Fresh, home-made lunch and no commuting while we deal with coronavirus has made us all homeworkers out of necessity, but whilst I’ve enjoyed the benefits of working from home for several years, you can’t compensate for what’s lost in creativity, social contact and teamwork from working remotely from your team.
I’m writing this from the makeshift quarantine bunker – actually, I do have a permanent home office – but I’ve got my jogging pants on and snacking my way through my emergency nut rations. I’m getting plenty of work done, but I’m get unnerved by being solo and the lack of stimulation. I need to interact face-to-face with humans. If I don’t, cabin fever sets in fast.
So, as you read this blog, I guess you too have been shooed away from the office and are trying to acclimate to a work-from-home lifestyle. We are all getting a glimpse of our glorious, office-free future, but this is not how I envisioned the distributed work revolution.
If there is a silver lining in the coronavirus, it offers an opportunity for businesses to build a culture that allows work flexibility, but I’m never going to be a work-from-home evangelist who tells everyone within earshot about the benefits of avoiding the office. Don’t get me wrong, working from home is a good option for some who maybe aren’t well served by the traditional office setup. Fans of remote work often cite studies showing that people who work from home are more productive. A study led by the Stanford Professor Nicholas Bloom examined remote workers at a Chinese travel agency and found that they were 13% more efficient than their office-based peers.
But research also shows that what remote workers gain in productivity, they often miss in harder-to-measure benefits like creativity and innovative thinking. Studies have found that people working together in the same room tend to solve problems more quickly than remote collaborators, and that team cohesion suffers in remote work arrangements.
Remote workers also tend to take shorter breaks and find it hard to separate their work from their home lives. That’s a good thing if you’re looking to squeeze extra efficiency, but less ideal if you’re trying to achieve some work-life balance.
Steve Jobs was a famous opponent of remote work, believing that Apple employees’ best work came from accidentally bumping into other people, not sitting at home in front of an email inbox. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions, Jobs said. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.
Office work does have its downsides, for sure. Commuting make us grumpy and impatient in the morning, and often our open-plan workplace makes distraction-free focus nearly impossible. But being near people also allows us to express our most human qualities, like empathy and collaboration. Those are the skills that can’t be automated or captured on Zoom, and they’re what produces the kind of meaningful interpersonal contact we miss out on when we’re stuck at home.
Google’s research has found that the ideal amount of work-from-home time is one and a half days per week, enough to participate in office culture, with some time reserved for deep, focused work, but it’s when we are together that those moments of serendipity occur.
I’ve realised that I can’t be my best, most human self in my jogging pants, sat in splendid isolation, trying to juggle video conference calls between trips to the fridge or playing indoor football with the dog. But as I’m at home for the foreseeable future, here are my top ten tips for making the best of home working.
1. Choose a dedicated workspace Rather than cooping yourself up in your spare room or on the couch, dedicate a specific room or space in your home to work. Have a place you go specifically to work, some place that’s consistently your ‘workspace.’ It helps you get into the right frame of mind.
2. Get started early When working in an office, our morning commute helps us switch on and mentally tuned-in by the time we get to our desk. At home, the transition from your duvet to shower to kitchen to your workspace can be jarring. For me, I find the best way to work from home productively is to dive into your working day earlier. Getting started first thing can be the key to getting momentum and making progress throughout the day, otherwise, you’ll prolong breakfast and let the morning sluggishness wear away your motivation. I’m a morning person and find I can get a ton done in the early morning hours.
3. Prepare mentally for working from home the mental association you make between your physical place of work can make you more productive, and there’s no reason that feeling should be lost when based from home. When working from home, do all the things you’d do to prepare for an office role: set your alarm, set yourself up for the day, use Evernote for your ‘to-do’ lists, otherwise, you might find yourself just getting out of the blocks by 11am.
4. Work when you’re at your most productive Nobody sprints through from morning to evening, your motivation will naturally ebb and flow throughout the day. When you’re working from home, it’s all the more important to know when those ebbs and flows will take place and plan around it. To capitalise on your most productive periods, save your harder tasks for when you know you’ll be in the right headspace for doing the heavy lifting. Use slower points of the day to knock out the easier tasks that are on your plate.
