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April 2, 2019

Remote Work: A Love/Hate Story

Remote work is on the rise. Here at MetaLab, if you're not working from our Canadian headquarters, you're dialing in remotely from anywhere in the world. Remote culture has always been part of our DNA, and we’re not the only ones (we see you, Trello, Buffer, Dribbble and We Work Remotely!). 

This post is the first from our series, "Making Remote Work Work," where we take a closer look at what remote work means to us and why it’s the most challenging arrangement we could never live without.

Hi. My name is Danielle.

I’m a content strategist at MetaLab. This is a story about assuming I’d hate working remotely, then proving myself wrong. 

I come bearing no buttoned-up, neat-and-tidy conclusion for you to take with you. Because that’s the thing about remote work (and pretty much everything else, if we’re being honest):  it’s not black and white, right or wrong, good or bad. It’s personal. 

I do my best to lay out the benefits and challenges of my experience, but ultimately, the viability of remote work will vary from person to person, context to context. 

So while you’ll be left empty-handed in the absolutes department, you might get inspired to consider how this new way of working may—or may not—work for you. It’s just one perspective, a little food for thought, and the opening of a conversation that we want to have more of with each other, and hopefully, with you, too.

How I got into remote work

When it comes to my career, I’ve always lusted after the professional clarity that doctors, lawyers, and “everybody except me” seemed to possess. 

As a soft-skilled, soft-spoken writer with an uncanny ability to sell herself short, I navigated through the first five years of post-grad not by seeking out what felt fulfilling, but rather by moving away from what didn’t. It proved easier to identify my next career move via this process of elimination while I waited with bated breath for my greater purpose to reveal itself. (Spoiler alert: I’m still waiting). 

To me, working remotely meant trading community for solitary confinement. No, thank you.

However,  it was through this reverse wayfinding that I’m finally getting somewhere, at a company as curious about and invested in personal fulfillment as I am.

When MetaLab popped up on my radar, I had just quit my job at a big tech company in downtown San Francisco. It was the first time I’d left a role without my next one lined up, and to nobody’s surprise, I was terrified. 

What was I doing?  Would anyone ever hire me again?  How was I going to stay relevant without a 9-to-5 job at the epicenter of innovation?  

I craved structure and clarity, not freedom and ambiguity.  But there I was, tumbling into funemployment without any sense of what was next. Enter: MetaLab

They were looking for a content strategist, and a friend and former colleague of mine was helping source potential candidates for the role. She thought I might be interested, and we chatted briefly about the kind of a place MetaLab was, and how closely it resembled the former agency we’d worked at together and still fondly reminisced about. 

Finn: good cuddler, bad collaborator

It sounded good, great, even. Awesome team, interesting work, cool perks. But there was a catch. The company is based in Canada, so I’d have to work remotely. My heart sank. There was no way I could do that. I’m a connector; I thrive off of human interaction and engagement, I need other people to bounce ideas off of, to help me procrastinate, and to keep me on task. 

To me, working remotely meant trading community for solitary confinement. No, thank you. 

Still, I figured it’d be prudent to have the initial screening call just to reassure myself I was right. I’ve never been happier to be wrong. 

The more I learned about the company’s values and outlook on work, the more I wanted to continue with the interview process. Throughout my conversations, my inner dialogue about the remote element was slowly evolving from “I could never!” to “How could I possibly?” to “Maybe I could...” to “It couldn’t hurt to try.” 

So I did. 

And while the offer letter outlined the appealing array of company benefits, the real benefits of what I’d just agreed to were yet to reveal themselves.

Before I ride off into the remote lifestyle sunset, let me stop here for a second. This isn’t my fairytale attempt to convince you that remote work is your cup of tea. In fact, it’s not even my cup of tea every day of the week, and I’ve had many open, honest conversations about that very fact with my remote peers. 

(Because if I weren’t plagued by self-doubt, would I even be a millennial?) 

