The dilemma of working remotely

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

Remote working and Pomodoro have become the most popular search terms as the pandemic swept the globe. I’ve been working from home since the Lunar New Year. For the past one and a half months, I’ve been suffering from back pain, working overtime on weekdays and weekends. It led me to question, is remote working good?

Many people think remote working is great. They think they can enjoy the same work-life balance as employees at big tech companies. I first learned this concept years ago on a visit to Canada. One day my aunt planned to take us out in the afternoon, so she worked from home in the morning with her computer and phone. At the time, I was surprised that non-tech companies had such a policy.

A few years later, I worked at a startup that had a remote work policy. My colleagues could work from home or out of town, so I finally learned firsthand the perks of working remotely. I often have minor health problems that I struggle to get out and won’t heal with medication, so I work from home sometimes to save commute time and get more rest. It was made possible by an understanding between boss and colleagues that created the synergy between remote work and work-life balance, making us more human.

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, they 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. 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 are there so many meetings? Perhaps people worry that remote working will lead to underreporting or idle employees. Why do they think this way? Because of distrust and micro-management.

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 chaos. Since working remotely, I’ve had to constantly switch between meetings, do heavy design work, and follow 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

As I was overwhelmed with my work, I read Audrey Tang’s (the digital minister at Taiwan) interview on the Internet using the Pomodoro technique. 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. It 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 long meetings and impossible work, I can still multi-task well without Pomodoro. Still, 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

Senior officers should prioritise work in the long term 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. Still, if all patients are labelled as “urgent”, the doctors will break down. The first thing doctors should do is adjust their mindset, not fight desperately, but always handle patients calmly. Next, treat the patient on a “traffic light” urgency basis; sometimes, the noisiest patient yelling for help has the mildest condition.

It 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 their mindset as well.