Working from home can help us be well
Like others during this unique and uncertain time, we at Unity are following many of the fully remote work best practices that have been circulating over the last month. In this blog, Jeff Collins, VP of Engineering in the Monetization group at Unity, shares his perspective and tips for how to feel good while working from home.
Working from home holds the potential for increased productivity, as cited in previous studies, and is already fully embraced by companies like Gitlab. That said, maintaining productivity is not the only problem we should be looking to solve right now. Given the feelings of worry we are experiencing and the unknowns that we face, really, the highest priority challenge is our well-being. How you approach work can be one of the most impactful ways to combat the anxiety caused by what is currently going on in the world.
As the VP of Engineering in the Monetization group at Unity, I lead a global team of more than 250 engineers and data scientists across nine cities. I am excited every day to work with such an amazingly talented group of people. Throughout my career, I’ve been passionate about helping people grow through mentoring and encouragement, and sharing the excitement of building great products for customers. Right now, my top priority is making sure our team members stay healthy in our new reality.
At Unity, we know the power games have to make us feel good. I played some rounds of Jackbox with some of my coworkers over drinks recently. I found that the presence of my teammates in the game gave me a real sense of fulfillment. After a day of being at the house, virtually connecting feels good. For those who live alone, activities like these are even more important. My 22-year-old daughter is a senior in college and living in LA, and she’s been playing Minecraft again after many years with her friends to stay in touch.
There are several reasons these games are beneficial to our sense of well-being: being able to focus on a task, in this case a game, doing it with a group, feeling a sense of purpose while you’re doing it, and getting better at it. While playing the game with my coworkers, I enjoyed all of these things. The game was fun to play. I was legitimately happy for the people playing the game who I knew were also benefiting from our time together. And I did feel that sense of competition in trying to improve as we played.
While it may seem less obvious, the same effects can, and should, be achieved while working. Given that we spend so much of our time during the day working, the benefits of making your work feel good will be a significant factor in maintaining your mental health during this crisis.
Here are some basic steps you can follow to help feel good while working:
- Create a state of flow
- Do it together
- Reinforce a sense of purpose
- Level up each other
Research shows that we are actually wired to experience happiness when we can focus on good, challenging work. It’s an innate human quality, and it has a name: flow. This term was coined in 1975 by a psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in his book, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. He wrote that when we are so deeply engaged in an activity that nothing else seems to matter, the experience is so enjoyable that we will continue doing it, despite great cost.
Last year we got together in Copenhagen for Unity’s Hackweek event. Our team decided to do a game jam, which is creating a mobile game from scratch. Immersing myself in the project with the other team members was incredibly rewarding, and the feeling of creating something meaningful with our team was worth the three near all-nighters in a row. While tiring, each day I felt strong positive feelings as I was able to sit down and focus on getting pieces of the game working. I remember laughing out loud on the second day when a spaceship I was building first started appearing on screen and stealing things with a tractor beam.
When you can focus on your work, research shows that it takes about 20-30 minutes to get into the flow state, at which point you begin to feel the positive effects. During this time, your productivity is higher as well. To get into the flow state, you will need to make quiet time that is uninterrupted by distractions. Identify periods of time during the day where you will not be interrupted and work toward a state of flow as often as you can. Wear headphones, close the door if you have a separate room available, and avoid looking at social media or news sites. Having uninterrupted time is not easy during this time, especially if you have young kids at home, but if you can be clear about the (potentially small) time during the day when you can’t be interrupted – and make sure to take advantage of it.
Getting into this level of focus, creating a flow, is a good way to reduce bad feelings and stay positive.
Build it together
The isolation of working from home can be hard. I know because I have felt it. Yet, while we are physically apart, most of us still have a team all around us. I have felt much higher energy when I’ve been able to get into not only doing work, but building something with someone else, even if it’s virtually.
Since beginning this work-from-home experience, and diving into a physically distant culture, our teams have worked to create smaller milestones, ones that usually take less than a week in duration, and, when completed, can be celebrated. Whereas before we may have tried to hammer through a project over weeks and weeks of time, establishing these small “wins” creates a sense of progress that can be measured in terms of “we” instead of “I” and brings us all closer together even while apart. Some teams have even started pair programming using screen sharing over Zoom. The team members doing this say that it makes work much more social, and frankly more fun.
The irony here is that at Unity we’ve seen people working more closely than they would have in an office. People participating in this type of teamwork are reporting that they have feelings of engagement and community that they would not otherwise have had.
Reinforce a sense of purpose
At Unity, we do a lot of good, from helping creators make great games to helping studios be financially successful. I know that when I feel a sense of purpose in my work, I find it very motivating. I feel lucky that we have the mission that we do.
In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink said having purpose to your work gives an increased sense of motivation. He defines purpose as the yearning to do work in the service of something larger than one’s self. Another way of saying this is to be grateful that your work is having an impact. Gratefulness is known through various studies to have a beneficial effect against anxiety. It makes us think more positively about the future, which reduces stress and helps us cope.
One of our current projects helps smaller studios get a better audience for their game. The members of this team feel like the studios are counting on them to get the features complete. Every time we discuss this project, Andrew, the Lead Product Manager, tells me the same thing: “It’s all about the small guy.” Andrew has been trying to find an avenue to support smaller studios for a long time and he knows the work he’s doing right now has a tangible impact. The rest of the team feels it too. For them, this is their purpose.
Doing good for someone and having gratitude for our work both return benefits in the way we feel. Of course, we should strive to do good because it’s the right thing to do. There are a lot of ways to help people right now. But focusing on finding ways to be grateful during work – even if it’s just that we are lucky enough to be working – makes us feel positive.
Level up each other
Another motivator for many is working towards and seeing improvement in an activity of their choice. It’s why we love games that aren’t too hard or too easy, and challenge us to keep improving. We are spending so much time working now, this represents a big opportunity to tap into that motivation. But it’s hard sometimes at work to feel a tangible improvement every day.
At Unity, we offer a Leadership Training program to all employees. One of the most important segments of training is called Fierce Feedback. The word fierce evokes images of something aggressive, but it’s not that at all. Fierce Feedback is the idea of overcoming any inner reservations, in order to give honest, constructive feedback on someone else’s work or behavior. When we give positive, fierce feedback, we tell someone what – what we thought they did well, so what – what impact that had, and now what – what does getting to the next level look like. The receiver feels great at not only the compliment but also that the feedback giver has really appreciated the impact and importance of the contribution.
Just by taking a moment to give people credit for a job well-done when you see it will help the whole team feel a sense of improvement and progress. When everyone does it regularly, the team’s culture benefits, as does the sense of well-being of each individual. People will feel a sense of leveling up on the team, which is motivating and helps give a positive outlook on the future.
I am already seeing many people respond in amazing ways to the COVID-19 pandemic, whether from the way they take care of each other to the greater participation in group activities. As human beings, we are resilient and I feel that in situations like this we grow.
I also feel lucky to be part of my team at Unity and to be around the great leaders that we have at this company. In the past weeks, I have noticed moments where I feel not just grateful, but truly good about the work.
At the heart of it, when I work on doing these things I describe above and I experience the benefits, I find I can maintain a feeling of optimism and calm. While it doesn’t make our problems go away, the key thought that I want to convey is that positive feelings will keep you healthy. You will not just deal with the current situation, but you’ll live your life with an optimistic view of the future.