How To Actually Enjoy Working from Home

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S1: Hey, listeners, it’s Charles du HIG. And I wanted to ask a quick favor before we get into our show. As you probably know, lots of media companies are struggling right now in Slate is no exception, unfortunately. So if you like what we do here at how to. I was hoping you might consider becoming a member of Slate. Plus Slate plus is only $35 dollars a year. And it allows you to listen to our show and all the other great slate podcasts ad free and you’ll ensure that the news and entertainment and comfort that Slate provides to you will still be there in the future after this pandemic finally ends. So please consider it. And thank you so much. Testing, testing, testing, testing. OK, so we’re doing an episode about home offices. And one thing I wanted to ask you about, because we both have a home office right now, right?

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S2: Yeah, mine is in my room right now. I sit on Xoom calls with your school. Yeah. What would your perfect home office look like? I’d say soundproof. Also, like those spiky pads you won’t like somewhere that doesn’t have a lot of distractions. I’d have the walls painted black and I’d have like. A purple velvet sofa.

S3: They’d be pretty cool. OK, so I want to ask you something. So yesterday we had a little bit of an incident.

S2: You got a little bit frustrated with the Wi-Fi. And some people in my Xoom call overheard loud noises. Was I saying that words at a very loud voice? Yeah. Yeah.

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S1: And Alexis saw Alexis soar. And so. OK. So on the Xoom call, your classmates could hear me yelling.

S2: Yeah. And what did they say? They laughed for a little while. And then Felicia, my teacher was like, Hey, are you OK? And I was like, yeah, I’m fine. My dad just the Wi-Fi isn’t working, so.

S3: This is unfamiliar to since New York stay at home. Orders were instituted last month. I have gotten a batch of new co-workers, including my 11 year old son in my office. At least for part of each day is now my dining room table. And as you know, I am not alone. Tell me where you are. You are calling me from right now.

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S4: I’m calling you from my kitchen table.

S3: And is that a big kitchen or a small kitchen?

S4: No. I accidentally called it the dining room table today. And my boyfriend started making fun of me immediately, like, oh, you know how we have an entire room just to eat in FairPoint.

S1: Meet you into an audio producer who lives and now works in a Brooklyn apartment with her boyfriend, Nick.

S4: I had a dream recently. I had a dream. We had a roommate and that he moved out and there was a whole other room in our apartment. And I was like, when I woke up, I was like, Oh, my God, why don’t we just use that room? And then I realized it was a dream. And we just live in a one bedroom apartment, just the two of us.

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S1: I guess we’re at that point in quarantine where we’re having dreams about rooms in our apartments.

S5: I miss my office so much.

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S1: And how does that compare to to working from home like.

S6: Like how does it compare to my kitchen table with a broken leg? I’m staring at our pile of cardboard that needs to get taken out. I think one of the challenges with the space and the you know, is to sort of like boundaries, like taking breaks is really hard because you feel sort of like joined at the hip with the slack. For some reason in a way that I don’t. At the office.

S1: So it’s so kind of these boundaries between work and life. Both. Both psychological boundaries. Right. Like if I if I’m in the same space all day long, how do I know when I’m working and when I’m relaxing? I also like physical boundaries because we’re used to being able to leave our home and leave the dishes in the sink and say, like, I’m going to deal with that when I get home. Now I’m going to go be a professional. And then when they come home, that’s when I put on my like, you know, sweat pants and and get to like be a slovenly pig. So when am I as slovenly pig and went away a profession? I’m not sure.

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S4: Right. Because right now I feel like a slovenly professional.

S3: Today’s episode is for all of you slovenly professionals who are desperately trying to turn your kitchen into a corner office, or at least a desk that doesn’t have dirty dishes all over it. And let me start by saying I know that a lot of us don’t have the luxury of working from home right now and that many of us have been laid off. So it’s a privilege to even have this conversation. And later in the show, we’ll answer listeners questions about how to find a job during this pandemic. But first, we want to help Joanna. And so we found a behavioral scientist who studies how to make workplaces better. He’s staying at home right now. Like the rest of us. And he has some ideas on how to make a home office actually work. Stay with us.

