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How I stopped worrying and Love the Silence.

5 years ago I stopped syncing anything work related (except calendar) on my phone, even though I was working with a remote team spread across 19 timezones.

I did it in the name of the Atlassian value Build with heart and balance.

blog-1.png

After leaving Atlassian I’ve kept this going, both during my time at MongoDB, Vue Storefront, and now at Umano.

As a remote worker who lives in Belgium, but interacts with people around the world, I can have a pretty weird working schedule, certainly not your typical 9 to 5. This flexibility allows me to make time for my amazing family, but also still get the work done.

Unfortunately, when I first started working remote this also blurred the lines between personal and professional time. And while working at Atlassian that I started looking at my phone more and more during my personal time. I was constantly reading and reacting to emails and Slack messages and even attending meetings. Simply because I loved what we were doing at Atlassian, and enjoyed the people I was working with.

But I forgot about my other team, the most important team in all my life, my family. This all became clear to on our yearly summer vacation. My wonderful wife and I talked about everything that had happened in the last year and she mentioned that she hadn’t see me spend any meaningful time with our boys and her in the last 6 months. She said that although it was called personal time, I wasn’t there for them. Not mentally, and often not even physically. I was still reacting to everything and everyone through my phone or jumping on meetings during these hours.


My first reaction was to tell her that she was wrong, that I did spend time with them and I even came up with a couple of examples...

But then it hit me full force: She was right and I was just trying to come up with excuses.

So we talked about why this happened. And it came down to the facts that I wanted to be visible as a remote worker. I wanted to be a team player. And I simply liked my job and my coworkers and wanted to make sure that I wasn’t a blocker for any of the work they were doing.

But I also want to be a great father and a good husband. As my family means the world to me. Your family is the only team that is there for life.

blog-2.png 

So how could I fix this and find back the right balance for both of my teams?

I decided on taking back my family time by removing the one thing that distracted me the most: professional messages in Slack and email on my phone.

Doing this has made me more relaxed during my personal time. It made me more focussed during working hours. And in general it made me more fun to be around. So it was a win for me personally, a win for my family and friends.

But also a win for my team because:

  • It showed that it’s okay to set boundaries and take time off.

  • It helped my team to build out stronger processes for async work.

  • It helped us be more efficient at meetings, focussing them on the essence of what needed to get done.

  • It made everyone happier and healthier, but also more productive.

And that’s why even when moving companies 3 times since I still don’t have anything work related on my phone. Except:

  • I still sync my calendar so I know when I have meeting and get a notification when it’s almost time to meet (especially handy when I’m in focus mode).

  • I still install Slack on my phone when I’m travelling for work as it helps me to quickly sync up with team members who are travelling with me. But I remove it again as soon as I land in Brussels on my way home.

What do you do to keep the right balance between work and family in this ever more remote, global, and always on world of working? Please let me know in a comment.

14 comments

Props for being open to reflection and making changes to match your values 💙

On my end, I am similar to you - aside from my work calendar, I don't have anything else work-related on my phone.

Also, I set boundaries around what's urgent and what can wait. This lets me limit the pressure I put on myself to respond asap.

Lastly, I chunk similar tasks! I protect my focus time by replying to messages after I complete a task (which helps me avoid distraction and get more things done in a day). 

Like # people like this
Dave Mathijs Community Leader Dec 07, 2022

What a great article @Peter Van de Voorde , I absolutely agree with this approach, even when I'm not at all a global traveler.

Work mailbox and calendar are not installed on my mobile phone.

As for Slack, I can easily decide when to mute notifications (after business hours).

Another thing I've done is disabling mail notifications on my work laptop. Mails are asynchronous and never urgent in my opinion. If something is urgent, colleagues or business partners/clients can call me.

Like # people like this

Thanks for sharing this perspective! The line "I wanted to be visible as a remote worker" really resonated with me because I find myself sometimes putzing around online after hours, just so I can appear visible. It's not very productive, but I have in my head that I'm accumulating some sort of visibility points as I do this. Setting boundaries really is the most effective way to be productive, even if it doesn't feel like it.  

