How We Work Virtually: Nina Berman
At Fractured Atlas, we try to be transparent about How We Work. Especially when it comes to the transition we made to becoming a fully distributed team. We slowly wound down the number of people coming into our Manhattan office, and as of late 2019, we fully flipped the switch. Here’s what it looked like for us to transition to a virtual team.
Even in our own team, we’ve seen that people approach virtual working differently. With the freedom to organize our days outside of an office, we’ve each had to find out what kinds of schedules work for us, how to recharge during the day, and how to organize our workspaces. There’s a lot of information flying around about how to make working from home work for you, but we know first-hand that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
We hope that by sharing tips from individual members of our team, we can encourage you to experiment with different ways to make working from home work for you, and to even find a few tips to try along the way.
As the (hopefully!) friendly and helpful voice of the Inciter Art blog, I’ll be sharing how I work.
What do you do at Fractured Atlas?
I am the Content Specialist at Fractured Atlas. That means that I manage the very blog you are reading now. I write articles for artists as well as for our fellow nonprofit workers.
I also work with other members of our team to brainstorm and edit guest posts and interviews. We have a lot of knowledge on this team about how to work, and how to build a sustainable career in the arts. It’s my job to help put that knowledge out there for our audiences.
Lately, my energy has been devoted to providing as many resources as possible for workers who find themselves working from home. For example, I’ve written about why working virtually is hard, how to make video conferences better, rounded up remote working resources, and shared advice about making sure your home office doesn’t become a toxic workplace.
How do you organize your day?
Years ago, I listened to a piece on NPR about how we should organize our work days according to the natural fluctuations in energy and concentration we experience. No meetings during the 3 PM afternoon slump, etc. I took that to heart, and still use it as a general principle for organizing my day. I do my most demanding work when I’m sharpest, and try to leave the less intellectually intensive work for when I’m feeling a bit slower.
I log on at 9 AM, which is about an hour earlier than the rest of my team. I like to have a slightly earlier workday than other people for a few reasons. My brain feels freshest earlier in the day and I’ve never liked to do work in the evening. Going back to my service industry days, I’d rather work early than late.
Plus, it means that I have an hour or so where I know that nobody will need anything from me. The External Relations team and the Fractured Atlas team at large is already very understanding about not expecting immediate responses to non-urgent questions, but I like the extra assurance that I can put my head down and write without any distraction.
I’ll usually knock out one or two simple things on my to do list (to organize that, I use Teux Deux) to make myself feel accomplished right away. Then I’ll tackle the thing that requires the most intellectual energy and work my way down from there. By mid-afternoon, I try to shift myself into working on more administrative, organizational, or research-based tasks because my brain feels mushier by that time of day.
How do you set up boundaries between work/not-work during your day without a commute or an office?
Keeping regular hours is a big way that I set up boundaries. I log on at 9 and off at 5, barring anything unusual. And like my colleague Nicola Carpenter, I have a “virtual commute,” where I have to set up and break down my desk setup every day. I take out my work laptop, prop it up on 5 books to get it closer to eye level, and take out my bluetooth keyboard and mouse.
Additionally, I don’t have Slack or email notifications on my phone. I find that really helps me unplug at the end of the day. If I’m waiting on a response for something, I’ll manually check those apps, but I don’t get pinged. If I get notifications on my phone, I know that I’ll be tempted to respond outside of my working hours, which is something I want to avoid.
How do you recharge during the day?
Ordinarily, the way that I recharge throughout the day is by changing locations. I’ll move from my apartment to a coffee shop to my coworking space, then finish out the day at home. It gives me little breaks throughout the day, plus some fresh air. That means that when I’m exclusively working from home, it’s honestly been a challenge to recharge during the day. I’m still figuring out how to do it.
One technique that I’m using is to put on my to do list things that are self-care related, or require me going outside. For example, I’ll put it on my list to do yoga, go on a walk, or lift weights. Today, it’s on my list to deliver some supplies to a friend. By putting it on the same list as my work responsibilities, I’m much more likely to actually do it.