5. Communicate expectations with anyone at home with you. You might be working from home but still have ‘company’. Make sure any spouses, children and dogs (well, maybe not dogs) respect your space during work hours. Just because you’re working from home doesn’t mean you’re home. You’re working, even if it looks like and feels like you’re hanging out at home. It’s easy to get distracted by the folks around us.
6. Take clear breaks Don’t let the guilt of working in the building you sleep in prevent you from taking time out to relax. Rather than just opening YouTube and watching some comfort clips, use your breaks to get away from your desk. Go for a walk outside or spend time with others in the house. Breaks can recharge you to do better work. Don’t assume you need to be working 100% of the time while you’re home to be more productive. Although taking repeated short breaks might seem counterproductive – a ‘stop-and-start’ disruption – research shows that taking short breaks increases productivity and creativity.
7. Structure your day When home-working, you’re self-managing and without a proper schedule to structure your day, you can be quick to lose focus or burn out. If you are going to work from home, set specific business or work hours. The beauty of working from home is that you can be flexible in setting your own working hours. For example, if you are most productive in the morning, or if you need to get the kids from school at 3.30 pm, then you may want to set your work hours from 7am to 3pm. Regardless of your workload, be sure to establish set work hours to follow each day. The fact is, we perform better under constraints. Schedules give us a framework, while nothingness torments us with the tyranny of choice.
8. Commit to doing more Stuff always take longer to do than we initially think. For that reason, you’ll frequently get less done than you set out to do. So, set yourself a full ‘to-do’ list. Even if you come up short of your goal, you’ll still come out of that day with a solid list of tasks filed under ‘complete.’
On days I’m working from home, I tend to slightly overcommit on what I’ll deliver that day. It helps keep me honest, so even if I get the urge to go do something else, I know I’ve already committed stuff to my team. There’s an expression: if you want something done, ask a busy person. The paradox of productivity is that the busier you are, the more you’ll actually do. It’s like Newton’s law of inertia: If you’re in motion, you’ll stay in motion. If you’re at rest, you’ll stay at rest. And busy people are in fast-enough motion that they have the momentum to complete anything that comes across their desk, so focus on things that maintain your rhythm.
9. Interact with other humans Remember, you’re working from home, not the moon. Interacting with your colleagues during the day is a good idea, to see another face when your workday is solitary. It’s also important to remain visible with your team even if you aren’t actually visible. It can be easy to get heads down on your work and lose out on the regular communication that goes on with the rest of the team.
Even if you‘re not physically visible in the office, it’s important to stay visible and accessible with the team. If you’re a manager, plan inclusive virtual team activities – for example, eat together on a Zoom call and make it social. This stops you feeling isolated or getting out of the loop, and helps your team bond virtually. That feeling of inclusion can make a difference to employee morale, the little things actually matter quite a lot in the day-to-day.
I’ve learned to be more collaborative with my remote colleagues, making sure everyone has a voice in virtual team meetings, and being more flexible when hoping on a quick video chat with a remote colleague. Energy becomes depleted for extroverts and introverts alike, leaving us all open to distractions. To help people stay connected, have regular team check ins. This can be serious, like virtual brainstorming on a project issue, or it could be lighthearted, like Netflix recommendations.
10. Pick a definitive finishing time each day You might be under the impression that working from home establishes more work-life balance but be careful with that assumption. Working from home can also feel like you can get so caught up in your activity, in a relaxing environment, that you lose complete track of time.
Working from home can be invasive in your personal life, because your work will begin to creep into your home life, so it’s back to setting work hours. By setting specific work hours and sticking to them each day, then you can manage a healthy work schedule. When your workday is over, shut your laptop and shut your office door and leave it behind until the next day.
Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in, forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day, you shall begin it well and serenely, and with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense washing around from yesterday.
You don’t need to be on a plane to practice airplane mode. Pop in some earplugs and switch your phone or laptop to airplane mode, and you can transform a stretch of captive time into an opportunity to reconnect with yourself and your work, but make it your own time.
Some home workers find solace in the comfort of routine, while others prefer localised nomadism. For me, it’s going to be hard with just my own voice and ‘notes to self’ for the majority of the working days ahead. It has to be done, but use the ten tips above to set some ground rules, and help yourself.