I'm still adjusting to remote work guilt

I'm still adjusting to remote work guilt
Photo by K. Mitch Hodge / Unsplash

Like much of the rest of the world, I experienced a sudden and unexpected transition to fully remote work in early 2020. This temporary change ended up sticking, and I've now been working from home for over 4 years. Clearly, this was a huge adjustment for all sorts of reasons, but I have largely acclimatised to my new permanent work-from-home lifestyle. However, there's still one thing I'm struggling to deal with.

Since I started fully remote work, I have had an underlying feeling of guilt whenever I step away from my desk. This is something I do multiple times a day, whether it's to make coffee, do some laundry, or walk the dog. These are things that I'm definitely allowed to do; my manager has said so directly, and I know everyone else on my team operates on a similarly flexible schedule.

When you have an office to go to, this guilt doesn't exist. Even if you're not actually working every minute of the day, the fact that you're physically in an office shows that you're "at work". But when you're at home, it's much harder to define what "being at work" actually means. If I go for a walk to think through a difficult problem, it might look to an observer as if I was slacking off. And I apply that standard to myself.

A couple of insights are helping me with this self-imposed guilt. The first comes from Cal Newport in his new book, "Slow Productivity." In the book, he sets out a problem related to "pseudo-productivity": the busywork people do to make it appear as though they're working. Newport argues that many workplace cultures are causing knowledge workers to prioritise quick, low-impact tasks over slower, higher-impact work.

Over the long term, this is clearly bad for organisations. Newport's solution to the problem is to measure impact over a much larger scale; think weeks and months rather than hours or days. This approach promotes better long-term planning and goal-setting, even if it means that on some days workers will appear to have achieved very little.

Perhaps knowledge workers’ problem is not with productivity in a general sense, but instead with a specific faulty definition of this term that has taken hold in recent decades. The relentless overload that’s wearing us down is generated by a belief that “good” work requires increasing busyness—faster responses to email and chats, more meetings, more tasks, more hours.

— Cal Newport

Measure outputs, not inputs

A recent guest on the Pivot podcast put this another way. When you're in an office, it's easy and tempting to measure productivity in terms of inputs. Managers would walk around the office checking computer screens to see if people were looking at something work-related. But for remote teams, measuring inputs is less useful, more difficult, and even potentially damaging to the relationships between managers and team members.

Measuring outputs, on the other hand, is much more helpful. It aligns team members with the goals of the whole team and organisation, and shows a level of trust in workers to effectively manage their own time. Instead of surveilling staff and monitoring time spent at work, managers could use an array of output metrics to measure the actual impact of the team's work.

Some examples of output metrics:

  • Sales/revenue
  • User engagement
  • Customer satisfaction
  • Progress towards strategic goals/OKRs

Zoom out

So how can we, as individuals, adopt this mindset? Here's my experimental approach.

Currently, I conduct a daily review to decide what tasks to tackle during the ensuing day. I think this is still an important and useful practice; not everything I need to do fits into the context of a longer-term project or goal. But I think it will be important to begin a weekly and monthly review and goal-setting practice. Part of this process will include scheduling time on my calendar to ensure I'm focusing on long-term goals.

I'm hoping that this zoomed-out approach to planning and review will take away some of the guilt I experience when I'm not sitting at my desk during the workday. If I complete my projects and move the dial on my long-term goals, I have absolutely nothing to apologise for.