Over the past year, the Canadian Digital Service (CDS) has grown considerably with colleagues in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, and Kitchener-Waterloo. Though our Ottawa office has the most amount of people, we’re a distributed organization. That means we work in an environment where everyone, regardless of geographic location, is able to fully contribute to team goals the same way that a team all working out of the same office can.
When CDS first hired folks outside of Ottawa, it was challenging. Not because the Ottawa office didn’t have the right tech to make the experience smooth but because we just weren’t equipped to understand how isolating it can be. We lacked empathy.
Because we grew so quickly, we decided to hold a Distributed Week. Our goal was to gain empathy for our colleagues outside of Ottawa and learn how we can be better coworkers, both as individuals and as a wider team. So we shut the main office down. Everyone could work anywhere but there.
As someone who’s based in Ottawa, the struggle was real. I had an incredibly hard time being out of the office, and based on team-wide feedback, I wasn’t the only one.
I (digitally) sat down with a colleague, Charlotte, who lives and works in Toronto. We talked about the challenges I faced during Distributed Week and what tips she had to help embrace the struggle.
Lynn: Sometimes, I feel guilty about working from home. I feel like I need a really good reason and have to check in with people more regularly to convince them I’m working. That being said, I know both my colleagues and managers aren’t worried about me and don’t need justification, so I’m not sure why I feel that.
Charlotte: Checking in on a regular basis is actually not a bad habit to get into. It helps the team stay connected. But do it out of a desire to communicate progress or blockers, not out of fear.
As for needing a really good reason to work outside of the office, sometimes cutting commute time or office distractions out are exactly that reason. But I get it — the fear could be a product of older work cultures that are definitely hard to shake. Allow yourself to feel trusted. They hired you for a reason. Go forth and make magic happen!
Productivity vs. Distraction
Lynn: Some days, I was super productive — and I know this might sound fake — but I was too productive. I would blast through work and all of a sudden, I’d missed lunch. On the flip side, sometimes I had a hard time separating myself from my personal life. I wanted to just get the dishes done or play with the cat.
Charlotte: It can definitely be feast or famine when it comes to focus.
Sometimes, I found myself thinking, “Oh I’m working from home, I can push lunch back another hour.” It took me a while to realize that just because I’m not in the office with everyone else, doesn’t mean I should forgo an office routine. If you can, carve out space in your home dedicated to work, separate from the rest of your space.
Mental boundaries are just as important as the physical ones! Try to work the hours you would if you were in the office. It may seem silly but explicitly block off time in your calendar for lunch and breaks. Otherwise, it’s very easy to find yourself at 5:00 pm without having eaten. Treat working from home as a regular day in the office; when your work day ends, close your laptop, and power off.
Lynn: Listen, I’m a social creature. It’s really tough spending the majority of the day alone and my cat doesn’t meow back as often as I’d like her to. Have you experienced moments of loneliness or am I just floating in a sea of my own sadness?
Charlotte: This was probably my biggest hurdle to overcome — and I’m still working on it. It can be really easy to feel like you’re floating on an island (or in a sea of sadness) away from the mainland. Disconnection is real, y’all, and not having people to bounce ideas off of is isolating.
To shake that, I try and physically put myself where people are. If you can’t be in a shared office space, try coffee shops or libraries. Even something as small as taking breaks to walk around the block makes a difference.
Really jonesing for team interaction? Reach out to set up video chats completely unrelated to work. I’ve done a few “digital coffee” video calls in the morning. They are great to ease the loneliness and build team camaraderie when you can’t be in the office every day.
Other things CDS learned and will do more of:
- Turn our cameras on when using GoogleHangouts, WebEx, or any video feed. Seeing our colleagues is just as important as hearing them.
- Encourage our teams to document more. Write down how and why we do things. If we have those in-person hallways conversations that lead to decisions, we’ll put them in Slack afterwards too.
- Reach out to our coworkers more. Not everything has to be transactional or task-oriented. We’ll be better at having an always-on and available video call for anyone to hop into if they need some interaction.
- Make all job opportunities distributed job opportunities. We can hire more diverse talent if they don’t have to live in Ottawa, work 9 to 5, or come into the office.
- Do distributed more. Maybe we’ll do another Distributed Week, or maybe we’ll just make it more explicit that people can work distributed when it suits them. We want to ease the distributed guilt and empower people to feel trusted.
We learned a lot.
We now have a better understanding of what our colleagues experience day to day and how to be better distributed teammates. Working distributed is a team sport because even if you’re in the office, you’re all distributed.