As we enter the first workday under Michigan’s shelter-in-place order today, many of us will be forced to learn how to effectively work from home. I’ve spent the majority of my adult life as a remote worker living overseas, and as a result, I’ve had to learn a thing or two about maintaining productivity in less-than-ideal environments.
As everyone’s situation at home is different, not all of these may apply to you, but here are a few steps you can take to keep your work momentum going at home.
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A. Get Focused
Working from home comes with a whole battery of distractions, from access to toys and entertainment to interacting with your partner or taking care of the kids. It’s not always possible to mitigate every source of distraction, but there are a few policies you can enact to get started:
1. Create a Home Office
Not everyone has an extra room for a comfortable home office, but you can get creative to make a focused space that works for you. Like my friend here:
- Designate a room or space as your home office. If you have the space and freedom, the number one ideal situation is creating a dedicated home office. That means a separate room (or space) that’s all about business. If possible, remove distractions like books, TVs, or games from the space.
- Physically separate yourself from other home-office workers. This one is optional. Some folks have no problem sitting at the same dining-room table as their partner to work separately. But for most of us, it’s an invitation for regular distraction at best. At worst you’ll be at each-other’s throats by the end of the first week.
- Use a desk/table and upright chair. If you’re reclining on the couch with a laptop, your body is telling your brain that you’re in relaxation mode, which will make it harder for you to get things done.
- If you’re easily distracted by sound, try a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Sony just put their flagship model on sale. Coincidence?
- Don’t be afraid of change. If you need to move furniture, do it. You having a job may be more important than the “feng shui” of the guest room.
2. Talk to Your Family about Working from Home
Working from home means learning how to set new boundaries both with your job and with your family.
- Have an honest conversation about the realities of working from home with your family. What sacrifices or compromises do we need to make it work?
- Be aware of your family’s needs as well as your own. We’re living in challenging times, so taking a soft, humble approach will position you to meet others’ needs while communicating your own.
- Take advantage of the flexibility of working from home and schedule separate time for your work and family. If it works for your employer, maybe taking the morning for family and working in the afternoon will make it easier to manage kids or your partner’s schedule.
- Set fair rules about when and how your family can request your attention or help with something. (e.g. I may be home, but please knock before entering the ‘office’, or please text or call to schedule time with me instead of tapping me on the shoulder). Rules will actually empower your family to have fair access to you while enabling you to healthfully manage your time.
- Work in shifts with your partner. If workspace is seriously limited or if you have kids in a dual-income household, your life probably just got a lot more complicated. You may have to get creative with scheduling shifts with your partner and/or childcare workers.
3. Avoid Multitasking
When you’re on the clock, you’re on the clock. Your employer and customers aren’t paying you to binge the last season of Stranger Things while you write emails.
Researchers have shown that we’re much worse at multitasking than we think, and the result of attempting to multitask is that we end up performing significantly worse at both tasks. This means you still don’t get how the ‘Upside-Down’ works, and it took you 20 minutes to write a 5-minute email. It’s the worst of both worlds.
It’s better to finish your work for the day and catch up on your favorite TV episodes during your breaks or after work.
If you continually find yourself stretched between two non-negotiable tasks like watching the kids and meeting an important deadline, it’s time to have an honest conversation with your employer about the situation. They may have more flexible options for you, but your personal life is your responsibility, and you won’t know if you don’t ask.
B. Get in the Right Headspace
When you’re working from home, maintaining a healthy mindset is more important than ever. Chances are that circumstances have your anxiety levels up and your immunity levels down, which isn’t good for your personal life or your work productivity.
1. Practice Self Care
You may be busier than ever, but taking just a little time out for self-care will increase your productivity and help you get your work done faster, saving you time in the long run.
Some examples include:
- Move your body—you can use calisthenics apps or exercise outdoors even without access to your gym.
