Illustration: Mart Virkus
If you’re not organized, being stuck working from home can feel like being trapped in a dungeon. And things are worse still when you’ve got gremlins in your tech setup. But remote working doesn’t have to be a battle.
I’m a freelance journalist working in the UK. I’d been familiar with bouts of home working even before lockdown kicked in. During these past few months, however, it’s been hard to adapt; with my wife now working from home too, space is at a premium and lockdown means our social life has evaporated.
But then I found inspiration in an unlikely place. Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) has long been a hobby of mine and it turns out role-playing games (RPGs) are the perfect template for turning your home working habits into a triumph.
RPGs are having a big moment right now. Stephen Colbert and Karen Gillan have played in recent charity games, D&D makes an appearance in Stranger Things and the game was even covered in Variety magazine earlier this year. It’s hugely popular but remains a niche hobby.
In essence, D&D is shared storytelling: a group of people imagine an adventure in a fantasy world with the aid of maps, models and music. One person narrates and the others decide what their character would do in the situation. But what can fighting imaginary goblins teach us about flexible working? Let’s have a look.
1. Adapting to new technology
Usually storytelling games like D&D are played with paper and dice around a table with friends. But with social distancing and lockdown in effect, that hasn’t been possible. So video conferencing apps have come into their own among D&D players.
It’s the same for home working. Adapting to new chat and task technology as a means to keep in touch and coordinate with colleagues has been vital.
2. Practicing empathy
Role-playing is in essence putting yourself in the boots, shoes, or slippers of another person to imagine how they would act (usually in a crisis). How would a space trucker face down the Xenomorph in Alien RPG? How would a troupe of 80s kids save their schools from a runaway robot like in Tales From The Loop? It’s a hobby that teaches empathy.
In remote working situations, empathy is a skill we need more than ever. When you can’t pop over to your colleague’s desk or catch up over coffee, it’s vital to visualize the challenges they may be facing working from home. Learning to put yourself in your colleague’s shoes is difficult over the phone or through a screen but essential to good cooperation.
3. Staying organized
No matter what sector you work in, organization and admin work will likely be core skills of your job. In D&D and most other RPGs, someone will take on the responsibility of being the game master. The game master’s role is to tell the story with which the other players interact. They set the scene, describe the action and present choices to the players.
It’s important to have a good imagination to improvise when your friends go off-piste (which they frequently do). But organization is imperative. Take notes. Copious notes. Draw a map. Remember which accent you gave to which non-player character. You never know when you’ll need to refer back. Likewise, when you’re working remotely and don’t have a colleague next to you to check with, your notes will be key.
4. “Don’t split the party!“
It’s an age-old RPG adage. So much so that D&D’s creators announce, on page one of the rulebook: “We’re not responsible for the consequences of splitting up the party!” But what does it mean, and what does it teach us about remote working? D&D, like many jobs, is a team game. Everyone works together as one adventuring party to solve puzzles and overcome obstacles. They succeed because their skills synergize.
Every once in a while though someone wants to split up. It seldom succeeds. While one is off looking for treasure to steal, another is ambushed by a shambling horde of zombies.
Teamwork’s harder from home when you’re speaking to colleagues infrequently but it is all the more important to accomplish tasks. Otherwise, you have one team member proofing a contract while another is being eaten by a metaphorical work dragon.
5. Establishing a routine
Ah, another long-standing D&D joke: whatever imaginary battles you may be fighting, the true enemy is scheduling. Most RPG stories stretch over many sessions. Groups play the same characters week after week for months or even years at a time.
But it’s surprisingly hard to get half a dozen friends around a table for a few hours, let alone during a global pandemic. The group I play with is full of key workers who are tied to shifts. Trying to organize something at the last minute is nigh on impossible. If you want a regular D&D game, the diary is sacrosanct.
The same applies to work. As busy as you are, your colleagues have hectic schedules of their own. So if you want to have a meeting, book it as early as possible before life gets in the way.
6. Exercising your imagination
Just because you’re not fighting a dragon or flying a spaceship doesn’t mean you can’t picture yourself doing so. Struggling to get started in the morning working from that kitchen table? Our imagination’s the greatest spell we can cast.
So close your eyes, picture yourself at your desk–hell, picture yourself in the most luxurious workspace you can imagine–and, mentally, it will be so. Treat your workspace at home as a blank canvas and paint in the way that helps you focus most.
7. The importance of snacks
Telling a shared story with friends requires as much preparation as any job. When we play in person, a small part of that prep is taking turns to bring snacks. It’s something that happens in a good office environment too.
Who doesn’t love a slice of home baking to brighten up the afternoon? If you’re working from home, find time to schedule breaks with your colleagues and enjoy coffee and snacks together in a video hangout.
8. …and boundaries
Where does a fantasy world end and real-life begin? How do we keep work and play separate? Getting emotionally invested in your character can be fulfilling but if you’re not careful you end up spending more and more time in fantasyland at the expense of real life.
We play with a psychiatrist and a psychologist. They talk about the importance of boundaries. Enjoy the game, but don’t let that come at the expense of sleeping, eating or being with your partner. Play for a set period of time, then stop.
For remote working, this means establishing boundaries such as a defined workspace away from where you relax (if possible) as well as making sure devices are turned off when work has finished.
9. Not everything is a battle
Professional conflict, whether in your organization or externally, is draining. Avoid whenever possible. Save your strength and resources for when it really matters.
It may just be a game, but RPGs like D&D teach you to conserve your strength for when you have to take on the big bad boss. Save your skills, magic and energy for when you need them most.
10. Remembering to have fun!
The most important lesson of all from games–as long as a task is fun it’s easy to come back to every day. As a game master, organizing notes between games and preparing puzzles or encounters for your friends to face is time consuming. But it’s that behind-the-scenes work that pays off when the game gets going. Everything runs smoothly, everyone has fun.
It may vary from job to job or from person to person: maybe it’s keeping on top of your emails, or filling forms. But those behind-the-scenes tasks are the things which let us enjoy the things we’re really passionate about. They help us triumph over monsters real and imagined.
Read more: The Toggl guide to working from home