By Nina Berman on March 25th, 2020
Why Is It So Hard To Work Virtually?
Big Ideas | How We Work | Remote Working | People Operations | COVID-19
So your job has just gone virtual. Now what?
Once your company or organization has figured out how to get everyone a computer, which video conferencing and chat tools to use, and how to store files on a shared cloud-based drive, there’s still a huge amount of adjustment that needs to take place.
Even though you’re still working on a computer, things probably feel totally different. It can be hard to get back into the swing of things. You might feel uninspired, isolated, or like you can’t concentrate. Even under the best circumstances, this is totally normal for workers who have transitioned from office life to virtual working.
The team at Fractured Atlas went through this process ourselves. We’ve gone through the stresses of adjusting to a whole new way of working and collaborating. And we understand that all of these normal stresses are compounded by all of the COVID-19 anxieties we’re all feeling. Our work lives have changed too, even if our offices haven’t.
We work with artists and arts organizations to help them manage the business side of their art practice. We provide tools to help them raise funds, and communicate with their funding community, including selling tickets to events. Our community is facing huge changes in their work life. Many have lost their jobs, and others are rapidly adjusting to an entirely new way of working. We know how uncertain this time is, and we are dedicated to sharing the knowledge that we have about sustaining your creative practice in a time of crisis and about how to work virtually.
As far as transitioning to virtual working, the most important thing to remember is that it’s entirely normal to have a big adjustment period, especially if it’s not a change that you signed up for. It’s additionally important to remember that the extraordinarily stressful and uncertain times will make that adjustment more challenging.
Plus, if you already have a toxic work environment, you risk bringing that toxicity home with you.
For all of the new virtual workers, we want to acknowledge the issues that you are likely having with this work transition and offer some of the ways that we have mitigated them for ourselves.
Working From Home is Lonely
It’s a real social loss to go from having colleagues to have lunch with, to go out for happy hour drinks with, to drop by their desks, and chat with them during meetings to sitting at your makeshift office desk with only roommates or pets for company. You can schedule a Zoom lunch (and we recommend that you do), but we know that it’s not the same. It might feel strange to just Slack someone to say hi and see how their day is going when you would have ordinarily just popped by their desk on your way into your office.
Plus, it’s hard to lose all of the other loose social ties that structure our days in addition to coworkers. You might see the same barista, bus driver, or neighbors on the same commute schedule as you. Going from seeing these people every day to not at all is a challenge and a loss.
Under normal circumstances, working virtually doesn’t necessarily mean not leaving your house. For people who are just starting to work virtually, this is a more isolated kind of virtual work than you’d normally experience, so the normal amount of loneliness you would ordinarily be feeling is compounded.
I’ve worked for fully distributed teams for several years and bounced between my local bookstore cafe, a neighborhood coworking space, and my apartment (or, if the mood struck, a library). Even though I haven’t had an office or a commute in years, I had organized my days to be full of casual interactions with the other virtual workers, freelancers, and folks who show up to cafes during business hours. So, even though I’m a relatively seasoned virtual worker, I’m feeling the extra loneliness too.
How to Make Virtual Work Less Lonely
Even under normal circumstances, virtual teams need to be proactive in combating loneliness.
The team that I work on, the External Relations team, has done a few things to help us stay connected. We have daily standup calls, which gives us time to see each other. We always check in about the work that we’re doing, but we also use it as a time to check in about each other's lives.
We share what we’ve been up to outside of our work lives, which lets us have some of the water cooler kinds of conversations that would happen organically in an office, but wouldn’t happen in an office meeting. A recent highlight of our daily standup call was seeing the French bulldog named Bubby that Sophia Park was taking care of. Different teams handle daily check-ins differently, or might not do them at all. It all depends on what works for you and your colleagues. Don’t be afraid to experiment to see what your team needs to do to feel connected. Here are some tips we have to make video calls easier and better.
The entire Fractured Atlas team stays in touch through Slack. We have channels dedicated to crafting and books, as well as a general channel for goofy things we find on the internet. While we’ve had these channels for a while already, because everyone is feeling extra isolated, they’ve been particularly active.