- Eat healthy
- Pray or meditate
- Spend time on a hobby that’s important to you
- Cook something delicious
- Practice gratitude
- Journal your thoughts and emotions
- Get social online and connect with friends and family over video chat
- Meet a counselor or life consultant—a number of professionals provide services over Skype.
- Get enough sleep
And yes, there’s always Netflix.
2. Repurpose Your Commute Time
For many of us, the morning commute represents a time to transition out of our private lives and into our professional lives. You may no longer need to get in your car in drive to the office, but you still need to make that mental transition.
The temptation will be to turn your commute time into either family time or work time. Instead, use that time to get into the right headspace.
Take 15-20 minutes to write in a journal, pray, mediate or practice mindfulness before and after your work day.
Not only will this help you get ready for a productive work day, it will also help you process your thoughts and emotions about what’s going on in your life, both at work and at home.
3. Set Realistic Goals
Working from home may mean that you don’t receive the level of direction that you’re used to. Start each day by setting realistic goals for your work day. Break up those goals in manageable chunks or tasks that you can check off as you go. And don’t forget to communicate your progress with your supervisor as you go.
4. Dress for Work
As ridiculous as it might sound, studies have shown that how we dress impacts our mental game even in our home offices. You probably don’t need to don a suit and tie every day, but those sweatpants that lost their drawstring in the washer last winter aren’t helping you either. Try business casual (and some home-office vets swear by wearing shoes indoors too).
5. Schedule Breaks & Avoid Overwork
While some workers will inevitably respond to shelter-in-place orders like a kid on a snow day, others are likely to double down on their workaholism. Schedule breaks for every hour or two to stand up, stretch, refill your favorite hot beverage or get some fresh air. If you’re the type to overwork, establish boundaries with your employers to maintain some semblance of a healthy work-life balance.
C. Bolster Your Communications Skills
1. Pick up the phone.
Phone calls remain one of the single best ways to get things done quickly.
- Ask your employer, coworkers and clients for their mobile phone numbers (if they feel comfortable sharing them), and don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call when you have a question.
- Before you write an email or send a text message, ask yourself “could I get this done faster with a 5 minute phone call?”
- Make yourself available for phone/video calls from work or a client for several hours a day.
- If you miss a call, attempt to call back first before sending a chat or email.
2. Write Good Emails
Writing good emails can be hard, but this is an excellent opportunity to sharpen your skills. When you can’t get someone on the phone, a well-written email can get your coworkers or clients the information they need to be successful. We could probably write an entire blog post on the art of a good email, but here are a few keys to get started:
- Be concise – nobody wants to read a novel just to find out that you received the print samples this morning.
- Include a meaningful subject
- Use headers and bullet points to call attention to important details. If you bury details in a paragraph, chances are they will be missed.
- Make the point of the email obvious. You may even choose to bold major requests or key action items to make them easier to find.
- Be polite – show value for people’s opinions and time.
- Include your phone number so they can call you to follow up.
3. Communicate Your Needs with Your Employer
Engage in dialogue with your employer about your needs:
- Do you need additional equipment or software to stay productive?
- Do you need to adjust your hours in order to better accommodate your family?
- What frequency of project or oversight meetings will help you make the best use of your day?
While communicating your needs, also be open to compromise as many businesses are struggling for their survival as well.
4. Embrace the Tech
It’s insane the number of tools that exist simply for improving communication. Most of these tools are free or come included in your company’s GSuite or Microsoft 365 account.
Use chat or group chat apps like Google Chat, Microsoft Teams or Slack for the quick exchange of information. Where possible, create separate groups or channels for personal conversations and water cooler banter.
Use Google Meet, Zoom, Skype to replace phone calls, share screens or make presentations. If you don’t have a webcam, talk to your employer! It’s in their best interest to set you up to work as efficiently from home as you possible.
We’re living through a truly historic event that people will likely talk about for decades to come. But if we keep calm and carry on as best as we’re able, we may be able to write a story that we’ll be proud to share with the next generation. Stay safe, everyone!