How long did it take you to adjust to working virtually?
I think it took a good 4 months for me to adjust to virtual working. I was surprised that it took so long! Before I worked at Fractured Atlas, I worked at NetGalley, another fully distributed team. It was there that I learned how to work without an office, and I took those patterns and strategies with me when I came to Fractured Atlas.
My biggest challenge adjusting to virtual working was getting over some old hangups about “proving” to my manager that I was working. Some of that was down to the transition to virtual work, and some of it was recovering from some previous jobs.
During my first few weeks, I would Slack my boss in the morning to say that I had logged on, if I was taking a lunch break, and when I was logging off for the day. I wanted her to know that I was being productive, that I wasn’t slacking off. But as I got more comfortable in that role and on that team, I became more confident that I was demonstrating my productivity by doing the work that I was hired to do, and that the team I worked on operated from a position of trust rather than surveillance.
What surprised you the most about moving from an office to virtual working?
As someone who is very social, I didn’t know how much I would like virtual working! Once I became accustomed to working without an office, I realized just how hard it would be for me to go back to working in an office. The thought of waking up early enough to make it to your desk with a long commute and the spiritual drain of crowded trains all sound really rough to me now. I’m honestly not sure that I could go back.
I was also surprised to find out how functional teams could be without an office. Both at Fractured Atlas and before, I’ve seen colleagues pull off complicated and ambitious projects across departments, all without sitting in a room together.
How have you had to change your communication style with colleagues since going virtual?
In a lot of ways, not much changes in terms of communication when you go virtual. The only company that I worked for where I commuted to an office required a lot of the same kinds of communication styles that we see in virtual work environments. Rather than go over to someone’s desk, people would call each other’s cubicle phones from 20 feet away. We also worked with people across the country, so it was normal to get a lot done via email or phone.
The biggest trick with communication styles and virtual work is figuring out what people’s individual communication quirks are. It’s easier if you already know someone AFK (away from keyboard) to figure out if they are frustrated or if they are just using proper grammar. But if you’re new to a virtual team or talking to someone you’ve never met, it’s hard to figure out how to read tone. That’s where video chats become important. You can get a better sense of someone’s vibe if you see their face or hear their voice.
How has covid-19 changed how you work?
COVID-19 has really changed how I work, frankly.
Ordinarily, I split my time between working from my dearly beloved bookstore cafe, a neighborhood community space that doubles as a coworking spot, and my apartment. The change of scenery helps keep me fresh and I really value the social interaction I get from fellow remote workers, freelancers and non-office workers who swing by a neighborhood hangout during business hours. I miss all of those people a lot.
One thing that I’ve always liked about working remotely is the freedom of movement that it gives me. I’ve worked from all over New York City (a personal favorite is the Rose Reading Room), London, Berlin, and Chicago. I can’t do that right now, which is definitely cramping my style.
The other big change that’s happened as a result of COVID-19 is that my boyfriend is now working from home. On the one hand, he’s been making pretty elaborate meals, so my lunches are a lot nicer, but it’s also challenging. We definitely see each other’s work frustrations more often, and have to make sure that the other knows when we are going to be on calls. Plus, just sharing a small space with someone (anyone!) comes with challenges.
What piece of advice would you give to someone who just started working virtually?
Virtual working exposes a lot of your own internalized pressures about work, or at least it does for me. My best piece of advice is to introspect.
Think about why a particular thing is stressing you out. Is it a real issue? Does it feel like a big problem because of how intensely we have all internalized the logic of capitalism? What are your tendencies around boundaries and where do they come from? What do you need from your colleagues so that you don’t feel like you’re floating away on an island? Changing your work environment will show you some of your attitudes about work in new ways. Take this opportunity to get curious about yourself. And by getting curious, you’ll stand a better shot at figuring out how to make working virtually work as well as it possibly can for you.
And if you want to read more about how the Fractured Atlas team works, check out the rest of the How We Work Virtually series.
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.