CHATS WITH CARA | Work From Home Tips with Aarti Virani

August 10, 2020

Tips and Tricks for Working From Home

Each week, Family Promise’s Chief Impact Officer, Cara Bradshaw, is joined on Instagram Live by a conversation partner to talk about topics impacting the Family Promise network, our guests, and supporters. Learn more by following Family Promise on Instagram.

In this episode from earlier this spring, Cara talks with Aarti Virani, a freelance arts and culture writer, about her tips for working from home.

A full transcript is available below. 

Work From Home Tips with Aarti Virani

Cara Bradshaw:  Thank you, everyone, for waiting. So, Aarti Virani is my guest today and she is a freelance art and culture writer. So, she has a lot of experience working from home in all sorts of different conditions over the past few years.

Aarti Virani:  Exactly

Cara:  Yeah, great. So when we met at the New School in graduate school, we were in the global studies class. It kind of seems like yesterday.

Aarti: Yeah it was probably the best kind of accidental meeting. How often do you end up sitting next to somebody that you’re going to be friends with for ten years afterward.

Cara:  I was actually part-time working for Family Promise and part-time writing for the newspaper, so I kind of had like several gigs at that time in grad school. And I think you were writing as well?

Aarti:  I think I was at Metro. Yeah, I was doing an internship at Metro. So for that, I was entirely in a pretty traditional office setting.

I would say the working from home part of it for me started really probably almost two years after grad school. I worked at a magazine for a year right after graduating and realized that, you know, I wanted to write and I wasn’t actually getting to write at a magazine, which is ironic. But, that’s just the way the flow was there and so, yeah, 2011 was the year I kind of switched to working from my dining table.

Cara:  Yeah, we both had, over the last 10 years, different kind of work configurations. I’ve had full-time work from home. I’ve had a hybrid of home office, out kind of covering stuff for the newspaper or doing events. And I feel like each one has its benefits and its challenges, right? Like the office provides some really nice structure, some separation between your home life and your work life. There can also be different levels of distraction in each kind of place. What do you find are some of the pros and cons of working from home?

Aarti:  Yeah, I think ideally, as you said, the hybrid situation is sort of the goal, but for the moment we’re all at home. And I think some of the obvious pros are kind of like just being able to cut out a lot of the fluff. You know, you don’t have to deal with the small talk that comes along with being in an office or people’s, you know, idiosyncrasies and quirks which are good and bad.

Honestly, I think it also makes you a more proactive person when you are kind of the only person at your desk and doing your job. I think in an office setting, it’s really easy to kind of pop by somebody’s desk if you have questions about whatever tech issue or a layout issue in my case, but I think when you’re the kind of only one at it, it does make you much more resourceful so that’s a huge pro.

I think another pro, and this is strictly pre-COVID, because I don’t have this anymore, is that I could really kind of turn my dedicated workspace into a sanctuary. There was nothing else interrupting me. It was quiet. When I sat at my desk, I knew I was here to write. I miss that single-track focus.

Cara:  Yeah, suddenly we have almost like some of the downsides of the office. The things I love about the office are, what you mentioned, where you can pop into someone’s office and they can pop into yours. Naural sharing of ideas, the workflow, the brainstorming that happens can be really hard to create in a virtual environment. It doesn’t work quite so well on Zoom. I tried to have open office hours like to kind of mimic what I would do in an office, but it’s not the same.

Yeah, home with COVID , it’s like you have the distractions that you would have in an office, but you have kind of lost your quiet workspace either way.

The first few weeks I really found myself missing my office because I have that nice hybrid flow and I even went once or twice and no one was there and was like, “well, it’s quiet here, but I miss all the people.”

Aarti:  Yeah, I think we also tend to get very protective of our kind of sacred spaces of work, right? So, I, all of a sudden, went from having this room to myself from the hours of 9 to 3 every day to having to share with my husband and my three-year-old. It took a few weeks of getting used to and I can’t actually say that we have it down, but we’re definitely in a better place than we were when this whole thing started.

