Tips to a healthy work-life balance for people starting in a remote company

One of the common challenges you find when onboarding in a distributed structure is to have a healthy work-life balance. It’s difficult to separate working time from personal time. This can be true if you work at home, and it can be worse if you don’t have a specific room that you can call your home office. COVID and confinements, whether they are strict or auto-imposed, have made this unquestionably tougher. But maintaining a good work-life balance is crucial to ensure our impact remains high in the long run. 

(This post has been adapted from another one I published internally at Automattic, incorporating some of the good contributions added as comments)

woman in gray tank top and black leggings sitting on floor
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Onboarding and understanding your new remote environment.

First of all, think onboarding buddies and mentors (or however they are called in your company) are here to help you get acclimated to the company and helps you find ways to deal with the challenges that starting to work in a remote or distributed company generates and feel welcome to the chaos it means a new distributed environment. BTW: Chaos doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of order. Chaotic systems are dynamical systems that are apparently random and disorganized but are actually governed by underlying patterns and deterministic laws. So there is light at the end of the tunnel 😀 

You just need time and a bit of help to understand and harness all these new rules and structures. You don’t need to work on it for more hours a day. Instead, you should focus on being more productive and happier (these two are pretty related). Starting fresh and fully energized each day is all about setting boundaries between your work time and personal time and feeling included and a part of something. And this takes time.

How to get it? There is no one-size-fits-all recipe, but let’s share some tips. If you have any other ideas that worked for you, please don’t hesitate to add them to the page.

1. Remove your working apps from your cell phone.

Some examples of these apps are Slack, Basecamp, Trello, your a8c email, not to mention other division-specific apps like Zendesk… 

What if you REALLY need them? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Well, Some people prefer a more in-between approach. In that case, remove the notifications or snooze them automatically outside your working hours. Let yourself be the one who decides when to take a look. Notifications are designed to attract your attention, and if your attention is on work-related matters, you’ll never unplug. You’ll be distracted when you should be addressing your attention to yourself or your loved ones. This doesn’t mean you’ll be more productive the following day. On the contrary, you’ll likely be more tired. Your company likely prefers focused, productive people while at work, not people working 24/7 and becoming too tired, unhappy, or burnt out. Your company is all for your work-life balance.

Removing distractions like cell phone alerts can make you more productive and less stressed (with some exceptions, depending on the way you work). For some, it could be evident, but if you want some studies and analysis to justify it as well as some pieces of advice, you can read Indistractable by Nir Eyal.

If you are a team lead, lead by example. I had my personal epiphany when I heard from my former division lead that he did not have Slack on his cell phone. Seriously, if he hadn’t installed it, was there any reason for me to have it?

old statue of young woman with smartphone in museum
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2a. Dramatize the boundaries of your working time: Meditation.

What I mean is that we need clear boundaries to have work-life balance, right? Let’s highlight them. Let’s mark very clearly when we’re starting to work and when we’re finishing. When you go to an office, you have time to reflect and internalize these boundaries, even inadvertently. Your commute takes time and changes the space. You often spend some time in a non-place (your car, the underground, walking time…) that reifies this border. You are still in need of this frontier.

My favorite way to mark boundaries is by meditation. I meditate for 5 to 10 minutes when I’m about to start work and again at the end of my day to avoid stopping suddenly and carrying all of my thoughts and preoccupations about work over into my home life. My favorite applications for meditating are Headspace and Insight Timer (Or Elefante Zen if you speak Spanish), and I’m now considering Waking Up. I’m proud and grateful to be working for a company that considers these applications so beneficial that some of these apps’ plans are reimbursed. If this is not your case, I’d still pay for it. Or you can come and work with us.

Is meditation not for you? Fair enough. Name your method, but set the boundary. 

2b. Dramatize the boundaries of your working time: Other useful micro-actions.

You can use some other alternatives to remind you that you are starting your working day or finishing it. I work better with those that request all our attention for 3-10 minutes. You can use different strategies, also on alternate days, at will:

  • You can show gratitude for two or three things that have happened today (or yesterday). HappyFeed journal app for this as it is simple and effective. They also have a good piece of advice on stress alleviation.
  • You can devote these 3 minutes to reflect on a word or phrase. One good choice for this could be these self-mastery cards
  • You can start a GLAD journal. Similar to the gratitude journal, you can reflect on your previous day’s highlights. One thing that made you Grateful, one Learning, one Accomplishment, and something that Delighted you. I write my diary on a simplenote note. 
  • Or what about writing a few lines? You could try to be poetic or keep it prosaic, but it doesn’t need to have a purpose: you can be creative and remember it’s just for yourself… don’t undo ;). Julia Cameron’s book: The Artist’s Way fully develops this idea but you could also go with some lines in a cool notebook. You can even go further and publish/release some of your little writings if you can keep in mind you are your unique intended audience.
  • Go for a walk. What if you are confined, it’s raining, or you cannot go outside? Yoga, Stretching, or a dance break are very valid alternatives 🙂

3. Add structure to your workday.

A remote working routine helps to foster both productivity and happiness. It adds a map, a plan, and a pace to your journey and also protects you from email apnea.

