Working from home, 2020-2021: A year in review
Amidst the dramatic events of the pandemic, I’ve had one constant source of unexpected joy: the productivity, personal growth, and freedom I’ve discovered from working from home.1 I wanted to write up my experience to put all my thoughts on it in one place.
Compared to working in an office, working from home feels like being liberated from a million nuisances and inconveniences of the day-to-day grind. I have so much more flexibility and control over my time now that I find it difficult to quantify. Since high school, my most productive times have always been late at night, when all is still and quiet in the house, and I’m able to deeply think about things uninterrupted for hours at a time.
I still remember fondly staying up late to write (and re-write) my college application essays, trying to fuse together ordinary public school experiences into a unique tapestry that a distant, inscrutable admissions officer would – through the imperfect medium of 500 words – immediately deem me worthy to enter the halls of power. Later, in college, I remember the beautiful energy of celebrating at 3am when my CS50 final project, some kind of PHP-powered buy-and-sell platform, was finally up and running, and each of my roommates proceeded to post more and more absurd items and prices on it, as it drew deeper into the early morning.
Since entering the working world, I have complied with its typical 9a-6p schedule (often flexing it to 10a-7p like many tech people), but I never really felt I was efficient as in college. And yet I also never felt remote working was an option for me. Somehow, I felt it would be really lonely or distracting, and I didn’t want to be seen as consciously avoiding the office. However, after 2020-2021, when everyone was essentially forced to work from home, I’m surprisingly coming out of it strongly on the side of remote work.
In a work-from-home set-up, I feel a flow state on a day-to-day basis that I haven’t felt since high school or college. I work as a technical manager in a client-facing analytics consultancy/startup. Over the past 12 months, rather than feeling rushed to get to work to get settled, I’ve been able to block my 9a-11a from non-essential meetings, allowing me dedicated time to putter, surf the Internet, read long-form articles, and play with my 18-month-old daughter. In my observation, the quality of my ideas, communication, project management, design documents, technical reviews, proposal writing, presentations, and 1:1s have all gone up.
With my other recent health improvements and the ample focused time WFH has brought, I’ve been able to take on more and stretch myself wider. I’m managing 2-3x the number of projects I was before working from home, I’ve brought in new clients to our firm (instead of just being focused on execution), and I feel I’m being a more involved, present manager to my team. It feels like days are 2x longer than pre-WFH and each day fluidly rolls into the next.
I’ve always struggled with “adult things” – making meals for myself, doing the laundry, showing up places on time; now that I work from home, I don’t have to worry about as many of these real-world nuisances. I no longer have to constantly check my phone to make sure I’m leaving work at the right time to avoid traffic spikes. In a city like Manila, with some of the world’s worst traffic, I’m finally able to schedule back-to-back client meetings, which would often require 1-2 hours of buffer time in between before. I no longer have to worry if my driver will be able to get to the office while my lunch is still warm.2
Because of not having to worry about all this, I’ve been able to deepen my relationship with my wife and my daughter through a thousand little moments and by just physically being there. Instead of cramming some discussion with my wife into iMessage conversations and pictures asynchronously throughout the day, we can just talk about it face-to-face. I am able to observe, celebrate, and contribute to all my daughter’s micro-development milestones.
Within my company and our partner organizations, I’ve noticed that meetings are much more efficient and to the point. Gone are the large, seemingly endless “brainstorming discussions” and “alignment meetings”; it feels like people are finally realizing the opportunity cost of these. Further, when everyone in an organization is working remotely, the incentive for writing and good documentation goes up. I’ve started writing almost anything important down in a public space somewhere, using our Slack channels as pseudo project journals, and am starting to see others do the same and get positive feedback from others on this practice.
There are some downsides to working from home of course. Complex discussions and in-person bonding are much worse over Zoom. One solution to this I’ve heard of from more experienced remote orgs that I’m keen to try is: come together to plan the thing, leave to go do the thing. I think this would be necessary in an entirely remote-first org, where there wasn’t any pre-existing in-person relationship between team members.
I’ve also noticed it can be quite tempting to overwork when working from home, because the line between the two is blurred. I’ve noticed myself sometimes working too much, but simple check-in times (e.g. regrouping with my wife at 10p to watch a murder mystery) mostly solve this. And I’ve always been happiest when my work is a large part of my overall identity, so, on net, I’m used to managing this tension.
I do worry that if someone were struggling (emotionally or with a task) while working from home, they might not know how or, at a minimum, delay asking for help. In an office setting, you have tacit signals to detect this, but when working remotely, it puts the onus on the “struggler” to develop the self-awareness to know when they need to reach out. I don’t mind communicating through the written medium to express frustration or ask for help, so this hasn’t been as much of an issue for me, but I understand this isn’t true of everyone.
I am also fortunate that my wife and I moved into a new condo 3x the size of our previous one in February 2020, about one month before the first lockdowns started in Manila. If I didn’t have a small 9sqm dedicated office space with a sliding door to take calls and have focus time, I do think the work-from-home period would have actually been quite difficult (and quite possibly traumatic) with a toddler running around the house.
Overall, I’m really grateful for the global “forced experiment” of working from home for the past year. I believe it may have accelerated by 10-15 years a fundamental shift in how knowledge workers work and permanently eliminated stigmas associated with remote work. It will be interesting to see if this is possible for me to continue personally and professionally in the future, and to follow how remote work is perceived, compensated, and hired for in 2021 and beyond.
1 And one very expected source.
2 Westerners, please do not overfit on this sentence. My driver is not some white-gloved, liveried servant, these kinds of things are quite common for the middle class in the developing world.