Why you’re dragging *without* your commute — lessons on keeping energy high while working from home

The new ‘commute’ and why it’s critical to our wellbeing — and success — at work.

In the waning days of March, mere moments (though perhaps it was days, who can really say anymore) after the shelter-in-place mandate began, I was gripped with a haziness in my brain. As I worked, it felt like I had to pull thoughts out through the morning mist over a lake: I knew they were there, but I couldn’t grasp them.

Panicked, I sent out a bat-signal to my fellow designers: join me for a daily creative collisions standup before work.

As you might recall, in early spring, we were not just working from home, we were working from home during a pandemic: in other words, we were gripped with fear and uncertainty. As an antidote to that reality, I wrote, “we’ll start the day by sharing stories of inspiration, countering the great creativity dousers of fear and anxiety.”

The standup worked, providing me with a burst of energy. Until it didn’t. By lunchtime, I was zapped again.

Because, while fear and anxiety were a problem, they weren’t the problem. Rather, it was that the pieces of my day that used to power me — and drive my creativity — had disappeared, and I didn’t clock how much I gained from them, or far worse, that they were even gone.

If you, too, went from spending days amongst other people to sitting in your favorite athleisure, glued to one seat, you have also lost these things. And this loss doesn’t just make you tired, it makes you less happy and less likely to reach your productivity goals at work.

This year I launched a business designed to bring humanity back to the workplace, and, seeing this energy gap, I spent my pandemic diving into the reasons we were all drained and working with clients to weave energy back into their days.

As a New Year’s gift, I offer five critical lessons that have helped my clients (and me!) to draw more energy over the past year, and which will make your 2021 better, plus a linked activity to explore them for yourself. Just in case things don’t magically change at midnight on January 1st as the memes would have us believe.

1. We need strangers

Alex and Antonio are baristas at the company café. They often show up in matching outfits, my favorites being shirts with a sharp punch of cherry — and cheery! — red lobsters embedded on a deep blue background. My routine is to pop down once a day, order a chai latte, and banter with them. We don’t talk about much — their outfits (obvs!), the weather, upcoming weekend plans. But, I always walk back to my desk refreshed.

Or, at least, I used to do that. I haven’t seen Alex and Antonio since March 13th. And, unlike other friends, colleagues and family, I haven’t zoomed, texted, or called them.

As much as I loved those chats, I confess to not thinking much about Alex and Antonio over the ensuing months, except to hope that they’re okay with the office all but shut down.

But, while my mind may not be thinking much about them and all the people I chatted with fleetingly during the days, my body is missing those brief exchanges.

Why?

We get a lot of energy from talking with strangers. Nick Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the Booth School of Business, studied people on busses and trains, asking them to either talk to strangers or spend time alone, then rate their feelings of positivity (as expressed by feelings of happiness, sadness, and pleasantness of the commute). Overwhelmingly, people enjoyed their commutes more when talking to strangers, even though they thought they’d prefer going solo.

The moral: we need these brief interactions with strangers and casual acquaintances to help keep us going. And, we’ve lost most of them this year.

Armed with this knowledge, we can course correct. I make sure to get to the coffee shop regularly, schedule frequent chats with acquaintances, and regularly log onto a zoom meditation group where I get to talk with people I don’t know well. My clients have created virtual coffee stations, places for casual run-ins like they might have in the office.

Energy lesson one is to be deliberate about finding ways to chat with people (physically distanced or on the screen) that you don’t know that well, or at all.

A virtual café in which colleagues can meet

2. Our daily ‘hassles’ are actually secret energy boosts

But, strangers alone will not get us through our days.

If it’s not too hazy a memory, step back into a typical workday pre-pandemic―what were the highlights? Chances are you’ve skipped right over things like your morning commute, the walk between meeting rooms, or a saunter by a colleague’s desk for a quick chat.

Yet, there’s something embedded in these mundane activities that we lost on the day we collected our office plants, packed up our laptops, and headed home to work: each one of them contains a moment of transition, and with it a chance to recharge (by changing locations, seeing a different view, or even the briefest of chats with a passerby).

Now, think for a second about what you do instead.

Drawing a blank? As it turns out, we’ve replaced those transitions with… meep, nothing. We’re not even getting up from our desks, never mind doing anything. Instead we respond to emails, or, in a real treat for our senses, scroll through social media (nope, I’m lying about that, it’s a huge drain on our energy).

