This year, like millions of others across the globe, I needed to make a rapid shift from working in a typical office setting to working from home. Prior to this, I had dreamed of being able to work from home. I imagined the wonder of how easy it would be and how much work I would be able to achieve with less interruptions. It seemed so perfect, so it came as a big shock when it actually happened and I realized that working from home is difficult. Really difficult. It involves a whole new and different set of challenges and obstacles related to being able to work effectively. I had more difficulty focusing, while also struggling to actually stop working and have some semblance of a ‘home life’. Communication became even more challenging and maintaining connections with my team had a whole new set of obstacles.
Here is what I learned along the way that made working from home actually start working for me:
Tip #1 – Set up a Defined Space to Work
On the first day of my working from home experience I set up my laptop on the kitchen table and tried to get down to some serious work. What I quickly discovered is that kitchen chairs are not designed to be sat in for hours and dirty dishes in the sink are incredibly distracting. The next day I took my laptop to the living room to get comfy on the sofa, but it turns out this option was just way too comfy. Ultimately, I found it impossible to work from home without a thought-out and specific designated place to work:
Designate a Specific Work Area. If you have a separate room or even just an area that can be designated for work then this is optimal. I am a messy worker and so it is always better when my work can be ‘contained’. Establishing this specific area means that my work doesn’t just take over the whole house.
Set Up the Optimal Environment for You. Take the time to really think about what work environment is best for you and make it a place that you actually want to work in. I set up my home office in the early days of quarantine, so I had the time to paint the room and decorate it in a bright and simple way that works best for me.
Get Your Space Organized. There will be certain things you need to work effectively and it is helpful to have them close by. For me this included adding a specific charging station for my phone and tablet, having a stand setup for Zoom calls, creating a spot to keep my mug and water bottle close by and an area to keep essentials like a notebook and pens. I also have a small folder of all the resources and tools I need to have ready access to. This includes cheat sheets of billing codes, department contacts, report instructions and so on. Having the items I always need handy means I don’t waste time looking for things and I can focus more.
Tip #2 – Structure is your new best friend
Even though working from home often allows you more flexibility, I definitely needed to establish some structure. Without this structure I found I didn’t have any boundaries at all between work and home and so it quickly felt like I never left work.
Set up your day with a defined start and end time. I found it beneficial to have a defined start to my work day. If you are used to having a commute then it may be helpful to replace this with something else. You could still go for a drive and grab a coffee or go for a short walk instead. This ‘break’ allows some kind of mental separation between being at home and working.
Applying the same structure to the end of your day is also important and makes it easier to have a clear end to work and start of home life. It is helpful to establish tasks and routines that clearly close out your work day. This may include finishing up items, putting paperwork away and closing down email and other systems.
Always communicate your typical schedule to your team (and your boss), so they are aware of the best times to contact you and when you will usually be stopping work.
Schedule breaks – When I started working from home it was easy to lose track of time and before I knew it it was late in the day and I was hungry and unfocused. Scheduling short breaks into my day means that I am more productive and focused overall. I even go so far as to schedule into my daily calendar time to eat (you don’t want to see me hungry). I also find it especially helpful to have breaks where I can move about, whether it is going for a quick walk around the block and playing a round of Just Dance with my kid. Movement of some kind about every hour or so stops me getting restless and increases my focus on work.
I especially struggle on days when I have a large number of video conferences – Zoom fatigue is definitely a real thing. Breaks in between video meetings really helps being able to focus better during the meetings and avoid the feeling of burnout.
Tip # 3 – Over Communicate
When working remotely, communication is even more important, yet it is much easier to forget about communication when there aren’t people around you all the time. During times when your team is working remotely the best bet for communication is just to err on the side of over communicating everything.
Find the most efficient ways to communicate when working remotely: Some of the previous communication systems you used in an office environment may not work in this new remote environment. You can’t chat about things over lunch or stop someone in the hallway, so you need to have regular ways to check in. Setting up regular video check-ins with your team is really helpful. I have found that video is always better than just a phone call (even though initially they made me cringe). When you can see people you will always be able to have a better idea of how they are doing and their reactions and feelings regarding what you are talking about.
Don’t use email as primary communication – I know I’ve said it before, but email should never be the primary way you communicate regardless of where you are working. Email quickly becomes very cumbersome and messages get easily lost or misinterpreted. Phone and video calls are nearly always better for more complete communication. It is also helpful to use a communication system designed specifically for ongoing communication like Microsoft Teams or Slack. In these systems communication does not seem so overwhelming, it is also much easier to respond to conversations and track information.
Stay on track with projects. There are many systems available that are great at staying on track with projects. These communicate action items, next steps and follow up that is needed. I started using Asana for this purpose and there are many other similar systems that help with tasks and project management. While these take some time to set up, ultimately they can be a real time saver and improve communication to keep big projects moving forward.
Tip #4 – Stick to those things that worked in the office
Get Dressed: Ok, at first there is a certain novelty to not needing to get dressed up for work, but it really doesn’t work in the long term (plus it’s not great for your professional appearance to be wearing PJs in video meetings). It might be that when you are working from home you are not going to get dressed up like you are attending an important in-person meeting, but making an effort to put on something other than leggings can help put you in a work mindset. Again, actually getting dressed for work will also help distinguish work from home and establish those important boundaries.
Keep meetings and routines that worked previously: Initially it may seem that some important routines cannot be replicated in a remote environment. For example, I initially cancelled all our full team meetings as I thought this was too large a number of people to be able to effectively meet through video. Missing these consistent check-ins though were a loss to the team and overall communication. It became clear that while we couldn’t exactly replicate these large meetings exactly on video, we could still have something very similar with a little preparation and organization. Large meetings can be held on Zoom if you establish some systems and plan the meeting ahead a little more. It is reassuring to everyone to have some of the same routines and schedules as you would in an office environment.
Find ways to replicate informal check-ins and conversations: In an office some of the most important conversations happen informally. These can include talking over lunch and the conversations that happen outside of meetings. It is helpful to find ways to maintain some of the informal moments. For example, we established weekly zoom lunches where people could just talk about anything that was going on. I also try to prioritize being available before and after team video meetings, so I can chat with people more informally and still have those conversations that typically occur surrounding in-person meetings.
Working for Home may not be exactly what I had dreamed it would be, but it can work effectively . I still think that the level of teamwork and collaboration you can achieve with a central workplace is almost impossible to replicate in a remote working environment, but for the most part working from home represents an effective way of working that can be focused and productive. With a little preparation and thought into what you and your team need, working from home can work out.
What are your biggest challenges when working from home?
What tips do you have to be able to work from home more effectively?
Do you think this year’s shift in remote working will change companies’ outlook on needing offices for business?