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7 Observations (I Didn’t Expect) From a WFH World

At the time of this post, my team has spent more of 2020 in mandatory WFH (work from home) than in-office. Right away, there were a few predictable challenges that came as little surprise to anyone; balancing kids at home while working; onboarding new employees remotely and missing the interaction with my co-workers. Keeping everyone on the team closely aligned and engaged takes extra effort. These types of things I might have predicted would be issues, and for the most part still bare true. What I didn’t expect are some of the benefits that have come along as well. 

Here are my Top 7 observations 


1. Not being constrained by conference rooms

At most companies (including ours) availability of conferences rooms (especially desirable ones) during peak times is a challenge. With an entirely WFH environment, teams suddenly aren’t hunting for conference rooms or adjusting schedules based on when they become free. When we want to meet, we all hop onto a video conference call with little to no friction and we’re off and running. Those precious minutes and sense of freedom actually make a big difference.

2. We learned more about our co-workers personal lives

We used to ask our coworkers questions around the coffee machine such as “how’s your day going” or “how’s your family doing?” Now we’re seeing how they are doing. We see their houses, kids and pets moving around in the background. My team isn’t worried about making everything look buttoned up behind them. They understand this is a new normal and it’s okay for everyone to see a little chaos behind them now and again. I’ve gotten to know my co-workers better than I did before. I remember the names of their spouses and kids because I'm actually seeing them each week, not just once a year at a holiday party.

3. Co-workers without kids had challenges I didn’t anticipate  

It was a fairly obvious prediction that parents would have challenges balancing the needs of work when their kids are suddenly home all day and craving attention. What I didn’t understand and appreciate early on is that co-workers without spouses or kids would have their own set of unique challenges. Being distraction free sounds great in theory, but the distractions of a spouse or kids often can help reset your brain when you need a break. Kids often wake up around the same time each day and eat meals around the same time each day, meaning parents have a built-in defined routine. 

The co-workers on their own often kept working late into the evening or coming back to work throughout the evening, if nothing else because they were bored. Without a clear boundary ending their day, they were slowly burning themselves out. 

One method our team started to counteract this blending of time without boundaries, was setting an end time for the day by physically packing up your laptop. It may seem silly to pack up when you’re not going anywhere, but there is a sense of peace knowing that part of your day is done and reinforcing it with that simple action.

4. Social interactions and equality evolved

Think about the dynamics of a team out at a restaurant together for a social lunch or happy hour. Some people are at the ends of the tables and others are in the middle spots. Some people create sub-conversations with the person next to them. Many conversations can develop at once, leaving some people out.

Now, think of a virtual happy hour during quarantine. Each person’s video is allotted the same amount of size on the screen. Only one conversation can happen at a time. Suddenly we’re all on the same level. We see and hear the same things. There’s a sense of togetherness when we share such a common experience.

5. Productivity didn’t drop

Our teams operate in two week sprints. I wasn’t sure if measurable outcomes from our sprints would go up or down in a mandatory WFH world. I was surprised by how consistent they performed compared to when we were all in the office. Analyzing data only, you would have no idea such a large change had happened with our teams. Will that continue? Only more time and experience will tell us that. 

We saw some teams start to have their first minor drop in measurable outcomes in sprints after 2 months. It was easy to see temporary burnout had started to set in for many of the team members from being home so much. We’re fortunate that Cisco started to see this and has since given our employees two extra holiday days off to help team members recharge in the middle of this new normal and encouraged us to take time off as needed. Their family first approach is comforting.

6. We’ve become less self conscious about schedules

There probably isn’t an employee out there that hasn’t needed to leave work early for a day and wondered if anyone was judging them while they packed up and others continued to work. A change I noticed happening during mandatory WFH is that team members started embracing their unique schedules. People seemed less self conscious of taking off time in the middle of the day or ending their day early. Why is that? 

I would argue, it’s because we don’t have a choice and everyone knows it. We need to take care of our kids, take mental breaks, and our spouses are trying to work in the same house as well, etc. I find it refreshing that we’ve embraced flexible schedules and more fully trust that we’re all getting the job done — even if we can’t see each other physically next to us.

7. No one got left out of the conversation

Hallway conversations and water cooler chats are one of the hardest things for a remote employee to overcome when the rest of their team is co-located. With everyone WFH that problem is not prevalent. When our team members want to talk they send chat messages in a public channel or launch a video chat that anyone can join. In many ways communication amongst the team is easier, not harder as I would have expected before all of this.

Where to go from here

Our next step in this giant unexpected social experiment is what happens when some of us go back to the office and some of us stay remote. That setup is what many of us used to consider normal. 

Will we find it easier or more challenging? Will we revert to our old ways? Will we remember the positives and find ways to replicate them in a hybrid environment? 

Maybe we can all borrow a piece of the Agile methodology and hold retrospectives with our teams to ensure this period of time results in meaningful change for the better. We can work as a team to create a list of what went well during this WFH stretch, what didn’t go so well, and define ideas the team can experiment implementing. 

Overall, what I have learned from this new way of working is that this is an opportunity to treat this moment in time not as an inconvenience but a chance to grow as a team.


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