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S1: Ben WABER is obsessed with workplace design. He began researching organizational behavior at Harvard Business School. And then he went to M.I.T. and then he co-founded his own firm that helps companies improve their productivity by looking at all kinds of things like where’s the best spot for the watercooler? Several years ago, based on everything he had studied and learned, he wrote a book called People Analytics.

S7: At this point, we have data from, you know, every single employee in the world at some of the largest companies in the world. And we had this for years now exploring sort of the social landscape both within our companies as well as outside our companies. Randomly chatting with me by the coffee machine, you know, forming relationships with people in other parts of the organization, going out for a walk. Those things are extremely important.

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S1: In this one study, Ben discovered that small choices that you make in how you design your office can have a huge impact on how people do their work. It started when he was tracking the movements of workers inside this giant company that employed a large number of software developers.

S7: A lot of people think is those folks as someone who sits in a corner drinking out and do and no one talks to them. I’m a former programmer. I like Mountain Dew. It’s a stereotype for a reason. At the same time, it’s an incredibly social job.

S8: Your code depends on the code of hundreds or thousands of other people. And if you don’t communicate with them, that’s what bugs pop up. And when you zoomed in on that further, you saw something really weird. The teams that completed their code on time, they almost always every single day had lunch in groups of twelve. And then you had the lower performing groups. There’s almost always people eating lunch in groups of four and sometimes three. It was almost always four. And it’s really weird. And we were trying to figure out what’s going on. Like why? What’s it what’s about twelve? Right. And so you went to the cafeteria at this company and you quickly saw what the answer was. There were two sets of doors into the cafeteria. By one set of doors, all the tables are big and had twelve seats. But the other side doors, all the tables of small and four seats.

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S1: And when you see when those big tables of other people would sit next to you and you’re likely to talk to them, those conversations that turned out were really useful, because the more people you talked to at lunch, the more willing you are to reach out to them later on when you encounter a problem that they might be able to help with.

S8: You’re talking about a roughly 10 percent difference in hard performance metrics. Right. Just from sitting at that different table. Right. Which is crazy.

S9: But it really demonstrates just how important even these these small changes to our workplace are because we as humans are so responsive to these slight changes just in the way our environment functions. And that it really can shape are the way we work in subtle ways, but ones that make a really, really big impact on. Again, the output of the entire group.

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S1: So let me ask Ben. So where where are you calling us from right now? Well, I am calling you from my basement.

S7: So I live I live right outside of Boston, like 10 miles from the city. And my wife is as we speak. She’s on a conference call. And my two kids are in their rooms, hopefully not killing each other.

S1: Yeah, I know. And when you were doing your studies previously, was there. Was there a lot of data collected on like how working from your bedrooms so that you can hear if your kids are killing each other, whether that activity not one of our original data fields.

S7: We had collected a lot of data on working from home, but it was much more of a 0 1 thing. Like we can compare people who work from home or remotely for people who work in the same office. And we can look at those sort of differences. But yeah, a lot less around the trying to get your kids to take get dressed so they don’t show up on your resume, call in underwear. That doesn’t happen as much.

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S3: Ben says that the biggest issue with working from home is that all those casual connections that normally occur inside an office, they become much harder when we’re not bumping into other people in the break room anymore.

S10: If you think about what gets lost when you work from home in a single day. Right. It’s these informal interactions with with other people work, you know, at a cafe space in your office or maybe at Starbucks and you start chatting with someone else who you might not even know that. Well, you wouldn’t think to send a meeting, invite for lunch with that person at Ben’s own company.

S3: They after everyone started working from home, they started randomly scheduling zoom lunches between people to try and recreate all those informal conversations that would have normally just happened back at the office on their own.

S7: It’s no big deal, but actually it’s it’s really nice to get to talk to them. And the interaction across teams has increased since people went to work from home. But it’s again, these these interactions that really, at the end of the day, drive not just our performance, but the performance of the entire organization, really our enjoyment of work and how that goes.

S1: Yeah. Joanna, let me ask you, how does it how does a Xoom meeting compared to like a real life meeting?

S5: I mean, I prefer a real life meeting. The see meetings. It is nice to see people’s faces. And one thing that’s kind of weird about this meeting is you do feel like you get to know people better because you’re instantly like, oh, so-and-so has such a cool apartment. Like, what’s that amazing piece of art behind her head? So it’s kind of fun to get a glimpse of how people live and like to meet people’s pets. If this was all over like conference calls, I I would lose my mind.

