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Challenges of working remotely: an Operational Excellence perspective

By 14th April 2020 April 21st, 2020 No Comments

In the last three weeks, I have perfected my cappuccinos. Seriously. I went all in on a coffee maker that I justify with the simple truth that “normally, I would have as many coffees in a period of a year to pay for the machine threefold.”

Working from home is for most people an exciting task. You get to spend time with your family, do a bit of chores on the side, all while being productive in your daily job. Well, there are a few pitfalls with this approach that only come out as you do this long enough — we’ve been at it for 4 years so we know the different phases that you will come to experience.

You first notice these small things as distractions, but as time shows, they become acute problems that distract you from being truly productive. I wanted to share my experience and provide some advice to the novice work-from-homers in order to give you a leg up in your new office space!

Having founded Magnitude 4 years ago and working “lean,” we have a noticeable advantage when it comes to working remotely from all the major companies working around the world. From the first day, our workflow has been remote in everything that we do, not only for the sake of our team, which is on two continents, but also for our customers, who need us to give them quick feedback on their production processes and applications without necessarily going on-site to troubleshoot what is going on. From our work with operational excellence in Additive Manufacturing, I have structured the following core points in order to help you reflect on your work environment in a methodological way that we have gleaned from our work in the company as well as work with our customers.

Note: Being self aware of what works for you is extremely important, since obviously everyone has a different routine and work ethic. So for this post, I will break down what I do and why I do it, which is much more important to be able to apply these things to your own work routine.

1. Create a work space

The first thing that turns out to be quite in-your-face is that you’re surrounded by everything you love. Obviously, these are things that you’ve chosen, so you have to be conscious of what impact they have on your psyche. Don’t overthink it, just get rid of it. The best way of doing that is by getting rid of yourself from the environment before you begin terraforming your entire house. What that means in practical terms is work in a place that is not a space of relaxation. This means don’t work from your bedroom, and don’t work from spaces that you notice yourself using to relax. For me, the worst space to work is the kitchen, because it’s connected with all the positivity of what I do after work.

Next, be sure that your workspace is conducive to work by having good lighting, and good seating. I cannot stress this enough, DO NOT work on the couch. I know you hear it from everyone and it’s tempting, but it slows down your work (and hence discourages you to continue with hard tasks) and it is really bad for your posture in the long run. This is one of those conclusions that you will get to a few months down the line, so I’m saying it now.

Don’t expose yourself to a space where you will be interrupted. One of the things that I constantly did when I was working in an office was go up to colleagues and ask them a “quick question.” That’s a lie. There are no quick questions because once you pull someone out of their focus, it takes about 15 minutes for them to get back into the deep thinking that they were doing. If that happens multiple times, the attention span of that individual will be destroyed. In my previous jobs, little did I know that I was walking from desk to desk destroying the focus and maybe even the careers of my colleagues! — I joke. For your sake though, establish clear communication with your family and friends so that they know not to interrupt you when you’re in your work space. If you share a work space, have a sign, symbol, or even an object that represents your “core working time” where nobody will ask you questions and interrupt you.

Finally, one last thought about working in your relaxation space: when you’re working in such places, you will notice that you never have a down period. That is because working then blends in with play and your mind never knows when to turn off and you feel bad for not working during the time that you should use to rest, relax, and try to enjoy company.

2. Create a work time

When it comes to a place, it’s important to keep track of time. That means defining temporal boundaries of when it’s work. I know what you’re thinking, “what a ridiculous idea, I have so much work that it won’t ever stop raining projects, this tip doesn’t apply to me.”

Actually, that’s exactly why this tip applies to you; there will always be work. I work in a startup, I’m speaking from experience. There’s always the point that we want or should be at, and then there is the reality. So you gotta pace yourself!

For myself, I know that I can’t stop pursuing something once I get started. That perseverance is good in most situations, but that also has its weaknesses; I need to know when to engage in a project before I go all in. I also need to know when it’s risky for my other tasks and teammates and just say “no.” This means that I segment my week into days where I go all in and days that I don’t touch work. This is the only way that works for me, but ideally you should have a certain time period within which you’re working during the day, especially if you’re working for someone else.

