With COVID-19 sweeping the globe, many companies have asked their staff to work from home. And, as the virus continues to spread, more firms will follow.
On the face of it, switching an office and trousers for the sofa and joggers seems a simple transition. But don’t be fooled – for those who have never done it, working from home can be a daily battle. Unlike your former, work-focused environment, the home is awash with new, unexpected distractions. Without action, your productivity, communication and motivation may all be at risk.
Below, we discuss proven methods for how to homework like a pro. Among the insights is how to recreate the office environment, managing a remote team and, perhaps most importantly, how to stay healthy and happy during the extraordinary days ahead.
How to stay productive while working remotely
Working from home has its perks – no commute, squabbles over temperature or tea rounds that last a lifetime, to name three examples. But it can also be distracting. Errands, chores, family, housemates, TV, social media and pets can quickly shift your attention. Many new to remote working will catch themselves wasting time on things they’d otherwise avoid – like washing up, taking out the bins, or watching trashy, daytime telly – rather than doing the job they’re being paid for.
Here are some ways to eliminate distractions, and boost productivity, while working from home:
1. Dress for success
The cliché goes that working from home = working in your pants, as Loose Women blares in the background. And, yes, it’s certainly tempting to roll out of bed and into ‘work’ without so much as brushing your teeth. But. If you’re dressed for sleep, it can be much harder to switch your brain into productivity mode.
The key to a seamless transition from office to home is to maintain the same morning routine. Get up, wash, have breakfast, pop the kettle on and pull on some proper clothes. Is a suit necessary? Probably not. But then, neither is a onesie. Dressing for the job can make you feel more motivated – even if on a subconscious level – and is also a helpful practice in case of unexpected video calls.
In place of your morning commute, you could try an activity to jumpstart your focus, such as a walk, workout or meditation.
2. Set and follow a schedule
It’s important to separate your working hours apart from personal time. Do this by clearly telling your manager when you’ll be at work (if it’s your choice), or stick to the timings you had at the office. At the end of the day: switch off. Literally. Turn off any work-related devices – and don’t touch them till morning – then reintroduce yourself to your home.
Here are a few tips on managing your daily schedule to maximise productivity:
- Set clear goals: A to-do list is not new or revolutionary, but in the face of your home-based distractions, it could provide the focus you need to be productive. To get started, jot down some easy wins (Brush teeth? Tick. Eat breakfast? Tick. Make a coffee? Tick tick tick.), as the dopamine hit for completing them may clear a path for more focus.
- Monotask: Championed as peak productivity, multitasking is, in fact, a house fire for your brain. University of California research found jumping between tasks hampers your ability to absorb information. Focus on one thing at a time, tick it off your to-do list, then move on to the next one.
- Eat the frog: Make your first real task of the day your biggest. Why? As Mark Twain said: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” The frog is your most daunting, high-priority task. Once it’s done, the smaller, less daunting jobs will be easy to conquer.
- Take regular breaks: To combat the myth that remote work breeds lazy workers, too many people overcorrect – grafting themselves into oblivion. Work smarter, by using a Pomodoro app – that commits you to 25-minutes of deep work before a five-minute break; then, after four cycles, a 15-minute rest. Also, don’t forget to give yourself the same lunch break you had before. Have lunch away from your screen and, if possible, get some fresh air and sunlight – this will fuel your afternoon’s focus.
3. Create a workspace
If possible, it is best to set aside a distinct space in your home for work. This will help you separate home and work in your mind, and boost focus when you’re in your designated space.
Tell friends, flatmates and family that although you are at home, you’re off-limits during work hours. Your smartphone’s ‘sleep mode’ is very much your friend here, as it won’t ping with notifications as they arrive. Instead, you can read and reply during a scheduled break.
Video technology is an obvious gift to the homeworker, and is also COVID-19 friendly. It helps us stay connected, even when we’re cut off from each other. To optimise your meetings, remember to:
- Test your kit: Don’t wait until you’re connected to try out your computer mic, speakers and camera. Do it in advance, to ensure meetings remain on message, you look professional, and you’re not at the mercy of the machines.