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S1: Yeah, but I would say, well, it sounds like one of the things that. Saying is that is that oftentimes when we’re at work, we have these like I think of them as like the meaningless time at the beginning and the ends of meetings are like the interstitial moments, right, where like you walk in and you’re waiting for everyone to like sit down and get started. And you ask Jim, like, what he did over the weekend or you ask Mary like, you know, what’s good, what she thought of that TV show. And that’s kind of how we get to know each other, right. Like that’s how we know each other beyond just the work that we do with folks.

S5: Yeah. So what Ben was saying really resonated with me. I will just say, first of all, hearing him say all of this is very reassuring. Like a friend actually reached out to me and was like, I know how extroverted you are. How are you doing? And like as much as I wish. Like a dirty blender wasn’t a foot away from my head right now. It’s like what really is getting to me is sort of I really miss my people. My supervisor was like, why don’t you start off every meeting? And we’ll just go around and say, how are you doing? And that first 10 minutes of every meeting actually has made such a huge difference in terms of me feeling connected to people. It really helps.

S1: Ben, let me ask you. What else do we know about the science of meetings that we should be thinking about, whether they’re in-person meetings or whether it’s these new remote meetings that we’re doing all the time? What do we know about what makes that meeting both productive but also makes it feel satisfying?

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S7: Yeah. And there is a lot of a lot of challenges with those kind of meetings. I mean, in the sense that there’s a lot of cues that we respond to in person that even over things like asume call, just given that, you know, you’re you know, our gaze isn’t meeting and that there’s slight legs in the video, a very slight. But that that actually even affects the dynamics of those meetings. When people are remote, you tend to get much bigger disparities in things like speaking time and interruptions. This can this becomes more of a problem as meetings get larger as well as well as when they’re without video.

S5: So I actually lead a lot of meetings for my work and I have noticed that I’m just trying to be much more methodical about like calling people into the conversation and double checking on things and being like, oh, I actually had this idea like, how does that sound to you? And I’m I I’m happy to be a lot more thoughtful as I’m leading my meetings in terms of making sure that, like, everyone gets time to speak.

S1: So here’s our first rule for remote meetings, which are pretty much all meetings now, you need to designate one person who’s kind of like the conductor, right, to call on people and lead the meeting. So those awkward pauses that normally are body language helps us get over so that those don’t happen in a group meeting. And you should take time at the beginning of a meeting to ask everyone how they’re doing and make a point of calling on people so they feel included. But then there’s also this issue of how to use communication tools outside of meetings. Joanna, you mentioned that you sort of feel like you’re a slave to slack. But tell me about that. What do you mean?

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S11: It’s hard to explain because I know intellectually most things can wait like 20 minutes or something, but there’s a certain urgency about being at home on Slack. It didn’t feel that way when you were when you were actually in novels. No. Why do you think that is? I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. I think part of it is like this mindset of being like a war in emergency mode right now. This is an urgent situation. So everything starts to feel really urgent. I think it’s also knowing, well, she’s obviously home and she’s obviously. So it sort of creates this pressure to be as available as possible.

S9: Yeah. I mean, it’s something that we’re seeing in the data and that, again, the workday is extended.

S7: People are obviously spending more time on these digital tools as well. But if an organization cares about, like its actual performance, then it really is incumbent on them to to be supportive and proactive in trying to help people step back and take breaks and up or down.

S3: So this is the next rule. Just because you’re stuck at home with nowhere to go, that does not mean that you have to be on the clock all the time. You should try to maintain basically normal working hours and tell your co-workers that you won’t always be available to them to kind of reinforce that. And if you’re a manager, you should signal to your employees that it’s okay to put slack on snooze every now and then. And when we come back, we’ll talk about exactly how you can help people stay happy while they’re working from home and what that might mean for how things change once the pandemic ends. Stick around.

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S12: I wanted to recommend one of my favorite podcasts, which is Ted’s Work Life with Adam Grant. If you’re looking to explore the science of making work, not suck, particularly in these trying times, then you should definitely check out work life with Adam Grant this season. You’ll learn how small winds can help you fight burnout and how you don’t have to fight loneliness at work all alone. New episodes come out on Tuesdays and you can download work life with Adam Grant wherever you get your podcasts.

