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Escaping Isolation While Working Remotely

Have you ever found it difficult to concentrate, struggled to keep up momentum, or felt your passion for your side-project wane while working from home? So many remote developers know this all too well, and often it's a result of isolation. But even when it all feels a bit too much, there are ways you can overcome it. In this talk we'll dive into different methods to identify its onset, how to stop it from becoming overwhelming, and the practical ways you can lift yourself up out of that funk.

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Transcript

My name is Niamh, I'm a front-end developer, and, today, I want to talk about working from home, and what kind of impact that can have on us, and how we can overcome one of its biggest challenges: isolation.

Today I want to look at ways we can stop procrastinating, reduce anxiety, increase productivity and regain concentration. Hopefully with this, you can continue to grow and develop at home on your own, just as you would working in an office surrounded by your team.

Because we are all here, I think there's a good chance a lot of us have struggled with working from home at some point. If you have, that's not really entirely surprising. In the last few years, a lot of materials has been published looking into working from home, and isolation is an issue that crops up quite a lot.

For example, annual research highlighted loneliness as one of the top issues over the last couple of years. A global survey found 61% of UK respondents said they would return to the office immediately if they could. And websites like the sound of colleagues that plays background noises from the office which started off as a joke in 2020 had over half a million listeners in the first couple of months after going live. So this is just to say that isolation is a real issue and affected a lot of us. That don't mean it doesn't have any value.

Working remotely has great benefits meaning you don't have to dedicate time or energy to a daily commute any more; you might gain more focus without office distractions; and you probably have a bit more flexibility to work from different locations.

What good is all this if you can't get into a good flow? When you picture remote work, you might conjure up an image of Bill Gates on his annual reading week inhaling 25 books a day. Or maybe that really intense and scary engineer who totally thrives on their own, does not play well with others, and wears the term "loner" like a badge of honour. Or you might think of some version of yourself who, because of the pandemic, has suddenly uprooted out of their office and routine and forced to work at home, and you could be at home completely on your own, maybe you might have some kids that you have to look after while you're working, or you could be crammed around the kitchen table with five our housemates.

All of this without any kind of manual on how to stay connected with your friends or colleagues, how to maintain your workflow, or how to stay stimulated without being able to swivel your chair around and start up with a discussion.

Isolation has lots of pros and cons and risks and opportunities, and we will try to unpack all of this, and discuss some processes, and tools develop avoid pitfalls and make the most of of what it has to offer.

Before we dive into it, a bit about me. My name's Niamh. I'm a front-end web developer and, before remote working became such a big thing, I lived in London and now live in Dublin where I work from home full-time. I work at a company called Elsewhen, been there two years, and I love working there. It is a digital service and product consultancy based in London that builds all sorts of products like fitness apps to satellite communications with all sorts of clients from small start-ups like Magic Mountain to more established companies like Spotify and Google.

Before Elsewhen, I got into coding through meet-ups which I imagine a lot of people here did, and this is how I ended up diving head first into the tech community. So these, for example, are just some of the meet-ups I was going on to a regular basis in London.

I loved going to these kin of events. Usually, you would go right after you finish a long day at work but instead of going home to crash on the couch, you get to warned through the city looking for the event, find it in a swanky tech company's office where you can go and have a poke around and see what it looks like, and when you arrive, someone will hand you a nice cold beer, you grab a slice of pizza, everyone around you is buzzing, chatty, and Chai the ed to start messing with code. So it's really, really fun.

I think meet-ups like these are so successful because I think engineers genuinely love going to them. For me, that's because learning to code and working in tech in general can be really hard and having a strong sense of community does a lot to relieve the intensity that can come with it. So, when I was going to all of these meet-ups, I was working in a really nice lovely kind of typically techie office. It was bang in the middle of Shoreditch in London, between a cute pub and a trendy pasta restaurant, and we had office dogs, fancy coffee machine, team lunches every day, and a sneaky pint or two every week.

