— PROLOGUE —
Productive remote work is flexible. So you can work whenever you can. But without the right boundaries, work can overtake your entire life.
And if we don’t rest well, we can’t work well.
Brian works in Tech start-ups, and Lisa is an auditor. They moved in together and soon found out how their work-life boundaries clash. One of them has shaken the 9 to 5 habit, and the other relies on it. They’ll share different views, with similar reasons.
Together, we’ll explore the importance of rest, and learn how working less will give us reliable, innovative work.
— INTRO —
Hey, I’m Maika Hoekman, Head of People Operations at Bunny Studio, and I’m a remote worker.
Welcome to Remote Control: A series that helps you unlock the possibilities of remote work. Together, we’ll find success stories, expert tips, and insights to help you navigate the new office.
Remote Control is brought to you by Bunny Studio. Trusted by more than 50,000 companies every year, Bunny Studio helps businesses scale their creative needs with a vetted crowd of freelancers.
— ACT ONE —
Remote work challenges what we think of as “Business Hours”. The traditional workday. We’ve learned how to get things done wherever, so we’ve started working whenever. To some, always connected has become always available.
But what if the key to better work wasn’t more hours?
When overwork creates problems, rest is the clear solution. And it’s bigger than getting more coffee breaks.
To make your remote team effective, work and rest need to be balanced. We’ve reimagined how we deal with distance, we need to rethink our approach to time. We need to workshop our workday. And that means changing culture and systems to allow rest, and prevent overwork.
Bunny Studio, my company, is built on remote work. We’ve done it for 8 years, and it’s been exciting to pioneer a new way to work. But there’s still so much to learn as industries adapt. And we’re learning that great work doesn’t come from longer weeks, it comes from smarter ones.
I think for all my jobs, I’ve always been on an “always available mode”. I don’t really get burnt out. If I have leftover work I’ll just continue powering through a bunch of work.
During the weekdays I view it as my company’s time. I think the way that people work in Sydney or in Australia is very different from how people in the US. I think the US is very well known throughout the world, where a lot of us are just workaholics. And I actually, haven’t taken a voluntary vacation in a very, very long time.
Brian Ta has worked in the heart of the tech world for many years. He’s been a part of many teams and companies, and he currently works as Product Manager for Angel List.
I think the very first job I ever had in Silicon Valley, I worked as a Marketing Coordinator. That was definitely more like, “oh, you needed to be there”. But once you started moving into an actual tech job, it’s mostly been results-driven. Most people don’t care how many hours you work, what time you came in. If you did what you were assigned to do, then nobody really cared how many hours you worked. So if you wanted to come in late, you want to come in early, you want to stay late, you want to leave early. It doesn’t really matter as long as you finish.
Brian and I moved in towards the beginning of the pandemic. We’ve been together for quite some time, the one thing that we’ve never done of course is kind of have to work in the same space. That’s been an interesting dynamic.
That’s Lisa Yang. She’s an auditor, and Brian is her partner. And even though they’ve reacted differently, they both feel the pressure of availability in remote work.
I think it’s easier to be “on” all the time when we’re at home.
Again, for me personally, it was easy to separate my work life because I was physically in the office, and then being at home all the time, it’s harder to turn off without that physical separation. And I do think that it’s still is fairly common.
If you meet me at work, I’m pretty organized; I always have a plan, I have a structure in my day, but when I’m at home, I’m totally flexible. All the structure is out the door, just roll out of bed and go straight to work.
For me, it’s just hard. If I don’t consciously make an effort to kind of log off of my computer, I do have a tendency to work late into the night.
Overwork isn’t a new issue. Remote work just adds a new challenge. Because a home office, still needs to be a home.
The challenge with remote work is that there’s no natural off switch, most kinds of modern work, there aren’t necessarily obvious external limits or signals that mark the beginning and the end of the day. And it’s not like farming where you stop when the sun goes down or after the field is plowed.