To reverse this trend, I’ve worked with my clients to deliberately reintroduce the commute (now more often a 15-minute walk around the neighborhood while tuning into a podcast), catalogue what really gives us energy, and pepper it into shift-points in our days (some clients, for instance, know exactly which colleagues leave them in high spirits, and now earmark those conversations for times of day when they want to recharge their energy). We also evolved how we begin meetings, using arrival exercises to recharge before honing in on the work to be done.

Reflecting on the routine, energy lesson two is this: add back in transition times and fill them with things that give you energy.

3. Our childhoods hold secret clues

Except here’s what happens when I ask people what gives them energy: they can’t easily pinpoint anything below the surface of “exercise and rest.” While we know those from doctors, there’s a very good reason the rest is a blur: as humans, we’re actually not great at noticing transitions from one energy state to another. Oh, we know when we’re depleted. But, try and remember the last time you went from exhausted to energetic…

Struggling? That’s normal. If you can’t recall the when, it becomes nearly impossible to identify the why.

You can take an investigative approach and track your energy changes daily ( I recommend this). But as an immediate tactic, consider what you loved doing as a kid: be it drawing or puzzles (me!) or, skateboarding or bike-riding (my clients), picking up on those childhood adventures can be a shortcut to a quick energy boost.

Energy lesson three asks us to reflect on our childhoods and what got us pumped. Once you remember what that is, pepper it throughout your day.

One of the author’s favorite childhood pastimes, painting, reinvented as a mid-day break. Tip: set up your activity so that it’s ready to go and you can just do it for 5–15 minutes when you need a break. (Bids for the ‘masterpiece’ at left shall start at $1m ;)

4. Today’s constraints are actually revolutionary

Back here in adulthood, there is a reason we’re not getting out of our desks: there’s not far to go. I’ve spent most of my career working as a designer, and we designers love to talk about the concept that “creativity loves constraints,” the idea that the new and novel comes from good guardrails rather than a blank slate. However, you would be forgiven for thinking that this year offers nothing but shackled constraints: what choices do we really have when, by and large, we can’t leave our living rooms?

This turns out to be my favorite constraint of the year: what does happen when we can’t leave our living rooms? How do we create variety, something which we all crave?

We need look no further than our five senses. Office in the living room? Use scent or music (e.g., a ‘work candle’ or an evening playlist) to create a transition to home life. Home office feeling dreary by month ten? Rearrange the furniture to give yourself (and your video mates) a new view.

While these changes may seem minuscule, they’re flexing a part of our anatomy that is responsible for many of our emotions: getting into our senses (note the play on smell, hearing, and sight in the examples above) is a proven technique for calming an anxious mind. And, if there’s one thing that will make us feel better, it’s shedding some of the anxiety that 2020 has piled on.

Considering constraints, energy lesson number four is: play into your senses.

A candle designated to mark workdays. The author lights a candle while she works as a subtle way to change the space from home to office. Tip: use your senses to mark transitions when you can’t move spaces.

5. We all need a balanced diet of energizers every day, and now is our opportunity to deliberately design for them

What we didn’t realize ten months ago, and what might not be obvious even now, is that we literally overnight lost most of our much-needed continuous bursts of juice throughout our days.

But the cool thing about an instantaneous wipeout of our routines, much like a farmer burning a field, is that we can decide what to plant and what to nurture. While I struggled without my old energy boosters, were they really the best ones anyway? What might I create now that I have a clean slate?

Armed with the knowledge outlined above, I prototyped a plethora of new energy rituals — by myself and with my clients. Each one of us needs our own combination, and it’s only by experimenting with a variety of activities can we find the recipe.

Which brings us to the final energy lesson: note what drives your energy, and use that knowledge to create an energy recipe, sprinkling new boosts back into your days. I’ve created a small workbook you can use to do that.

Who knows, you may find a whole new set of ingredients that you want to hang onto long after coronavirus is a distant memory.

While I focused on individual techniques above, the biggest energy boosts come from our communities: because we impact each other’s energy, our teams can be the greatest sources of — or detriments to — our vitality. Which is why I’ve built a business that supports teams in designing rituals, norms and cultures that help keep energy high.

Because, rather than collapsing in exhaustion at the end of the day (on that all too convenient couch), we should absolutely be leaving the office (or living room) with a sense of vigor and joy. If it feels like your team or organization could use a helping hand with this, we’d love to talk to you.

Amy Bonsall is the founder and CEO of nau, a business focused on increasing the humanity in workplaces, building on the principles of design thinking, mindfulness, and behavior change. She’s also an IDEO alumna and the co-founder of Creative Collisions: a collective making optimism contagious during the pandemic.

I help companies weave in kindness, creativity and humanity using human-centered design. Founder of Nau (www.inthenau.com) and Creative Collisions, IDEO alumna.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store