Like # people like this

Our CEO is serious about work/life balance and encourages us not to keep work apps on our mobile devices. I still keep several work apps on my phone, because sometimes internet problems or OS updates make my laptop unusable during the work day, or to keep up with what's happening when I've taken a personal day to run mundane "lots of waiting around" type errands. I'd rather check my work email in line at the post office or answer Slack messages from the doctor's waiting room than just wait! 

I have found that judicious use of the Do Not Disturb feature and app specific "Snooze Notifications" tools are invaluable for evenings and weekends and intentional time away. 

That work/life balance thing can go both ways, too - I was hospitalized for a while in summer 2021 (not covid, but during the heftiest restrictions), and staying plugged in at work helped me stay calm and feel "normal" when I couldn't have many visitors.

Like # people like this

Surely "How I learned to stop worrying and love the bom silence"?  I know what you did there, it's one of my favourite films.

It's such an eye-opener to do this.  You get so much of your life back, and it can even rekindle your interest in work.  Taking the time off, deliberately not looking at work, can make it a lot more interesting when you slurp down the first coffee of the day and open your work chat/email.  "I've had 16 hours off, what went 'bang'?".  Even when the answer is "nothing", you usually get something of interest - a new challenge, a blog about something you're interested in, a weird question, or even just a new kitten or puppy picture.  It's actually nice to have a pile of potentially interesting stuff to swim through, rather than take the much smaller snippets of interest 24/7. 

I have not taken IRC/Skype/Hipchat/Stride/Slack off my 'phone or other devices though, nor my work (or any other) email.   I'm showing my age a bit there, if the oldies here want to argue more, then no, I did not have, CIX, JANET or Talk clients on my 'phone - smartphones didn't exist when I was using those chat programmes.

But I've done the isolation part.  I do work at unusual times, mostly because I'm not a morning person, so talking late into the evening or at night is not a problem (as long as I get a lie-in or nap).  But I do now have two things that Chrissy calls "modes" - I'm either in work mode or I am not.  In work mode, I ignore most of my life (I answer the door to deliveries, boop the floof if they're nearby, and make tea, but that's it - mum's birthday phone call can wait).  In not-work-mode, I ignore anything that might be even vaguely work-related.

I love what @Mel Policicchio took away - it's about boundaries.  Mine are time-based, and I decide where they are.  I love what @Peter Van de Voorde does by adding and removing Slack when you need or don't need it.  It's not the way I've chosen to do it, I'm good with "ignore the bleep", but it is the next step if I notice I'm not ignoring the bleep at the right times.

Like # people like this

Thanks for sharing Peter, beautiful family.  Great work of reflection and making the necessary changes to align with your values. I do not work remotely, however I have noticed many people are struggling to transition from work to other activities. I have learnt what is not scheduled will not get done. I have on my planner gym time, sleep time, eating times with family, one on one with each child, reading time. No work emails on my phone and my phone is on silent always. I do not take calls after 8pm.  We do the best we can, it is never perfect.

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Hey @Peter Van de Voorde , this is great!  Such an important message that actually supports operating at a higher functionality in life in all aspects, as distractions are the primary killer of focus, and focus is one of the primary attributes of presence; the presence of mind, heart and spirit to be fully alive in the moment.  Only then does the creative magic happen, do the connections really connect and can we get traction on the things we’re trying to create. 💜

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Thanks for sharing this! It feels very important - especially during the busy holiday season. I'm particularly bad at taking time off and love the two times of year that our company closes since there's no concern of missing out on anything during that time. I think a goal for me next year is to be more mindful of my time with my family/friends by muting my notifications. I love that I can be more flexible during the work day with mobile notifications and mobile functionality, but would like to be more aware of when this is an issue.

Thanks for all the wonderful replies and inputs.

@Viktoriya Borisova : I like the bunching similar tasks together approach.

@Dave Mathijs : I too have my email notifications muted, I only try to look at them when I'm done with a task.

@Mel Policicchio : It can be very difficult to feel 'visible' as a remote employee. One way I've tried to address this is by doing all of my work out in the open (On Slack, Confluence, Jira, Trello) so people see what I'm working on and can give input even when I'm not online.

