You are currently caught up in the largest work-from-home experiment in the history of the world. We have to say that to ourselves over and over so we remember that this is not like any other work-from-home scenario. You have likely been sent home to work from an unprepared location where you're competing with the rest of the family for time / quiet / bandwidth, where you're using improvised tools and processes, under management policies that aren't yet adapted to the new reality, and against a backdrop of considerable personal stress. That's hard. Jimmy Fallon experienced that when his kid interrupted an interview / conference call with Jennifer Garner. Guess what - it's not just hard for you and Jimmy. It's also hard for your manager and your teammates.
However, there are ways to see net-positive results through the current chaotic scramble, if you’re ready to set aside assumptions that it’s possible for things to go on the same way as before. You could even have a good enough experience that you decide there’s a place for both on-site and remote work in your future. The key is to acknowledge that the current abnormal situation requires some changes in perspective and habits.
1. There are some things you can’t control.
- It’s not safe for many to physically be in the office together.
- You (and your co-workers) are not currently in the ideal situation to work from home.
2. There are other things you can and should change to make the situation better and more productive.
- You can increase your comfort level with the tools and habits necessary to be more productive remotely.
- You can be flexible and considerate with others that are working with you.
You may feel like you have little control over your situation, but there are definitely things you can do as an individual to adapt to working remotely. Even if you’re not in a leadership position in your organization, you can also have a noticeable effect on your coworkers by how you handle this new remote reality. Here are some basic principles that can help you be more productive and possibly even enjoy the work from home experience.
1. Adapt, and then stick to a practical routine
You will certainly need to adapt to your new situation working remotely - but you also must find a way to still ‘go to work’ consistently in some way. It helps you be more focused, keep your productivity as high as your circumstances allow, and maintain boundaries. Contrary to what many expect – the tendency of most remote workers is to work more instead of less. The fuzzy line between work and home gets progressively blurrier. The more extra hours you spend every day, the less sane and effective you’ll be.
When a team of reporters at Bloomberg suddenly had to switch to working from home in Hong Kong, they found it important to maintain some structure for their day.
“Try to stick to some semblance of your original routine from before you started working from home... If you needed to be at your desk at 8 a.m., don’t wake up at 7:59.” – Bloomberg, Hong Kong
Of course, in today’s reality whole families are suddenly having to function together in the same space all day. You will likely find that your work routine must flex. There are lots of variations that can work in a remote scenario. A Forbes article last week suggested several possibilities.
‘only being available for meetings at certain times, blocking off time for specific projects, working non-traditional hours’… - Forbes
Take the initiative to talk about challenges and come up with solutions collaboratively with your boss. They’re probably struggling with the change, too. If you have practical suggestions or requests, be proactive. Tell them what you need and how you can help to make things better.
Many people also take a few practical steps to create a set workspace, even if their home is very small. It could be as simple as a folding table you set up in a designated work corner. This structure can allow you to more effectively make the mental shift into work mode. It also helps you psychologically switch back to ‘home mode’ at the end of the day when you step away from your work table.
How far you go with this concept varies from person to person. Some people work in pajamas (at least on the bottom half where the webcam doesn’t see). Others shower, shave, and dress professionally every day. Some people keep normal business hours, and others can’t because of conflicting situations at home with kids or spouses who also have needs. Flexibility doesn’t necessarily mean no structure. It does mean figuring out what new structure works in your new situation, and being willing to adapt.
2. Make your teammates a priority
When you attend meetings virtually, be as considerate and focused as possible. Nothing destroys team spirit like unrealistic expectations. Cut people some slack if they're a couple of minutes late to join. Keep a sense of humor if weird things happen during the call. Notice who isn’t participating in the meeting and see if they need a little encouragement to share their thoughts. You might have to ask them a softball question to get them active.
Optimize your own habits to make the experience better for them. Use your webcam whenever it’s practical to do so. It encourages others to do the same, and you’ll all communicate more effectively when you can see each other. It may seem like it’s fine to skip the webcam and multi-task – but it has real consequences on the team dynamic if done habitually. Remember where your webcam is located on your device and use it to make eye contact frequently. Mute your mic when you’re not talking. Participate when you have something meaningful to add, but resist the urge to repeat what's already been said just so people know you’re on the call.