What this is about, however, is what can happen when you challenge assumptions you’ve made about yourself and explore new configurations of the elusive work/life balance. 

Assumptions vs. Realities

Assumption 1: I wouldn’t feel connected to or able to collaborate with my peers

As with any relationship, particularly of the long-distance variety, communication is paramount. At MetaLab, it’s a non-negotiable, and the mutual support, positivity, and culture of inclusivity permeate infectiously as a result. 

Here’s the thing: there’s no getting around the fact that remote work is characterized by the physical distance between myself and my peers, who are spread out across continents and time zones. I found that the sooner I accepted this new reality, the easier it became to shift my expectations accordingly. 

It’s not about pretending that communication tools like Slack and Zoom can adequately replace the feeling of shared physical space; rather, it’s about  redefining what it means to connect in today’s modern world. Technology has transformed the way we work, so we have to get creative about how to foster meaningful, thoughtful, intentional, virtual connection. 

Plus, it’s 2019, so the ecosystem of communication tools is rapidly evolving to meet the needs of the growing remote work community, both in terms of social fulfillment and effective collaboration. 

Getting festive at our remote Christmas party!

As long as I’m connected to Wifi, I’m also spilling tea, exchanging ideas, providing feedback, collecting input, bonding through GIFs, expressing appreciation, asking questions, and debating whose dog (or human child) is cuter. 

MetaLab also encourages us to speak up when tools aren’t cutting it and take the latest and greatest out for a spin. Regular feedback loops, standing meetings (both all-hands and 1:1s), departmental share-outs, and tools like Donut are also hugely helpful in promoting a consistent sense of community on a more personal level. 

But while I try not to take this always-on virtual community for granted, it can be challenging to set boundaries and separate work from life in a culture that transcends time zones and traditional boundaries. So when the entire company gathers once a year for a remote company retreat, facetime takes on a whole new meaning and value. 

Assumption 2: I wouldn’t take advantage of the flexibility and freedom enough to make it worth it

Not only am I in a long-distance relationship with my employer, but I’m also in one with my partner. I live in San Francisco, and he lives in England. Working remotely means I can visit him whenever works best for the two of us as opposed to what works best for my vacation allowance. 

For me, this shift in thinking has been extremely powerful; the freedom of remote work not only affords me my relationship, but it suddenly renders the world wide open in a way I’ve never experienced before. 

Whether I’m traveling five miles across the city or 5,000 miles across the pond,  the idea that I don’t have to deprioritize my relationships or reverse-engineer them into my work schedule is nothing short of exhilarating. 

A working lunch in Cambridge

I’d grown so accustomed to the physical limitations of showing up to an office every day that, even with six months and thousands of miles under my MetaLab belt, it still feels surreal to move about the world, on my terms, on a weekday, without anyone batting an eyelid. 

Imagine never having to book a “doctor’s appointment” again! Radical, I know. 

As Buffer points out in their annual report on remote work, this shift towards a more enriching relationship between work and life shouldn’t be so radical, considering millennials “value meaningful experiences more than possessions,” but we’ve been conditioned to feel otherwise for a long time. 

I’d always had to work up the courage to request time off, feeling the need to justify my desire to dedicate time to things other than work. Now, in place of guilt trips and jealousy, I get genuine support and enthusiasm for the unique ways in which we each take advantage of our newfound freedom. 

Assumption 3: I wouldn’t have the self-discipline to get any work done

Before this WFH situation starts to sound too good to be true, let’s not lose sight of the fact that with great privilege comes great responsibility. It’s been a privilege to work at MetaLab, and it’s also been a serious reckoning with self-accountability. 

**It challenges you to decriminalize working according to your own routine.

Without the familiar structure and routine that I’d relied on previously, I was left to wrangle my own rhythms of accountability and order out of unbridled freedom. Six months later, I’m very much still wrangling, and it’s involved a lot of experimentation, self-compassion, and self-discipline. 

