The Lonesome Postdoc - Part VI: Is working remotely really that great?
As a postdoc/grad student/ECR, have you ever wished that you could work from home on a regular basis? You have probably done this a few times, or perhaps you do it a couple of days a week. Do you find you get more done? It seems great, right? Many non-academic businesses are openly embracing the work-from-home or work-remotely ideology because with today’s technology it is often pretty easy to do so. There’s teleconferencing, VPN connections, mobile phones, abundant wifi - all of which facilitate working from basically anywhere. Obviously, having flexible working arrangements is great for families and if you are highly self-motivated you can accomplish a lot regardless of avoiding ‘the office’. There are a ton of figures and reports floating around about how working remotely/from home can improve health, reduce carbon footprint, reduce company costs and increase staff loyalty, but is working remotely/from home all it’s cracked up to be?
For the past year, whenever someone asks me “Where do you work?”, I take a big gulp of air, smile in an apologetic way and launch into a very complicated story and list of affiliations. You see, I have been working remotely for the past year. I don’t mean I ‘work from home’ (although technically I do) and I don’t mean that I work in the next town or state. You see, I am a postdoc on contract at an Australian university, but I work from overseas. For the first year of this postdoc I was physically based in Australia at this university, but circumstances unexpectedly changed. My spouse got offered the holy grail - a tenured position back in Canada. Of course the position was accepted. Permanent jobs in academia are too few and far between these days to be turning them down without very good reason. I was very happy for my spouse but it did leave me with a difficult decision to make. My options appeared to be:
leave and quit my job without knowing when or if I would get another;
stay and have my job (which I quite like), thereby potentially increasing my chances of getting an academic post, but not be with my spouse; or
ask about working remotely.
I did the latter and my very supportive and understanding advisor agreed to the proposition.
So, here is how it works. I physically live and work in Canada but I am employed by an Australian university. Most people get a dreamy look in their eyes at this point as they imagine how great this must be – “My advisor would never allow that”, “Lucky you”, “Wow, that sounds great”. I fly back to Australia every three months and work from that office for about a month at a time – “That’s even better”, “That’s so cool”, “You get the best of each place”, “You must have a huge grant”.
I want you to think about this carefully. Think about the last time you tried to organise a meeting, was it difficult? Think about the last time you did a long flight, was it stressful and tiring? Now imagine doing all of that, all the time, from the other side of the world.
When in Canada I usually work from home. I log into high-performance computing facilities on the other side of the world and I plug away at various data sets. Once a month I travel to a lab, for about a week, where I arranged to have an Honorary Research Associate position. The commute to this lab takes a full day each way, but this arrangement allows me to see people and talk about data, software developments, problems in analysis etc. Then, once every three months I fly back to Australia, stay with an exceptionally generous and tolerant friend for about a month, and work from that office. This keeps the university policy people happy (sometimes) and very much ensures their job security, and allows me to have face-to-face meetings etc.
Does it still sound great? Well some of it is great, but some of it is not great.
Things that ARE great about working remotely at home:
You may have flexible work hours.
Very few day-to-day distractions because no one just pops in to say ‘hi’.
You can wear pj’s all day if you like and no one will know.
You can sing/whistle/listen to loud music/be messy/eat food while you work – there are no office-mates.
You can see family/significant others every day.
No commute or traffic.
Things that AREN'T great about working remotely at home:
You really need to motivate yourself (for me this is the least negative aspect).
You can feel isolated because no one pops in to say ‘hi’ and you see few other people.
Phases of wearing any old piece of clothing make you feel like a slob after a while.
It gets boring.
It can be hard to maintain communication with colleagues in spite of modern technology so collaborative opportunities can suffer.
Internet/phone bills can increase.
You never technically ‘leave the office’.
There is often a lot of paperwork to ensure that your remote office is ergonomic and safe.
Now expound on that and make it international across multiple time zones and a dateline:
Trying to schedule virtual meetings is difficult – often I have meetings at 7 pm at night after I have worked my regular day.
Email correspondence can be slow – if I have a problem I can’t just call someone, I have to email and essentially wait 24 hours for a response because there is at least a 14 hour time difference.
It’s REALLY isolating – the old ‘out of sight out of mind’ saying is definitely true.
The times you do ‘go into the office’ require 2-3 days of travel plus a solid 2-3 days of dealing with jetlag – I semi-regularly go around 36 hours without sleep while I catch a series of planes and go directly to work for a full day once I land. I have seriously begun to wonder how this might impact my long-term health/sanity.
People steal your stuff – seriously, things from your office go missing! I mean big ticket items too, like phones and computers.
