Episode 19 –
Online Working – Tips & Challenges
Published: 1st July 2021
So welcome to Episode 19, the third episode in the third season of the Creating Cadence podcast, where I’m experimenting with something a little different.
To recap, I invited 6 creative thinkers from my network, who work in a variety of different sectors and situations, to share their thoughts and experiences based on a set of specific questions relating to hybrid working, digital wellness and productivity.
In the previous episode we explored how the pandemic has created and influenced new ways of working for my guests, and the personal lessons that they’ve learnt about their wellbeing and productivity during this time.
In this episode, my panel will be commenting on what they struggle with most when it comes to online working. They will also share their personal tips for protecting their attention, maintaining focus and supporting their wellbeing and productivity.
Please note, these conversations and responses have been recorded in real-world situations, so you may hear the sounds of traffic or roadworks, people chatting in the background, creaky chairs, rustling headphones or random internet connectivity issues.
Catarina King is a dynamic and passionate community builder, and one of the co-founders of coworking space called Society1.
Rashmir Balasubramaniam is an executive coach and strategic advisor to current and emerging female leaders of social innovation and systems change.
Amy Young is a senior account manager at ICG, a well-established, award-winning creative agency in the North West of England.
Garth Dew is a video producer and business owner who helps brands and companies to create marketing and event content.
Ed Matthews-Gentle leads a creative business support programme in Lancashire, and he’s also a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
If you’re ready, let’s dive in…
First: What do you struggle with most when it comes to online working styles?
And second: What productivity tips, tricks, practices or rituals do you use to help you overcome procrastination, or help you be more focused?
We’re starting with James Taplin, who mulled over how at the start of lockdown there was strong messaging around ensuring we take time for ourselves away from the screen and make sure there’s plenty of space built into our days. We were reminded how this was an abnormal situation, but also a reset opportunity to design our days better. However, James feels that this intentionality has not only slipped, but for some it has vanished entirely, and so the pressure on our wellbeing is escalating again.
People don’t pursue it actively any longer, which means I find, I find I spend hours and hours and hours standing, staring at the screen kind of talking to people. And I’m just Yeah, it’s a half hour conversation here. And then an hour conversation there and then a half hour and then and it’s just fragmented into tiny pieces. And there’s no time to catch up with anything in between. and, and it’s exhausting.
Just because it’s it’s you’re looking at people as well to kind of. So two things there… I hate looking at myself. So spending the days, I’ve never looked at myself as much ever probably in my previous 14 odd plus years that I have done over the course of the last year in total. I mean, that is that’s quite hard. And that’s quite uncomfortable.
James also shared his personal experience of the exhausting nature of this form of visibility and his perceptions of why we experience Zoom fatigue.
But it’s also it’s quite intense, they maintaining that that energy, that focus, you have to know, you could turn your camera off. And but then I think you turn your camera off, people think maybe you’re not there or you’re on your phone or doing something. So if you’re demonstrating that if you’re there, you should be actively engaging, otherwise, what’s the point you’ve been, but if you’re actually engaging, and you’re trying to demonstrate you’re actively engaging, you sort of have to overplay it to show it through a screen that you wouldn’t have to through normal body cues when you’re in a room with people that I find that quite exhausting.
For James, another casualty of so much time online is his opportunities to do deep or focused work. He feels the associated fragmentation, frustration and lack of time has increased his stress levels considerably.
I seem to spend most of my time talking to people, I guess, with very little time in between to catch up, there’s no, there’s no deep work, haven’t done any deep work for months.
It just it just doesn’t really exist and fragmented all over the place. I think there’s also, again, a little bit something that we were talking about earlier there is that it’s quite everything every single minute so far, like, there’s a purpose to everything you’re not you’re planning everything ahead of time, I find that quite exhausting.
There’s no there’s no space in there for wonder or, you know, some sort of some something, some kind of creative chaos, which is going to kind of bring an extra dimension of interest to your life or change your thinking … it is radical purpose from the start of the day to the end of the day.