It was a dream, which is why when everyone started working from home, I of course very quietly and inwardly began to freak out. I thought I'm never going to be able to handle this, there is no way I can maintain my current skills, let alone learn anything new, I will completely forget how to interact with other human beings, and in the end, I will lay down and let the word kick in on me. Obviously, that was a bit dramatic.

But I would love to sit here a year later and say, actually, it all turned out to be like really easy, and I had zero impact on my mental health, and we are doing nothing but driving over here 24/7. But of course that is not true. That's because working remotely can be really hard and complicated, but one thing I've learned is that it does not have to mean the end of the world. So let's dig into it.

I want to go through three frameworks with you today in the hopes that you can take them away and use them going forward to help. One, identify when working from home isn't for you; two, a quick equipping with tools, and three, practice methods help you stay on top of it. Let's start off with getting to know when working from home isn't quite doing it for you. I think this one is all about cultivating self-aware ness which sounds light and spritzy like something Oprah would to in her sleep but it's something I find pretty challenging.

I knew I needed to work towards this when I realised over the course of a few months of working from home, I gradually lost my ability to concentrate, I lost interest in my side projects pretty gradually, I became super lethargic and sluggish all the time, I spoke to people less and less, and I began to to feel pretty overwhelmed by everyday tasks. I was in such a deep funk for such a long time, that I had no clue that I was actually showing pretty standard symptoms of depression. It wasn't until someone else brought this to my attention that I started to realise working in isolation was having a serious impact, not just on my working life, but on my personal life too.

You see, before working from home, my day would usually look something like this. I would head on the morning commute with a good book or podcast to get stuck into on the tube. I would get fresh air and exercise on the walk to the office. When I got in, I would usually put myself down, make a cup of tea, and spend a bit of time chatting to my colleagues. And of course like a lot of people in tech start off the day with a quick stand-up before settling month into my task sat next to pie peers where if I needed to ask a question where all his to do was turn around and ask.

Cut to pro commute, pretty much gave up reading completely, had no chats in the mornings, and was having a lot of Zoom calls. While it all started out as a novelty, I did fall into that funk, and I had no real idea it was taking such a toll on me. I knew I needed to become more self-aware to snap myself out of it, and I don't know if anyone here has ever Googled self-aware ness before, but it makes some pretty big promises.

Apparently, if you learn to hone this skill you will: increase your confidence and creativity, you will make sounder decisions, and you will build stronger relationships and communicate more effectively.

Apparently, you are also less likely to lie, cheat, and steal, better workers who get more promotions, and more effective leaders with more satisfied employees and more profitable companies. I mean, this all sounds totally amazing, right? But if like me you're thinking where do I start? Well, let's take a look at some of the typical challenges you might face when you're working from home all the time.

Procrastination. So I feel like everyone's done a bit of this at some point, right? I don't think it matters how much stuff is on your late, if you're working from home, it's just a lot easier to avoid stuff compared to when you're in the office. And this could mean things like you're leaving things until the last minute, maybe it's a certain task you think is going to be a real slog, or maybe as small as bringing something up in a meeting.

If you're doing this, you're likely to be feeling overwhelmed with work, often by the thought of tasks but, actually, pretty routine and by all accounts not a huge deal. And if you're guilty of a bit of procrastination, chances are you're building up some anxiety around whatever it is you're putting off.

Anxiety is common for everything, but the common tells are feeling overtired all the time, maybe you're not sleeping enough, or maybe even sleeping too much, and you could be having a little bit more, or feeling a little bit more irritable than usual. Maybe you're being a bit short with your friends when you don't need to be, and you might find yourself dealing with physical compulsions like chewing your lip a lot, or biting your names, or just cleaning your house too obsessively for your own liking.

And productivity. So this is a big one. You might be worried that you're not quickly enough, or that the quality of your work is starting to wane a bit which of course can become a really big stress for a lot of people. You might find yourself not really listening to others that much.