- Be conscious of your surroundings: Garish paint jobs or inappropriate posters may tell your bosses and colleagues things that, in reality, do not represent you. In meagre settings, it’s not uncommon for remote workers to hang a sheet behind their desk chair, to pep up their background. Sounds slapdash, yet when executed carefully this can actually make a budget flat look like a professional studio.
- Use video chat whenever possible: Persisting with video meetings over phone calls can help team bonding and motivation at this difficult time. More than that, you don’t lose all manner of nonverbal cues that could be missed via audio.
How to communicate with a remote team
When working from home, in-person communications are limited by nature. Moreover, during the COVID-19 outbreak, in-person contact is all but forbidden. As you can no longer rely on building rapport through small talk, body language and facial expressions, action the following to keep your team communicating:
1. Schedule daily or weekly meetings
A stand-up is a daily meeting that involves the core team, highlights progress and helps pinpoint problems. Usually, each team member will come prepared to answer the following:
- What did I work on yesterday?
- What am I working on today?
- What issues are blocking me?
The daily drumbeat of what everyone is working on will help keep your team united and on song. It will ensure there’s no miscommunication. Most importantly, it provides space to celebrate successes, and keeps everyone energised about the team’s overall progress.
2. Make online chat your ‘main office’
Many companies use online chat to stay connected – both personally and for work-related topics. During this otherwise bleak period, consider creating new, light-hearted channels – to help people connect socially, and where they can share updates about non-work-related subjects. As with daily check-ins, online chat is also perfect to keep abreast of goals, workloads and wider progress.
3. Combat miscommunication
Communicating in cyberspace can lead to miscommunication and misunderstanding. This is partly because what’s lost in body language and facial expressions, and as the written word is open to rabid interpretation.
If you notice too much back and forth, or a tone of negativity creeping in, quickly jump on a video call. Equally, if you find yourself over-analysing someone’s message, remember that we tend to perceive neutral written messages as negative. If in doubt, talk.
How to manage a remote team
Overseeing a team remotely presents unique challenges. Planning, communication and goal-setting can all suffer, if not planned for effectively.
Here are some tips for managing a remote team:
Communicate clear expectations
Take time to plan, then type up your notes so you can discuss it with your team. By creating a document that can be shared, quoted and revisited, you’ll avoid misunderstanding or ambiguity.
Schedule a team meeting to discuss if there are any new expectations and what, if anything, has changed with the new, remote setup. In your agenda, include:
- Goal responsibilities and ownership.
- How often updates are expected, and in what form (e.g. written, video chat, recording, meeting).
- Communication norms (which format you want to use for each type of message, expected response time, office hours etc).
2. Protect one-to-one time
One-to-ones are crucial in any business, and never more so than when working from home. Use these make sure you and each team member is working towards the same goal, that everything is on track and, especially right now, to check your staff’s engagement and wellbeing.
Regular check-ins stop larger issues from spreading, so allow for immediate and regular feedback, and promote open communication. Devote between 30 minutes to an hour with each of your direct reports for a one-to-one each week. The time spent is nothing compared to the aggravation (and emails, calls, meetings) spared.
3. Provide regular feedback
If employees are used to working in an office environment where they daily feedback is the norm, the silence of a remote position may cause confusion and anxiety. After all, it’s easy to assume the worst when there is nothing to fill the void. Regular feedback lets employees know where they stand, gets everyone on the same page, and reduces the chance of surprise during a more formal review.
4. Share information
Keep employees up to date by sharing relevant information far and wide. Your leadership is crucial here, as a lack of info can spark confusion, even panic. This is easily taken for, because information is constantly shared in an office – whether in a meeting room, lift or kitchen. Take time to understand what’s being communicated, why, and what you need from your team in response.
For each message, pause to decide the right medium. Some pieces of information will need an email with attachments – to create a paper trail and supply of documents. Other times, only a conference call will do. Remember: when working remotely – especially in the beginning – more communication is always better than less.