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Work-Life Integration

Why Being a Remote Worker Makes Me a Better Parent

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A version of this article previously appeared on Skillcrush, an online education program for creatives, thinkers, and makers that gives total tech newbies the tools to make major career changes.

Scott Morris, Skillcrush

All Skillcrush employees spend a few hours each month helping our customer support team answer emails. It's a great way to learn more about our students and about the kinds of challenges facing people breaking into tech. I've noticed there's always a common thread in the questions I answer—people want to be happier and more fulfilled with the work they're doing. It sounds simple enough, but during the time I've worked for Skillcrush I've noticed there's something unique about tech jobs, particularly those offering remote or flexible work arrangements, when it comes to defining and achieving happiness.

When people describe their dream job, they tend to mention better pay, work that's creatively or intellectually engaging, and a job that lets them integrate their personal and professional lives. These first two things can be found in plenty of professions, but the third is elusive, particularly if you're on the 9-5 grind. Workers, both young and old, are seeking out flexibility in all aspects of their lives, and speaking from personal experience, the rewards are valuable in ways that you might not expect. Beyond making it easier to run errands or schedule dentist appointments, a flexible job that lets you build your work life around your personal life ultimately makes you better at both. Sure, it's hard to hit all three points on the "perfect job" triangle, and it's easy to settle for two out of three, but with industries like tech offering more and more opportunities for flexible work, why should settling be the norm?

In my past work experiences, "personal" was almost a dirty word— indicative of frivolous drama that was strongly discouraged from seeping into the office. But employees are people, and it's totally logical that a healthy personal life is an essential part of a successful professional one. What makes a healthy personal life, though? Part of happiness is having time to take care of yourself, and the space to cultivate relationships with friends, partners, or families, but there's another component of personal life that's often overlooked, one that—in my own life—remote work helps make possible.

Seven years ago my oldest daughter started school. At the time I was five years into my life as a stay-at-home parent and school was a big transition for us. My wife and I had both had a lot of negative experiences during our own school years, and we wanted to be supportive advocates for our daughter whenever possible—the problem was, we just weren't sure how to build that lifestyle. Since I was at home, I was able to answer the call when our Kindergarten teacher asked for classroom volunteers, and this ended up being our entry point into the world of parent volunteering. For the first three years of our oldest daughter's schooling I volunteered at least a couple times a week in her classroom, and I did the same thing when my youngest went enrolled a few years later. Parent volunteering wasn't something I had any background in or ever expected to be doing, but my role evolved naturally, and before long I found myself developing lasting relationships with both of my kids' cohorts. I helped with art projects, facilitated reading groups, chaperoned field trips, and pretended to know how to do addition and subtraction. And sometimes—my most favorite times—I'd just end up sitting around with a group of kids, talking about their days, their lives, their families, and who they were as people.

When the school day was over and I was home with my own kids, I was able to keep them occupied while my wife helped with school fundraising, email communication, and event planning through the Parent Teacher Organization. My being home gave us the flexibility to make this work, and as the years went by, we realized we'd added a whole new dimension to our personal lives—we were active members of a community where we made an appreciable difference in other people's lives, while they did the same in ours. Community is now a hugely positive aspect of my personal life that I didn't know was missing until I embraced it.

During my first year of Kindergarten volunteering, a girl in my daughter's class started calling me "Bob the Builder," a nickname that spread throughout the classroom and persisted over the next few years. Today, walking across campus, I'll still encounter 7th graders from that Kindergarten class calling out to me, "Hey Bob!", which might seem like a small thing, but for me it's a reminder of how those few hours a week I spent volunteering, formed lasting bonds in my community. I don't think it's a coincidence that a lot of the depression and anxiety I was prone to before having school-aged kids has melted away in the years since. Being plugged into a larger community and feeling like I was helping others in a direct way has played a big part in making me a healthier and more complete person.

However, it can't be understated how fortunate I was being able to participate at the school—my wife's career made enough money to let me stay home with our kids and we were both on board with supporting one another to make it happen. I remember one day in a classroom when a normally chipper boy looked like he'd lost his dog. I asked him what was wrong, and he said he was mad that his mom wasn't there to volunteer. I knew that his mom was a concerned and active parent, but the simple fact of the matter was she had a job that didn't allow her to get into the classroom easily during the day. And that's exactly what gave me pause as our kids got older and I started thinking about going back to work. In every scenario I played out in my mind I saw myself having to give up volunteering. If I was going to start working outside the house it would have to be during the school day while my kids were gone, meaning I'd have to walk away from a part of my personal life that had become so important to me.