James also spoke about this idea of radical purpose and the constraints of our now rigorously scheduled lives in the previous episode (episode 18) so check that out if you haven’t already.
When I asked James about his productivity tips, he responded in the same self-deprecating manner as a few of the other panel members, who seem to think they’re not very productive. I find this interesting, as despite this notion, they’ve all managed to produce more output than usual during a very stressful and pressured time over this past year.
I’m not sure I can answer this one very well, I don’t think I am necessarily very productive. I find myself quite fragmented over the course of the last year, particularly homeschooling all the rest of it, I think, think what I guess I have learned and I’ve, we’ve I’ve learned one thing, I suppose it’s it’s that it’s that old adage about able to spend half an hour in nature unless you don’t have enough time, in which case you should spend an hour or whatever the quote is that I’ve butchered there.
But basically, yeah, the need to get out for an hour’s ride, I guess daily is something I I know is good for me. And I know it enhances my productivity. I know it settles my thoughts. I know it kind of helps me get ready for the afternoon or wherever it’s going to be.
And yeah, I know I’m more productive by exercise, if I have that kind of downtime, that gap in between.
Like James’ experiments in knifemaking which he does in the morning (which he touched on in episode 18) James uses exercise as a form of downtime and to create space in his day.
But he did also highlight that it can be a struggle to feel motivated enough to get out and do that exercise, due to those languishing feelings we’ve all experienced from time to time, over this time.
Incidentally I talk about the concept of languishing in more detail in episode 16.
Next up is Rashmir Balasubramaniam. When it comes to online working, this was an easier adaptation for her so she hasn’t necessarily experienced the same challenges mentioned by James. But Rashmir has an interesting point to make about the challenges that hybrid working poses to relationship building online.
So this is this is a relatively easy one for me, because I’m pretty adaptable. So and I’m pretty good at reading people. But one thing that I do think is is tricky online is building relationships with people that I don’t know and have never met.
It’s a funny thing, though. Because in my coaching work, it’s not a problem at all I can I can do it just as well online as I can offline. But for more collaborative work or consulting type projects, it’s a much trickier thing. And I I’m not 100% sure if I know why that is because I know that I can pick up on a lot, even in the remote format. But somehow the difference might be there isn’t the same level of trust right and openness in more sort of team based work with new people.
Then there isn’t a new coaching relationship. And so that’s the piece. I feel that there’s, there’s, yeah, there’s room to improve for me. And I think for others as well, both in terms of what we pick up, and how open we are, and how quickly we get to that point of openness and trust.
When it comes to productivity tips for improving focus and beating procrastination, Rashmir has some excellent suggestions and practices to share. First up she talks about taking time for regular reflection.
In particular, this one is something I learned from David Peterson, who is very well known in the coaching industry, but he was also the former head of coaching at Google. And he has what he calls a reflection calendar. And it’s got a series of questions associated with it, that you you would pick so you know, the questions that you ask on a daily basis, versus a weekly or a monthly or a quarterly basis are a little bit different.
And it’s, it’s not rocket science, right? It’s pretty simple. And it can be you know, on a daily basis, you might only reflect on these questions for a minute or two. On a quarterly basis, of course, you might do a little bit more thoughtful reflection, referencing back to purpose and priorities and looking both backwards and forwards.
And it really just keeps us focused on what’s important, what matters. And also make sure that we’re building and adjusting our calendars each week, or each month or each quarter. So that we’ve got adequate time for, you know, work that requires creativity, or deep thoughts, or whatever it is. And so it’s a simple, simple tool, but very, very useful.
Another suggestion from Rashmir is to be more intentional about scheduling time to support our creativity and wellbeing.
I often advocate for the benefits of time blocking practices, both on my podcast and with my coaching clients. And a common phrase I use, is to say that if it’s not in the diary, it’s not going to happen. So I love the following suggestions from Rashmir!
I may be in an unusually privileged position to be able to do this, but I schedule quite a bit of downtime in my week. So I have certain days of the week where I don’t do any external calls.