Cara:  What were some of the things you did pre-COVID to structure your time to get yourself ready for the day or to plan out your week and to find that balance?

Aarti:  I think, and a lot of people who work from home will probably find this, getting up and getting ready for the day is a must. It puts you in the mindset of just getting to work and I think a lot of people have that misconception that just because you work from home you’re typing away in your sweats or whatever. I find that to be a bad idea because it doesn’t get you in the headspace that you need.

Also, I think it’s really tempting to get sucked into the home vortex of unfinished to-do’s, like dishes. I find that it’s just really helpful to be able to shut the door and not worry about that and really kind of give your workspace the respect it deserves as a workspace even if it is in your home. I think those things have kind of been things I’ve tried to practice from the get-go since going freelance. To kind of play devil’s advocate, obviously, you’re home, so you’re not going to completely shut out a chore you’ve been putting off for weeks or something.

I think we all have moments of not feeling productive. It’s often like just being weighed down by like the sheer gravity of the situation around us right now. And I know that when I’m having that sort of a block while working, I like to kind of shake things up in a sense. I’ll get a bite-sized workout in or maybe even reach out to a family member that I haven’t gotten a chance to get in touch with for a few weeks or a few days. That goes an especially long way right now. I think it can be just the sort of confidence booster you need to get back to work mode feeling good and feeling like, “I got this,” because a lot of this stuff can be mental. I think sometimes we just need little reminders of the fact that we are useful in other ways. We just need to be able to translate that usefulness back into like an email we can’t compose or a sentence we’re stuck on.

What do you find that works for you?

Cara:  Yeah, I’m still trying to figure that out because it’s been a long time since I’ve been full-time work from home and when I was, I didn’t have as many things going on in my house as I do now. I could structure my time to go to a library or a cafe or sit somewhere else. So I wasn’t in an office setting but there were other people around. You’re out of the house, but you still have that private space and now we really can’t do that. There are;t those open spaces.

So, I’m trying to figure out the best ways to structure my time, and some days I definitely want it to feel more like that traditional nine-to-five. I want to get up and take my dog for a walk, have a nice cup of tea, then get on email and shut everything else out. And other days it actually feels better to structure it with breaks in the middle. It’s kind of just happening by chance right now depending on what Zoom meetings I have set up. But I don’t love it when the workday stretches for 12 plus hours even if there are breaks in the middle. It is actually kind of nice to have distinct chunks, but I do like what you said. It is nice to be able to say, ifyou have a half-hour between calls, I can finish the laundry and do the dishes. I can take a walk outside. I do like having that flexibility.

I just think in the current time right now with everyone home, everyone needing meals, that’s just added a whole new layer of complication to things. I think, for people who haven’t worked from home before, the idea of working from home right now isn’t fun, but it’s not usually this hard.

Aarti:  No, it’s definitely usually not this hard. Don’t take this as a regular working from home situation by any means.

I think in terms of other practical things someone can be doing, there’s a lot of talk about meal prepping and how it’s like saving lives and I think you can kind of take that meal prep mindset to your workweek especially if you are sharing a space with a partner or you have kids. Taking that Sunday afternoon or evening, my husband and I sit down and compare calendars and kind of plot out who’s going to be the on-call parent.

It’s so strange that even when you have things that are like running like clockwork. Just today, for example, my son takes a nap religiously. Usually every day between two and three he’s out. He needs to recharge. Well, guess what? Today he didn’t and because we are really strict enforcers of having one parent on call, it didn’t send us into panic mode because, had just counted on that nap and Raj had taken his call and I had taken mine, we would have been in a really different situation.

I think you kind of have to appoint somebody to be the put-out-the-fire person.

Cara:  I know dozens of families with children at home, which I know a lot of our Affiliate staff and directors are in that situation. They are trying to deal with families that need services but at the same time, they’re home with their kids needing a snack. So, it’s like a whole new level of things to juggle.

