In the course of this pandemic I have committed a number of blunders while working from home.
I have muttered a mild obscenity on a video call, thinking I was on mute. Towards the end of a very long web meeting, in the excitement of finally getting the chance to speak, I clicked the wrong button and logged myself out of the call.
Last week something worse happened. Having lazily ignored the erratic behaviour of my online calendar, I nearly missed out on a vital work meeting because the diary’s notification system conked out.
None of this was career-shattering. Yet taken together, it adds up to an unsettling realisation: getting ahead in the home office requires dedication.
I doubt I would have grasped this were I not in regular contact with people who, like me, are heading into their fourth month of remote working but unlike me, are doing it with unflagging competence. Having watched them in action, here’s what I have picked up.
Get on top of digital presenteeism. Office workers have always understood the need to appear busy. This was easier in the physical office, where you could stay at your desk until the boss went home or hang a coat on the back of your chair. The adroit home worker has cottoned on to useful digital alternatives.
First, jam your online diary with appointments, then adjust your settings to make sure this busyness is widely visible. Also, attend as many online meetings as possible and speak at least once, even if you have nothing meaningful to say. When possible, show a slide or two to cement the impression of serious activity.
Make paranoia your friend. Remote working is a recipe for paranoia. At home alone, we turn out to be remarkably good at transforming a terse email or unanswered phone message into a career crisis. The effective home worker recognises this anxiety for what it is: an advantage over anyone who thinks that in these troubled economic times, it is fine to relax. It is not, especially if you have the sort of job that made more sense before Covid-19 than after it.
I was reminded of this the other day by a colleague who had been talking to the boss of a well-known business. Pre-virus, the boss had relied on a bunch of middle managers who had roamed around speaking to more junior local managers about how their far-flung outposts were faring. Post-Covid, the top boss simply got all the local managers on to a regular Zoom call and heard for himself what was happening. Grim plans are now afoot for the bypassed middle managers.
Don’t just call, video call. Paranoid or not, it is easier to stay alert to potential office disaster when you can see a person’s face. Often, it is also more fun. I know introverts prefer the phone, or better yet email. These times call for courage. Hit that video call button.
Be ruthless with your time. For parents of young children, home working means two jobs: the one they get paid for and the second one of child care or home schooling. It’s a nightmare. It also requires a rarity: artful team management. I know several people with older children — or none — who have been asked to help shoulder family unfriendly office hours, only to find themselves working crushing hours for weeks on end without respite. Try not to be that person.
Try to conquer the tech. Finally, there is the internet, or rather the digital divide between broadband haves and have-nots. That split has been laid bare as everything from classrooms to courtrooms have gone online. Even in the US, as many as 163m people are not using the internet at broadband speeds by some estimates. This must be fixed, but in the meantime, any office worker who can afford to upgrade a dodgy connection should think about it. Apart from seamless work calls, it lets you do conference talks, client presentations and a slew of other career-enhancing work now going online. Not convinced? Then consider one big add-on benefit: bawling at the household to stay off Fortnite and Facebook so you can get through a work Zoom call can finally come to a blessed and overdue end.