You go from summer to winter, winter to summer – it really messes with your state of mind, your skin, your luggage (packing for several seasons makes it hard to pack light!).
Luggage can go missing – I have had this happen. The best strategy is to pack work essentials, toiletries and one change of clothes in your carry on. The luggage generally shows up a couple of days later but it is still annoying having to duck down to the nearest shop and buy some interim clothing.
HR related paperwork can get out of control – I need to seek approval from my supervisor, Head of School and Pro-Vice Chancellor. This means that I have to complete a risk assessment detailing how, if the plane did crash, it would be catastrophic but it is highly unlikely so the risk should be low, and I will only fly with ‘reputable’ airlines in order to lower the risk further. I need to layout a ‘working remotely plan’ – how will I ensure milestones are met, how will I stay in contact? I also need to complete workplace health and safety assessments (are there smoke alarms in the building etc.), and ergonomic working assessments. I do all of this paperwork every trip. I estimate it takes a solid four days to get all the templates in place and filled the first time, and then a good day of time each subsequent travel booking. You can’t leave to work remotely until these forms are approved for insurance purposes and it can take up to three weeks for the approval to come back.
Your wallet takes a hit – I pay for my own travel. You didn’t really think a grant was going to cover that, did you?
It gets really tiring – Not only because of the jet lag, but because you feel like you are constantly living out of a suitcase – which I kind of am. They say for every time zone you cross it is a day of feeling jet-lagged. That gives me 14-16 days of feeling like a zombie each way. When you are stuck in airports, or even stuck in university housing, there aren’t always a lot of healthy food options either, so this can make you feel more tired and run down. Also, planes seem to be the perfect incubators for sickness. (I think I should have amazing immunity by now).
Some sort of funny, yet sad outcomes of working remotely:
You might get a little cabin-feverish. I don’t mean The Shining red rum extreme, but because you have been at home alone for so long you can get a little too exuberant when you see ‘people’… even strangers at the supermarket. (There are literally times when I have not left my apartment for over a week).
You see a lot of really random stuff. Spending so much time on boats, planes and other forms of public transport might be a voyeur’s delight but you can also see a lot of strange and sad behaviours too. Often you end up talking to people you might never normally encounter. Sometimes this is great. I have had some really fascinating conversations with ‘strangers’… but I have also had some really, really awkward ones! A few classics come to mind:
the man who was embracing the KKK (this is definitely not in line with my beliefs/feelings) and telling me all about it;
the man (I stress that this was a stranger who sat next to me on a 1.5 hour flight) who thought we should have a romantic fling while we were ‘both in town’ and then called me a ‘bitch’ when I declined;
the woman who rudely told me to find another seat on the plane because she really wanted a row to herself (I did not, I paid just as much for my seat as she did, crazy woman!).
Work can become an obsession. Again, being alone for long hours and never really separating work from home tends to result in ‘work’ becoming your default mode. Obviously, this can initially be great for productivity but it isn’t healthy or sustainable long-term.
Personal relationships can be affected. It’s great to be around family/loved ones, but if you lose many other social outlets it can really affect those personal relationships. Feeling isolated and bored can lead to feelings of depression, resentment and frustration. Compound that with your new-found obsession for work and you might quickly find that even when you do socialise with other people, you don’t have much to talk about… apartment, work… did I mention the apartment?
Yes, yes, poor me, right? It was my decision, but having experienced it and lived it for a year… I can say it is not nearly as glamorous as some people think. International/Domestic-work-from-home arrangements may solve an academic two-body problem, but it does come with some serious challenges and drawbacks that you might want to consider, and carefully weigh up, if you find yourself in a similar situation.
So that's it. If you have been following this series of blog posts, you now have a better understanding of why I say I feel like Lonesome George most days. Next year it might get even harder. I was awarded a Fellowship in Australia that doesn't allow me to continue working the way I have been.... so, another international move is on the cards, but this time it means being separated from my spouse - the torture that so many aspiring academics suffer. It's not all bad though! We have had some amazing experiences, travelled to so many places, and met some truly wonderful people - none of which would have happened if I hadn't jumped on that first plane!!
Hopefully this series has helped some of you. Maybe it helps you with your own plans and experiences, or maybe it just helps you understand what some people are going through. I really hope it makes you appreciate all the fabulous people you have supporting you on your journey - I'd love to hear about it!
Jump to the other Lonesome Postdoc posts:
Part I - moving abroad for a postdoc
Part II - living like a local... or trying to
Part III - putting down roots
Part IV - uprooting (again)
Part V - the importance of friends