Maybe it's just doing calls every now and then or when someone is giving you feedback, and you think I already know this happened because x, y, and z, and why are you even telling me? Finally, concentration. I think this is pretty common. It might mean you're zoning out on calls which I'm sure we are all guilty of now and then, or maybe you're doing it more often than you like. You could be making lots of silly mistakes in your code or becoming more forgetful than usual. You might find yourself staring at the screen and forget what you're doing or in a conversation forgetting what your point was. A lot of the time, you might find yourself feeling unsettled and restless at your desk, constantly getting up and down and doing little bits in the house during the day.

So these are all just examples of how working from home might not be helping you out. But of course as I say, everyone's totally different, right? If this is something you are struggling with, I recommend mapping out your own examples like this. And hopefully, it can kind of act as a sort of jump-start into becoming more self-aware, and you can start to recognise when isolation might be messing with your rhythm a bit.

Okay. So let's have a look at the solutions. So, I want you to imagine you've become the most self-aware person ever, and you know all of your bad habits, and you can spot behaviours as they're happening in real time. So, you could argue that, actually, this is kind of useless unless you're practising self-management as well.

So I want to take a look at the second step which is all about getting better at self-management. And I will go through the challenges we outlined before, and offer some solutions that you can try to help yourself out of those habits. So, we will start with procrastination.

So the first point is about multi-tasking. I think a lot of people think of multitasking as this amazing skill that makes you super productive, but actually it can be really draining, because instead of doing two things at once, your mind is constantly switching back and forth between them, and it ends up sapping your energy, meaning you're a little bit more likely to give into distractions, so try to minimise doing that, and it will have a real impact on procrastination.

I don't know about anyone else, but I love a good to-do list. But, the way that you word each item in your list can actually have an impact on how much you procrastinate. So what you could try is listing actions and not goals. For example, if I have "finish building this feature" on my to-do list, it is a goal, it's not an action.

You are more likely to start ticking things off the list if you break the goal down into smaller more attainable actions. For example, that might be in my case, one, find the cause of this bug, two, pseudo code the solution. T

hree, test the fix, and, four, make the pull request. You're a lot less likely to give into distractions when you're near the end of a task, and activating your to do list like this puts you in the home stretch a bit more often which minimises your risk of procrastination. And peer pow-wows.

What I procrastinate on the most are my side projects. If you're guilty of this too, collaborating can really help. I don't think this needs to mean inviting someone in to rework your entire project, or even make any substantial contributions. I think having a conversation about it, or just showing it to someone can count as well.

When you're working in isolation, an easy way to do this is to start up some peer pow-wows. This is where you reach out to someone at work who is at a similar level to you but who you don't usually work with directly.

Invite them to have a short call with you maybe every other week where you can chat about how you're both getting on at work, new things that you are excited to work on or learn, from side projects you're thinking about, or even shoot the breeze and see what happens. If you tend to procrastinate on side projects like me, this could be a really great way to be held accountable by someone else and start reframing your project from a chore to something that you can get excited about and look forward to again.

So let's take a look at what we can do mitigate anxiety. So, when it comes to feeling overwhelmed or anxious, I feel like 99% of the advice I bear is just to talk to someone. It sounds super straightforward but this can be really daunting. If you're feeling already overwhelmed, instead of this being helpful, it can actually just feel like one more thing to put on your to-do list which ends up compounding the anxiety which is not what you want.

So this hack is what I use when feeling anxious but feel I want to talk something through. So before starting a conversation with someone, all you have to do is tell the other person whether you want advice or whether you want to vent. If you're venting, you're letting the other person know you don't want problem-solving from them. You want to them them to listen and do nothing else. But if you do want advice, it means they can offer it to you without feeling they're adding to your anxiety.

You can use a similar approach if you don't feel like talking or maybe you can't reach anyone for a chat. Take whatever it is that is causing you stress or other and ask yourself: is there anything that I can do about this right now? If the answer is yes, do it right there and then. If the answer is no, try to let it go.