Aarti:  Totally. A lot has been written about this, but I think it’s also about recalibrating our definitions of productivity. I mean there’s no way anybody should be expecting to be churning out exactly what they were doing pre-lockdown. I mean, that’s an unreasonable expectation to put on yourself. I know a lot of people who are kind of reassessing who they’re working for based on their reactions to pandemic life.

So, that’s kind of a harsh thing to have to face, but listen it’s important to know where your employer stands on that right?

Cara: I mean, I’ve heard horror stories of people’s employers still expecting them to come to the office, when or how they are on call, and certain micromanaging tendencies. That’s so ineffective. Obviously you need to have the tech infrastructure setup to have everyone virtual, but you need to have leadership that trusts that the team can get things done, that you have certain checkpoints.

That’s something we’ve been learning at Family Promise that our national office was actually pretty equipped to be in this situation and I feel really lucky that we weren’t kind of scrambling to figure out how to all work from home. It’s gone pretty well.

Aarti:  I mean the company has family in it’s very DNA, right? You guys are kind of the leaders in that space, I think.

Cara:  Luckily we have a really great work-life balance and a lot of understanding of people who have small children who need to pick up their kids from school and want to stagger their hours or work from home on certain days when they don’t have a spouse to cover childcare. We have a really flexible way and even just being able to structure our time so that, before COVID-19, I was in the office three days a week and then I had two days of work from home.

It was just a perfect way to kind of balance of the way I like to work. It’s great being able to have those brainstorming sessions in in-person meetings and be there with the team and then other days being able to be home and be more project focused and get through my to-do list. I really enjoy that and I do miss the office camaraderie right now, but we have fun things on Zoom. Everyone needs something to laugh about and I think if you work in an office environment you can translate that kind of fun to the virtual workspace.

Aarti:  That’s pretty cool. Would you say that that kind of willingness to adapt and evolve those things had to kind of be there before? Like a company should have been experienced in all of this [prior to the pandemic] to be successful now? Then it’s not all of a sudden a new skillset that they’re trying to acquire in a pretty stressful time.

Cara:  I think it’d be very challenging if you had a manager who wasn’t trusting of employees working from home or questioned what they’re doing with their time or where the technology wasn’t set up or even just the communication. You need the ability to know how frequently you need to check with people. The email volume can get out of control really quickly if you’re not used to working from home or don’t have a project management system.

So, I think you’re definitely better suited if you have that kind of office culture already to have more flexibility for people and not just have it be a clock in clock out kind of mentality. I just think it probably made this a little smoother.

Aarti:  It definitely sounds like you’re in a good place. I mean, for all of this talk of bringing your whole self to work and being authentic, it has to be a two-way thing. I mean your employer has to be just as accepting of your whole self as you are.

Cara:  Especially when you’re on a Zoom with a corporate partner and your dog comes flying across the screen!

It definitely helps when you’re not feeling like you’re under the gun for whatever is going on at home and when people are aware. We’ve been staging our house and trying to get it ready to sell and sometimes like a call will pop up. And I’m like OK, I’m not going on Zoom because I’m trying to panic clean my house and, you know, it’s OK to be able to say that. You can have a life outside of work and everyone understands. You’re going to get the job done. You’re still going to communicate with people but other things are going to happen and that was already the culture before COVID so there was already a lot of understanding and flexibility with people’s regular lives. It’s made it much easier to do it.

Aarti:  You know, I’m thinking about that BBC video about the father on a news show. Do you think it would be as striking now as it was three years ago?

Cara:  No. Sometimes I’m doing something like this and someone yells like, “Who ate the last of the goldfish?” I just have to mute myself.

Aarti:  The funny this is people, pre-COVID, were doing that sort of mental juggling anyway, right? So maybe one of the silver linings of this situation is that what was happening mentally is manifesting itself like on Zoom calls and people who may not have had empathy are realizing like, “oh my gosh, he’s got a lot on his plate,” or “she’s got a lot on her plate.” People are actually seeing what they juggling looks like.

Cara:  Yeah, it’s unfortunate how long so many people have been forced to like really separate their professional and personal identities to the point that it can just feel so separate. I know some people like that, but I personally like it when there is a nice mesh.

