Brace yourself: Working full-time from home is different

By Earl J. Wilkinson

INMA

Dallas, TX, USA

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Working from home is stifling my creativity and my motivation to get things done. I need people around me to feed off their energy. It’s either numbingly quiet when I’m working in isolation or massively distracting when I have a guest. There are no boundaries between work and my personal life. My patterns are way off, as I’m working where I sleep, entertain, and eat. I need a shave.

I loathe working from home. 

This was my reaction in 2009 when INMA shifted from a physical office to a virtual office. My young staff loved it, and I put on a brave face. 

Other than an event like World Congress, INMA’s globally dispersed staff has (incredibly) met in person only once: a week-long staff retreat in Dallas in December 2013. Here the team is pictured in a rented Servcorp boardroom during that Dallas retreat.
Other than an event like World Congress, INMA’s globally dispersed staff has (incredibly) met in person only once: a week-long staff retreat in Dallas in December 2013. Here the team is pictured in a rented Servcorp boardroom during that Dallas retreat.

The jarring effects of the Great Recession and that steep cliff we were all looking over made a physical office too expensive to maintain, unnecessary given the circumstances, and we would just “figure it out” for the good of INMA. 

Eleven years later, working from home is as normal to me as the daily routine of office work likely is to you. 

In the coming weeks and months, many INMA members will be going through an extreme version of “working from home” in reaction to coronavirus quarantine protocols. The extremities of the current crisis will wear off, yet I predict this unique moment will spark a trend where “WFH” (a new acronym!) becomes a bigger part of running media companies.

I want to share my experience from the perspectives of employer and employee. It’s been more than a decade of screwing up. If I can shave off some time from your transition, then this article will be justified — especially as many members aim to scale the work-from-home office concept. 

Your jarring new personal reality

Mindful of the jarring workplace adjustments taking place in response to the spreading COVID-19 virus and the rapid shift to work-from-home protocols that are taking place worldwide, I am nevertheless bemused:

  • This is new to a lot of people: At the Facebook and Twitter posts about media executives who have never worked consistently from home. The bigness of the impact surprises me. While it’s different and maybe even fun now, the newness will wear off soon. The “new normal” will lock in. 
  • Home distractions: I had a video call in the past week during which I watched a boy run around his father, as the dad closed his eyes and tried to concentrate. 
  • Intense loneliness: Another executive, two days into the isolation of her home office, lamented how much she already missed the physical interaction with colleagues. 
  • Home office: Still another sat cramped on a couch because he clearly had no “office” set up for this.

Oh sure, you’ve checked e-mails and made phone calls from home, but often that’s on days off or sick days. This is full-time — and, trust me, there will ramifications of these moves long after COVID-19 has passed into our memories. 

The loss of your office funnel

It turns out that what I missed the most about a physical office was the funnel that it quietly forced on me: 

  • You wake up at a set time to get to work on time. 
  • Go through your morning routines. 
  • Get in the car and spend 30 minutes driving to work.
  • Check in on the team. One-on-one drop-bys. Lots of chit-chat (maybe too much). Probably a staff meeting. 
  • The day is structured, meetings are set.
  • Serendipitous moments with the team are scattered throughout the day — notably the kitchen, the holder of the coffee machine. 
  • Get in your car and go to a business lunch or with a staff member or maybe hit the building cafeteria. There is a structured hour here. 
  • Get back in the car and spend 30 minutes driving home. 

This is the “physical office” way it had always been. This is how work got done. I couldn’t fathom anything else. I had never broken down this routine until I lost it.

Overnight in 2009, this happened: 

  • I immediately saved an hour of my day driving a car.
  • Serendipity with my team disappeared.
  • I worked longer hours.
  • I became unhinged from set hours.
  • I set up a defined workspace that evolved into a home office, which cluttered my aesthetic.
  • I couldn’t escape work, bouncing from an office computer to a laptop (later, a tablet) to a phone.
  • My e-mail inbox, already a beast, became a bigger beast. 

So, think of it this way: 

  • You go from structured to unstructured.
  • Work/life balance becomes a gray zone.
  • You save time in commuting, but you fill that hole with more work. 

I noted with interest that my younger staff members loved the freedom of a virtual office. They loved taking their laptops to the coffee shop and working a few hours, then pivoting to another location. Most staff eventually didn’t want a desktop computer as a laptop in a virtual office was “empowering.”

At two stages in the past decade or so, I ditched my car altogether and relied on Uber and trains. I was surprised at how high the percentage of my car’s usage was for work. 

How an employer can help employees 

What did INMA do eventually to plug these gaps? 

On a human basis:

  • Weekly in-person meetings: We scheduled a weekly in-person staff meeting at a local coffee shop or similar free public space because we needed some human connection. Crucial: These meetings were as much about catching up personally than they were about sharing information.
  • Monthly global meet-ups: We launched a monthly video meet-up with our staff diaspora. These can be stiff at first, yet the team eventually grows accustomed to it. 
  • One-on-one catch-ups: Weekly “catch up” phone calls with key staff became necessary. I’m embarrassed to say how slow I was in realising this.
  • Collaboration time: Set firm collaboration times for your core team, and hold the team to those hours. There is plenty of room for flexibility, yet whether you are physically in the same office or not … there are work processes that require people plugged in at the same time.
INMA conducts monthly global staff meet-ups via Zoom. Here, the team spends 90 minutes in October 2019.
INMA conducts monthly global staff meet-ups via Zoom. Here, the team spends 90 minutes in October 2019.

