From a no-no to the new normal
In his 2017 TED Talk, the British economist Nicholas Bloom jokes of how his mission to encourage working from home (WFH) was initially met with disparaging remarks like “shirking from home”, “working…remotely” or simply, “getting paid for not getting dressed”. He argued that WFH would save companies money, create more time for productivity and certainly reduce global pollution with less unnecessary travel.
What was once a HR issue, essentially reserved for working mothers, has suddenly become an enforced modus operandi worldwide. In the last few weeks, companies big and small have installed mandatory work-from-home policies amid the spread of coronavirus. It’s realistic to assume that shifting to the ‘home office’ will become the new normal for the forthcoming weeks, possibly months – or even indefinitely should it prove to be the success story that Bloom has been trying to convince us of all along.
For many employees this means working from home for the first time and figuring out how to stay on task in a new environment that doesn’t seem particularly geared to productivity. The current climate lends itself to fear and uncertainty, not to mention new responsibilities like looking after young children and the elderly. But despair not, there are ways to deliver results and avoid going stir-crazy by setting up some carefully-studied practical and psychological systems. From YouTube to local governments, the internet is teeming with lists and tips on how to make working from home work for you. Here is a summary.
1. Treat it like a real job, make it as ‘in the office’ possible
Do what is necessary to get into the working frame of mind.
- Designate a specific room, area or surface in your home that is solely used for the purpose of work.
- Communicate to flatmates, partners and family members that when you are in that space, you are working. Create boundaries that mean ‘business’ in every sense of the word.
- Avoid working from places in the home normally associated with leisure time, i.e. bed, armchair or sofa.
- Get ready in the morning as you would normally: set the alarm, wash, get dressed, ‘show up’ for the day.
- Quietly commit yourself to doing more, simply because this keeps you on your toes and focuses you on getting things done. The bizarre rule of productivity is that the busier you are, the more you'll actually accomplish.
2. Aim for effective time management
Segment your day in a way that is both practical and productive for you.
- Start early! A unanimous tip advocated by 99.9% of the WFH professionals.
- Try to stick to a clear beginning and end; factor in frequent breaks and a proper lunch. Getting away from your workspace can help to recharge you to then produce better work. Move about regularly if possible.
- Separate the daily/weekly tasks into easy and hard categories. Attempt the more challenging tasks during your ‘peak’ brain times, i.e. early morning if you function well first thing in the day, saving the less brainy duties for off-peak hours.
- Solidify your schedule the day before in order to feel more motivated and clear-headed when you wake up the next day.
- Some seasoned workers from home suggest cooking the lunchtime meal in the evening, so that more time is freed up in the day.
3. Eliminate/manage the distractions
Chatty colleagues and water cooler moments are often replaced by a continuous desire to eat, sneak in domestic duties or promenade around on social media.
- Curb foodie temptations by keeping snacks for breaktimes and as rewards for jobs done.
- Use domestic duties, like putting on the washing machine/roasting a chicken, as a specific time-frame during which you can accomplish a host of quick-fire tasks.
- To reduce social media breaks, consider removing links from your browser shortcuts and logging out of tempting every account.
- Some WFH professionals swear by the Serene app that has three main functions: plan the day, block distractions and enhance concentration.
4. Harness the right tools and technology
This point is essential for optimum communication and productivity.
- Line managers must take the lead here and ensure that WFH employees know about the best apps available and how to install them.
- Slack, Zoom, Trello, Webex, Hubspot … the varieties are many and they all serve a collaborative purpose to minimize the physical distance, facilitate conferencing and productivity.
- Use the technology to stay connected and remind yourself of how your work is contributing to the bigger picture.
5. Communicate as if it were an Olympic sport and go for gold
This is the key to successful remote working and keeping employees motivated, clued-up and on board.
- Line managers and team leaders must make checking up on employees part of their weekly routine, especially while the WFH system is in its infancy.
- Have a daily point of contact with a fellow colleague, manager or team. Setting up a peer-based buddy system if often advised.
- Be proactive in signaling for help if a sense of isolation or depression sets in. WFH requires a different set of skills, voicing personal needs from a distance is one of them.
- Think about setting up post work online activities with your coworkers, (apéro, game, exercise, film).
Tips for those working from home with young children.
“We’re all just figuring it out. It might get a little messy”, Elana Benatar, child therapist, Washington DC.
- Establish shifts with partner, who may also be working from home. Clearly the easiest of the no-brainers.
- Attempt two sets of ‘deep’ work per day, roughly 1h15m each time, balanced out with quicker tasks that can be done with a few distractions flying around.
- Screen time: accept that it’s both a blessing and a curse. Use it sparingly on low peak days to balance out the essential need during rush productivity time. Research apps and games that are both entertaining and educational.
- Be clear with coworkers and line managers that your working input has to be balanced with other pressing responsibilities, so flexible timings are a must.
- Focus on weekly goals, not daily ones. Be ready to change priorities on a regular basis. Have realistic expectations.
- Some WFH parents in lockdown suggest pushing back the children’s bedtime, e.g. from 8pm to 10pm, in order for them to sleep longer in the morning, allowing you some quiet work time first thing in the day.
In brief, get organized, manage your time carefully, practice a bit of self-discipline and stay in constant communication with your team via the right tools. This way, the future can be homely, yet effective. In these difficult times where economies are teetering on a dangerous edge, WFH should be seen as the gateway to a new decentralized, distributed way of working. To manage it successfully is an important addition to every employees’ repertoire of professional skills.
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