We don’t need to be getting drinks every night after work, but you should know what’s going on and you should feel comfortable and know people’s significant other’s names. And if someone has someone in their family pass away, there should be the ability to say, “what do you need?”

I just think that we spend so much of our time with our colleagues that it should feel good and comfortable and not like a job all the time.

Aarti:  Yeah, it’s funny when you mention that people feel like they have to have this massive divide between their personal selves and their professional selves. I think that when this whole thing started there was some chatter about people kind of discovering what their partners work voices sounded like.

Some people were like, “oh it turns out I’m married to a circle back guy or married to like the I’ll ping you later guy.”  It’s just like this stuff we’ve never heard our partner say.

I think it’ll also be interesting to see how flexibility changes after this, how much more flexibility people will bring to their jobs as a result of having gotten through this.

Cara:  Yeah, I think in the end it’ll be a benefit for people, you know the idea of flexibility and allowing people to have different work styles and sort out how they want to work best. I think if people can feel comfortable, safe, and happy to come to work, then productivity happens. That has to be the groundwork. But if you’re just like, “we have to be as productive as possible,” and you’re always just pushing toward whatever results-oriented thing you have, people just feel pressured. And that’s where I think it reduces productivity.

Aarti:  I hate to reach for a kind of cheesy example but it’s kind of like, “what is your work love language?” Like everybody has different ones so it’ll maybe heighten awareness for what brings out the best in different kinds of people.

Cara:  Definitely. And I know all the introverts in our office have been like, “woo hoo!” I mean Zoom is not the best thing. Full-time Zooming is even harder. It’s really exhausting.

Aarti:  But I think this is a whole new extreme because not they don’t have a choice. I think that that’s at the heart of it, right? Like, I have a choice whether I want to be around people or not. When anything’s kind of forced as it is now, it has a different effect.

Cara:  Agreed. I think that maybe that’s where a lot of employers will land: the freedom and choice of when they work from home. Why do we need to be in an office? It should be used for collaborative stuff. You don’t need to just put people in there and section them off. And I’m not necessarily advocating for cubicles versus open, but the idea that people show up and just get behind their computer and do this in the same space.

Aarti:  I remember a huge part of the reason I decided to go freelance in the first place was, and I can really only speak about magazine office culture, but the one thing that always struck me was this insistence on face time. Like your editor or your manager has to see you sitting at that desk regardless of whether you have not a darn thing on your to-do list that day.

Because of the nature of the publishing cycle in the magazine world, you can have a humdrum week followed by just like a crazy, all-nighter sort of week. That’s just the nature of the business and I remember wondering why I couldn’t devote time to sort out things that would help me kind of fuel up for those harder manic weeks on the weeks where things were slow.

That was many many years ago, but that just felt so antiquated to me, that system. Give me the kind of fuel I need to be able to give 150% on the weeks that are crazy.

Cara:  I think this crisis might help push forward a kind of new thinking on what it means to be a workforce, what it means to work, what people need. I’m hoping some good things come out of it. Actually, I love to be a part of that conversation because I just think I’ve worked in so many office environments and work from home. Honestly, to me, it always comes down to who is in charge and what management is setting as an example. If people are expected to be there 12 hours a day, are expected to clock in and clock out, or are expected to be checking email from home all the time, then the precedent is set. It really makes a difference in terms of a positive work environment.

Aarti:  You know, I meant to ask, just because I’ve been asking a lot of my friends, but what has been sort of your top cringe Zoom moment?

Cara:  It’s definitely people walking in and yelling absurd questions and not realizing I am on Zoom and a lot of the time I have been muted but they see my face. It’s usually food-related and it’s usually someone like barging into a room asking for something or it’s my dog barking at me to take him for a walk when I’m right in the middle of a Zoom and can’t.

I do think that sometimes Zooms are tough because you really do have to be engaging and I tend to be a good multitasker so I kind of want to be able to listen in on a call and like fold my laundry, but you can’t do that on Zoom.