Still, with our kids on the cusp of their teen years and new expenses like college looming in the distance, our family needed to start generating extra income, so it seemed like I'd have to make a painful choice. Fortunately I discovered the "neither/nor" option of remote work, and that choice never had to happen. I now work remotely part-time, I'm able to generate the missing source of income we'd been looking for, and I can do it all without upsetting the personal life I'd established before returning to paid work. It was a solution that couldn't have come at a better time, too—right after I started working for Skillcrush my wife took a new management job with a longer commute, which meant our family's need for flexibility was at an all time high. Being able to work from home—in-between my other personal priorities—was really the only way I was able to return to work successfully, while picking up the slack at home and sticking to my volunteer commitments.

I'm thankful for this luxury that remote work made possible, but really, it shouldn't be a luxury. Having the room to participate in our communities through volunteering and service projects (and benefitting from the personal growth that comes with them) shouldn't be the domain of a lucky few—it should be embedded in the fabric of all our work lives. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that, by leading the way with remote work and alternative work schedules, industries like tech aren't just offering a small convenience to their employees by letting them commute from their bedroom to their living room. They're actually opening the door for a radical reframing of what it means to work and how our work relates to the rest of our lives.

If you put it under a microscope, you start to see that the conventional Monday through Friday, 9-5 office—with its rigid distinction between personal and professional—is a relic of extreme gendering, where males were assumed to be their family's breadwinner while women attended to domestic tasks. In that model, flexibility wasn't so much a non issue as it was non negotiable since roles were so strictly enforced. But as we grow past gender caricatures, as family models continue to expand and change, and as individuals take on the roles they're best suited for, the need and desire for each of us to wear many hats increases. Remote work then is the clear path for climbing out of the limited "Honey, I'm home" model of a previous century, and into a new paradigm where we can all live our lives in the fullest, most befitting way.

And part of that fullness is community participation. Now especially—in light of our national climate and the alienation and isolation that lurks around every corner—there seems to be a desire to get involved in causes and institutions that can directly help others, where the results of our efforts are tangible and where we can be reminded of the ways in which we are all connected. Whether that's through volunteering at a school, participating in a community garden, being a local Big Brother or Sister, or any other opportunity that speaks to you—the chances to reach out and engage are all around us, but for people with rigid work schedules it's just so much harder to get involved.

Remote jobs give people the freedom to fit a few hours here or there into their daily schedule, making it possible to incorporate community involvement into the natural rhythm of the week. But that doesn't mean remote workers aren't also committed to their paid work. Working remotely isn't working less and it's not working easier, it's just working smarter. It's realizing that the artificial constraints of a physical office aren't just unnecessary, they're also inhibiting. And that we can be productive, successful professionals while living fulfilling personal lives. That in fact, each of these roles directly supports the other.

Work-Life Integration

How Remote Work Keeps Me Connected

Partner Content

A version of this article previously appeared on Skillcrush, an online education program for creatives, thinkers, and makers that gives total tech newbies the tools to make major career changes.

Scott Morris, Skillcrush

My entry into remote work was so out of the blue that I didn't have a lot of thoughts or opinions on the topic before I was hired. One day, a friend of mine at Skillcrush put out a call on Facebook about a job opportunity, and a few weeks later I was back in the workforce after 12 years away from paid work. Of course—since Skillcrush is a fully distributed company (meaning we all work remotely)—my return to work happened from my home here in Santa Rosa, CA.

For me, being able to work from home was a dream come true. Because a remote work situation fit so perfectly with what I'd been looking for—part time work that gave me the flexibility to keep up with my full-time, primary parenting duties—the benefits were obvious. I hadn't read a single article singing the praises of remote work, but I didn't need to—I was already sold. As I learned more about working remotely and interviewed people on the topic through my new job, I was surprised to learn that there were quite a few perceived downsides to remote work or aspects of distributed companies, that gave people pause.

One of the main concerns people seemed to have about the prospect of remote work, is the fear that working outside of a conventional office environment will simply be too lonely. This was a somewhat foreign concept to me, as my own entry to remote work was from a point where I was already home by myself for long stretches of time. But if you're approaching remote work from a more traditional office atmosphere, with water cooler talk and happy hours, it's true that there will be a significant change when you trade that in for a home office, or a public library, or a coffee shop, or any other location with Internet access. But that change can be as positive (or negative) as you want it to be.

From my own experience over this past year, I've found that remote work doesn't lead to isolation—regardless of your background. It's true that remote positions are different than working in a fully-staffed, brick and mortar office, but different doesn't have to mean lonely. In fact, despite its unfortunate name—remote work can provide you with a platform for making a whole new wealth of connections in your life, in ways that conventional work can't.