Alex Pang knows a lot about overwork. He’s the founder of a consultancy named “Strategy and Rest”, and has written 3 books on changing cultural, and personal, views on work-life balance.
I study rest in the lives of really creative people. And I help companies take insights from that work and put it into practice in their own lives. And I’m continuing also to track and, study the global movement to shorten the workweek.
It’s very easy for the work to expand, to take up all the space that we give it. We do this work using technologies that let us be always on and therefore create a sense that we should be always on. It becomes increasingly difficult for us to disconnect.
The pressure to let work overtake your life comes from many sources. Those pressures combine, and it adds up.
I think the size of the company, the culture and the number of people has a huge effect on the number of hours you work and whether or not you’re productive, because, I used to work at a tiny start-up, I was employee number seven and, we worked from 8 to 12, basically every single day. We were on all the time, everybody’s working, and even if you weren’t being productive, or those hours weren’t productive for you, you were still working, so, that definitely wasn’t good.
I think a lot of it comes from management. I think the more on your managers are and the less cognizant they are of them messaging you and the downstream effects of that means that it leads us into the work culture that everybody should be working all the time.
Managers can feel the need to be available to their team at all times. And they’re not the only ones that feel it. This pressure affects everyone in an organization.
I truly believe in the tone at the top. Because especially coming in as a new person, you absorb the culture that’s around you and the dynamic that’s around you. So, I think when it comes to these pressures of being always on if it’s kind of like an expectation of you, that’s being communicated through the top, it’s only inevitable that someone who’s only at a staff level, just kind of follows suit.
I think you have that tendency to please everyone, responding as quickly as they can just to please or to impress the managers.
Whether you are a Nobel prize winner, or a famous author, composer, no matter how smart you are, early in your life, you’re stupid about how you work.
You know, you assume that you can do it all, that it’s all just a matter of stamina and tolerance for caffeine and kind of just raw genius.
And everybody learns about the importance of balance and rest the hard way. I think if you are in your thirties or, getting up to 40 and you’re realizing ‘my body can’t take this any longer.’ This is actually kind of stupid now…
Workers adjust their habits to company culture. So when the pressure to overwork becomes a culture of overwork, that culture needs correcting.
Find out how after the break.
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— ACT TWO —
Fundamentally, people who love what they do, who are really invested in it, need a chance to get away from it. Need a chance to renew the mental and physical energy that they spend doing that work. It’s not something that comes at the cost of your work, but rather as something that will improve your work.
We don’t get enough rest. It’s a problem with an obvious solution. But using that solution can be difficult. Because when there’s no shortage of things to do, rest feels hard.
And when people take their work home, the responsibilities follow.
In both, the short and the long run, it’s actually pretty terrible for people. We get a charge from the sense of engagement that comes from being constantly connected. But there are serious downsides to both of those.
And I think that we are going to overwork, that we’re going to suffer burnout, and for organizations, what that means is higher levels of absenteeism, lower levels of productivity over the long run. Less engaged, less creative people, and even sometimes people who are more likely to cut ethical corners or to cheat.
Those are the downsides that flow from a kind of uncontrolled, unconstrained, always-on sort of work environment.
We need to consider the right structures for the right environment. And the remote work environment leans heavily toward flexibility.
I think flexibility is, by far, the biggest positive of working remotely.
The ability to just work when I’m feeling productive is quite helpful. And top of that, just knowing that if I’m having an off day, that my coworkers are fine, understand, whereas having to go into the office and doing all this stuff when I’m not feeling a hundred percent, it’s terrible.
Just holding yourself accountable, and your company trusting you to do the right thing has been huge.
I rest as needed, if I told myself I’m going to stop at 6:00 PM and just do a hard stop every single day, I don’t think it would be that effective. Basically, I can work the entire day between when I wake up until I go to sleep. So if I’m not super effective during the day, then I’ll just power through the night or just I’ll hop on a video call at night.
Brian thinks the freedom of flexibility gives space for him to rest. For someone else, that space can look completely different.