And that gives me dedicated time again, for the kind of deeper thinking reading or research, or just that dedicated time, if I want to spend a whole afternoon doing nothing but writing or batch producing a podcast, I’ve got those blocks of time on my calendar, and I can always flex if needs be but but just having those times blocked out I find incredibly purposeful.
Rashmir also supports her focus and flow by adapting her work style and working pattern to fit with the cycles of the seasons.
The other thing that I that I want to share in this regard is and this is tied to my work around flow, and it’s it’s it’s giving ourselves or in my case giving myself permission to work with natural rhythms, and those may be seasonal rhythms. They may be personal or collective rhythms.
You know, an example of that is I tend to wake up with a light so it’s summer I’m waking up super early, but I’ve got masses of early morning time that I can use for any number of things. So, you know, by the time eight o’clock or nine o’clock rolls around, I’ve, I feel like I’ve already had quite a productive morning, which is wonderful winter, of course is a little bit different. But then in winter, you know, with less light, I, you know, I might be doing less pure creative work, and I might be more doing more deep reflection.
So not everyone has the luxury to work this way. But, but it also allows me to, to, to work with my own natural rhythms, right. So if I’m having a morning where it’s just really difficult to do any writing, I tend to dedicate some morning time to writing, you know, I might just go out, go out, go down to the beach, go for a walk. And it’s incredible what that stimulates for me, or just allows to kind of process and then I can come back and use a different time of the day to do you know, what I might have wanted to earlier. So again, I’ve just got that ability to flex. So I’m working with these natural rhythms. And I find it incredibly, incredibly productive and incredibly useful.
Like Rashmir, I too have learnt to adapt my work style according to seasonal patterns. And as a woman, I also adjust my work load based on my monthly menstrual cycle, as it can have dramatic effect on my energy levels, my emotions, my ability to focus and my performance in different weeks of the month.
Now I understand that some people don’t have total control over their calendars and it be a little more tricky to find more time for time out, if you have children or work that requires a lengthy commute.
But I’m also a firm believer that there is always another way. If you are truly unhappy with how you are working, if it is affecting your health or relationships, you will become desperate enough to find a way to make these positive changes.
It starts by reflecting on what’s more important, and creating boundaries around them for wellbeing and safekeeping, and being more intentional in managing your time. Otherwise you end up dancing to someone else’s tune.
Next up is Garth Dew, who whilst advocating for video calls being a good way for him to stay in touch with clients going forward (as mentioned in episode 18), here he also acknowledges the downsides.
The nature of my video production business, unless we’re out filming, has always been to work remotely. So, I’m very used to it, I don’t find it too difficult.
I think the biggest thing that I’m tired of is video calls. thing] for whatever reason, they’re incredibly fatiguing. And so it’s been nice to go back out and film and speak to people and be around people. So remote working has lots of advantages in terms of saving time, travelling, saving the planet. But I think there’s also definitely still a need to be meeting face to face with people. And so it’s about striking that balance.
When it comes to productivity, Garth flags an important point about how some creative thinkers may struggle to follow overly structured days, as it’s just not the way they’re wired. Instead he’s started focusing on slowing down his workflow and taking on less work, so he can be more purposeful and intentional about how he approaches his projects.
I used to be very much into productivity hacks and trying to plan my day, but by nature, I’m not that type of person. I’m a classic creative. I’m a little bit all over the place.
But I think since COVID happened, my biggest productivity hack is actually not to have too much on so rather than chasing projects and trying to fill my pipeline with loads of work, I’m trying to pick and choose meatier projects that I can take my time on and do properly.
So it sounds counterintuitive, but by keeping my calendar a lot emptier than it was I think I’m actually creating better work. And I’m more focused and productive on that work.
And off the back of that, I just think having one thing to complete each day, or, you know, max, three things on your to do list for the day is how you can make small progress all the time. As soon as my to do list becomes 10 plus items, I become overwhelmed and get nothing done.
