As the global coronavirus pandemic upends life everywhere, those of us fortunate enough to work from home are adjusting to this new reality: learning how to cook lunch for ourselves, keeping the cat off the keyboard, and contributing to virtual meetings with a noisy kid in the room.
Nearly everything is different for those used to working in an office. A quick conversation that would normally be as simple as walking over to a coworker’s desk now takes extra effort and a tech assist. Projects take longer to complete, as disparate teams work to get aligned remotely. And with news moving fast, it can be more difficult than ever to focus.
But if products are still to be created, and consumers are still to be served, focus we must. Here are a few tips to get the most out of working from home.
Create a dedicated workspace
This may seem obvious, but it gets at the heart of what makes working from home so difficult. When there’s no physical separation between “work” and “home,” it’s easy for the two to become enmeshed—hence the statistic that those who work from home tend to work longer hours and are more prone to burnout.
“To optimize our creativity and productivity, our minds need the right balance of ‘on’ time and ‘off’ time,” says Shelby Keefer, director of learning optimization at WeWork. “Working from home, it’s easy to let those times bleed together, so your brain has no recovery from being ‘on.’”
Designating a physical space in your home that’s solely dedicated to work helps create that boundary. If you don’t have a desk, use the kitchen table (make sure it’s near an electrical outlet). And if that’s not an option, use another hard surface: Set your laptop on a dresser, or use a bookshelf as a standing desk.
Try to find a space near a source of natural light, and avoid surfaces that signal “relaxation,” such as your bed or couch. While it’s true that people such as Marcel Proust and Winston Churchill famously wrote from their beds, they didn’t have to manage the demands of cross-functional meetings, emails, and slide presentations—all of which require a higher level of coordination that’s far easier to manage while sitting upright in a chair.
Complete your setup
Settle into your new workspace—you might be there a while. Check the WiFi connection. Connect a monitor, mouse, or speakers if you need to. Make sure you have access to your company’s systems if you’re using a personal laptop, and that you can log in to your email, communication platform, and videoconferencing software, such as Slack and Zoom.
Then consider the details that transform a surface into a workspace: Find a comfortable seat at the right height. Clear away clutter. Light a candle. Place a succulent, a framed photo, or a bobblehead—whatever makes you happy—next to your computer.
Dress like you have a job to do
One of the most immediate perks of working from home is not having to change out of your pajamas—but that can be a slippery slope. Being schlubby may feel liberating for a few days, but it’s a guaranteed path to feeling more isolated and out of your element as the remote-working days go on.
The fix: Make some sort of effort to get yourself ready for the day. That might be taking a shower in the morning, putting on some makeup, or changing into an “outside” shirt while staying in sweatpants. You don’t need to dress in business casual. But you really don’t want to have to scurry to change out of PJs when a colleague suggests a last-minute videoconference.
You do it in the office, so you should do it at home. Taking breaks to do something other than work throughout the day allows the mind to recharge. And a bit of physical movement is a tried-and-true method for feeling better.
Get up and stretch hourly. Take a walk, even if it’s just heading over to the kitchen to grab a snack or to the bathroom to wash your hands again. If the spirit moves you, do some push-ups in your living room. Follow the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. If you can, build a routine (with breaks embedded into that routine). That can guard against feeling as if your day is structureless.
To break up her day, Courtney Brand, founder and CEO of thelighthouse—a startup that helps employees navigate career changes and a member of WeWork Dumbo Heights—will dial into a webinar from her phone as she goes for a walk at lunchtime. “This helps me stay in ‘work mode’ while also giving my body and mind the break that it needs,” she says.
(Inspired by Brand’s idea? Thelighthouse recently launched a free weekly Virtual Career Lunch Series that shares actionable advice from professionals.)
Communicate all day long
When teams are working remotely, it may take extra effort to inform your teammates about what you’re working on. That can be accomplished through a daily check-in, more frequent video stand-up meetings, or working on an open platform. Whatever software or process works for your team, communication is key to getting stuff done.
If your team is on a platform like Slack, let colleagues know what you’re working on, in case they want to contribute. When you go out for a walk or take a lunch break, give teammates a heads-up that you might not be quick to respond for a little while.
For managers: offer extra support
With managers now unable to see their direct reports in person, it’s a good idea to reach out more frequently. Ask direct reports about their preferred styles of working and how you can best support them right now, Keefer says. Work with direct reports to establish a structure for seeing their progress, answering their questions, and offering feedback.
Brand holds daily 15-minute meetings with her team of seven so they feel aligned for the day ahead. During one-on-one meetings, she asks, “How are you feeling on a scale of 1 to 10?” and “Do you have everything you need to be successful in your work right now?”
“I’ve found it’s important to check in on these questions, as things are changing incredibly fast,” she says. “We’re all new to navigating this overnight transition to remote work.”
When in doubt, “assume the best,” Keefer says. “Your direct reports are typically working at least as hard, often harder, than they were in the office.”
It’s hard enough to collaborate when you’re physically apart from colleagues. It adds another layer of difficulty when your current workspace is populated by those who make other demands on your time: roommates, a spouse or partner, children. To make the workday easier for you, let them know the hours you’re dedicating to work. Or agree on a physical signal, such as wearing noise-canceling headphones or placing your phone facedown on the table, that shows you’re doing heads-down work and shouldn’t be bothered.
Let your manager know that you’re taking care of children, so if your child gets sick or requires attention, it won’t come as a surprise. (If there’s one thing working from home has taught us by now, it’s that we love to see our colleagues’ kids on camera in virtual meetings—and the same goes for dogs.)
Keeping regular hours is also key. It may seem tempting to do household tasks like folding laundry or cleaning the bathroom during the day, but you might regret taking time for that when you’re still answering emails at 9 p.m.
Try to sign off at around the same time every night. Take the extra time you would have spent commuting to do something that keeps spirits high: Video chat with a friend or watch a movie at home.
Re-create points of connection
We can’t be together right now, but we can stay connected virtually. Companies have organized virtual happy hours, birthday celebrations, trivia nights, even talent shows. The proliferation of new Slack channels (including one solely dedicated to posting memes or photos of dogs) can seem like both an organizational nightmare and a source of joy.
The workplace is built to encourage moments of spontaneous connection—at the watercooler, the stairwell, or the kitchen. When connecting virtually, it helps to re-create that casual banter by starting with a quick check-in, where each member of the team can share as much or as little about anything on their mind as they’d like.
“Start the conversation by noticing the decor, pets, and kids who show up in video backgrounds,” Keefer suggests. Studies show that starting a meeting with small talk or sharing stories about your weekend are not only ways to kill time when people trickle in but actually build team cohesion.
For those who like to mimic the sounds of working around others, a friend suggests listening to a computer simulation of coffee shop chatter while working from home. “This is the new socializing,” she said.
Take care of yourself
During these ever-changing, anxiety-inducing times, the best thing you can do for your productivity is to manage your overall well-being. Try to get a full night’s sleep. Manage your stress levels to the best of your ability. (Meditating in the morning is one science-backed way to start the day in a state of calm.) Reward yourself at the end of the day by going for a walk or doing an at-home workout.
Accept that there’s a transition time when you might not be your most productive. Be patient with yourself and your coworkers. And be flexible when projects change and directives pivot. Ask for help from managers or coworkers if you need clarification or more direction, and don’t forget to take it easy. This is an unprecedented situation for nearly all of us.
Anjie Zheng is the editor of Ideas by WeWork. Previously she was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Her work has also appeared in Fast Company, Quartz, and LitHub.