I’ve WFH for five years. Here’s what I concluded before coronavirus.

April 17, 2020

The future isn’t fully distributed yet.

A canary in the coal mine: the early adopters (tech and distributed companies) were already doing it. Remote happy hours, birthday parties over Skype and Zoom, etc. We’re taking about social events here, not the scheduled meetings. I personally experienced these, and even today, these stories would sound weird, on paper. Like the story of a young Bill Gates going on a date with his long-distance girlfriend to a movie theater, but in different cities. Or worse, it might smell a bit of anonymous, pre-Facebook chat-room culture. A preference for avatars over real people.

If you had already experienced one of these remote social events yourself pre-coronavirus, you may have concluded otherwise. It may have lost some edge, but the main ingredients of the IRL equivalent were there. Aspects of it are good enough, and getting better.

Unnecessary commuting is a blind destroyer of your most valuable resource. We will eventually transition to WFH for its economies, regardless.

The commute+office construct was so ingrained into conventional corporate work culture that it made work hard to define without. Factories, laboratories, plants, warehouses, and the like have their own constraints, which are a different case. But for so-called knowledge workers, when you drop the commute, you realize the value of the time you were wasting. “But I use it for decompressing after work!” Yes, some days you’d benefit from having no choice but to 30 minutes listening to music in the captivity of you commute, with scenery flying past. But there are days you would be better off running or stretching or eating a salad, than sitting behind the wheel. Optionality + freedom = value.

WFH has unique problems, but they are preferable to those of the alternative, in the long run.

Some routines don’t make sense from a purely deterministic standpoint. Some, we maintain for (a) personal social/emotional benefits or (b) chance opportunity. All of us who’ve worked in an office or co-working space have had surprisingly productive interactions during “water cooler” conversations. The quick calibrations, the “meeting before the meeting”. Off-the-record interactions that are awkward to schedule on a calendar. Chance opportunities are a big deficiency with WFH. If an office or co-working space allows for chance encounters with co-workers, customers and partners, good things happen over time. In WFH isolation, it’s hard to imagine how to re-create these chances.

Technology is taking shape, but culture has a long way to go.

Forums for the chance opportunities will grow and evolve, as WFH become more widely distributed. “But we already use social media and Slack channels..!” These forums tend to take specific motive to join and interact. Looking for “chance opportunities” there can feel weird. And there are the distraction issues that come with notifications. Conventionally, Social is used to broadcast what people are up to with a “me-focus”.

There will be an evolution in culture on this. Asking others “how you doing?”. A “you-focus” or “we-focus”, the way we might around the water cooler. No agenda, no bullet points. Connect quickly, “have a good one." No hard feelings about moving on with your day. Culture will evolve, and platforms will get much better.

On neglect and peril.

Personal maintenance will feel vastly less urgent when your daily commute becomes a few paces. You need to manage the “bank balance” of willpower. With any travel such as commuting, time constraints imposed by that travel actually protect your willpower bank. If you have to commute, you can carve out a few minutes on the margin to stop at the gym or run some errants. But if you never have to leave home and all goods are delivered to your doorstep, there is no forcing function to make you stop working. Other than exhaustion, which is a bad signal.

Instead, you need another forcing function. My forcing function was (pre-coronavirus): every day in the early afternoon, I would hit a point where motivation and energy were depleted. So, the best thing for me to do at that point was to stop working and go for a 5-mile run while listening to a podcast on business or technology. That way I could work on “continuing education” and recharge physically and mentally at the same time. The first few weeks I would go very inconsistently (weak forcing function). But eventually, it was automatic. Something would pull me out of the chair and put my Sauconys on (stronger forcing function). So the forcing function was a habit; better to have something even stronger than habit. But I look forward to it every day.

WFH should include uniforming.

Part of an office routine is “uniforming”. Whatever your work culture requires you to wear to work. For some it’s jeans and a button-down, for others its more business-attire, or less. Keeping this aspect of office culture is psychologically helpful for WFH. PJs are not. This sounds a bit hypocritical after a rant on commuting. But uniforming is a value multiplier in the long run; commuting is the opposite.

Recharge you social batteries.

You will need to put more effort into refilling your social bucket, even if you are an extrovert. As an introvert and a plant-eater, social interaction is a bit like Vitamin B for me. Is easy to become deficient and it can sneak up on you. Everyone need a somewhat regular dose built into routine. There’s a well-studied physiological benefit of lengthened telomeres (meaning longer lifespan) from these interactions. I presume sensing the deficiency happens faster with extroverts. Reach out more than you think you should.

The first serious WFH experience is hard. It gets easier.

My first real experience with WFH was when I was studying computer science over a summer during my undergrad years at University of Illinois. It was an odd scenario because I didn’t need one of the university's powerful workstations to do my projects because I had my own, and I preferred this to the 20-min hike to the Digital Computing Lab. But my computer was a desktop, so I was stuck at my apartment. (I would typically do reading assignments and other non-computer work at the nearby library to “not bring work home”.)

This required more discipline than I normally ever had to muster. TV was always more interesting than work, and being at my apartment felt like permission to watch TV. “Just 5 minutes of this Lenny Kravitz documentary” would become an hour. Also, it was summer.

There was no middle road for me. I had to close off the TV room and work until finished, with no breaks except for when biology intervened. A “tough love” approach for sure, but it was the only way to tame the monkey mind. I’m glad I learned this before I entered the workforce.

As I've matured, the distractions are not the TV, but competitive priorities. It's become critical to time-box the shallow work, and carve out large blocks of uninterrupted time for deep work. Exactly when the time blocks get scheduled for deep work during the day isn't so important. And these time blocks would make my schedule look completely alien from a commute+office worldview. But when you protect your performance, you'll see it works great.

I hope this helps.

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