When I was in school, there was an easy way to tell the nice teachers from the mean teachers: The nice teachers moved at least one class meeting outdoors as soon as the weather was good. The mean teachers ignored the end of Canadian winter and kept us at our indoor desks, even when a rare day of early sunshine beckoned.
By the time we reach adulthood—and certainly, by the time we’re ensconced in the world of work—many of us have our own inner Mean Teacher. No matter how long it’s been since there was a day of great weather, and no matter how many studies show that spending time outside is essential to our physical and mental wellbeing, the Mean Teacher in our head says we have to grind away at our indoor desks from at least 9 to 5 every day.
Attention, Mean Teachers: School is out! In the era of hybrid work, we don’t have to spend all our time indoors—and in fact, many of us can get a lot more done if our day includes some outdoor movement, some sunshine or even some rainy fresh air! And in fact, spending more time outside can be a powerful antidote to the restlessness, isolation or claustrophobia that are some of the biggest pain points for remote workers.
This week, I’m sharing a whole grab bag of gear and tactics that can help you spend more time outside. These fall into four big areas.
1. Create or find outdoor work spaces.
You don’t have to blow off work to spend more time outside! If your home includes any kind of outdoor space, think about how to make some or all of that space into someplace you can get your work done.
- Make an outdoor desk. Any patio table will work as a desk, if it has a good chair and some shade. If you can, put a table in a spot where you have a neutral backdrop so you can take your video calls outside, too. (Especially handy if you share a home with other remote workers, and you need separate spaces for calls!)
- Create outdoor meeting space. If you meet up with colleagues outside the office, consider your patio as a venue! It’s just as joyful and inspiring as having a class move outside. It’s also more inclusive for colleagues with health risks that preclude mask-free time indoors.
- Cover up. Even if you enjoy full-on sunshine when you’re just chilling, your laptop screen is likely to be unreadable in full sun. Some kind of outdoor covering makes it feasible to use outdoor space in the sun, rain or (if you’re really hardcore!) snow.
- Use your indoor voice. If you’re taking calls outside, think about who can hear you from adjacent units or properties. Even when you’re outdoors, you need to use your indoor voice, and if you’re talking about anything confidential, you may want to step back inside.
- Hit the ‘hood. Private outdoor space is a luxury not everyone can access. Even if you have your own patio, you may find an outdoor café makes a nice change of scenery. Scout your neighborhood for patios that have decent shade, comfortable seating and if you’re really lucky, power outlets.
2. Make it easy to work outside.
- Make outdoor co-working dates. Once you’ve found a local patio where it’s comfortable to work for a couple of hours at a stretch, consider making outdoor co-working dates with friends or colleagues. It’s a great way to commit yourself to spending more time outside.
- Get all the sunglasses. I need eyeglasses for both distance vision and computer work, so I have eyeglasses with progressive lenses that magically transition to sunglasses in direct sunlight. But they’re still not as comfortable for computer work or extending reading as my actual reading glasses, so I also have a pair of prescription reading sunglasses. Then I have a third pair of distance-only sunglasses, because transition lenses don’t work if you’re in a car with UV-protective windows. All these glasses are a lot to pack on vacation but they remove a major obstacle to working outside.
- Stay charged. Keeping a phone charger and computer dock at your indoor desk may not seem especially relevant to spending time outside—until you realize you have an hour you could spend outdoors, but only 10 minutes of battery left. When you’re inside, stay charged!
- Charge the patio. Another way to tackle the power problem is by running power to your outdoor spaces. We got a 60-foot outdoor power cord that lets us plug all our gadgets in, no matter where we’re sitting outside.
- Normalize outdoor work. It’s tricky to work outdoors if you have video calls with a team that regards outdoor work as a form of playing hooky. If you are a manager, let your direct reports know that it’s ok for them to take their work outside.
- Pack a go bag. Keep comfy shoes and a backpack near your door with all the essentials for working outside the house: charging cables, a light sweater, headphones, an emergency snack, work-friendly sunglasses, sunscreen and a little bit of cash or extra credit card. You want to be in a position to walk out the door to the nearest patio with no more than 5 minutes of prep time.
