My closest workmates live 1500 and 2000 kilometres away - one in each direction, south and north.
I've met each of them in person just once (maybe twice?) in the five years we've worked together.
Kree, I remember, was much taller than I expected.
Yet I know more about them and their lives, what makes them cranky, what gives them joy, how they think and how they work, than any of the staff in the ACM office that's only seven minutes down the road from my home.
Yes, I could easily be part of a regular office environment - and it's a very pleasant office when I take that short daily commute - but that won't bring me any closer to my closest colleagues. So I often choose to self-isolate at home, even when there's no virus crisis.
Working remotely from my workmates has been my life for the past five years, since I helped form ACM's "group content" team, a diverse and dispersed bunch of almost 60 journalists who make up a national network layered across all our mastheads.
I have to say I love it.
I don't feel disconnected, I don't get lonely, I do feel I can be more productive, I sometimes feel a little guilty if I take time to smell the roses (actually it's lavender and rosemary in the garden).
I have become the queen of Google hangouts, Gchats, emails and phone calls - all the ways I connect to my work besties, who also include Emma (1100km) and Jamie (710km) and Judy (1500km). By comparison, Robyn is a hop over the back fence, just a 2.5-hour drive away in Sydney, except when she's working from her farm in southern NSW.
These are my crew.
Certainly we spend most of our communications talking work, but I know that I can phone Gav when I want to have a rant about a particularly stupid day. He relies on me to tell him when his ideas are just too "out there".
I can have similar calls with any of them, any time. We share each other's personal triumphs and tragedies, even though we have never shared a workplace birthday cake.
Maybe we converse in a different way. I don't know. It just seems very familiar and natural to me. I sometimes wonder whether we aren't even more open with each other because we don't have to sit side by side at our desks all day every day.
The long-distance relationships extend to my wider ACM family, which takes in the senior editorial team as well as all the group journalists, based everywhere from Mandurah to Launceston, Bendigo to Bundaberg.
Some of these colleagues I have never met in person, even if I have recruited and inducted them into their new roles. We've learnt to rely on different ways of making connections, those that don't require a physical presence but do involve a bit of technology and a great deal of trust.
The upside is that working from home has introduced me to people and places I would never have otherwise encountered. It's also honed my telephone and email skills. For all that, I'm really grateful.
I'm grateful, too, that it's made it easier to juggle my "other life", the one that involves my family, my home, my friends.
Two years ago my husband and I moved into a new house and tradies were coming and going for several months, finishing the retaining walls, building the side fences, fixing the air con, redoing the downpipes. I worked from home a lot during that time, so I could be there to answer questions on the spot.
My colleagues got used to me opening the door to a tradie mid-hangout.
Meanwhile, I've got used to distractions courtesy of Robyn's new kitten who likes to play in her home office (so cute!).
We haven't yet had an incident akin to the BBC interview, where the expert's commentary on Korea was gatecrashed by the kids.
But that would be ok, hilarious even.
Working from home can be challenging but also rewarding. I've found it can deliver personal flexibility and business productivity, as long as you're careful not to blur the lines too much.
Here are my top 10 (plus one) tactics to try to achieve the best balance. My remote buddies may have other suggestions.
- Create a set space as a home office, even if that's a corner of a bedroom or dining area. Aim for a happy view and natural light if you can. Be aware of looking after yourself ergonomically. A decent table and chair are important. Because I work from home a lot, I've treated myself to an adjustable, sit-stand desk. And I'm planning to invest in a second (big) monitor for my laptop. But choose what works for you. Remember you can claim home office supplies at tax time! Keep receipts.
- Maintain a reasonable start and finish time. Have breakfast before you step into the office in the morning. Eat lunch in the kitchen, sunroom or outside. Close the computer before dinner and don't be tempted to go back just to finish off a few emails. You are saving on commuting time and can incorporate that into your work day if you need to squeeze a couple more tasks in, but this is not the chance for company hours to encroach on family hours.
- Give yourself permission to walk a lap of the garden, soak up the sunshine, grab a glass of water or cup of tea. It's good thinking time and you'll feel better for the fresh air and physical stretch.
- Use your morning caffeine break to hang out a load of washing or put the dishwasher on. Don't feel guilty. What would you be doing otherwise? Standing in line at the local barista bar waiting for the almonds to be milked.
- Book regular times for meetings with colleagues individually and collectively. My team has a group hangout one week and I meet (hangout) with them one-on-one the next. We may talk lots in between times but these scheduled checkins give a certainty and rhythm to our interactions.
- Book personal appointments - gym or dance classes for instance - into your Google calendar so you make time for them and aren't tempted to keep working through. If a personal matter takes up a chunk of time one morning, then by all means catch up on work in the evening. Just make sure you're being fair to yourself and the company.
- Work out the best communication channels for you and your team. This works for me: email for complex matters that need documentation or detailed consideration and shared docs or links, Gchat for quick questions or updates, a phone call if you need to talk through an idea (or hear a human voice), hangouts for collaborating in groups. I use Google hangouts for staff interviews and training sessions and weekly team meetings; we've even conducted a national (virtual) conference and Christmas party via hangout. Experiment!
- Practise good hangout etiquette. In large groups, mute your mic unless you're speaking. But keep your camera on so your colleagues don't think you're skiving off or falling asleep behind your avatar. There's nothing worse than talking to a group and not being able to see their reactions. If you're slurping noodles or eating a massive hamburger at your desk, you are excused. Turn off the camera too.
- Make sure you understand the Google suite of shareable work spaces - docs, sheets etc - and how to access all the tools you need from a remote location. This may require access through the portal, using OneLogin and a Google authenticator. If you don't know what I'm talking about, talk to IT who'll be able to sort you out.
- Get dressed, brush your hair, brush your teeth. Don't slide from bed to desk in your pyjamas. Trust me, you won't feel ready to tackle the work day and your colleagues won't appreciate it over hangout. You can keep your slippers on under the desk if you must, but at least change the top half you're presenting to the outside world. A clean T-shirt at minimum, a coat and tie or full make-up and jewellery if that makes you feel more comfortable and professional.
- Importantly: avoid the temptation to snack through all the chocolate biscuits in the pantry, even if the packet is open and you had to pass right by to refill your glass of water from the kitchen sink. Try to maintain healthy eating habits. Keep drinking water.