What I Learned From My Week of Remote Work (Not for my manager’s consumption)

Our whole team worked remotely for an entire week. We learned a bit more than we thought we would. Here are the do’s (and dont’s) of remote work.

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remote work with food

Here at Zenefits, we’re constantly searching for the latest trends in modern work. Employee learning? Check. Unlimited PTO? Check. Open office floor plan? Check. Working remotely for an entire week? Not until today. In the name of delivering valuable content that will help you build better, happier teams, we wanted to give ourselves fully to remote work, and honestly measure how productive we were from the comforts of our homes. 

Our thorough A/B testing

Here’s how our remote work ‘experiment’ went: throughout our in-office week, our entire content team recorded each task we dedicated time to or completed during those five days. During the following week, we did the same thing, but at home…or wherever we were working that day [PSA new WFH acronyms include but are not limited to: WFL (laundromat), WFC (cafe), WFD (dog park) WFTJ (Trader Joe’s.)]

The empirical findings

Our team loved the remote work life.

Here’s the breakdown: looking at the documentation of accomplishments, we determined that we completed about the same amount of work during both weeks. But remotely, my work felt a little bit less like…work.

With the ability to break up the day, a few minutes here and there allowed me to accomplish personal tasks (laundry, checking the mail, making lunch) as well as condense my periods of concentration. I found myself inadvertently falling into what pop culture has deemed the Pomodoro Technique, named such for the inventor’s tomato-shaped timer. This practice effectively segments a work day into short, 25-minute bursts of hyper-concentration, followed by 5-minute breaks. After four breaks, a longer break is allowed (15-30 minutes).

The point of the Pomodoro Technique is to limit multitasking, ultimately improving the quality of your work during those little bursts, referred to as “pomodoros.” But here’s the catch: those 25 minutes of concentration have to be entirely uninterrupted. No texts, no calls, no side convos with coworkers, no back-of-mind thoughts about what you’ll make for dinner. If it’s interrupted, that pomodoro is forcibly finished.

“But why is multitasking bad?” you audio-dictate to your phone while holding a coffee in the same hand, a dog leash in the other, your mom on the other line.

We’re glad you asked. A 2015 study conducted by UCL (University College of London) demonstrated the surprising detriments of multitasking.

According to their research, multitasking leads to a decline in IQ scores– a similar decline to the one you’ll experience if you stay up all night. The reality is that the brain can’t really multitask, it just does a lot of things a little bit worse.

So– what did this mean for our remote week? Concentration was higher in the silence of my home, or the uninterrupted work stream done at a cafe without coworkers dropping by my desk.

Multitasking leads to a decline in IQ scores– a similar decline to the one you’ll experience if you stay up all night.

In many offices, this strict distraction-free period can be hard to attain– particularly at our (admittedly very fun and comfortable) open-floor office at Zenefits. Therefore, this felt like a unique perk to remote work, which resulted in my successful concentration. At the same time, those little breaks were also more productive. I could unload the dishwasher, water my plants, and tick other chores off my to-do list that would ordinarily have to wait until the evening.

The positives and main accomplishments

Here’s what we excelled in during our week of remote work:

  • Efficiency. The daunting task of writing a long-form content piece can typically take me weeks. Interruptions, meetings, impromptu catch-ups, and procrastination coffees can take up a lot of time. At home, I finished one of my longest pieces of content in a little over a day.
  • Health. Though I washed my hair less (talk about efficiency), I ate at home more. I definitely felt healthier as my repertoire of recipes consists mostly of lean meats and veggies, and while the office snacks (cookies, dried fruit, Rx bars) are delicious, they will leave me grazing all day long.
  • Productivity. I finally addressed the boring tasks that I have been keeping on the back-burner for weeks on end. Again, the fewer distractions there are, the fewer reasons I can use for procrastination.
  • Work-life balance. While I completed the same amount of busy work at home as I did at the office (dare I say more?), I saw an unparalleled improvement in my work-life balance. I cut 12.5 hours of collective commute time throughout the week, and I was able to take quick jogs on my lunch breaks. I worked out more, cooked more frequently, and had time to visit my favorite place– the ceramic studio–on a near daily basis. Being able to do both made me happier, and ultimately feel more satisfied with my job.

