The dilemma of working remotely

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

Remote working and the Pomodoro technique have become the most popular search terms as the pandemic spread across the globe. I’ve been working from home since the Lunar New Year. For the past month and a half, I’ve been dealing with back pain, working overtime on weekdays and weekends. This made me question: is remote working beneficial?

Many people believe remote working is great, as it allows them to enjoy the same work-life balance as tech company employees. I first encountered this concept years ago during a visit to Canada. My aunt planned to take us out in the afternoon, so she worked from home in the morning with her computer and phone. I was surprised to learn that non-tech companies had such a policy.

I worked at a startup with a remote work policy a few years later, so I experienced firsthand the benefits of working remotely. I often have minor health issues that prevent me from going out, so I sometimes work from home to save commute time and get more rest. This understanding between boss and colleagues enabled a balance between remote work and work-life balance, making us more humane.

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 and cloud storage space is available at your fingertips. Unless someone wants to meet you in person, there is no task you can’t do from home. However, remote work is not without its challenges; these will gradually surface over time.

  • Remote work relies on text messaging to track staff productivity. However, introverted people may not proactively report any difficulties they encounter, which can disrupt managing progress or assigning tasks.
  • Communication can come across as cold. People like me, who don’t often use emojis, can be misinterpreted as uninterested. I’ll be more mindful and add an emoji to soften the tone.
  • Technology has eliminated time and distance constraints, resulting in frequent meetings. It’s not uncommon to have 3-5 meetings a day. Otherwise, you’d be stuck sending messages from work. Everyone would be at home, in front of their screens. With so many meetings, work hours become shorter and less productive, creating a vicious cycle.
  • Why are there so many meetings? Perhaps people worry that remote working will lead to underreporting or idle employees. Why do they think this? It could be due to distrust and micro-management.

I was in great distress because I could not distinguish between work and life, which gave me the feeling of returning to the year I took my HKALE. For those like me who usually freelance, that boundary was already a bit more blurred than others – and now it has become even more chaotic. Since working remotely, I have had to constantly switch between meetings, do intensive design work, and follow up with my juniors, which is a lot of work. Whenever I received a message or email from a colleague, I would go to reply; when my junior asked me something, I would rush to answer it, but it didn’t work out so well. This inefficient multi-tasking makes no sense, as you are not focusing on getting things done.

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Overwhelmed with work, I read Audrey Tang’s interview on the Internet using the Pomodoro technique. To see if I could improve, I tried the same approach of taking breaks and single-tasking with Pomodoro.

I installed the Pomodoro extension “Tide” on my browser. Every 25 minutes, I take a 5-minute break after focusing on one task (i.e. 1 Pomodoro). After 4 Pomodoro cycles, I rest for 20 minutes. This helps me stay focused and efficient. When someone sends me a work message, I must wait until my break to look at it. Even if they say they want it done quickly, it’s not an emergency. During the break, I drink water, go to the washroom, and stretch. Otherwise, I could sit until midnight.

Pomodoro may not solve long meetings and impossible work, but I can still multi-task effectively without it. However, it gives me much-needed rest breaks, which I often forget to take. As a result, I feel less burdened and better overall.

Photo by Radu Florin on Unsplash

Senior officers should prioritize work for the long term rather than just delegating it to someone else. It’s like an ER doctor: there’s nothing wrong with treating emergency cases. However, if all cases are labelled as “urgent,” the doctors will become overwhelmed. The first step for doctors is to adjust their mindset: they should not fight desperately but always handle patients calmly. Next, they should assess the urgency of each case on a “traffic light” basis; sometimes, the patient making the most noise has the mildest condition.

It applies to any type of work. In addition to meeting deadlines, we should also consider the urgency and priority of the task. Those who take things seriously must learn to adjust their mindset accordingly.