I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! - How remote work, while not the “real deal”, can still be great.

In 1981, the fat-based spreads industry underwent a cataclysmic change that, to this day, still resonates in our stomachs and pantries: I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter™, a butter substitute, was introduced to the world. I cannot speak for all households, but in mine, this product was highly contentious. Rumours about its poor taste and adverse health effects are forever ingrained in my memory - and yet, when I tasted it for the first time at a childhood friend’s house, I genuinely could not believe it wasn’t butter™.

In 2020, a global pandemic has shut the world in. Companies and schools alike transitioned to operate nearly fully remotely at a moment’s notice. Some companies have even begun talks of abolishing the workplace entirely to cut costs, after seeing the efficacy of remote work. But it isn’t the same - remote work can be lonely, and potentially less productive as well. For myself, transitioning to studying and working remotely was a challenge, and my initial expectations were grim at best. However, much like the margarine-based butter alternative of my past, the taste of remote work has shattered my hubris, and I have come to spread™ the good word.

This article is for people in all stages of remote work: whether you are an intern just joining a remote company, a student trying to study off of video lectures, or even those in regular, in-person positions, but may enter a virtual role in the future. I wish to give some insight as to how virtual work can be optimized to prevent burnout and maximize productivity and joy. A disclaimer: I am not a professional careers expert. I am merely an undergraduate student who, after experiencing both virtual study and work, want to share the lessons I’ve learned the hard way with others who may find themselves in a similar position.

Planning

Before moving into a remote position, or even before applying to a remote listing, it’s important to do a bit of planning! Not planning in the sense of “where in my house am I going to code for 8 hours a day”, though that is necessary to sort out; rather, planning out your priorities moving into this experience, putting in place boundaries you’d like to set for yourself, and lastly cultivating routine to help preserve sanity. We’ll discuss these one by one.

First, priorities. Before moving into any experience, it’s good to define what exactly you’re looking to achieve or extract from your time working. Are you hoping to learn as much as you can? Build a strong resume experience? Forge lasting professional connections? Whatever it is, jot it down, and let those goals guide you through your term. More likely than not, being able to fall back on these “whys” will help, in some small part, fend off burnout.

Second, boundaries. The most liberating yet oppressive aspect of remote work is the lack of a distinction between work and personal time. Without proper discipline, it’s easy to fall into an endless cycle of work, where every waking hour is dedicated purely to productivity. It is equally easy to find yourself useless, unable to get anything done from the comfort of your bed. Setting boundaries, therefore, will help you compartmentalize “me” time and “grind” time. I recommend setting temporal boundaries by choosing work hours, and physical boundaries by creating a dedicated workspace.

Thirdly, routine. Similar to creating boundaries, creating routine can help your body adjust to working from home, which might be a more difficult task for some. Everybody’s routine will be different depending on your priorities (see item 1), but some aspects of everyday life that may be beneficial to standardize are: hygiene, exercise, hydration, and eating.

Of course, depending on the experience you’re moving into, it might be good to prepare for the role itself. If this is an internship, ask for the specific technologies and skills you’re expected to know for the job, and then prepare those skills to make the transition to work a lot simpler. If this is a remote study term, read up on syllabi and familiarize yourself with the remote study details on office hours and homework handin.

Executing

So you’ve done a bit of planning: you know what you want out of this remote role, you have an idea of which times and spaces are for you or for work, and you have carved out a sustainable routine to follow. Now, it’s time for the actual term. From here on, I will be speaking as though the role in question is a remote internship, but the advice should be transferable to other experiences.

Remote work differs from in-person work primarily in communication. Instead of board rooms and coffee chats, everything is done virtually. As a result, building connections with your coworkers is incredibly difficult: asking a coworker in the next booth to lunch isn’t nearly as awkward as asking them to watch you eat lunch over a video call from a different timezone. Thus, you need to put a little extra effort into building those connections with your peers! Try messaging people to ask how their day is going, or having a little banter before the meetings begin. If you’re ambitious, set up a “water cooler” Slack channel for company banter! Likely, your coworkers are feeling just as lonely as you are. They’d love to chat!

Communication extends beyond checking in and small talk, however. Make sure you ask for help from your coworkers whenever you need it, and offer to help in other aspects of the company as well. Make sure that you’re clear about the work you’re expected to complete at each step of the internship, and always clarify to stomp out all confusion. Sitting in silent confusion is a huge waste of your time and company time - get help!

In addition to communicating with others, it’s imperative that you keep your mental and physical wellness in check. Ensuring that you’re sticking to your routine (somewhat) and looking for telltale signs of burnout will help you enjoy the work you’re doing more fully. Moreover, moving and looking around to prevent neck, back, and eye strain will save you a few trips to a chiropractor. If you do find yourself burnt out, let your employer know that you might need a slow week - likely, they’re willing to accommodate.

Of course, like with any internship, this is your chance to learn and try out new things! If you’re feeling a little jaded or need a bit of mental stimulation, asking to take on a novel challenge or project could both signal to your employer that you’re eager, but also provide you with more relevant and valuable learning,

Reflecting

When your role inevitably comes to an end, thank your employer and connect with your coworkers, perhaps over LinkedIn. Once all of the formalities and career-related chores are out of the way, it’s time to reflect on your time with this company, and have an internal discussion on what went well, and what could have gone better.

I am in no position to teach you how to reflect, but I will say that, ideally, the metrics you defined at the beginning of your role should be helpful in measuring your personal definition of success. With any luck, you were able to maintain the plans you set out for yourself, adapting as necessary, and had a great time!

Whatever stage of remote work you might be at, I hope this article has helped align your taste buds to the margarine of employment. While it might not take fervent planning and hours of work every day to enjoy I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter™, both it and remote work can be surprisingly pleasant. Rather than worry that this pandemic-induced replacement for education or employment has stolen away what might have been, revel in the fact you have butter at all, and make the most of it.

~N