Working from home is big news. During the COVID-19 pandemic, those lucky enough to have avoided layoff are more likely than ever to be adapting to a working environment that is familiar and alien at the same time.
It can be surprisingly tough. A partner on endless noisy team calls, a child who needs guidance on their homeschooling assignments, the loss of structure and continuity: they can all be disorienting and exhausting.
And yet, not having to go to the office can offer surprising opportunities to develop a better work-life balance, and to tailor your own working day.
In this article, we explore the possibilities offered by home working, and navigate a path through the pitfalls.
The Benefits and Challenges of Working From Home
Many people are working from home for the first time because of COVID-19. Others are more seasoned remote workers. Whatever your circumstances, working from home is likely playing a larger part in your life, or that of people you live with, than it ever has before.
At its best, working from home benefits everyone: you, your family or household, and your organization. Remain connected and positive, and you can work productively while maintaining a fulfilling home life – all without the stress of a daily commute.
As Sarah Harvey says in her book “The Ultimate A-Z of Home Working,” “Organizations that don’t offer home working may be missing out on a large pool of talent, many of whom now value home working more than they value a bonus.”
However, there are challenges. Managers may be concerned whether home workers are in fact working. Meanwhile, many remote employees can feel isolated. They withdraw from the team dynamic, and suffer from stress and anxiety. That’s why it is vital to maintain contact with your co-workers, and to cultivate a sense of belonging.
Working Safely at Home
At home, you’re responsible for creating your own working environment, often in a space quite unlike an office. You also need to make sure that you stay mentally and physically healthy.
Designing Your Work Space
Creating an effective work space is essential if you want to stay on track and get things done. Have all the equipment you need to hand, and ensure that you’ve got enough room to work comfortably.
Make it a place where you’ll enjoy spending time. However, you also need to be clear – to yourself and to your household – that, at certain hours of the day, it’s a place of work. A few “office” touches might encourage you to be more productive, but you can still personalize your workspace, with fun posters or family photos.
A high-quality office chair is one of the best investments you can make. But if it’s not one that you have the space or funds for, be sure that you can sit comfortably. If not, you’ll likely find plenty of excuses to get up and go somewhere else!
If you share your home, be assertive and shut out people and pets as far as you can when you’re working. At the very least, arrange your work area so that distractions aren’t in your line of view – including your partner, if they’re also working from home!
Pick your spot with light, air and noise in mind, too. Have enough light to see your keyboard clearly, but avoid reflected screen glare. Open a window if you can for fresh air. However, if your neighborhood is noisy, consider using headphones, while accessing online noise-canceling sites.
Keeping to Healthy Routines
Working from home can present new challenges to your physical and mental wellbeing. So establish good routines to ensure that you don’t lapse into unhealthy behavior.
Without the time spent commuting, it may be tempting to start earlier and finish later. This can make you more tired than usual, so make sure that you keep to regular times for starting and ending work.
Always ensure that you get enough sleep, and that you eat at regular times. Snacking can leave you feeling hungry at the wrong times, and irritable as a result. It’s also not a healthy way to eat.
Regular short breaks can keep you energized and focused, and will also rest your eyes from continuous screen time. Try setting a countdown timer while you do, say, an hour of work. When the alarm goes off, reward yourself with a five- or 10-minute break to make a coffee, or get some fresh air. Remember, the idea is to take a screen break, so no swapping one screen for another by immediately picking up your phone!
While you need to be comfortable to concentrate and to avoid backache, it’s also vital that you get out of your chair during the day. See our article, Improving Physical Health and Wellbeing at Work for tips on building activity into your routine.
Working Securely at Home
You’re likely accessing your organization’s data and systems remotely, so be secure. Take all the protective measures you would when working in the office, and more.
Use only secure WiFi networks that require a password for access. Maintain strong password protocols and ensure that you’re using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Your organization will likely insist on this anyway, but if not, ask them about it. It greatly improves cybersecurity.
When you back up your data, don’t save sensitive material to removable media, such as USB sticks or flash drives. These can transfer malware and viruses, and you can also lose them easily.