What did we miss about the office?

Free coffee.

Just kidding– we missed more than that. Here’s our argument for (at least some) in-office work.

  • Conversations. Walking to a coworker’s desk to hash out a small question or issue was a lot faster and easier in person. I found myself pushing back meetings until I was in the office the following week. Not leaving my bedroom for hours was also an issue. Sometimes I ended up thinking out loud, which I imagine looked suspiciously like talking to walls or plants just to straighten out or clarify my ideas.
  • Smooth Communication (particularly in meetings). Audio or visual delays in video conferencing were legitimate issues, and definitely impacted my communication with the rest of the team.
  • Socialization and office culture. I missed an amazing lunch and learn put on by the people team at Zenefits, and come noon on Wednesday, I was dreaming of catered lunch with coworkers.
  • Structure. I’m not talking about our brick and mortar office, I’m talking about psychological structure, deadlines, and the time management those provide. While working remotely, the workday can blend into personal time– yes, I know I previously cited as a bonus. However, the negative side of that blending is the lack of structure and the occasional inability to turn off work after-hours. 

Our key takeaways (aka our mistakes you can learn from)

  1. Treat a day at home the same as a day in the office. I mean this structurally. On Monday, I slept an extra hour (no commute!) and groggily pulled my laptop onto my bed to begin work as soon as I opened my eyes. This was my first mistake. Starting the workday the way I might start a Saturday propelled me into the wrong mindset for the following hours.

Our advice: set your alarm for the same time as you would if you were heading to the office. If that gives you extra morning time, then start work early, make a big breakfast, go for a run, or use it for any other personal task! Giving a stringent structure to your day is the key to productivity.

  1. Plan around meetings. Unless you have an entirely remote workforce, plan your days at home around light-meeting days. A mix between remote work and in-office work is often the best combination. In fact, according to a study conducted by Gallup, the most productive work schedule is comprised of either 2-3 days of remote work and 2-3 days of in-office work in a standard five-day week.

Our advice: if possible, create a schedule of both in-person and remote work. Keep the larger projects for remote days and meetings for the office days.

  1. Consistency. Offering a “work from home” day once every few weeks or months might be more of a detriment than a benefit. Without regularity, it might become tempting for employees to use that day for activities other than work. I must admit, on Monday of my remote week, I was the least productive— I slept in late (to celebrate), did two loads of laundry, and hit the grocery store midday (there was nobody there!). Starting on Tuesday, my productivity increased, and by Wednesday and Thursday, I was WFH like a pro.

Our advice: If you’re going to offer a remote work option to your employees, try to do it with some regularity. Once per week, every other week, or monthly are all good places to start.

  1. Measure performance. If you’re hesitant to offer work from home options because of a lack of trust, it might be helpful to start with a system of measurable outcomes. While you can’t monitor exactly what your employees do when they work remotely, you can measure what they are able to accomplish. Barring that the project is time sensitive, completing those tasks in the morning, at their kids’ doctor appointments, or late at night is up to them. 

Our advice: Implement a measurement of performance that is contingent on completed work rather than time spent in the office. This is a good practice regardless of remote work policies, as it will put more emphasis on work quality and limit micromanagement.

In conclusion…

We loved our week of remote work. Need we say it again?

However, being writers, our work lent itself particularly well to the WFH life. Not everyone’s work will transfer similarly. As always, we think the best place to start is surveying or asking your employees if this is a policy they’d be interested in. Then, examine each role to determine if (even partially) their work can be completed remotely.

If you notice an employee’s remote work quality slipping, don’t be afraid to sit down with him or her and talk about it. A remote work policy is a privilege, and can even be used as a reward or motivator– just make sure the rules are clear from the beginning.

Now it’s your turn. Follow these guidelines, and you will be on your way to supporting happy, balanced, and productive employees! And do it in your sweatpants, because who says the boss can’t get in on it as well?

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