Unless I have meetings on my calendar, it’s up to me to define how, when, and where the actual work is going to get done. Working from home—or the coffee shop, or the coworking space (or the middle-of-nowhere, England, on occasion)—is all well and good, but wherever I go, the work (and the responsibility to do a good job) comes with.

I’ve implemented certain practical practices to help lend a sense of order and accountability to my day; regular Slack meetings help, as do non-work bookends to the day to spur productivity and effective use of time. However, what’s proven most effective in this trial and error phase have been the squishier practices, like trying on different working hours and relaxing into the lack of surveillance. 

It’s 100% easier said than done, though, and the most persistent negative feeling I’ve had the hardest time shaking is the guilt and self-absorbed paranoia that I’m not doing enough and everyone else is spending their time thinking about it. 

Coffee breaks with Grandma

Bless my kind, patient manager for trying to remind me that this isn’t the case, but it’s definitely difficult to internalize without the standard reality-checking markers I’m used to having around me every day. Granted, my torrid goodie-two-shoes past may be a contributing factor here, but there’s also a reverse-psychology parenting mind trick at play when a group of adults trusts and respects you, then simply asks for the same in return. 

It doesn’t cure procrastination or the powerful lure of the snooze button, but it challenges you to decriminalize working according to your own routine and channel it into holding up your end of the deal—I want to do right by MetaLab because they do right by me.

Assumption 4: My mental health would suffer

Let’s keep the honesty train going, shall we? I’ve struggled with varying degrees of depression, anxiety, and OCD for most of my life, so my hesitation around giving remote work a shot wasn’t just coming from a place of watercooler FOMO. I was legitimately concerned about the toll it would take on my mental health.

Slack isn’t the Rx for the loneliness, but it’s been a sound step in the right direction.

Alone time is a surefire way to invite all the demons into the pool, and it’s complicated by the fact that reaching out for support requires trust, vulnerability, acceptance, and a whole host of other coping skills that take time to develop (especially when you find yourself trying new things with new people). 

I’m fortunate to be able to see (and afford) a therapist I love, and, now, a schedule that allows me to see her in the middle of the workday. I’m also getting to spend more time with family and friends, cultivating deeper relationships and adding a different social dimension to my routine.

So much

I’ve also discovered that when a group of people (in this case, my remote peers) are forced to have their own pool parties of darkness, it facilitates more openness, more quickly. The levels of compassion, vulnerability, and support that I’ve witnessed in our mental health Slack channel have been humbling and heartening. Slack isn’t the Rx for the loneliness, but it’s been a sound step in the right direction. 

As the popularity of remote work grows, it’s become an important forcing mechanism for other companies to further examine and solution around the impact of remote work on mental health. 

Has my mental health suffered as a result of working remotely at MetaLab? Yes, absolutely. 

Has my mental health benefitted as a result of working remotely at MetaLab? Yes, absolutely. 

It’s important to remind myself that every workplace has its pros and cons, but MetaLab’s moral integrity—most clearly demonstrated by its vested interest in creating a supportive environment for their employees around the globe—remains the most admirable and impactful “pro” of my experience thus far. 

Working alone takes a village

The irony in all these lessons on successful solitude is that you can’t do it alone. Ultimately, it takes a village to establish and perpetuate a culture of “we’re in this together-ness” so that a positive remote work experience can take shape.  

The leadership at MetaLab is iterative, experimental, and receptive, and that kind of unrelenting openness permeates throughout. Even our CEO works remotely—talk about leading by example! We don't get it right all the time, but we make sure to keep personal wellbeing squarely at the center of our collective list of priorities. 

Don’t get me wrong: I’m still having to challenge the narrative about what work looks and feels like, and what looks and feels right for me. What I can say, however, is that I’ve never felt so empowered to get curious about my own relationship to the twenty four hours in every day. 

Life’s too short not to.  

Want to give #remotework a go? You're in luck, because we're hiring