@Anne Saunders : Sounds like you've got a great CEO :) And yes work-life goes both ways.

@Nic Brough -Adaptavist- : I was pretty sure you would get the reference ;) I love your perspective on how taking the time to disconnect makes you excited again to see what's been happening when you do connect. On Friday morning I'm always looking forward to seeing the amazing baking creations my team mate Thamali has made (even though they're all the way in Sydney and I can't taste them, they do look amazing :) )

@Mavis Mazhura : Thanks, it sounds like you've got a good plan and are able to keep to it. And yes, we're all imperfect beings forever trying to improve and learn.

@Chris Boys : Yes indeed, focus it the key to achieving exciting results. Both in our personal and professional lives.

Like Viktoriya Borisova likes this
Darline Auguste Community Manager Dec 08, 2022

This is all so relatable, especially the correlation you made to being visible as a remote worker. Working on a distributed team for the last several years resulted in me feeling pressure to prove that I was working and contributing just as much as colleagues who were consolidated in another region. I developed a serious fear of missing out & worked crazy long hours. Like you, it became a slippery slope in establishing a healthy balance since I love my team and what I do. It's amazing how work doesn't feel like work when that happens! 

I'm still a work in progress but here are some things that have helped me:

  • Though I do have my calendar synched, I don't check work emails or have Slack on my phone. 
  • Advocating for myself in meetings, especially when it comes to deadlines for my input. For example, if I'm on an early evening call and someone in the U.S. asks folks for feedback on something by the close of business, I let them know that the earliest I can give feedback is the next day since I'm planning to sign off after the call. 
  • I found that people weren't always checking my availability/where I was based when trying to schedule meetings so I put up out of office blocks for my offline hours in my calendar. That way, invites are auto-declined and I feel less pressure to join late evening calls.
  • Booking something fun to do after my last meeting. Sometimes it's so easy to keep working after a meeting but I find if I book a spinning class, buy movie tickets, etc., it helps me to really sign out for the day after my last call. Coming back to something the next day with fresh eyes is often super helpful too!
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@Darline Auguste , thanks for sharing. I totally agree that with the right team and focus work doesn't even feel like work :) It's both a blessing and a curse if that happens.

I love the out of office blocks in your calendar when you're not available. I've done that too both at Atlassian and MongoDB as too many people simply didn't check my calendar or location.

For me the end of day is often defined by having to pick up the kids from school, get them fed, drive them to hobbies, and then put them to bed on time :)

Like # people like this

The Work/life balance struggle is real. I feel even more so since COVID. I try real hard to keep that separation and close my laptop when the end of my day hits. There's always stuff left to do, and some days it's harder than others to walk away. Thanks for sharing your experience @Peter Van de Voorde 

Like Peter Van de Voorde likes this

Thank you for writing this @Peter Van de Voorde! It's so nice to hear a reflection over a long period of time, across multiple companies, because that's truly a glimpse for us readers into an experience we won't be able to have. At least not in the short run ;)

And yes, I think we all need to find boundaries. For me, I turn off notifications on my phone and only user browser-based apps instead of desktop versions. That way, I don't feel that electronic shoulder tap telling me to look at something. Software does a really good job nudging us to do things and when I'm not working I don't want those nudges, so I remove all the visuals that could follow me in person time. But when I'm working, I intentionally check different platforms and don't need technology to tell me to look at something. Out of sight, out of mind ;)

On a very different note, I meditate and spend a lot of time in nature and talk with folks who are not related to work regularly. Just like app badges are reminders to do things, so are breathing techniques, seeing nature, and talking about non-work things. And spreading those cues out throughout my day helps me keep those things top of mind.

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Summer.Hogan Community Leader Jan 10, 2023

Great article @Peter Van de Voorde ! We often forget about the important things in life! It is so easy to do! When I took this newest job, I refused to put email or MS Teams on my phone. It is just not something I am willing to do; not because I find it like a leash, but because I need my personal time and my work time completely separate because that is what works best for my life. I work from home so this is even more difficult, but when I leave work for the day, I'M DONE! I walk away and pretend like it does not exist until the next work day. This really helps me stay grounded in both my personal life and my working life.

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