If you’re new to virtual working, consider scheduling virtual coffee breaks with your coworkers (or with your friends who are also working from home!). Put it on your calendar, and let it break up your day a bit. We know that video chatting isn’t the same as seeing one another face to face, but it’s a nice way to make sure that you stay connected.
Working From Home Feels Unproductive and Distracting
It’s challenging mentally to flip from home mode to work mode if you’re used to physical separation and a commute. How do you get yourself into a work headspace when you’re sitting at your kitchen counter (like I am right now)?
There are a lot of reasons right now that you might feel unproductive and distracted.
If your job has just gone virtual, it is likely changing a lot, which means that you’re probably getting less of your usual to-do list done than you ordinarily would. This is entirely normal. For one thing, you’re probably still figuring out how to communicate with your colleagues which takes up a lot of mental space. Plus, you might not quite know what your job looks like during a pandemic. What exactly should you be doing?
News is coming at us at a dizzying pace. We have friends, loved ones, and neighbors to worry about, and we have to balance out our work responsibilities with other priorities like our own physical and mental wellbeing.
On top of all of this, housework can be a big distraction for virtual workers. It’s hard to work from your kitchen counter when you know that there are dishes to be done and trash to be taken out. The guilt of household chores can make it difficult to get into work mode.
How to Feel Better About Productivity While Working at Home
First of all, cut yourself some slack about productivity!
We are in an extraordinary circumstance, so we encourage you to give yourself a break. Are you feeling stressed about productivity because the work you’re doing really needs to get done, or is the logic of capitalism making you think that you’re only valuable if you’re productive? It might still take the rest of your brain time to catch up with doing what feels like less, but keep affirming yourself that, in all likelihood, you’re doing fine.
And once you are ready to start thinking about productivity and work, remember that it is productive to spend time to learn an entirely new way of working and to figure out what your new responsibilities and priorities are. Even under ordinary circumstances, your productivity would probably change or at least look different if you switched to working from home. We encourage you to talk to your team about expectations and bandwidth—about what you should be doing and what you have the capacity to do.
When you do want or need to drop into a productive work mode, figure out what you need to do to feel best. Lots of articles suggest keeping a routine of showering and getting dressed before you sit down at your workspace. But if you feel best in your pajamas or your softest pants, wear them! Whenever I have a big day of work ahead of me, I put on an outfit that makes me feel powerful (for me, this is never loungewear) and some lipstick because it makes me feel tough and competent. But you might need something different.
Maybe you need to set up your computer every morning to create a boundary between your work life and the rest of your life. Maybe setting up and breaking down your work station every day is an unnecessary hassle that adds to your to-do list, like Nicola Carpenter does in her “virtual commute.” Maybe you need to create a routine and stick to it, or maybe you need to find ways to have variation in your day. Don’t get too bogged down in following other people’s suggestions. Find the ones that work for you. And above all, be gentle on yourself when it comes to productivity.
As far as household chores go, I sometimes use them to break up the workday. If I need a few minutes away from my computer, I’ll wash some dishes. It’s not very time consuming, I feel accomplished, and have given my eyes a rest from screens. Plus, I always make sure to write it in my to-do list and then cross it off.
If it breaks up your day and eases your mind, take some breaks to tackle household projects. But if it stresses you out, set up a time boundary. Work until a given time and then you can start to think about your household. It all depends on what works best for you.
It’s Hard to be Creative in Your Home Office
It can be challenging to tap into your creative energy in your new home office setup, especially if you have built up mental associations between creativity and your old workspace - whether it is a studio, an office, or a coworking space.
I’ve certainly built these associations. If given the choice, I do my best and most creative thinking at my coworking space rather than my kitchen counter. Sitting down at that desk signals to me that it’s time to think deeply. But that desk isn’t available to me right now, and my kitchen counter is all that I have.
Depending on the kind of work that you do, you might not be able to access the tools that make it easier for you to imagine and to create. You might be going without your dual monitor, drafting table, or another crucial tool.
All of this can make you feel like you aren’t creative like you aren’t good at your job, or that you’re failing virtual working because of some personal flaw. We understand how these thoughts can creep in, but none of this is true!
