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Mental breaks while working at home

Over the years I’ve tried not to make a big deal out of being a remote employee, or remotee in Red Hat lingo. I’m a big proponent of distance work, and am now fairly experienced with the last seven years as a 100% telecommuter and distributed team member. But … the topic is a risky swamp. Many people feel strongly about telecommuting, either for or against. I don’t want to alienate co-workers who choose or are required to be in an office.

Each day telecommuting presents challenges for all the people involved. Some challenges are common to working region-to-region with other people, collaborating between office work centers, regardless of where you are physically located. Functionally, that is what I am doing. It’s not much different from working in an office and doing 100% of my work with people I do not share an office with. But still … there is something different about telecommuting from home. It is different than if I were at a client’s site, at a business center, datacenter, a shared work space, or even a cafe.

It is those differences I reckon are worth talking about. I’ve worked in all those conditions, and have done so regularly enough. Working with a global reach from your actual home is very different than the other situations. It has very little to do with stereotypes. (Although I do like my fuzzy slippers, I’d probably wear those in an office anyway.)

When I start this post, I am taking a mental break from work, with a stop in the kitchen to cook up some lunch. Drag the laptop along, never know when you need it. While in there, I get my lunch of beans and tortilla heating, and take the moment to bottle up the rest of the beans (three liters of fresh homemade black beans.)

Looking at the time, I realize it is a good chance to start my family’s lunch so it is ready when they come home in a few minutes from classes at our community homeschool. In the fridge is a sizeable salmon tail, which I throw on the counter for a seasoning bath. A wander in the kitchen garden later, with some stops for chopping, and the salmon is covered in lemon thyme, thyme, oregano, a pinch of rosemary, garlic, salt, and white pepper. Carrots and onions are cooking in a Thai inspired sauce (white pepper, fish sauce, garlic, and ginger … admittedly I sauteed the ginger and garlic in a Sichuan style because I like the body better.)

While all this is happening, how is my mental break going? As it happens, I need a break not from work but instead from the distractions of the keyboard. I have a relationship management situation to contemplate; you know, thinking about how to work something out with people I collaborate with. Pondering a consensus. Mulling and chewing. Perfect thing to do with my brain while my hands and heart cook, something I can do nearly asleep or in any number of mental or emotional states. While this is all happening, a good plan arrives in my head; a solution that should please everyone. I know I’m happy with it.

For good measure, while lunch is cooking, I start making yogurt, which means bringing two liters of whole milk to a boil, letting it sit for five minutes, then dropping the pan in a water path that acts as a heat sink. It could cool down within a half hour, but I’ll probably let it sit in the water bath for a few more hours before I add the culture, pour the mix into a clean jar, and throw it into the yogurt maker-cum-crockpot.

What is happening here is probably not that different from what happens in other work situations. I take a physical break from my active workspace to ponder. While out there I am interrupted by things not related to day-to-day work role, but integral to where I work. Making coffee, changing toner, helping carry boxes in from someone’s car, you may have done some of these things. For me, the beans, soup, and yogurt I make today feeds my family for several days, saving all of us time. The advantage is getting a chance to advance my personal agenda woven around my professional agenda.

This is all the daily challenge of balancing personal and family priorities, being taught simultaneously as learning it. Here are my kids, playing with string instead of serving the greater good. But they stop soon enough, maybe just in time, to do their chores with a tear or a smile.

Finishing this post out in the back yard, I have to pause because my hands are being requested. Saskia wants to use my hands to see if I can do a string trick. But these hands will be right back, as always.