I know that is easier said than done, and it does take practice, but the more you do it, the easier it gets, and I find this would be really, really helpful. Another great practice is keeping a worry journal. So I've always been a bit of a worrier anyway, but when I started working from home alone most of the time, slowly but surely which started to spend a lot more time just worrying about stuff. And it is exhausting. So I found this solution to be one of the most effective. It works as, during the day, as you notice yourself worrying, write it down.

Take note of the thought itself, the time of day, where you are when it is happening and what a you were doing when the thought came into your head. And this isn't about coming up with answers for each of them just yet because I know it's really tempting, but it's more about recognising the circumstance in which you're doing it.

o hopefully, after a week or so, you will kind of have this amazing map of all of your thought patterns and you can put it to good use when trying to regain some of your productivity. Okay, so once you've gotten this map of all your thought patterns and worries, you can use this practice with the worry step.

You do this by continuing to jot down your worries throughout the day as they come to you. At this point, hopefully, you're able to recognise when you're doing it so it comes normally, or at least a bit easier, so you don't need to be writing down the time and situation, and all the rest of the stuff. You can just write down the worries themselves. So what you do is schedule a time every evening to go through them, by one and worry about them. So when it comes into your head, instead of worrying about it right there been you write it down and think I will worry about it later on. I know it sounds ridiculous, but if anxiety is impacting your productivity, I promise you this totally works.

So you choose a specific spot in the house, a chair, or a step, for example, and you go to it at the same time every day and dedicate 20 minutes to worrying about the things on your list, no more no less. It sounds super silly, but that is the point. By the time you go to worry about all the things you've listed, usually, one, you will not care as much, two, you won't have wasted any time or energy thinking about it during the day, or at the very least have wasted less, and, three, you will probably end up having a good laugh at your own expense because how preposterous the whole thing is. That's the worry step.

Another good thing is to know your peak productivity times and work around them. Don't try to do it the other way round all the time. So if you're a real morning person, for example, like me, your natural disposition is to turn into a bit of a potato every afternoon, try ordering your tasks each day according to this rhythm.

For example, you might take time to tackle some of the more come milk problems in the morning when you know you're at your sharpest. Or you might request that no-one schedules meetings with you during these times. If you use Google calendar there is that focus time block you can add so that people know you need to prioritise your own stuff during these times which I find super handy. And exercise. Again, I think this is one of the most common bits of advice that everyone hears all the time, but it can be one of the most difficult to take on.

It doesn't mean that you have to go and run a marathon or start doing circuits, it can literally mean going for a walk, and I think it's better to do something small like this. It is easier to fold into your routine and it is more likely to become a habit. So you might start off by going for a ten-minute stroll at the same time every day. Maybe before work instead of your commute.

Whatever it is just make sure that there is a time that suits you. For me, for example, been I started swimming every morning, and well that's not everyone's cup of tea, it works for me, so that is why I continue to do if and it really, really sorts me out any time I'm in a slump.

Okay, for now, concentration. This is another one that I think is definitely exacerbated by working from home. Of course it is not without its solutions. So, you might have heard of the Pomodoro technique already, where you break your work down into timed 25-minute chunks usually followed by a five-minute break where you list the things that you're going to focus on in the next 25-minute slot. You can use your own timer to try this, or there are some like online tools that will help you if you prefer, and I will tweet that along with a lot of other resources after the talk later on.

What I find especially useful about this is measuring your success not by how much stuff you can get done, but how well focused you remain in each time slot. I think this is a really nice way to start thinking more about the quality of your work instead of the quantity. I think everyone has heard that sharing is good for you - this is not brand new information. If you're struggling to get motivated for exercise and you're not going for daily walks, maybe you don't have time because you're so swamped with work.