Aarti:  Absolutely. I think there’s actually like this proven thing where the sales of shirts for a company — they’re selling way more tops than bottoms because people are dressing for Zoom.

Cara:  Well, anyone who’s still on and has questions related to work from home things or tips that you want to hear? We are happy to chat on those for a few minutes.

Aarti: Please pick our brains.

Well, maybe I’ll ask you one. I know you’ve talked about just being able to establish boundaries and having some sort of fixed time for the end of the day so you’re not addressing emails at 11 PM. Do you have anything you’ve put into place to ensure that?

Cara:  So I’ve been trying to cut off email at a certain time and I did that before, too, even though I worked at the office. Sometimes I would leave the office at 4:30 because I wanted to go for a bike ride or I wanted to do something during daylight. Then I would log back on.

But, if it’s too close to when I go to bed, I can’t sleep because it is still in my head. And I like to have dinnertime separation. I have not been great about it during COVID. There’s just so many urgent things and typically I like to be off before 7 PM. Or if I do take a break and need to go do something else and then get back online, I try to limit it to less than an hour.

Aarti:  We got a question while we were chatting from Moniza.

Cara:  She asked, “how would you manage boundaries and people you live with?”

I also got some questions submitted in the question app.

Aarti:  Managing boundaries. I think we touched on that briefly earlier. I sit down with my husband every Sunday to be like, “here are my non-negotiables for the week.” I tell him I have a Zoom call with Cara or whatever it is and we really map out what’s important well in advance to the extent that we can. This way you get your uninterrupted time.  We communicate everything basically and that’s really helped for me.

Cara:  That’s a really good one. I have not been doing that and I think that it’s caused a lot of challenges and it feels like we are scrambling every day. We obviously don’t have a young child in the house, but we have two young men in the house and also a dog, so it’d be helpful.

I think mapping it out for the week is really good and just having that refresher each day to kind of like check-in each day.

Aarti:  Check-in at the breakfast table and say, “here’s what’s happening.”

Cara: Someone asked, what is your daily schedule?

I tend to always want some quiet time in the morning, like get up, have a cup of tea and sit on the couch. Maurey and I will often have a chat. We both have the tendency of waking up in the middle of the night and looking at our feeds, so in the morning we will often like recap something that we’ve seen in the news, which is obviously not the healthiest tendency to be looking at in the middle of the night. But in the morning we tend to have those coffee chats and tea chats, take the dog for a walk, and then I’ll dive in.

Then I usually have back-to-back meetings throughout the day, but when I have little breaks I will always try to like stretch or go outside for a walk. If it’s sunny, sit in the sun.

Luckily, a lot of our stuff has quieted down. At first, it was like 12-15 hours a day. Now we’re getting more of a normal flow so I have my evenings back. I definitely try to disconnect in the evenings and not have so much screen time since during the day I am staring at my screen constantly.

Aarti:  That’s so important.

Cara:  What is yours like?

Aarti:  We’ve finally got a little bit of a rhythm going.

I have the luxury of working part-time right now, which I’m so grateful for. So, what ends up happening is I have three solid days a week where I get half a day’s work in. That’s kind of like what’s working for us right now.

That means that all morning, I’m with our son. We’re homeschooling to the best of our abilities, which can have mixed results. Usually, that stops right after lunch for me on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. So from 2 until 6, I have that stretch to work. It’s also been really tricky to ask for the time I need. It’s not like I have any reservations asking but I try to think about, “OK, how much time do I actually need to get through what I actually need to do?” Being able to put like a solid number on it helps a lot. That’s been kind of the rhythm. The Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’m with my son all day. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are the days that I get to work.

Cara:  We’ve got some other questions in the private messenger. So what’s the number one thing you could tell managers who might be managing remote workers for the first time?

I personally think that if people aren’t used to working from home, give them some ideas to get themselves set up for success, but don’t be super micromanage-y. I think the tendency is to want to know what everyone’s working on, which is easy when you’re in an office setting. So if managers are used to being able to like pop by and check in with people and say, “do you think you’re going to have this to me by noon,” having that translate to email or virtual can make people insane.

