Lately, I’ve been doing a fair bit of speaking about remote work to HR audiences, which might lead you to believe that I personally am an expert at remote work. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.   

Before I joined Actionable early last year, I had worked exclusively for office-based organizations, and had only worked from home a grand total of 6 or 7 times times in my entire 15 year career. As I was preparing for my remote work adventure with team Actionable I did a ton of research about virtual and remote work, but it has still been a humbling learning experience to learn how to be part of a remote team.

These days, I get by. I’ve learned a lot from my friends and colleagues who work remotely. But I ignore a lot of the good advice I’ve been given. I routinely wear my pajamas for most of the day, have pretty terrible work-life boundaries, and sometimes I don’t leave my house for days at a time except to go to the gym.

What I do know well is the many ways I misunderstood the real challenges and opportunities of remote work when I worked in an office-based organization. Back then, I helped write, launch, or explain work from home and flexible working policies that I thought made a lot of sense. I often faced managers’ fears about whether remote employees would slack off outside of the office, and tried to address resentment between employees who were permitted to work remotely and those that were not.

I realize now that I was focusing on the wrong things. And so most of my speaking on this topic has been about the many thing I wish I had known as an HR person in office based orgs.

Things like the criticality of trust, how much harder it is to foster belonging, and the importance of transparency. But there is one thing that was particularly resonant for me.

Employee anxiety.

I remember reading blog posts and articles written by employees at some well-known remote organizations, and being struck at how many of them directly or indirectly alluded to the challenge that remote working presented to employees prone to anxiety.

It makes sense. Remote work can feel like flying blind sometimes. The regular stream of verbal cues we get from those around us in an office are absent. The information we get from body language and verbal intonation when interacting is missing, or greatly reduced even if you use video to communicate. Our brains tend to fill in these gaps, and if your brain is predisposed to think the worse, remote work presents a lot of blank canvas for it to get creative.

I’ve been sharing this tweet during my talks to help impress upon HR people this is a thing. Canadian writer Scaachi Koul sums it up:

Remote Work

When I first read about how remote work can be hard for anxious people it made me worry (ha!) because I am an anxious person. I’ve always been anxious. There’s been times in my life when it’s been very limiting, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten pretty adept at managing it. I’m fortunate not to contend with panic attacks or anything acute. My anxiety is sort of like a mirage, always hovering on the horizon. If I walk out to meet it, there’s nothing there, and instead it’s drifted out of reach again, but never fully disappears.   

Even if you’re not prone to anxiety, remote work can mess with your head. Imposter syndrome, which apparently most of us experience, can be exacerbated by remote work, since you can feel as though you’re in the dark about how others perceive you and your work.

Ever finally send off a big deliverable for feedback after working on it for ages, only to hear…nothing? A few hours pass, then a day, and even as you tell yourself your boss or colleagues are probably just really busy, a little inner voice pipes up: “Is there any chance that was the worst report you’ve ever drafted? Just asking…”

If that’s never happened to you, congratulations and I hate you. For the rest of us, this probably sounds familiar! In a traditional office environment, it’s less likely that you’ll get carried away by these thoughts: you can walk by your boss’s office and notice she’s not in today, or run into your colleague in the elevator where she says, “Sorry, I haven’t had a chance to look at your email yet.” But in a remote organization, that doesn’t happen and the onus is on you to either be that person (“Did you get my e-mail?”), or keep that tiny destructive voice in check.

I’ve had lots of practice handling these concerns for myself, but it is something I try to be mindful of for the other members of my team.

We are an unusually transparent organization, sharing a lot of detail about our finances and forecasts. While this can also contribute to pressure and some anxiety, it doesn’t leave those big gaps for our brains to fill in the rest of the story.

We continue to experiment with keeping each other in the loop on what we’re working on. Like a lot of companies, we use Slack for most of our communication, and try to keep discussion in public channels so it they be seen and searched for others who need context or confirmation. We have weekly Monday huddles to review the status of ongoing projects and share our priorities for the week, and we recently started updating each other on our progress at the end of the week.

In the absence of verbal cues we use emojis, gifs, and lots and lots of ‘thank yous.’

As I’ve shared with my fellow HR practitioners, it’s difficult to design (or reimagine) your people practices for a fully or partially remote organization until you’ve actually worked remotely yourself. Design thinking principles suggest that our first step to develop something should be to deeply understand its users.

My time at Actionable has made me empathetic to the struggles and joys of remote workers that I was blind to when I worked in an office. I hope to inspire others to learn from my mistakes, and be a little more aware of the less obvious challenges some remote workers face.