You can get benefits by opening a window. Fresh air helps you stay more alert, increase your capacity to concentrate, and, you know, not melt into a big blob at four o'clock every day, and, better yet, if you can, face an India, and you can get some of the sweet vitamin D at the same time. And try not to miss one-to-one s. I know you can't necessarily make every meeting every single time, and, if you are cooped at home on Zoom all day, it might be super tempting to miss catch-ups, especially if there is no news to share. That's all the more reason to go to them. When you're at home, opportunities for off-the-cuff conversations are far and few between most of the time, so take them while you can get them. At the very least, it will help you practise your potentially waning social skills, and stay in touch with your manager and continue to develop that relationship on a personal level.

Okay, so, these are just to summarise that section, these are my experiences, some of the best ways that you can help lift yourself up out of that working-from-home funk. Usually, by this stage, if you're using these tools, you have learned how to find when working from home is a struggle for you, implement changes to combat some of its biggest challenges, and so at this point, this view, you're driving, right? If at this point, you're Angela Lansbury, you're living your best working-from-home life, the last thing you want to do is fall back into these traps.

I want to go through a few extra tools or practices that you or your company can use to stay on top of things and avoid going back into a funk. The main thing is to stay social. Chance conversations with colleagues is pretty rare. This is not the same thing, but it's a nice solution for remote working. Donut lets you randomly pair up with colleagues' coffee breaks every other week or so. It is a little more structured than you get in real life, but a nice way to stay connected with your colleagues on a personal level, and you get to know new joiners to the company who you might not otherwise have a chance to meet.

Similarly, it is a lot harder to get regular feedback on your performance when you're not physically in the same room as your peers or managers. And I know sometimes it can feel a little awkward reaching out to ask for stuff like this. Why not set up an automated call that is dedicated to looking at your work. It ends up you not internalising things too much or losing perspective while you're at home.

One of the great things at being at home all the time is you have all of this extra time. You might be tempted to like work through lunch, or eat at your desk a lot, maybe it's like make up for some of that productivity you think is waning, but I think it is super important to try and take proper lunch breaks when you can, and even if you can set up regular in-person lunch dates with your friends if they live close by, this is great.

I recommend doing that maybe once a week, and it will give you a nudge that you need to get out the house. If your friends aren't close by, virtual lunch dates are a good tip so long as you're not swamped with calls for the rest of the day.

You can join an initiative at work. So, for everyone at my company, before we all started working from home, our social scene was such a big part of our office culture, and it took us a minute to figure out how to maintain this remotely. But setting up a small initiative like this ended up working out quite well. You could try this too where you team up with your colleagues, maybe with a goal of organising fun social stuff to do remotely. This can be anything from virtual art classes to online games that you play together, and I find usually the sillier, the better in my experience.

There are lots P you might miss doing peer programming a lot, and VS code has a great feature that lets you and your remote colleagues videoed in the same project in real time just like Google Doc. If you miss workshopping in real life with sticky notes on the walls, you can do it online with tools like Miro.

So all of these are just tools and processes that I personally found most effective for keeping isolation at bay, and I recommend trying them out, even if I kind of want to say especially if it feels like a little outside of your comfort zone. I only say this because I know from experience they really do work. So, just to kind of recap over all the things we've covered.

We've outlined three core frameworks that you can use to escape isolation while working from home, and the steps are one, to recognise when working from home just isn't cutting it for you; two, to refine your habits and behaviours and lift yourself up out of that if you do; and, three, to retain the good flow with tools and process that is will help you keep Europe head above water a bit.

Hopefully, all of this was practical and helpful, and if you struggle with isolation while working from home, I can personally attest to all of these practices. I'm not saying it's easy but they do make a difference and help you back to feeling good, working, at home, at work. You can find me on Twitter here where I will be sharing links to resources later on.

If you have any of your own practices or tips working from home, feel free to reach out and let me know. I'm always up for a chat to learn new things. I guess that wraps it up. Nothing left to say except thank you for listening, and thank you You Got This for having me today.