So, it isn’t always clear… Do workers prefer Flexibility or Structure?
Lisa met with me before she was ‘Hey,’ she asked this exact question. I was ‘Dude, flexibility. Why the hell would I want struc-‘ she’s like, ‘Oh, that’s dumb. I want structure.’
My productivity is very spiky. If I have to do a long sustained period of effectiveness, that’s when it’s really draining. And I can’t keep up that level of focus for that long, just because high output means that my brain is churning the entire time, and I’m not used to using my brain very much.
For me, I’d say I lean more towards the structured end of things. I need to give myself a mental cutoff. Otherwise, I will just be working for who knows how long. If I’m flexible and I say, ‘Oh, I’ll work a couple of hours here. I’ll work a couple of hours there,’ there’s no routine in my day at all, I’ll work into lunch, I don’t go outside at all. So setting those structured boundaries is pretty important to me.
I can work pretty long without taking a break, I’d say four to six hours and I’d say I’m pretty productive. I don’t listen to music while I work. I like it completely silent just so that I can focus. So, I’d say that’s abnormal.
These are reactive approaches to rest. And they depend on workers knowing their own boundaries. That’s why organizations at the forefront are being proactive about rest.
One company founder told me that ‘These days in my company, I’m not impressed by people who work 12 hour days. Anybody can sit in a chair for 12 hours. What impresses me is the person who can get that same work done in six hours, who has control over their time, who knows how to get this stuff done and can do it, and deliver, and get out of there.’
Taking more control over your time is essential to set and enforce those boundaries for ourselves, and how we can begin and end the workday.
Alex is a champion of the 4 day-work-week. With three books he’s written on the subject, he knows it’s a radical approach, but making it work promises huge benefits: employee retention, better work, and get 4 days’ worth done in 5.
It’s a decisive step to make space for rest. One that other companies are moving towards.
The company has a pretty big effect on how hard you are working. And I think Angel List is actually a really good example of this. So when we all first started doing remote, the company is very cognizant of how badly people can burn out. Basically, the feedback after the first three months or after the quarter, was that we are all working way too hard.
Everybody was sprinting. This is a marathon, it’s not a race. And the work-life balance was completely out of whack. So they implemented a mandatory one-week vacation for everybody.
So everybody had an entire week off. In the summer, every single Friday was a half-day. Then you were allowed to take off early. And almost everybody took those half days off.
My director is so good at turning off. He’s been with the firm for 10 years, he has a family. So he’s really good at saying, “OK, I have to leave at five, but I’ll find back on at nine”.
He just knows where his priorities are, and, somehow he still manages to get things done, or if he doesn’t think he’ll get them done himself, then he’ll delegate downwards.
There’s a reason that experienced managers value rest. It’s about understanding. Understanding that organizations are running marathons, not sprints.
While we think that scale and speed are all important, platforms often take 10 years to develop.
If you are a company where people stay an average of five years, you’re going to be lucky, first of all, for the company to survive 10, but you’re going to have a second or third generation of developers trying to realize the vision for this platform.
If you construct a working environment and a workday that is more supportive of people, then you can still have that original team working on it in year 10.
Even in places where we think speed is all-important, It can be just one factor in the success of the enterprise and the success of the product.
The four-day week offers an opportunity for you to prove that you actually can do things better in a way that also makes your own life more sustainable.
— ACT THREE —
Bold organizations are rising to the challenge of rethinking the workday. Those are old habits, though. And the time-honored 9-5 isn’t an easy habit to shake, even from the comfort of your own home.
That’s the hardest part, being able to set really strong boundaries for yourself. I actually talked to my manager, who’s now the COO. And I was like, ‘Hey, I’m having a lot of trouble defining boundaries. How do I go and fix this?’
Angel List was actually really nice about it. They started a Slack channel called Work From Home Tips. It was like the most popular channel at the company, cause people were just talking about the struggles that they had working from home.
We obviously had coworkers that had been remote the entire time. They were trying to help people figure out what the boundaries were.