S1: We’re back with Joanna in our expert Ben WABER talking about working from home, and one of the things that Ben mentioned earlier is that when we’re in an office, our days are usually divided into different parts that often take place in different places, like there is the conference room in the cafeteria. But now that we’re at home all the time, we have to deliberately think about how to still make each part of the day feel different. It sounds like what you’re saying is like at an office, it’s easy to get different environments. But when we’re at home and there’s less space or there’s more distractions like your kids, we need to schedule those different kinds of work time in advance and say, OK, when I need to be focused, I’m in the bedroom. And when I don’t need to be focused, I’m going to be in the kitchen. And when I need to, like, just give myself a break, I’m going to go to the left side of the kitchen that looks there. Joanna, does that make sense to you?

S6: Yeah, it is funny. Like I I will not work on the couch. The living room for me is completely. It’s totally off limits during the day. And like, that’s where I get to go. And Parallax, which is. So that’s that’s a boundary that I have made for myself.

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S7: So I think different people are different. I think, you know, for some folks and like Joanna, it sounds like those boundaries are really necessary. And I think it’s hard for a lot of people feel like, OK, you know, I need to to just sit at my computer and keep working at this stuff.

S9: And that is much less important than this other stuff that we we traditionally think of as, oh, yeah, me chatting by the coffee machine with someone that’s that’s me wasting my time. That’s not really work or going for a walk like that, that really work. But but actually that is like that is a core part of work today. And it just isn’t appreciated like that.

S3: Here’s the next rule. Move around and find different spaces in your home that work best for different parts of the day, even if it’s just something like moving from one side of the couch to the other side of the couch that can help you stay focused. It breaks up the workday the same way that you used to break it up when you could leave the office to go get a coffee or to see friends also. And this is important, just because our social calendars are mostly bare right now, that does not mean that you should fall into the trap of working nonstop.

S1: So how when we think about these like underappreciated benefits that come from chatting with coworkers or or from from giving ourself time to to walk down and get a coffee on the corner, and during that walk is when we actually have a good idea. But we’re no longer going on for coffee because all the coffee places are closed. How do we replicate that? How do we get that at home?

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S9: Well, this is one of the key, key challenges. And I think there’s a lot of personal answers for this. But what I would say is that scheduling that time for yourself, even during what is usually considered the workday, is a really good use of your time. And one that is very defensible and should actually be encouraged. This idea that maybe for you it’s you know, I’m going to, you know, take a bath or shower in the middle of the day just to clear my head and that that actually does it for you.

S13: I mean, I have I was like, do I bring this up on the podcast? I’ve been surprised. I am. It turns out that I am. I take a bath in the middle of the work. There we go. There we go. Feels crazy. It does feel like a crazy. Like I can’t explain it. It’s just funny. That’s been something like normally by 3:00 p.m. I just like need something to feel like I’m hitting refresh on the day or something. But it does it feels incredibly like indulgent and silly. But I actually feel like relieved that it specifically said that because it makes me feel like less of a weirdo.

S3: What was the equivalent when you were at your office? What was the equivalent of taking a bath at three o’clock in the afternoon?

S4: Then I took my bath at 2 o’clock.

S1: And that brings us to our next topic. What’s going to happen when we go back to our offices eventually. People have been making fun of office design for years. Remember that old movie office space?

S3: I’m Elvan. But what’s happening with the mail? We’re going to need to go ahead and move you downstairs into storage B?

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S14: No. We have new people coming in and we need all this space we can get, but there’s no space. So if you can just go ahead and pack up your stuff and move it down there. But that would be terrific. Everything okay? Good thing.

S3: Excuse me. I believe you have my stapler.

S1: As you know, in the last decade or so, cubicles started getting replaced with his open office plants, which were basically just cubicles without walls. But with more people jammed into the same space. And once a pandemic ends, companies are going to have to decide how to reopen their offices when there’s an airborne virus that might still be out there.

S9: I do know from talking to actually a lot of our customers who are heads of real estate at large companies like there are going to be some significant near-term changes in terms of at the very least, additional distance between people. So if you thought of an open office previously where for some companies the goal was to cram more people into smaller space. That is not safe anymore. Right. So you can’t do that.