The caricature of a remote tech worker usually depicts a frenzied computer programmer alone in a poorly-lit room, hammering away at a keyboard late into the night. And while I've pulled some late nights myself to meet deadlines, specifically because my flexible schedule lets me work when it's convenient to the rest of my life, the isolated nature of this trope is a fallacy.

Remote workers don't exist in vacuums. We work with teams, for clients, for customers, and for companies—all arrangements that involve other people. Unlike conventional jobs, the people we work for and with, are literally positioned all over the world. From my own suburban perch here in Northern California I work with people as far-flung as my editors who live in Brooklyn, our Customer Support Manager who lives in Finland (by way of Texas), a WordPress developer who lives in Miami, and our Curriculum Director who lives down the street from me. In a conventional, physical workplace, this kind of diversity of lifestyle and perspective would be hard to replicate. Sure, there's always conference calls with clients or teams from out of area, but it's not the same as working virtually side-by-side with people from such varied locales on a daily basis.

And we really do work side-by-side! Remote work doesn't mean we operate individually in isolated pods. Anyone who's "at work" is logged into our company's HipChat room, and in a way it makes people seem more present than if we were scattered throughout a physical office. If someone is online and available, you know exactly where to find them, and—due to our geographical range and flexibility of work schedules—there's almost always someone else "in the building." Even when I'm working odd hours in my timezone, there's usually a co-worker or two an instant message away who I can bug with a meme or bad joke. It's our own version of water cooler talk.

But what might really surprise people who have yet to work on a remote team or for a distributed company, is how quickly and easily remote colleagues are able to go past the superficiality of small talk, and really get to know each other. Although it's counterintuitive— since we interact mostly through text, Zoom, and Google Hangouts—there's an immediacy to our remote connections that makes people want to open up, be themselves, and share their feelings and ideas freely.

Because we're only virtually face-to-face, and many of us won't ever meet in person, there's a need to cut past pretense and make our virtual work relationships seem more real. From my own perspective, I can say that I feel more connected to my remote colleagues after a period of months than I did after years in some cases at previous, conventional jobs. Part of it, too, goes back to our all being together in the same HipChat room. In a physical workplace it's possible to never see employees from a different department or who work in a different part of the building, but, in our distributed workplace, we're all swimming in the same pool of Giphy-fueled space. Because of that, I've struck up work friendships and acquaintances with people I don't even interface with professionally.

Looking back after a year of working remotely, I feel that remote work isn't an inherently lonely or isolating situation that needs to be alleviated with tips or tricks. Sure, without spending some time putting yourself out there proactively and making connections with your remote community, you will run the risk of feeling like you're on an island. But those same feelings of loneliness and isolation can happen in the middle of a crowded office. Where remote work does significantly differ from conventional office jobs is in its ability to provide connections for people who aren't in a position to take on in-person work, and who otherwise would be facing significant challenges of isolation.

In my own situation as an at-home parent who was looking to get back into the workforce, I actually found myself feeling totally isolated by the prospects of conventional work. On one hand, there was a part of me ready to add a job back to my life, but having to do so at the expense of my role as a parent brought its own feelings of loneliness and loss. Similarly, I imagine there are other people whose backgrounds and lifestyles present these kinds of challenges—for instance living outside the range of conventional employment hubs, or living with chronic illnesses that make it difficult to work traditional 9-5 office hours.

For people socially or physically left out of the conventional workforce, remote work is a viable arrangement. In that sense, remote work is a solution to isolation, and it's no surprise that this solution is a hallmark of the tech industry. At its heart, technology is all about connectivity. So much of tech centers around streamlining and facilitating the flow of information, which inevitably brings the participants in that flow closer together. Despite the stereotypes of screens cutting people off from one another or leading to ruinous spirals of antisocial behavior, technology has consistently been a driver in my own social and personal life.

I met my wife and several friends I still have today through our participation in pre-Internet online Bulletin Board System culture, and—contrary to our parents' concerns that we weren't spending enough time with "real people"—it doesn't get more isolation-busting than that. By adopting the remote work model, the tech industry continues this trend of bringing people closer together, whether or not they're anywhere near each other physically. When we talk about things like in-person tech meetups or jobs at companies that are geographically connected to tech hubs, it's easy to forget that this excludes groups of people who are physically isolated from these opportunities for various reasons. But with the ability to participate remotely we get closer to the ideal of everyone being welcome in tech, and it's hard to feel lonely with an invitation that inclusive.