Okay, let’s point our well-washed fingers at the elephant in the room; most people who have desk jobs where they use a computer are now working from home thanks to Covid-19. It’s an exceptional situation. In my case, our team of 34 went from working altogether in one office, to working entirely remote overnight.
Working from home isn’t alien to us at Airts; we’ve always had flexibility. Are you expecting a package to be delivered? No worries, work from home. Got a dog that’s sick? Of course, work from home! Just want to focus hard on a task? No problem; work from home. This flexible freedom is brilliant, but these examples all have one thing in common; they tend to be individual cases sprinkled throughout the year and last a day, two at most.
For me, even a week in, it’s been tricky to work remotely. This new normal that we’re in is different to the extreme. It’s weird and at times, uncomfortable. I’m so used to seeing people every day. I’m used to having the ability to say aloud “hey, does anyone know [insert something we should document]?” to my direct team. Getting help face-to-face is easier.
There’s also accountability that comes with having a colleague sat at the desk next to yours. Their working encourages your working. When at the office, getting distracted is harder. Unless others want to get distracted, the presence of colleagues makes mind wandering less likely.
Our entire engineering team once had Toto’s 1982 pop classic Africa as an earworm. In a moment of joyful hysteria, we went from drumming it out on our desks to singing it aloud to each other. You don’t get that with Slack comms, or scheduled Google Hangouts; it’s hard to push social spontaneity through a keyboard and mouse. I miss the fun of working in the office.
But it’s time to be responsible and help flatten the curve of the elephant’s back. We’ll be missing out on office banter and communicating via technology for the foreseeable. So what can make it easier? What can bring that accountability, hard to distract, yet fun environment at home? What can you and I do to make working from home, work? What follows are five things I’m trying, I’m sure you’ll find them useful.
A caveat before we dive in: I live at home with my wife and two cats. I don’t have much experience caring for children and appreciate that this article isn’t for everyone. I am in awe of my colleagues who are managing to homeschool and still producing their best at work; they’re legends.
1. Fake Your Commute
My home is about three miles from the office, on the other side of a steep hill. To overcome the geography, I would either walk over it or cycle around it. As I went to work, I was getting psyched, thinking about the things I wanted to achieve that day. This thought exercise, coupled with an increased heart rate energised me for the day ahead. On the way home I would let the day wash off me, with each step taken or crank of the pedal I would compartmentalise my day more. Work stayed at work, and home stayed home.
The commute is an important transition point in the workday. It helps signify the end of one thing and the beginning of the next. My commute flicked a switch in my head that allowed me to engage and be more present. With my new WFH situation, I lost that mechanism. I found myself struggling to get started and even worse, struggling to stop. In the first week of WFH, I did three later than 21:00 finishes. Having hit burnout before I knew this wasn’t a sustainable work practice. I knew I needed transition points.
My solution? Fabricate my commute. Once I’ve completed my usual morning routine, I pack my bag, and I go for a walk*. I practice the same work visualisation exercise as though I was heading to the office. When I get home (read: to the office), I complete the same office morning ritual: I say good morning to my colleagues (on slack) and make a cup of tea.
Putting the transition points back in has helped me get into the right frame of mind for work-mode and home-mode. It’s working a treat.
*A caveat here, please only do this while the government guidance says it’s okay to do so. Maintain social distance (≥6 feet) and if you’re showing any symptoms of Covid-19, do not go outside. Self-isolation transition alternatives: an at-home workout, yoga, or a 10-20 minute mindfulness meditation.
2. Virtual Tea Breaks
I love the ad-hoc conversations that happen when I’m making a cup of tea. That brief 5-minutes that sometimes extends to ten as you discuss what the weekend will bring or how the workday is going. It’s a context switch that isn’t too taxing and can inject a bit of energy into that post-lunch haze.
While I can still get a cup of tea at home, it would be worrying if I were to bump into a colleague in my kitchen. To bring the conversations back, I’ve started putting a short meeting into a colleague’s calendar;a 10-minute call to pause, say hi and have a bit of a natter. It’s refreshing to hear someone else’s voice and have them breathe the same sigh you do when someone asks, “Are you doing okay? How’s the family?”
At our work, we’ve added a Slack integration called Donut to help with these virtual meetings. Those who opt-in get paired together randomly once a week to have a coffee/tea break. This approach is excellent for creating relationships across teams who might not work together. The Donut integration will even give you conversation starters if you’ve matched with someone you don’t know and struggle with new encounters – I sure do! And of course, if your workplace doesn’t use Slack, you can arrange similar meetings the good old-fashioned way.