It's just as important to adapt your habits outside of meetings. When you’re messaging with your team, remember that their email volume is likely growing exponentially now that no one can stick their head over the cubicle wall and chat. If your organization gives you access to a team collaboration tool like Slack or Microsoft Teams – use it to send messages to your core team(s). It’s more efficient than long winding email conversations where some reply and others reply all. Your messages are also less likely to get lost in the flood from people outside your team. These tools are psychologically less formal than email, which encourages more communication. On the flip side, they also allow you and your teammates to prioritize notifications from the topics and teams that are most relevant to you.
Speaking of prioritizing message notifications… That’s one of the primary benefits of a team collaboration tool like Slack or Teams. You will likely be a member of multiple channels, and some of them warrant closer attention than others. Learn how to tailor your notifications by pinning or favoriting specific channels and changing notification options based on those choices. This concept is the single most powerful way to tune the noise level in your personal messaging scheme. It alone is reason enough to use a tool like Slack or Teams.
3. Fight discomfort and distraction
When you only worked remotely for a day or so occasionally, hunching over your laptop on a TV tray from your couch was probably fine. If you’re going to be working from home for weeks or months, that is not a survivable situation. It is worth a small investment to setup a basic workstation where you can actually work. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. One reporter from Bloomberg, Hong Kong said this.
“I bought a small table and chair to sit at, and advise getting a monitor and separate mouse/keyboard so you’re not slouched over a tiny laptop.”
Before coronavirus, people decided to start working from home and typically had time to set up a real home office. They also figured out that there were a few items they couldn’t live without. This varies from person to person, but here are some popular life-saving items you may want to consider.
- A comfortable noise-cancelling headset (or a set of quality earbuds) is essential equipment.
- A comfortable chair that is the right height for your ‘desk’ and supports your back is crucial.
- A real monitor, keyboard, and mouse make a big difference (or any of the 3 that you can manage on short notice).
- A stand, shelf, or even a shoebox to elevate your laptop and webcam a few inches so it’s about at eye level. Your neck will thank you.
- Good lighting makes your video calls much more productive.
Reduce distractions for yourself by finding the quietest situation you can in your home, and / or putting on the aforementioned noise-cancelling headphones. Reduce distractions for your co-workers by blurring your background (if your conference tool supports it, like MS Teams) and remembering to stay muted if you’re not talking, so your Doritos bag isn't a meeting participant.
Discomfort with your remote technology is also a key factor, since you’ll likely be depending on it more than you ever have before. There are many ways to learn how to use new tools. If your organization is using SharePoint and / or Office 365, you can take advantage of a free offer from VisualSP. Our free product for individuals contains hundreds of brief tutorials from Microsoft about how to complete specific tasks using various tools in Office 365, and delivers them to you on-demand while you're working. True, you could just Google whenever you have a question. However, our free solution gets you out of all those 15-20 minute Googling sessions, by delivering specific relevant answers to you in about 2 minutes and 2-3 clicks. Once you've seen it in action, it's kind of a no-brainer. Did I mention it's free?
4. Make all of your devices work for you
One of the challenges of working remotely in this virus-induced scenario is that everyone else in your family is probably stuck at home, too. Sometimes you may have to improvise quickly to find a different location or device to use for a call when your battery dies, when chaos breaks out in the kitchen, or when you have to switch to 4g because your wifi bogs down with concurrent video calls and Netflix sessions in your home.
It’s also good for your sanity to sometimes mix things up a bit instead of sitting at your work table non-stop for 8 hours or more a day. Daily structure is good. Being handcuffed to your folding chair and table all day - less good. You left your desk sometimes when you were working in the office, right? Even at home, tasks like email and document review can likely be done very effectively from your couch or patio. You may also be able to get up and walk while you have informal conversations with your team . However, very little of that is possible if you don’t have your mobile devices setup to be productive.
Install the apps your company uses on your phone and tablet. Understand how they might differ from their desktop version. (Hint, you may have to try them first on a low-stress task or call with a friendly team-mate.) Then you will be equipped to fluidly adapt to situations and opportunities as they popup. It’s a great way to stay both sane and productive.
There are many things about this situation that we can’t truly control – when the danger is over, what expectations your boss has of you while working at home, and what competes for your time and attention during the crisis. However, by being willing to set some kind of daily routine, by prioritizing habits and tools that connect you with your team, by minimizing discomforts and distractions, and by being prepared to work across multiple devices – you can not only survive, you can thrive.
How these change principles specifically apply to other roles varies, based on what you can and can't control. Here's an article on what to consider if you're leading an organization or leading a team.