I no longer use the routine I explained in this post. And it makes sense as you should revamp it from time to time. But you could find there a good explanation and some examples you could use to build yours. 

This is my current working routine schema: 

Note: Hand-drawing routine charts could helps you reflect.

As you can see, I devote time to reflect on what I’m going to do during the day (set daily priorities). I’m under the impression that we sometimes neglect reflection because we overweight the importance of the time directly devoted to producing tangible outcomes. But just when you think first, you can do things right.

Some people also love using tools for this. One good example could be Full Focus Planner. It helps focus on impactful work and not just staying busy. This planner incorporates space for you to define “rituals” – repeated actions that mark the start and end of your day/workday to help you transition from personal time to work time. It also allocates space for reflection on what went well, what didn’t, biggest “wins”, etc, which then sets you up for your plan for the following week.

4. Talk to other people. Socialize.

OK, we set boundaries. Now, what about also feeling comfortable and included at work? That’d rock, right? If you’re not used to remote work, you could forget these aspects. But you need to connect with others and do it enough to feel integrated and comfy. Yeah, it works both at your remote work and in your personal time. Communication, not just about work, is a pillar for healthy remote activity. Otherwise, you could be swallowed by stress, negativity, and a sense of isolation. But how? Here there are some ideas:

ethnic girl having video chat with teacher online on laptop
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  • Use and relish your sessions with mentors or buddies. They are not an imposition but an opportunity to meet people that will help you feel more comfortable at work.
  • Enroll in some casual random communication group at work. This helps a lot in finding your place. What if there are no groups? You can suggest them ¯_(ツ)_/¯ (OR implement them for your newer colleagues if you are a more seasoned employee :). Some examples we have at Automattic:
    • Life Chat: where you get randomly paired to have a chat with someone else in the company (It uses a bot over a slack channel).
    • Distributed Postcards, where you are also paired, this time to send postcards on a given topic. Easier to implement: we just use a blog to coordinate everything.
    • Tea Time initiative (The goal is simply to help us connect and try to offset some of the downsides of not being able to meet in person, by experimenting with social gatherings).
  • What about building a blackboard/blog where you share activities you can enroll in with fellow colleagues?
  • Use your team channel. Don’t forget to say good morning when you start working, create casual conversation, and add your touch of charm! You’re probably worried about what the others might think of you. But they are likely eager to meet their new team member.
  • Is there someone around you’d like to know better, or you think that you could learn from? Do you share a hobby, or did you leave a similar comment in a post?… Why don’t you drop them a few words that could spark a conversation or even suggest meeting for coffee over zoom?
  • Ping someone to say something casual, not work-related. You can make this a weekly activity. E.g., ping four people/week. Keep me the secret. I have -and I’m not the only one- a Trello reminder to do this!
  • Do you have a hobby, a personal interest? Check your list of Employee Resource Groups or check if there is a related slack channel (We have from #poetry to #women, #bluffers, or #sustainability but I’m sure there are also lots in your company) or p2 sites (we have babies, pets, Brazilians, hot dogs, beards… just to mention some ).
  • Shadowing sessions or walk-through calls with your lead or a teammate are always a win. They help with the imposter syndrome, speed up learnings, and help you meet friendly people.
  • Bonus track for non-native English speakers: We all have been there. Don’t feel ashamed if your brain is melting down after reading, writing, and speaking English for 8 hours. It’s helpful to meet and talk to people from your country/region and in your native language. Even short conversations or comments make a difference and could help you deal with new job stress.

Bonus track. Remote imposter syndrome could be harsh.

First step. Reckon Imposter Syndrome is a fact (Also when you switch your role in the same company). It happens to the best of us. xxx

In the first few months, it’s really common to wonder if we really belong here. Maybe the hiring team made a mistake. But rest assured, you made it through the trial and you worked hard to get here. It’s time to make a plan to work through any blockers and put one foot in front of the other. Again, talk to your lead. We can’t emphasize this enough.

Lovely and useful words from internal Automattic’s ‘field guide’.

You can find lots of information about imposter syndrome, but it could be as simple as reminding yourself that:

  • The reason to be hired is that at least someone thought you are brilliant and able to nail it. If one person thought so, you very likely are a brilliant person who absolutely deserves to be here. 
  • You are supposed to make some mistakes, especially in the beginning. You’re not a robot.
  • If you enjoy what you are doing, you’ll likely be more productive and happier. This is in your hands. *

I love being an onboarding buddy or a mentor. Not because I can contribute to helping new people to build confidence and feel welcomed. That rocks, but it’s more what I learn from their diverse and fresh perspectives. One of them told me this, and that could be a good recap to the whole post:

(*)  I really appreciate you helping me to stay calm and encouraging me to have fun. 

Take it as a mantra when starting a new distributed/remote/any job 🙂 Stay calm and have fun!

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