I can almost guarantee how the conversation is going to play out after someone asks me, “What do you do?” So far, the only way I’ve found to deal with it is by lying and saying I do something else or making up a profession up on the spot.
Yeah, so, right now I’m a remote digital control analyst. Well, currently I’m working as lead lexicon composer, but I like to think about myself as a senior truth specialist.
Sometimes they notice and raise their eyebrows, but most of the time people just answer with “ohh, really”, then quickly change the subject.
People tend to have an idyllic vision of what it’s like to work remotely and be your own boss, in other words, be a “digital nomad”. And so whenever the topic gets brought up, it inevitably leads to confessions of jealousy, claims about how good you’ve got it, and strategies they can use to do it themselves.
It’s not like I don’t like the attention and curiosity, but they don’t know the half of it. And so while they’re swimming in visions of being in full control of their time and never having to deal with managers and bosses, I’m standing there and becoming more and more compelled to tell them what it’s really like.
And that never turns out well.
First, you get the eye rolls as they think you’re just being modest and playing it down.
But then the conversation/one-sided rant really gets going, and they soon realise you’re serious. You start venting about how it’s so hard to not just play with the cat all day and how your handful of well-paid clients don’t appreciate you and how this is the first time you’ve spoken to a real human being in weeks and you just feel like a machine that takes in project briefs and spits out results and you just want to cry and oh, yeah, you lost them at the cat…
Don’t get me wrong, remote working is pretty damn great, but it’s also full of new and difficult challenges that can be, at times, overwhelming — particularly as you’ve actively made the choice to deal with them on your own.
As you can see, I’ve had to learn to deal with these challenges the hard way. The lifestyle was relatively unchartered when I first started out, and all I had to read were articles and books from stoked Americans about how freaking amazing it is. If I could go back and change one thing, it would be to have had a more honest idea of what it’s really like and to have been better prepared for some of the harsh truths of remote working.
Me no speak English no more
When in an office, you do most of your work through a screen. But as your colleagues are around you, at least some part (often the majority) of your communication is done in person.
When working remotely, you work and communicate mostly through a screen. Unless your team is physically around you, that means emails, chats, and maybe, if you should be so lucky, a few Skype of FaceTime meetings make up 99.9 percent of your interactions with colleagues, clients, and partners.
Such means of written communication — from email to Whatsapp — have become second nature for many of us, but for the remote worker, they’ve long overtaken oral to become first.
There’s a reason we principally talk to each other face-to-face in business and in working anything out. It’s often cited that over fifty percent of communication is non-verbal, showing that words alone are incredibly limited in how much meaning they can convey.
And when you also strip away the voice, pitch, volume, and tone and all you have are words on a screen, the quality of communication goes down even further. The result is frequent misunderstandings, a lack of respect and recognition, a growing disconnection between parties, and, when done as often as a remote worker, a certain social ineptness and disassociation from the real world.
A remote worker can often go weeks working day-in-day-out like crazy with not so much as a few-worded email saying “got it, thanks”, or “Yes, I still exist” to let you know there actually is a real person on the other side of the screen.
But other than spending all your time chatting shit in a Slack channel, bugging your team for daily video meetings, or moving back to the office (never happening), what can you do to improve things?
For me, one solution I’ve found is to simply accept you’re not going to get the interaction and recognition you need from work — which is often the case anyway whether working remotely or in an office. And that you should, therefore, make it so you always get it elsewhere or from yourself.
We can do this by moving more into alignment with our own intrinsic goals — things like family, learning, health, enjoyment, social involvement. And by recognising extrinsic goals you can use to move closer to them — things like organising family meals, booking activities with friends, going hiking every morning, volunteering in your community. This way you’re not grasping for recognition or validation from a place from which it would never be enough anyway, and you get your fill of in-person interaction from much more meaningful and fulfilling activities.
I’m just so damn busy, but at least it’s my choice
We’re used to thinking about work as punching the clock and getting the hours in every day. We use busyness as a marker of productivity and tiredness of a sign of just how hard we’re working.
But work has nothing to do with how many hours you put it or how big the bags are under your eyes. This belief has been seeded by the office/prison approach of holding people hostage in a certain place or to a certain schedule in order to get them to do stuff they don’t want to.
Work is about results and output, and we all know it. Yet the busyness belief is deeply embedded, and so when you go it alone and work remotely, you don’t start becoming ultra-efficient (maybe for a few weeks), but instead fall into the trap of putting in the long hours and driving yourself into the ground for no other reason than you don’t know any better.
This is amplified by the fact that when working remotely there’s little boundaries between on and off, office and home, work and play. And that typically everyone around you — family, friends, ex-colleagues — are all stressed out and working as slaves to the clock themselves.
The result is that the move from hours to output creates a sense of guilt that you should be working more. And as you could always be working more, you constantly feel like you’re slacking off. The sense that your company or clients have put their trust in you and that at any moment they could replace you, also feeds this idea — often to the point you start fantasising and thinking that maybe the 9-5 isn’t so bad after all.
When you start working remote, most people recognise they need to split themselves into two roles of both boss and the employee. But what they often fail to recognise is they’re also taking on whole other professions including cleaner, receptionist, middle management, work/life balance coordinator, and their own personal Tony Robbins coach.
Remote working is incredibly liberating, but if you don’t approach it with a rigorous structure, strict boundaries, and an intense passion and commitment to making it work, you’ll quickly lose the equilibrium in your life and/or burn out.
To prevent this, we need to become consciously aware of if we’re subscribing to the busyness idea, and then force ourselves to design in ways to stop it from happening — moving focus from time to tasks, adding structure with planned social events, mixing with other people who work in similar ways.
I, for one, am more about pyjama days and going with the flow than making plans and actually doing things. But it’s clear that to truly appreciate the lifestyle and get the most out of remote working, it’s necessary to adorn the suit and tie and give yourself a smack on the bum every once in a while. I still avoid doing it most of the time, but when I do, everything always goes a whole lot better.
The sooner you recognise some of these harsh truths about remote working — that it isn’t all socialising and taking it easy and is oftentimes lonely and brutal — the sooner you can get to work and actually turn it into the incredibly prosperous and fulfilling lifestyle it can be.
Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from the North of England. Connect with him on LinkedIn and find more articles on work, technology, spirituality, and everything in between.