Looking after your mental wellbeing is essential right now, and social interaction is a big part of that. Having a call with a friend is vital. The workday isn’t always working; it’s not sustainable. This social time can be a massive help for your colleague, too. If you’re finding the isolation overwhelming, chances are your coworker is also. Having a tea break, even a virtual one, confirms you’re not alone and recharges motivation.
3. Daily Stand-Up
In the working from home examples earlier, it’s likely that when an occurrence like that happened, I would be working from home alone. But I don’t live alone; I live with my partner, Vicki. Vicki also works and now too, is working from home in our 2-bedroom office complex.
In the old normal, we would message each other on WhatsApp or email each other during the working day. You know, checking in on how the day is going, deciding what’s for dinner, sending each other gifs, asking if you can go to X and pick up Y. Technology’s great because it helps my wife and I stay connected, but also because notifications on WhatsApp and email are ignorable for a time.
Now that we’re working from home though, we can physically go to the other person to communicate (I know, how awful right?!). We can go and interrupt the other person, disrupting their flow. Or in my case, I can open the crinkliest pack of biscuits while she’s on a call with senior management.
Stand-ups are a morning ritual I’ve completed at work for a long time. They’re a quick way of sharing context on the status of work, what struggles people are having, and setting expectations for the day ahead. For 5-minutes in the morning, after our faked commute, my wife and I take it, in turn, to answer aloud:
- – What did I achieve yesterday?
- – What’s carrying over from yesterday, and why?
- – What do I want to achieve today?
- – Do I have concerns?
We answer these questions as they relate to both work and home. This stand-up achieves two things. The first, it sets clear expectations that we have work today and that it matters. The second, it creates accountability, a powerful motivator.
Now that I know the tasks Vicki is trying to achieve today, I’m less likely to interrupt her randomly. Now that Vicki knows what I’m trying to complete, I’m more motivated to see it done. We’ve found since starting our stand-up that the boundaries are more explicit, but the biscuit packet is still crinkly. Use stand-ups to frame boundaries and be sure to involve the entire family in this, partner, kids, cats, the lot.
4. Make your Home Workspace Different
I’m fortunate, in that I have a dedicated study that acts as my work office during the day. Vicki graciously opted to use the dining table as her workplace. To make your workspace work, make it different from how it usually is.
In Vicki’s case, she clears the dining table completely of any placemats, cats, salt & pepper shakers, whatever there might be. She sets up her laptop, puts a coaster down for her mug, and lays out her journal. Looking at it after this transformation, it’s clear it’s for work.
Once work is over, Vicki clears her work stuff from the table and sets it up for dining again. This clearing acts as a bonus transition point (see tip one). For another bonus, remember to get changed too: change from your comfy pyjamas to something appropriate for a casual Friday. This wardrobe change puts you in the work mindset. Once your day is over, dress back into something for the home.
This tip can be the hardest to execute, as everyone has different living situations. Most people don’t have studies; some don’t have dining tables; others have only their bedroom in a flatshare. Whatever you have, try to find some way to make it different and functional. Clear away the stuff that makes it what it usually is and do your best to make it clutter-free.
5. Use Your Holiday
I know: we can’t go anywhere, essential travel only. In the United Kingdom, we’re down to one outing per day for either physical recreation or food shopping. However, working every day from home is still taxing on the mind and body. House arrest is a punishment in some places, so it’s not unusual to start feeling a little stir-crazy. Taking time out from work to focus on yourself and your family is essential.
While travel is off the itinerary, we can still relax at home. If you’re fortunate to have a garden, go potter about in it. Got a DIY project that you were saving until you have the time? Well, get those overalls on! Want to rewatch all of Battlestar Galactica in your underwear during daylight hours? Now is the time! Whatever the activity may be, dive deep into it and enjoy it.
There are some logistical things you can forget about when holidaying at home: insurance, putting all your liquids into clear bottles, and the travel itself. When you do an at-home holiday, though, some things still apply: put your work stuff away, turn off any work notifications on your phone, pretend you’re at the airport and take a selfie drinking a beer before noon.
It’s about balance
Working from home is hard and a skill that needs honing. There are so many competing variables pulling for your attention and time making it easy to get overwhelmed. My main struggle is stopping when the workday is over. The tips I’ve outlined above have helped me manage my overworking better, but it’s by no means a solved problem.
In the months ahead, it’s going to be best if we take it one day at a time and focus on the positives. Making a success of working from home has massive benefits for any organisation or individual. When we get through this, and we will get through this, our world is going to be different. I believe it’s going to be better. Better flexibility, better freedom to work where and when you want to, and better communication across the board. It’s going to be a good world.