answers as an occasional tool for us to use, but it’s definitely not the solution all of the time. Stress levels of remote workers are significantly higher than those of people who work in the office. And I suspect that will start playing a part in what we’re going to experience going forward.
Q: What problems should we be looking out for?
A: When you no longer can see the smile of someone near the elevators or someone nodding in a meeting – when we’re removed from those small, human social signals, work can start feeling isolated for a lot of us. If you’ve got a few workers who work remotely, they quite often say that they fear that their boss doesn’t like them and their colleagues don’t trust them. It’s simply because we get so many nonverbal cues from the people around us that when those are removed, we start filling the void with dark thoughts, especially in the time we’re in right now.
Q: How can we counter that sense of isolation?
A: The people who are going to survive best are going to have to take on doing an action that initially feels a bit uncomfortable: picking up the phone and calling a few colleagues once or twice a week. We normally would have found that unnecessary, but we’ve got to make sure that we retain human connections.
Q: We’ve heard so much about the importance of maintaining a separation between the home and the office, but how is that possible now that they’re the same place?
A: Quite often the people who talk about creating a separation between home life and work life might be fortunate enough to have a home study or a spare room that they can go into to work. But I suspect for the majority of people who are now working from home that extra space won’t be a given – certainly not for workers in London, Manhattan and other big cities. So creating a separation will be about saying, “I won’t work after a certain time in the evening. I’ll try to create a routine for myself.” Those are going to be really critical decisions now.
Q: How is the sudden rise of remote working changing the flow of office management?
A: When bosses are confronted with uncertainty and anxiety and problems, they quite often reach for control. Someone told me last week that they’d been on 30 to 40 hours of Zoom phone calls, which is sometimes what’s called presenteeism: the idea that, because we can’t measure what people are doing in their jobs, the very fact that they’re sitting at their desks is a proxy for productivity. I think we’re seeing a substitute of that into the world of remote work. There’s nothing that’s going to make a worse experience than sitting on a two-hour Zoom call while your kids are creating mayhem in the room next door.
Q: What’s the solution to that?
A: Agree to terms of when everyone will be committed to rapid response. The benefit is that everyone’s got a window. If they know that they need to ask the boss a question, if they need to get a response from someone else, they can very quickly get an immediate response that won’t necessarily be expected at other times.
Q: Speaking of those kids creating mayhem, what do you tell parents trying to work with their housebound children?
A: If your child is happy, the house is happy. So there’s a need for far more compromise than many of us would set out to bring. Know that a moderate amount of good schooling is going to be better than nothing right now. Being a good enough parent is going to be the thing that we all need to learn to do, rather than trying to be the model parent.
Q: Almost everyone I know says they’re having trouble concentrating. Any advice?
A: There was a Harvard Business Review article a couple of days ago saying that, if you’re feeling constantly exhausted right now, don’t be surprised. This is a common experience of grief. When people feel a low level of anxiety through the day, it does manifest in our physiognomy. It does manifest in us feeling exhausted by the emotional drain of it. So let’s not drive ourselves into the ground right now. Let’s at least use this opportunity to reflect on what’s important, rather than trying to retain unsustainable levels of performance in such a singular and wretched time.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.