Tips to Stay Creative While Working Virtually
First of all, give yourself time to adjust. A former coworker of mine told me that it takes a minimum of 6 months to adjust to remote working. And that’s under ideal circumstances. The same mental energy you’d usually be able to apply to creative problem solving is definitely getting used elsewhere. So regardless of virtual working or office working, your creative juices would likely be taking a hit these days no matter what.
Try to pay close attention to how your brain works over the course of a day working at home. Do you find yourself more energized first thing in the morning, right after you’ve had the right amount of caffeine? Do you need to settle into “work mode” a bit more at home than you do in an office to start thinking? Then, you can better adjust your schedule to find your creative groove and keep it.
For example, I know that my mind is sharpest in the morning, so I try to do most of my writing then. So, if I can save some of my less brain-intensive work for the afternoon, I will. That way, I don’t find myself trying to write through a 3:00 energy slump, feeling like a complete fraud. Although recently I’ve been getting a surge of creative energy around 3:30 or 4:00. I can’t account for the new energy shift, but I’m incorporating it into my work schedule.
It’s Disappointing to Cancel Events and Celebrations
So many professions have special events or gatherings that give structure to a year. Graduations, conferences, showcases, galas, the list goes on. These are networking opportunities, times to get inspired by new ideas, and time to connect with colleagues across the industry who you might spend the rest of the year emailing and calling.
It can feel small in the grand scheme of things to worry about not being able to go to a big party or to be able to celebrate a milestone, but these are real losses. It’s ok to mourn them and to be disappointed that they’ve been canceled, even if you know that it’s probably for the best.
Find New Ways to Gather Virtually
Like all of our other suggestions, the first step is to be patient. It is disappointing and frustrating to lose out on something you’ve been looking forward to. And you likely have to deal with other people’s disappointment. For example, educators who are sad not to be able to see their students graduate have to also help their students work through not being able to celebrate an important milestone in person.
Once you feel like you have some bandwidth to think about a new plan for your canceled event, try to think about creative ways to gather together.
You can try to turn an event virtual. For example, if it’s a celebration of an accomplishment or of a milestone, can you and your team put together a virtual happy hour or ask everyone to record a video message for the person being honored? Can the conference presentation you had been preparing be turned into a webinar or a livestream? Can your one-person show happen from your living room?
You can also see if postponing is an option. We’ve seen plenty of the artists who use Fractured Atlas services postpone events, sometimes indefinitely. We don’t know what the future holds, but we do know that things will change and we won’t always be in the state of crisis we’re in now. And when things start to return to something approaching normalcy, people will definitely want to get together. Plus, it can feel nice to have something to look forward to, even if you don’t have an exact date for it.
We don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. A virtual conference probably won’t be as exciting as the in-person one you were expecting until a few weeks ago. It makes networking less natural, for one thing. But virtual gatherings offer their own opportunities - to increase access to a wider group of people with a wider range of mobility and ability.
We hope that you can find some creative ways to stay connected with your colleagues, even if you can’t do it in the way that you had planned on.
Be Honest and Intentional about Transitioning to Virtual Work
In order to most successfully adjust to a completely new working environment, the best things you can be are patient, honest, and intentional about the changes that you have to make.
Change takes time. Don’t expect yourself to seamlessly transition overnight. And if you’re transitioning to working from home instead of working in an office in the midst of a pandemic, your transition will be that much harder because so much else is on your mind. We know that it’s easier said than done, but don’t be too hard on yourself.
Next, acknowledge where your pain points are, talk through them with your colleagues because they’re probably feeling them too. They can commiserate with you and maybe offer some tips that have worked for them. Let people know if and how you are struggling. This is new for so many people, and it requires more openness about our feelings about work, our work needs, our work anxieties than we might be used to. Not every solution will work for everyone, so don’t be afraid to try something and then drop it if it doesn’t work for you.
Once you acknowledge what you're struggling with and talk to your colleagues, you can experiment with ways to mitigate them. It takes time, and it takes intentional action, and it takes iteration.
Fractured Atlas went through the process of going virtual, and we know that it can be hard. Here are some of our favorite resources to help you adjust to working remotely in a humane and compassionate way.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.