S7: And I do hope that it gets people to think more expansively about the types of office designs they could use rather than saying, hey, open offices are the trend and they’re cool. So we should just do that in thinking a lot more critically around what really makes sense for different parts of the organization.

S1: Well, that brings me to like the next big question that I was wondering about, which is what are the lasting consequences of this?

S7: I do think that a lot of this artificial separation between our personal and work lives in terms of, you know, where the slovenly person sitting around in our pants at home. But then we’re you know, we’re in a suit and tie or whatever when we go into the office. And that is just this false dichotomy, right, that we are the same person and we’re the same person.

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S9: And people can have, you know, multifaceted lives and that we we try to hide those things from each other.

S1: So, Joanna, we had sort of the conversation and you reached out to us with questions about how to be more productive at home. And I think initially we were focused on kind of the physicality of the home. But a lot of our conversation has actually been about everything else. Everything else about how we schedule our time and how we keep in touch with other people. And so what do you think you’re going to do differently starting tomorrow?

S4: I mean, I think I mean, to set up like a little lunch date with people or even just like a 15 minute, like friends. Check in. I’ve been saving all of my socializing for that. After the workday. But, you know, as an extrovert, I’m somebody who gets energy from socializing with people. And having this conversation with Ben is actually really validating the fact that, like, I need to interact with people to work my best.

S6: You know, I hate using the word self-care, but this is an incredibly strange time. And like, I just think it’s someone point to acknowledge that, like, we need to carve out some time to be human because again, it’s it’s hard not to feel a little guilty.

S10: I mean, listen, for those of us who can work from home, we’re really lucky for a number of reasons. Right. So one is we like obviously we’re at less health risk than people who can’t do that. We all still have jobs. Right. And a bunch people don’t. Right. But that really shouldn’t should turn into guilt. Right. That we do need to take care of ourselves, but we also need to take care of our social groups at work.

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S4: I miss them. It is funny, though. I also am just like, am I going to dress badly permanently after this? I haven’t worn a real outfit in so long. Right now I always look like I’m about to do some heavy duty gardening fest. Like what of my attic? And so I just wonder if I’m ever not going to wear a flannel shirt again.

S3: I hope we all get to go back to work. And I hope we all get to look terrible at wear whatever we want, including sweat pants. There we go. Thank you to Joanna for publicly admitting that she takes midday baths and thanks to Ben WABER for his super interesting suggestions. You should look for his book, People Analytics and check out his company at humanised dot com. That’s humanize with a Y. And now for this week’s quarantine Q&A, we heard from a listener who was recently laid off.

S15: My name is from Chicago and my job was eliminated on March 4th. So my question is what skills or industry should I be looking at in general? What should I be doing to get myself ready for a new career or new job? Once everything starts to get back to normal. Thanks.

S3: To give Robb a hand, we enlisted a career coach named Maryann Ruggiero.

S16: Despite the extraordinary situation, a global pandemic. There are some basic career management principles that will stay the same. An important one is this. Remember, people who know you will let you do something you’ve never done before. But people who don’t want. Don’t just think, though, about what you know. Think about who you know. Network with these people to see what, if anything, you might do to create value for them and their organization. Between now and the time you can compete for a job, you’re right to be accountable for your time. Sharpen and grow your skills and knowledge and technology. If you know Excel, become an excel ninja. If you’re in brand marketing, learn Google analytics, take a free course in coding. Look for things that will help you deepen or expand your knowledge of all things digital.

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S3: If you’d like to hear more career tips from Marijan, sign up for her newsletter at Optima Careers dot com and keep sending us your questions and answers about how to live your best life under quarantine. You can always send us a note at how to add Slate.com or call and leave a voicemail at 6 4 6 4 9 5 4 00 1. How TOS executive producer is Derek John, Rachel Allen is our production system and Mayor Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Hani’s Brown. June Thomas is the senior managing producer of Slate podcasts and Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for Audio. Special thanks to adjust Fallujah and Sung Park. I’m Charles Duhigg on behalf of me and my children. Thank you for giving me a chance to get away from the dining room table. Do you I mean, come on. You zoom in your class today and tell everyone why I was yelling. Sure. Yeah. Yeah, me too.

S2: You know what? Actually, never mind.