The dilemma of working remotely

Finding work-life balance and stay productive with Pomodoro while you are working from home.

This is a translated version of my original article 遠端工作的兩難.

With COVID-19 sweeping the globe, remote work and Pomodoro have become the most popular search keywords these days. I’ve been working remotely from home since the Lunar New Year. For the past one and a half months, I have been suffering from back pain, working overtime and weekends, which makes me wonder if remote work is a wonderful thing.

It was pretty cool to talk about the home office or remote work in the past, and a lot of people, including me, thought it was synonymous with efficiency, work-life balance – a unique culture that exists in startups and tech companies. I first learned this concept years ago when I visited my relatives in Canada. One day my aunt was planning to take us out in the afternoon, so she worked remotely from home in the morning, speaking to her colleagues on her computer and phone. At the time, I felt jealous that non-tech companies had such a policy.

A few years later, I worked at a startup for a while. The company had a remote work policy, and it was okay to work from home or out of town, so I finally learned more about the advantages of remote work. I often had minor health issues that I couldn’t afford to go out and wouldn’t heal from a doctor’s appointment, so I would occasionally work from home at that time, saving my commute time for more rest. All this was made possible by an understanding between boss and colleagues, that remote work did deliver a work-life balance and I felt the humanity of the policy.

Photo by Bench Accounting on Unsplash

Now that the pandemic is in full swing, it is no longer up to company executives to choose whether or not to work remotely. You can still work remotely, software is at your fingertips and storage space is also available in the cloud. Unless someone wants to meet you in person, there is no task you can’t do at home. However, remote work is not free of problems; it will gradually surface over time:

  • Remote work relies on text messaging to keep track of staff productivity. If the person is introverted, he or she will likely not report the difficulties encountered proactively, which can be somewhat disruptive to managing progress or assigning work.
  • Communication lacks warmth. People like me, who seldom use emojis, can easily be mistaken for indifferent people. I’ll keep an eye out for that and add an emoji to slow things down.
  • Technology has stripped away the time and space barrier and replaced it with one meeting after another; 3-5 meetings a day is no surprise – otherwise, you’d be sending messages from work, and everyone would be at home in front of the screen anyway. With more meetings, the time spent at work becomes shorter and less efficient, which leads to a vicious cycle.
  • Why more meetings? Perhaps people fear remote working will lead to underreporting or idle employees, so one by one, requests for reporting are, to put it bluntly, micro-managed – based on a distrustful working relationship between employees and their employers.

But my greatest misery was that I couldn’t tell the difference between work and life, which gave me the illusion of going back to the year when I took my HKALE. For those like me who usually do freelance, that borderline was already a bit blurrier than others – and now it’s becoming more like a muddle. Since working remotely, I’ve had to constantly switch between meetings, doing heavy design work and following up with my juniors, which is a lot of work for me to do. When I received a message or email from a colleague, I went to reply; when my junior asked me something, I rushed to answer it, but it didn’t work out so well. Such inefficient multi-tasking makes no sense at all, as you are not concentrating on getting things done.

Photo by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash

Just as I was overwhelmed with my work, I read Audrey Tang’s (the digital minister at Taiwan) interview on the Internet about using the Pomodoro technique, and so I tried the same approach, finding breaks and single-tasking with Pomodoro to see if I could improve upon it.

I installed the Pomodoro extension “Tide” on my browser. Every time I focus on one task for 25 minutes (i.e. 1 Pomodoro), I take a 5-minute break. After 4 Pomodoro cycles have passed, it is time to rest for 20 minutes. This will make us more focused and efficient over time. I will concentrate on a task for 25 minutes, and if someone sends me a work message, I have to be very careful not to look at it or ignore it until it is time to take a break. If I let them wait half an hour, they won’t have a problem. Even though they say they want it done as soon as possible, it is not an emergency room – in fact, many can wait. The rest of the break would be confined to drinking water, going to the washroom, getting up and walking for a stretch, otherwise I could sit until midnight.

Although Pomodoro does not solve the issues of long meetings and impossible work, and I feel that even without Pomodoro, I can still multi-task well, but at least it allocates some rest time for myself, who does not know when to take a break, and therefore I feel better now and less burdened.

Photo by Radu Florin on Unsplash

In fact, in the long term, senior officers should learn to prioritize work and not just assign work to someone else. It’s like an ER doctor – there’s nothing wrong with patients coming in for emergency treatment, but if all patients are labelled as “urgent”, then the doctors are going to break down. The first thing doctors should do is adjust their mindset, not to fight desperately, but to always be ready to handle patients calmly. Next, treat the patient on a “traffic light” urgency basis; sometimes the noisiest patient yelling for help has the mildest condition.

This applies to all work as well. Apart from working with the deadline, we should also consider the urgency and priority of the task. People like me who take things seriously have to learn to adjust our mindset as well.