This is something I can relate to. Since my burnout, my brain doesn’t function quite the same as it did. I easily get overwhelmed if I don’t organise my work into bite-sized chunks. There may be lots of little things that also get done in a day, but there are never more than 1 – 3 main tasks that I focus on daily.
And that’s where my bullet journal comes in really handy, as it helps me track my tasks, stay on top of my workload and still ensure I maintain a good cadence with my work flow whilst getting my projects completed.
Next is Amy Young, who shares how the disruptive nature of online working is a challenge for her.
I’ve mentioned like, we use slack and you know, I know their tools to support our roles. But then then they almost become a hindrance in some ways as well. You can kind of hear the notifications and things like that.
I think it’s that kind of like the the stop start nature of it as well I think for, for us, when we’re together in the office, it’s kind of a little bit more fluid.
Online for me sometimes a little bit stop start and kind of, you don’t always have that kind of continuous pace with some aspects of the job.
But I guess it is all adaptation to kind of the situation. So it’s nothing that can’t be overcome, but I guess yes, some of that is the kind of like a little frustrations, the little frustrations or like how you put that that’s it, that’s exactly what it is. It’s all these little annoying things doesn’t add up.
I love Amy’s optimism in finding a way through these challenges and also her acknowledgement of the small frustrations of online communications that can add up to become something bigger.
When it comes to Amy’s productivity practices, apart from the tools her whole company uses, her go-to approach for staying on top of her tasks is a combination of old-school To Do list and managing expectations.
I’m quite an organised person anyway, I mean, I naturally have to be organised in the role that I do.
I mean, productivity tips for me, I mean, I’m very much a traditional To Do List person. So that is kind of not online at all.
We have online tools like Trello, and, you know, various other kind of like status report planning for clients and things. But for me, this this satisfaction of having a ToDo list and actually crossing something off is, can’t be underestimated. And I think it comes back to just the expectation levels as well, and almost like just taking a little step back.
In Amy’s experience she finds that taking a pause before responding to an email or message, and not expecting an immediate response to hers is better for her business relationships and for keeping things moving.
So, in that way, Amy’s approach is similar to Garth’s suggestion about slowing down and being more purposeful in how you work and communicate.
And this brings us to Ed Matthews-Gentle. Like Amy and Catarina mentioned in episode 18, Ed also highlights the need to switch off and the challenges he experiences with trying to do so, and also how our expectations around productivity can be flawed.
I must admit that I do really kind of struggle with this, because, you know, that being productive, you know, isn’t the same as producing lots of work and lots of volumes of work.
I felt the need, you know, or there’s an ability to, you know, produce work more quickly. It’s not the same as being more productive as well, you know, but, I’m reasonably, you know, comfortable with what we’ve been able to deliver over the last 12 months. But I wouldn’t necessarily say that it translates to being, you know, self contented and having a good, a good sort of a good work life balance or being good for, like, personal wellbeing.
Like James, Ed has flagged how we feel we need to be physically visible online to be seen to be doing our work properly and how that’s an issue for our wellbeing.
And the close proximity between our working and living spaces can be problematic for productivity too.
In Ed’s words, his office is 10 steps from his lounge, 20 steps from his bedroom and 30 steps from his backyard.
I think for me, it’s that switching off, you know, walking away, you know, I’m not going back, you know, you know, what were your commute, you know, in my office has been my two metre by one and a half metre square in the corner of my dining room that’s been Creative Lancashire HQ, you know, for, for over a year.
Yes, you know, I can walk away and switch off, but I can also come back to it really, really easily.
This is a challenge shared by many. It can feel difficult to initiate a change in behaviour when our working and living environments and habits become so blended.
This is why setting boundaries around how and when you work and being more intentional in how you work, is really important.
When it comes to tips and tricks, Ed has some interesting and novel ways to help him get into work mode and stay productive, (even though, like James, he doesn’t feel he’s good at being productive).
I’m so not the person to ask about that. Because as I’ve already said, I do all this stuff really, really badly. You know, but I do treat the journey to this little corner of my dining room, like a proper commute. I actually, you know, get dressed for work, you know, it sounds odd saying, but, you know, I have to get into the mindset, you know, of work.