I do think that if you have a tendency to micromanage in the office, you’re going to have a tendency to do it when working remotely. I think give people space, especially if you have a good workforce and a good team that you trust.

I’m super lucky to have that. People are on their game. I don’t have to worry about it. It’s just a matter of having the right amount of ability to talk to each other without it feeling like people are constantly having to report in on what they’re doing. It takes a lot of time for people if they’re having to do something and then also tell you that they are doing it.

I think it is good to have minimal check-ins to keep everyone on the same page.

There’s another question, which I think would be good for you, Aarti. So, what are your recommendations for creating that sacred space and living in a smaller apartment? So, if you are working in your kitchen or a shared space, how do you set that up?

Aarti:  I’m apartment living, so I totally get it.

I think if you’re in a place where you can, ask for space when you really need to have an uninterrupted focus, If you’re in a situation with a child, for example, you can ask your partner to take your child our for a walk or drive even in these times, just so that you can get that me-time. I think that is always possible.

That’s one extreme way to do it. Another is, just simple things like tuning out with your Air Pods or whatever, just having that barrier. I know some parents with older kids have had some luck with getting the children to make signs. They participate in the process of like actually making signs like, “here’s an option for snacks,” or speaking of snacks, “here’s what you can have.”

Just don’t be afraid to ask for things. I think a lot of times, especially I think for women, it can be hard to ask for things. But I think this is one of those situations where you absolutely cannot hold back and never assume that somebody else, even if it is your partner, is going to know exactly what you need.

Cara:  One thing I love doing is creating space. You can have items in that area, maybe a candle or a scent or a picture or a cozy pillow, that helps. Even if it’s not your desk, you can try to make your space cozy and warm.

Cara:  So the last question is about avoiding Zoom fatigue. And boy, do I wish I knew the answer to that, but definitely take breaks. I’m starting to make sure that when we don’t have to have a meeting be on Zoom, have a call.

Aarti:  This is only possible in a certain situation, but if you can, go outside and basically have a walking meeting. I guess that really only works in a one-on-one situation, but take advantage of that when you can. It will do wonders for your Zoom fatigue.

Cara:  I actually sit by a window when I’m Zooming and during Zoom kind of take a break and look at the clouds.

I love this: Kristi says, “I call my bedroom my woman cave and go there as I am able. I live with and care for my grandchildren when their parents are at work. My woman cave is essential!”

I think that is huge.

Aarti:  She touches on a really good point which is that it’s not always about your work setting, it’s also about how you recharge after working hours. I think in those moments, especially if you have a partner you are living with, it’s OK to be selfish and get what you need to recharge during those moments of non-work time.

Cara:  Agreed.

Aarti: But woman cave — I like that.

Cara:  People always talk about man caves, but women should have them.

I guess we’re at the end here. Let’s distill our tips and tricks for people.

One thing, I heard you say is, get up in the morning and get ready.

Aarti:  That sort of deliberate week planning on a Sunday or Saturday or whenever you have time. I think that’s a must. This is a small part, but I think you brought up the idea of meals being something to tackle. Yeah, again, I think part of what you can do on a Sunday is really streamlining your lunches so that they are a no-brainer.

Cara:  Yeah, nothing like when you are on back to back Zooms or calls and you’re scrambling to make something. That just adds to the stress of the work from home day.

Aarti:  Definitely picking out what you’re going to wear the night before.

I think another really concrete thing is just making sure you’re making those moments when you’re not working count. As tempting as it is to binge-watch Netflix, I try to get a workout in or do something that’s going to be good for my body.

Cara:  If I am able to break in the middle of the day to go for a jog or walk the dog I have a much more refreshed feeling.

Also, really try to set up your workspace and treat it like a sacred space.

Thank you for joining me. This was an awesome conversation.

Aarti:  Thank you for inviting me to do this.

Cara:  Thank you for all of your insights and thanks, everyone, for joining.

 Transcript has been edited for clarity

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