If you’re looking for a job during a pandemic, you should really find out what the culture is like.
Lack of guidance is a major barrier to planning a workday, it’s why culture can override rest. Work culture isn’t alone. When it comes to getting enough rest, we can be our own worst enemies.
I personally don’t think I am very good at separating work and life. For me, I’m just in a stage in my life where I put work as a priority. My career is number one at the moment. So sometimes that kind of pushes my personal life aside.
Some of it is infrastructure because you’ve got schools and governments and other industries that are designed around five-day weeks. And so figuring out how to be a four-day company and a five-day world can present some challenges and figuring out how to design a rhythm that really works, can require some creativity.
It’s one thing to hear about Swedish companies that are moving to six-hour days, you might as well be talking about the elves in Middle Earth. It’s this beautiful foreign land, but it’s so different. We can’t learn anything from it.
I think that everyone is worried at the outset about how clients are going to respond, and quite rightly so.
Clients turn out to be some of the biggest supporters of the four-day week when it’s clear that you’re not going to be sacrificing quality, you’re not going to be slipping on deadlines. Clients get excited because they have the same issues about work-life balance and recruitment and retention, and overwork and burnout that you’re dealing with.
It’s helpful to ask ourselves: What are we moving towards?
Because finding the right balance means knowing what our ideal outcome looks like.
I think taking that break and thinking about something else, I think really changes your mindset, and then you can come back to it with a fresh set of eyes. I don’t mind working longer hours Monday through Thursday if that means I can have Friday off.
You have an objective, take whatever hours you need, and order to get it done is basically my ideal workweek.
Whether or not I want to wake up early or stay up late or, skip a day of work. I don’t think it particularly matters as long as I’m actually able to get the tasks done. So that’s kind of what I look for whenever I’m working.
We’ve held onto outdated ideas of work, and the data doesn’t stack up.
Reliable, innovative work? That comes from well-rested workers. Not long nights stretched thin at the office.
There’s no need for these bad habits to follow us into the office of the future. Whatever shape these boundaries take, be they unscheduled lunch breaks, or a 4 day week, it’s clear the workday is changing.
Because the sustainability of your company comes from your workers. And great work comes from good rest.
The biggest obstacles often are cultural. Overwork in so many professions and industries is taken either as natural or inevitable or as a sign of personal commitment and passion. And I think abandoning that idea is just an incredible challenge.
Moving from imagining a world in which your commitment and your productivity is measured as a function of how much time you spend at work, to a world in which you put a greater value on your own time and your colleague’s time. That’s a kind of mental shift that requires unlearning a whole bunch of things that we learned pretty early, that we’ve never really had to challenge.
Those kinds of unspoken assumptions, unquestioned ones that are just part of the culture are often the most difficult ones to unlearn. Before people are smart about the value of rest in their professional lives and the value of rest as a creative wellspring, they’ve gotta be dumb about it.
— OUTRO —
Thanks for listening to Remote Control: A series helping you navigate the exciting possibilities of remote work.
Remote Control is brought to you by Bunny Studio. Trusted by more than 50,000 companies every year, Bunny Studio helps businesses scale their creative needs with a vetted crowd of freelancers.
Find great video creators, voice over artists, designers, writers, and more at bunnystudio.com
If you liked this episode, please share this with someone that would find this of interest. And while you’re at it don’t forget to subscribe, rate, and review on whatever app you use to listen.
This episode was produced in collaboration with Bunny Studio and Pod Paste in Sydney, Australia.
- Executive Produced by Daren Lake
- Written and Produced by Aidan Molins
- Audio Production, Sound Design, and Engineering by Aemyn Connolly
- Podcast management by Michelle Le
- Supervising Editor – Mike Williams
- Assistant Storywriter – Charles Montano
You can check out all of our amazing guests who helped make this episode great:
- Brian Ta, Product Manager at Angel List
- Lisa Yang, auditor
- Alex Pang, founder of Strategy and Rest