At Magnitude, we actually have discussions about this since we can afford to; we are a small company so we can be flexible with each other’s schedule and not insist on core working hours — if such a thing even exists anymore. This conversation takes into consideration hard stops such as “I have plans on this and this day” as well as negotiable topics, such as “I don’t want to start too early or too late because I am more productive during the hours of…”

What I’ve noticed when I don’t do core days of work and rest is that work keeps creeping into my mind. It does so anyway, but with it also comes an inherent guilt that if I don’t do something, it won’t get done. This materializes in a constant thought in the back of my mind of what to do, what to improve, and this keeps the wheels churning, slowly. That slowly is an exhausting flame which tires me out and I never properly rest.
To not tire myself out in such a way, my approach is to write down the ideas that pop into my mind to 1) get them out of my mind during creative stints and 2) to remember them for thinking about later during my deep thinking and hard working periods. The problem with that is you need to do it in a way that is not invasive to your team’s workspace. The last thing that they want to have is messages creeping up every hour on slack or over email when they’re trying to take time off.

All of these little things boil down to having a routine. I personally hate routines, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t have them, they’re just defined in a non-traditional way; my routine involves having an hour to myself in the morning, having two cups of coffee a day (even though they may come at different times, it always turns out to be two cups of coffee), having a snack in the middle of the day, and reading my curated news sources. Finally, I always have a period of the day reserved for calling loved ones. This aspect comes down to our reptilian brain, which is always looking for patterns to adhere to and I always say to that “go for it, feed the reptile!” You just have to identify what your reptilian brain likes.

After you’ve established your routines, it’s important to anchor yourself in something bigger than the everyday: working from home takes its toll on the fact that everything is static, nothing changes unless you change it. That means that you should focus on things that happen on a weekly basis and look forward to them, such as watering the plants, cleaning the house, going shopping, etc. These weekly routines will keep you grounded and help you keep track of the time, since there will be days that you wake up and think to yourself “what day is it?” and be rudely woken up to the fact that you’re working on a Sunday or going to a place that is closed on Mondays. Think of these macro routines as milestones in a project, you know that you have a deadline regularly at the end of the week, now you have a deadline for each day that is constructed from your external environment. More can be said about these aspects, but I think you get the point.

3. Understand touch points

As I mentioned before, you have a lot of things in your house that you’ve put there to make you happy, to distract you, to liven up your life. Well that is a problem. Marketers call these things “brand touchpoints” and they would kill to be in your house to understand how they influence you. Well, just like big data, you are your own worst enemy; you have placed these objects there on purpose so of course they will distract you. Your job when it comes to the objects in your home is to understand how they make you feel, reflect on that feeling and decide whether you want to have them around you. The worst thing that I can think of is to be stuck in a difficult moment while working on something only to glance at your favorite distraction and do that instead of getting over the slump of productivity that you’ve experienced.

To be clear, go through the objects that are in your vicinity, think about the thoughts that come to your mind when you look at them, and decide whether these are thoughts that will distract you or help you get further in your work. For my workspace, I turn off some mediums of communication, but I keep plants which remind me to clear my head just like I would when I’m in nature. It’s all about self awareness after all.

Sensory perception in this case plays a big part: in addition to visual and touch, you also have auditory distractions. I’ve noticed that working in a cafe always boosts my productivity because I feel the energy of the people surrounding me, but at the same time I don’t get distracted by what they’re discussing. To simulate that, I create white noise; classical music for deep focus, and the sounds of a cafe with an app called myNoise where I have “cafe Restaurant” running in the background to simulate that feel. That is also where my now world-famous cappuccinos come in. As any Italian will tell you, Cappuccinos are only for the morning, but since I’m working from home, I pretend it’s morning until I’ve had my fill.

