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The Shocking Before and After of Remoteness

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matt davis, complex personage

I was once employed at a startup whose attitude about remote workers had begun to retrograde to the point where even simple tolerance of the practice became a hot point. Leadership was known to stroll through offices and make comments about how they didn’t see butts in seats, even frequenting some facilities on early morning Fridays just to scoff at the emptiness of the expansive “open floor plans” where interruptions and distractions were kept at a maximum. Human Resources went as far as to craft a strict remote worker policy, and included a very unpopular (and I think ultimately struck down) requirement of being in the office during “banking hours”. Multiple times, as both a senior engineer and hiring manager, I hit roadblocks with remote employee hires – really good ones. In fact, working from home became a privilege that had to be approved at the executive level.

Hard to believe I’m talking about a startup in the 21st century, isn’t it?

In  Remote Worker: A Primer I gave an introduction to my rich history as a remote employee and included some tips on how teams can make it successful. So as egregious as this all sounds, I would rather move beyond the ranting and finger-pointing. I want to talk about health.

Soon after leaving said company, I happened to mention to a close friend on IRC about how my gastro-intestinal problems seemed to have subsided since I left. To my surprise, he mentioned exactly the same thing happening after a similar experience and then said a friend of his also made the same comment after leaving a stressful company situation. We were all victims of being in distress and not understanding why. Frankly, I thought it was tomato sauce.

So yeah, stress is weird. You cannot always identify it, sometimes until it’s too late, or when its sources have disappeared. It physically manifests in the weirdest places, so that you feel like you must be wrong in some other way… how could what seems like only an extreme mental condition cause such extreme physical distress?

I first recognized this effect when a manager (not my supervisor) at different startup came up to me to rail about some random technology decision, I can’t even remember what it was. The change was Hulk-like. I immediately flushed, I could feel the heat rising to my head, my ears start itching, eyes water. This person leaves after 5 minutes of ranting at me and I look down and I’m literally covered in hives.

I also used to have long, work-related nightmares featuring whatever employee or edict was brightest in my cranial heat-map at the time, and my feet would start intensely itching while I slept. The next morning I awoke covered in hives. This constant nagging of the itching would put me into weird fugue states where my mind was making strange abstract logic connections to my physical state, holding me in this kind of cognitive limbo where I wasn’t deeply sleeping but nowhere near awake, and not dreaming.

So I finally jumped.

I decided to take control of my career. For too many years after the first “DotCom Bubble Burst”, I felt like I was faking it. Good at what I set myself out to accomplish, but ultimately held back by one ceiling or another. Not always, but often enough, times felt rough and constantly churning under the whim of forces I could not control. I wanted to be an influencer and craft things, expand my learning, and contribute to the Earth.

Innovating technology work on a small, highly senior, and highly intelligent remote engineering team was exactly what my body needed. For the first time in years, I am regularly getting a good night’s sleep. Surprising considering the intensity of work and entire estates of new knowledge that I am now experiencing.

It may not seem obvious, but I discovered part of my stress was actually anticipating the alarm going off in the morning. I don’t need to make a train departure time for a 90-minute commute, the morning ritual is not rushed and haphazard, but I maintain it. I feel human waking up in the morning, and ready to conquer (no small amount of thanks to my spouse and partner in life, because our tiny house has now become my tiny office, too).

Look, I barely have room in my psyche to handle the anxiety of my personal world, much less my professional one. When there is stress on both sides, they feed off each other, self-amplifying in a torrential loop, difficult to break. Getting to a place where I can be myself and completely kick ass at what I do gives me the strength to handle stressful situations and not be stressed about them.

The chronic GI problems I used to have are no longer. I’ve lost weight. I get hives only from real allergies, physical things I can avoid (although you can argue I now eschew the mental ones as well). My relationships are closer, and it is invigorating to feel more connected to my local community. I’ve been energized to finish DIY builds and even record new things. Plus, I finally feel like I can make room – in time and thought – to write.