Standing on my balcony after eight and half hours of four consecutive online meetings and an online class, the only question that came to my mind thinking about the day was: "Was everyone wearing pants?"
You can't call me a pervert. After all, The Times suggests that 90% of the people working remotely are dressed casually, wearing whatever they want, but keep a "Zoom shirt" nearby. Walmart reportedly sold more tops than bottoms in the first five months of 2020 and The Times says Google trends shows that "shirts" has been the most searched word.
The virtual or remote workspace has been brutal on me. An Inverse.com article said that in a virtual environment there is a tendency to focus too much on tasks and too little on relationships. With more emphasis on deadlines and routine information, I started feeling treated as a cog in a machine, rather than an essential part of the team. It worsened the sense of isolation that naturally comes with working remotely.
The feeling of lacking boundaries on when I need to start and stop working, when I need to get up and go to sleep, when I should log off from social media, etc. can feel liberating during the initial days of working from home.
This feeling, however, gradually morphed into a feeling of being out of control for me, which I did not expect. Flexible work hours became too long as I struggled to fight the distractions and get all of my work done. Or they became too short as others felt entitled to my time because they failed to recognize that they were interrupting my actual work hours.
For me, the structure that once felt stifling transformed into a scaffolding on which I could structure my virtual life. I found it extremely difficult to create the same structure as I didn't realize that it needed to be self-imposed. I also found it to be more challenging to function as efficiently without it.
Solicitors, family members (especially children), well-meaning friends and two pet cats acted as distractions throughout the day, but this is not the end to the list of potential distractions. Streams of emails, my son watching Japanese anime and the siren song of social media threw me off track. Social media provided a seemingly endless supply of fodder to focus on.
Setting boundaries with myself can be even more difficult when I'm feeling a lack of motivation. Though I did not suffer from the latter initially, I felt pulled down by competing loyalties and overwhelmed by the responsibilities of my various roles. Again, I felt challenged to set boundaries in these situations, and those boundaries were constantly challenged.
I started to find that solitude can be a double-edged sword. It is expected to be easier to focus when I'm in my own home with no co-workers coming by my desk to chat at random times. But while this solitude can feel blissful at times, I became lonely before I realized that when I have no mandate for social interaction during the workday and I don't automatically run across people I don't live with.
Social media can feel like a lifeline to others, but this didn't work for me. While many people who work from home are self-employed, it can be paradoxically difficult to remain true to my personal goals when I have so many distractions and energy drains. Maintaining a focus on the future was vital as I had targets to meet, but staying motivated while juggling many roles turned out to be a challenge in itself. I started to find my resolve weakening, particularly by mid-June and I started to lose hope that the goals I set for myself would remain unmet.
The frequent use of mobile devices appeared to be a booby trap. Part of the reason was that I started using mobile devices late at night and it started hurting my sleep schedule. As the days progressed, my job started to become more intense. My success and my middle class obsession towards productivity became my two biggest enemies.
There's many ways I could have managed the brutality of a virtual workspace. That is a topic for another day. But there's one thing I must mention. When faced with many requests, most of which I needed to refuse if I wanted to have enough time to get everything done, I found it surprisingly difficult to say no to people I didn't really owe my time to; simply because saying "no" has never been my strength and I keep finding reasons why a "yes" is a perfectly reasonable response. What I never realized is that saying yes to them means saying no to myself.
While I'm being managed, I also lead a team. As I manage my team. I think if this is how my team feels while working from home, and if I'm doing it terribly wrong. If my team is overwhelmed and under-resourced, that's on me as a leader. If my team is struggling to balance their life with their work right now, that's also on me as a leader. And if I'm dropping unrealistic expectations on them, that, too, is also on me.
If I'm leading a remote team, that's my problem to solve. Otherwise, there's nothing fun or playful about the experience I'm creating for my team. After all, the virtual workspace can be extremely brutal.
Asif U Ahmed is acting director of EMK Cente.