Ed’s sartorial choices, even when working from home, are very important to him.
I wear shoes all the time. Not wearing shoes. Now, I can’t imagine, you know, the thought of you thinking that I’m wearing sweat pants and slippers and trainers, horrifies me, you now. And so, I know I’m not doing that I’ve made the affirmation, the decision, that I’m putting shoes on, you know, I’m not wearing trainers, I’m wearing decent shoes, you know, be happy to be seen in anywhere. And that’s the one thing that no one knows that I’m doing that until now, but I wear shoes for everyday that I’m at work.
I wholeheartedly agree with this idea of getting dressed for work. It definitely helps your mind slip into work mode.
Ed also commented on how, in an ideal workplace, our physical environment is another opportunity to support our creativity and inspire our work. He shared his dream office idea, which is not that far removed from how he actually works at home.
I would have objects that inspire me around me, you know, I would have possibly artwork and objects in books, you know, and, you know, fully toy figures, you know, designed by, you know, graphic designers, and, you know, graffiti artists, I will have all those things around me.
So my actual environment that I’m working in now is probably a lot closer to the kind of office that I’d like to have.
I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the way things were completely. But, you know, I’m going to really miss that, you know, I’m going to miss just having the ability to have music on when I want to in the background, because I can’t do that in the office, you know, with lots of people because you can’t really put headphones on in that way, like engage with people around you.
I do kind of set my mood, you know, and, and I’ve really enjoyed that stuff.
Last but not least, we have a short and sweet observation from Catarina King regarding her challenges with online working and her number one productivity tip.
Like Garth, Catarina is all for more in-person opportunities, and of course running a coworking space lends itself to needing to do just that.
The thing that I struggle with most when it comes to online working, is that I am very much a people person and like company and interaction. Whilst emails and online comms platforms like Slack are great, I like the nuances and richness of speaking and working with people in person.
Like Amy and I, Catarina is also fan of ToDo lists.
The way that I overcome procrastination is that I am a big list writer. If I have thoughts around jobs to do I get them written down and out if my head. That way I feel like my mind relaxes and I know what I am working on.
Well that was a bumper edition of thoughts and suggestions from my panel. I hope you found it as useful as I did?
It would appear that when it comes to productivity (whether perceived or required), the impact it has for everyone on their wellbeing is a big one.
There are many ways you can be more focused and productive online, but during these interviews, three in particular kept cropping up.
The way to be more productive online, can be to ensure you have more time offline. Whether outdoors or indoors, it needs to be away from screens, doing something that reenergises you.
The way to be more productive online can also be to be more organised with your time, irrespective of the software or analog tools you use to keep you on track.
The way to be more productive online, can also be to set up your surroundings to inspire your creativity and support your mindset, whether that’s art on your walls or music in the background.
You don’t have to get caught off guard by the tide of autopilot behaviours that don’t support our health or wellbeing. We can all be more intentional in scheduling time in our calendars for rest, recovery and reflection and time for our relationships that matter.
And if in doubt how any of this might help you, I’d start by following Ed’s advice of putting on a natty shirt and smart shoes before you sit down in your home office. You’d be surprised what a difference a change of clothes can make to getting things done.
In the next episode of this 3rd season, my panel will be sharing thoughts on where they think we may need more help and support, when it comes to managing our work-life cadence in this interesting future we’re heading into.
If you have thoughts about this episode or you have a question relating to productivity, wellbeing or hybrid working, then I’d love to hear from you. You can write to: hello at growthsessions.co.
Thanks for listening. If you’re liking what you’re hearing on Creating Cadence, please give the podcast a 4 or 5 star review via Apple Podcasts. Or you could email me a testimonial. I know it’s a pain, but this all helps other people like you to find the podcast, and you’d have my eternal appreciation.
Until next time, please take care out there. Be brave, think big and keep moving forwards, one step at a time.
Bye for now.
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