3. Get active outside.
- Look out for voice-only meetings. When I review my calendar every week and then again before each day, I scan for meetings that don’t require video, screen sharing or intensive note-taking: These are the meetings that I can take as phone calls, while I walk.
- Many bags, small wallets. The less I’m weighed down, the further I’m prepared to walk, so I’ve optimized my walking-meeting kit to stay as light as possible in any situation. My main backpack—the one I carry when I’m walking to and from outdoor cafés—now has only a minimal wallet and a teeny power charger, which together lighten my load by a couple of pounds. If I’m just doing a walking call, I use a oh-so-cool fanny pack that is big enough for my phone (in case I’m pocket-less). And sometimes, I don’t even take my phone: The miracle of a cell-enabled Apple Watch is that I can leave the house without anything to carry.
- Book walking meetings. I have a couple of co-workers I depend on for brainstorming and advice—as well as regular exercise. As much as possible, we try to have our brainstorming and consultation meetings over a good long walk. If I need to jot down a note, I just talk into my phone and dictate messy notes I can clean up later.
- Don’t read, listen. If a portion of your work involves catching up on industry news or inspiring innovation with fresh knowledge, think about how you can replace or supplement your on-screen or on-paper reading with audiobooks and podcasts. I feel a lot more able to get up from my desk and take a midday walking “break” if I’m listening to something at least nominally work-related.
- Get a beat. I am sure some people love variety in their walking routes, but one thing that keeps my walk-and-work regime simple is to just walk pretty much the same route every time: a lovely 3-mile, one-hour loop through woods and then back along a beach with mountain views. Even though I’ve done this walk hundreds of times, it refills my soul—and since I know the route so well, I can walk on auto-pilot and keep my attention on my call or conversation.
4. Spend work-free time outside.
- Organize working hours around the weather. If you live in a place where it’s too cold to enjoy being outside for big parts of the year, or too hot to enjoy being outside for big parts of the day, try to organize your working hours to free up the windows that are nice outdoors. Get up before the heat and get outside, then start your workday at 10. When winter rolls around, put in extra-long days whenever you see an upcoming break in the weather, so that you can take a half-day outdoor break without missing a deadline
- Consider a split day. “Thou shalt work 8 uninterrupted hours” is not, in fact, a Biblical commandment. You can get up in the morning, put in a few hours of work, and then take two or even four hours in the middle of the day to enjoy some sunshine and perhaps some socializing! Then put in a second shift after you’ve made the most of fine weather.
Try a four-day work week. Consider using some of your vacation days to work a shorter work week during the season when the weather is at its best where you live—or talk to your boss about working four longer days in return for a summer of three-day weekends.
Outdoor work for indoor cats
Once you recognize the value of outdoor time for our health, our wellbeing and even our productivity, it’s a lot easier to wrap your mind around spending some of your work week outside. Use hybrid work as the opportunity to dismiss the Mean Teacher who’s still hanging around inside your head, and head outdoors with your inner Nice Teacher instead.
The neighborhoods we need
Thinking about how to spend more time outside ties into the bigger question of how to restructure our lives and our communities to reflect how we work now.
That includes rethinking how local shops and restaurants function for hybrid and remote workers. In my latest for The Wall Street Journal, I offer some ideas for how we can make businesses hybrid-friendly. For example:
Give us daytime classes. I love a geriatric aquafit class, but I wish there were some daytime aquatics classes that catered to people closer to my own age. Ditto for knitting: The knitting stores near my house offer lots of appealing classes in the evenings, but I’d prefer a weekly knitting class during the day! (It would also be a great way to meet simpatico remote workers in my neighborhood.) While we’re at it, how about a WFH volleyball league, a WFH community choir or a WFH hockey league?
You can read my whole wish list in How Retailers Should Start Catering to Hybrid-Working Customers.
This post was originally featured in the Thrive at Work newsletter. Subscribe here to be the first to receive updates and insights on the new workplace.