Keep in mind though that noises are only useful to a certain point. You need to keep those noises at a level that helps you disconnect, but doesn’t overwhelm you with new thoughts. For that you will need to play around with the noise level to get the point at which it’s just right.

4. Mental Health

Last, but definitely not least, be aware of your mental state. Stressful situations can come in two flavors; good stress and bad stress. Good stress is the kind that motivates us to get something done, to be creative. Bad stress, on the other hand, is the kind that freezes you up and keeps you from having anything but negative thoughts looping through your mind. To reduce that bad stress, one of the most important factors to consider is sleep. A wonderful Ted Talk by Matt Walker elaborates on that in much detail and it’s well worth a listen to since it is more content in and of itself than I can expound on in this post.

Just as a quick example though, think about the last time you pulled an all-nighter. You probably got an extra 10% done from a normal day by working the extra 8 hours, but then your sleep schedule was out of whack and your concentration was diminished for the next 3 days… not your best work I guess? Well it’s kind of like speeding; you can get to your destination 5-10% faster, but the reality is that your chances of getting into an accident increase five-fold since you’re going relatively faster than everyone around you and sooner or later, you will have that accident that will cost you countless hours of productivity (I’m making the five-fold accident risk up, but I think you get the essence of the message).

Lack of sleep also has a tremendous impact on anxiety and depression. If I don’t get my full rest, I am not as productive, snippy, in a bad mood during the day and I can’t focus on the tasks at hand. This is because our anxiety goes up and that can even lead to acute depression. These are things that you need to keep strictly in mind because there are always external factors that can distract you and you need to be able to take charge of your mind to be productive and content with your work!

Some of you have seen my previous linkedin posts about mental health and know that I find that to be an incredibly important topic, one that should not be messed with. In addition to all of the anxiety and depression that some of us already experience in our daily lives due to social media, that is only bound to come up more when you see curated Linkedin posts that reflect the fake sense of success that organizations are trying to convey to you as long as you buy their product.

5. Remote interactions

It’s easy to get caught up in pointless meetings, even more so when working remotely. You have to find a balance between meetings and solo work, and this is all the more so important when you are working through video conferencing. From my part, we have a couple of rules for that. If a meeting is scheduled, I always ask the question “why an hour? Can it be half an hour?” Second, I will not accept a meeting that doesn’t have an agenda. If it’s a customer, I will quickly talk with them to construct one so that we can both prepare for the meeting. If there will be a presentation, I will actually send out the slides in advance for them to review in peace. Finally, when it comes to internal meetings, we try to look out and politely distinguish between things that need to be discussed in a group and things that can be done one-on-one as well as topics that are not related to a call. When either of these things happen, a third party intervenes to say “hey everyone, can you discuss that offline?” or “I don’t think that is related to the topic at-hand, please come back to our original discussion.” All of this is possible, of course, because you know who is in on the call and what the agenda is!

Summary

The remoteness of our work has been magnified by our software Uptimo, which tracks the performance of a production facility and pinpoints exactly what is going wrong without even having a need to step into the facility, fully automatically. We’ve been using the lessons learned from that along with our collaborations online to learn about what works and I hope that you’ll get some benefit out of these major points in your life, whether you live alone, with family or friends.

Now that we’ve gone through the details, the major takeaways from operational excellence as it relates to our work from home tasks and how we support ourselves can be applied to anyone and any organization. Because we’ve been doing it for 4 years, we have a lot of experience, research and trial-and-error that has gone into developing this structure:

  • Be mindful of your space, time and habits
  • Find a routine
  • Eliminate distracting touchpoints
  • Get enough sleep
  • Structure meetings in short stints and help others prepare for them
If you’ve gained any benefit in terms of mental health, productivity or creativity as you go out and do your best in your new work environment, take a minute to share how you did so that others can learn from your hacks. At the very least, share what you’ve used to help others in knowing when your work time is — that is what I am trying to experiment with myself right now. Good luck!

— Matt Tusz, Founder and CEO