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How to break the monotony of the hybrid work
I woke up to yet another promising work day. I did all the right things to set myself up for success - I slept well, then followed a healthy morning ritual of walking, meditating, and journaling. And yet, I am not looking forward to the day. Sounds familiar?
It's the pandemic-induced monotony of the virtual, or now hybrid, work setup that's dragging me down. I admit that hybrid work is a vast, undervalued privilege! And I genuinely enjoy the rhythm, flexibility, and focus it offers. But my tendency to choose the path of least resistance eventually puts me boredom. And I have come to realize that I need to proactively break this enticing setup to ensure sustained work well-being.
How you break this inertia will depend on your situation, personality type, and where you are in your career journey. Below, I am sharing a few techniques that have helped me improve my mood and energy levels over the past couple of years. I hope these ideas inspire you to explore your own break-the-inertia strategies.
Get out of your regular office.
We are easily influenced by the environment we are in. My mind operates differently while being cooped up at my desk (home or office) vs when driving to work. While consistency and comfort are essential for focused execution and getting things done, a breakthrough idea or a shift in mindset can benefit from a change in the environment. And this is essential for PMs who need to balance creativity and consistency, strategy and execution, convergence and divergence of ideas, and analysis and synthesis of information.
While it sounds simple, it's difficult to break the inertia. The key is prioritizing getting out of your virtual/physical office to strike this balance. Here are a few ideas based on my experience.
Schedule regular WFO days
If you have the liberty of flex work, make time to work from your real office at least once a week. Getting ready and commuting may seem like a time drain on the surface. But being in a different environment and running into coworkers will trigger your brain to think of perspectives. You will notice that the same task took a shorter time just because office hustle inspired you. A brief face-to-face conversation solved a problem you thought would require an elaborate meeting. Eating lunch with your coworkers made you feel more motivated to work.
Initially, start small, schedule specific days to work from the office, and try to stick to it. For example, my first office visit was to meet a colleague over lunch, and then I came home to finish the rest of my day. I gradually expanded as I got comfortable.
Seek opportunities to integrate work and life
Work is not just about getting things done but also about enjoying the experience. Effective work-life integration requires planning and a bit of courage but it's totally worth it.
I lead a large team in China whom I haven't met in 2 years. So, I planned a trip to India such that I could also work during part of that trip. Working from India allowed me to have more overlap with my team in China and collaborate with them at the same energy levels and timezone. That work week felt really fulfilling and satisfying. During my domestic travel in India, I got to interact with PMs in India and got a perspective on the Indian tech industry. I also nurtured my hobby of music by performing at a fundraising music concert. I returned to my home in Seattle, energized with a fresh perspective on my work and my mission at Microsoft. Planning an international work trip isn't always feasible but look for opportunities to spice up your work-life integration.
Revive your connections
Similar to the environment, I am inspired by the people around me. Connecting with people I usually don't interact with me energizes me and opens up new avenues for the mind.
Schedule curiosity syncs
Make it a habit to periodically connect with people you usually don’t interact with. This person could be a product manager from the adjacent team, a new hire who came over from a different industry, a leader in a different org, or even an ex-coworker you haven’t networked with in a while. These curiosity syncs will diversify your network, broaden your perspective, and level up your energy. I almost always find something inspiring and synergic after such conversations. A side bonus is that when you need help from such a connection in the future, you don’t feel guilty about being an opportunist. You had already built the connection, and now you are accessing it.
Interact with customers
I know, it’s given. PMs need to be speaking with customers regularly. And depending on the phase of the product, customer interactions may be integral to your calendar. But then we get into the build-trap where we just need to "execute" what we promised. Certain times demand such focused execution. That shouldn't preclude you from proactively scheduling customer interactions. If possible, strive for in-person interaction.
Product development is a continuous discovery, after all. These conversations will energize you and realign with your purpose. During my very first PM role, my manager sent me on a trip to visit our key customers. The first-hand customer-empathy moments I experienced while at the customer location were game changer for me. Work travel may be difficult these days as the pandemic is still raging, and companies are restricting travel budgets. But there are always opportunities to interface with customers. For example, seek out local customers or offer your subject matter expertise to your customer success team handling a demanding customer.
Change the rhythm
Every role comes with its own pace that gets old over time. There's the weekly team sync on Mondays and a 1:1 marathon on Tuesdays, and an eternally inbox to go through. Here are a few habits I am trying to form to modulate the rhythm.
Leverage full-day L&D opportunities
Learning is a known dopamine booster. An hour-long webinar will not break your work monotony. Instead, explore events, courses, off-sites, and training that require you to be all in. Take a master class. Enroll in professional training that requires 100% participation. For example, my wife and I recently participated in a 3-day virtual conference on personality development. We unplugged our work devices and participated in the conference from our living room. I came back to work the following Monday with brand-new ideas and fresh perspectives.
Volunteer for activities outside your domain
Despite being in an exciting role when the pandemic hit, my job felt repetitive and boring with each passing day. So, I started volunteering for culture initiatives within our organization. I joined a team to organize the Fix-Hack-Learn week. During this meeting-free week, employees can work on any project of their choice. I got to collaborate with peers across different teams on topics outside my domain. As part of a well-being culture club that I run within my org, I hosted expert speakers who shared practical insights to improve the well-being of the employees. This experience was immensely gratifying and helped me break the monotony of my work.
The type of non-core activity will vary with the individual. It could be shadowing a PM or rotating to help with another product for a set period. Seek activities that take you outside your domain for a meaningful period.
In closing, PMs need to deliberately break the monotony of work. It takes effort to break the inertia, but it's worth it in the end. Whether it's changing your work environment, connecting with new people, learning something new, or volunteering activities outside your domain, practicing a periodic "break the pattern" exercise will keep your mind fresh and morale high.