Lock your computer when it’s unattended, even if you’re only going to be away from it for a few minutes. Your partner and family likely aren’t security risks, but they shouldn’t be allowed to see confidential data, while random keystrokes by your children or pets can cause havoc!
Keep your devices in a safe place, out of sight of anyone who might be passing your window or work space. This is particularly important if your home can be accessed by anyone you don’t know well.
Being Productive While Working From Home
People working from home sometimes struggle with productivity. Working away from your co-workers, with only remote online meetings, risks emotional disconnection and apathy. It can also encourage procrastination .
So, build in cues to aid your transition into and out of work mode. These can include clear-cut start and finish times, and time put aside for exercise and meals. They can also be routines that you associate with getting started or winding down, such as listening to your favorite podcast, taking a shower, or calling your mom.
You might find that it helps to have particular clothes for working at home. Dressing for work can set the right mental tone for the day – and avoid the awkwardness of being dialed in to a virtual meeting while you’re still in your pajamas!
Also, avoid going into certain areas of your home, or sitting in certain chairs, for example, so that you know when you’re in “work mode,” and when you’re not.
Staying Focused at Home
A 2008 University of California report found that it took an average of 23 minutes 15 seconds to get back on task following an interruption. And it can be tough to stay focused when working from home, so use techniques to minimize distraction .
If you get caught up doing household chores, or suffer frequent interruptions from family or friends, reset your boundaries, and ask for help in maintaining them.
Control your social media use. Think carefully about which notifications to keep on, and which to mute until later. Allocate time slots for checking your phone, and put it to one side outside those times.
If your organization has busy internal communications channels, discipline yourself to check them at set times. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself being pulled away from your important tasks to waste energy on seemingly urgent but less critical activities.
Building in Structure
Agree a clear set of goals with your manager. Along with short-term, task-related targets, make sure that you’re also clear about the wider career goals that you’re striving to achieve. Keeping them in mind will motivate you to do your best work, whatever your location.
Make a To-Do List to manage your workload. This builds structure into your day. But keep the items on it realistic, and broken down into sub-tasks, so that you get a clear sense of progress as you work through it. This will help you to avoid procrastinating, or losing focus by trying to multitask .
Motivation When Working From Home
Without people around you it can be difficult to feel motivated and valued. There’s no scope for high fives or impromptu shout-outs for a job well done. In these circumstances, using self-motivation techniques can boost your confidence, promote positive thinking, and keep you powering on.
Don’t be invisible! Instead, be bold in offering ideas and suggestions in virtual meetings or in discussions with your manager about working from home. But remember to ask for help when you need it, too. Your manager will be less able to see if you’re struggling, so let them know earlier rather than later.
Find ways to make each task more enjoyable and rewarding in itself. Realizing the intrinsic value of your work can bring its own motivation. If tasks really are routine and humdrum, give yourself “treats” when they’re done. For example, allow yourself your favorite specialty coffee for completing an awkward task successfully.
Make your To-Do List work for you by recording every completed task, too. This helps to develop a sense of satisfaction, and creates a measurable record of achievement.
People need to know that their successes are noticed, particularly when they’re physically isolated. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to fall into feelings of self-doubt and even Impostor Syndrome , where you fear being “found out” for supposed incompetence.
Remember to celebrate success on a team and personal level. You can do this when you get together online for team catch-ups. And if the success is significant for the team or the organization, broadcast it using positive narratives .
When a co-worker helps you out (pointing you to the right document, for example, or helping you to master a new app), acknowledge that openly. Even very small acts of thanks can help to bolster the self-esteem of others.
Maintaining Good Relationships
In remote teamworking, trust and transparency are vital. Ensure that your status updates on communications platforms are accurate, so that co-workers know at a glance whether you’re available, in a meeting, or at lunch.
Keep your calendar updated, too. Avoid unnecessary online meetings, but make yourself as available as possible. The right levels of interaction build trust in your productivity, and prevent managers from feeling that they need to micromanage.
Arrange to have regular catch-ups with your manager and co-workers, and don’t make them just about the work. Ask how other people are getting on, and share what you’re doing outside work. A small amount of Self-Disclosure can go a long way toward building trust and a sense of belonging. This is particularly important with new hires who may not even have met their co-workers in person.