On a technology basis: 

  • We had to create a virtual file-sharing system (later became a “cloud”).
  • We had to move e-mail services to a cloud system. 
  • We eventually moved our association management system, our iMIS database, to a cloud. 

On a management basis:

  • One-on-one meetings: When I meet face to face with an employee, it’s consistently in the lobby of a hotel across the street from me. 
  • Calendar and operations: If you’ve got the resources, have someone who owns the staff calendar and follows up on operational details. That’s a huge gap in the shift to virtual. You either plug that hole or you deal with inefficiency that now comes with the package.

What you can do make working from home best for you 

You’ve now seen the pros and cons of working from home. Your employer is marshalling HR and technology resources to maximise productivity. Much of the rest is up to you. 

Here is what I recommend for you after 11 years of this: 

  • Establish routines: Impose structure on your personal chaos. Set time for breakfast. Go through morning routines as if you’ll encounter an actual human being today — even if you won’t.
  • Extend your workday, build in breaks: Consider a longer time runway for your workday, punctuated by walks or workouts or even naps. There is no need to feel guilty about this, as it’s just a by-product of working from home. If a physical office had strictures of 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. with a lunch break in the middle, think of 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. with more breaks in your day. 
  • Don’t spend all of your time home: Get out of the house! Force it. It is easy to become a hermit in a virtual office. You need a change of scenery. 
  • Don’t be distracted: Compartmentalise work vs. your personal life in the same physical space. There is a time to work, there is a time for the kids, there is a time for church or volunteer activities. Don’t drive down your work productivity by being constantly distracted.

One of the things I eventually realised was that, as CEO, I have 150% of a workload for a 100% brain — meaning the workload structured me, for better or worse. I roll out of bed, and five minutes later my overnight inbox is imposing its will on me. That is my impetus. That is my spur to action. That is often not true of staff who have more of an internal focus. You must constantly set priorities for them in a way less necessary in a physical office where the “funnel” takes hold. 

I remember that the fear of a virtual office 11 years ago was that employees would work less. That never happened. In fact, they worked more hours. Yet what did happen was a lot of distractions at home, as well as focus and prioritisation issues. 

Nothing brings the INMA team closer together than executing a conference experience. Pictured here after the 2019 World Congress in New York are, from left, Earl Wilkinson, Katy King, Jamie Hooper, Kris Williams, Tom Corbett, Raquel Meikle, and Dawn McMullan.
Nothing brings the INMA team closer together than executing a conference experience. Pictured here after the 2019 World Congress in New York are, from left, Earl Wilkinson, Katy King, Jamie Hooper, Kris Williams, Tom Corbett, Raquel Meikle, and Dawn McMullan.

Hiring practices will change

Over time, your virtual office will impact your hiring practices: 

  • You will find new genres of employees: You open up employment possibilities to new genres of people by offering work-from-home options. Suddenly, a brilliant mom with kids at home or a talented person with a disability is a possible team member. 
  • You need people who enjoy working from home: You will find the “people person” extroverts will exit your employment over time. People who “put up with it but don’t prefer it” won’t last long.
  • You need employees who don’t feel isolated by separation: Geography becomes less of a barrier in hiring. But it’s got to be a person who doesn’t feel isolated from the core team, which inevitably is clustered in a geography (for us, Dallas). You are looking for people who can “imagine” themselves sitting next to you — when, in fact, they may be half a world away. These people don’t grow on trees.
  • Location still matters: You still need a sufficient number of core staff that can connect physically on occasion. 

Conclusions 

Major events or economic downturns always accelerate trends that have been lurking in the background during the good times. Sometimes we need a push to finally make that long-discussed change.

“Work from home” and its sister trend, video meetings, will rise in importance long after the coronavirus has been eradicated from everyday life. They have been around for a long time, but not as a primary way of running companies. By hook or crook, you are about to go through a phase where you see the benefits and deficiencies. 

CFOs and HR managers, especially, will be watching carefully this lab experiment that’s been forced on us.

After 11 years of running a virtual office, here is what I have concluded: 

  1. Physical office is less necessary for many: A surprisingly large percentage of work does not require a physical office. Collaborative cloud-based technology aids this trend. 
  2. What requires collaboration: Hone in on collaborative work that requires people in the same office. That will be the purpose of physical offices long-term. 
  3. Flexibility in physical vs. virtual: It’s not whether physical offices or virtual offices are best. Truth is, it’s both. If INMA had all the money in the world, we would have a boardroom-type open space physical office for “collaboration days.” 
  4. Manage operational details harder: There is no such thing as “set it and forget it” in virtual offices. If anything, you have to manage operational details and video follow-ups harder because you don’t have the funnel of a physical office. 
  5. How you work will change: For employees, how you get work done is about to change by working full-time from home. Whether it’s good or bad for you depends a lot on your personality. Consider some of our “best practices.”

Over more than a decade, INMA has saved a lot of money in rent and running a physical office. We have also spent more money in creating the right technology infrastructure. Employees work more hours, yet their well-being demands greater care, attention, and encouragement. Virtual offices work for some employees, but not others — and it’s best to be transparent about that. 

In retrospect, we definitely did not need a physical office for the majority of our work. We needed the shock of the Great Recession to push us in that direction. I suspect that is what media companies will discover after they get through this coronavirus phase. And it will leave a surprising impact.

About Earl J. Wilkinson

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