There have been countless articles on remote work over the last few months. As someone who’s relatively new to working away from the office, I read a good many of them, but was often disappointed that the tips were either common sense or offered with the expectation that everyone is facing the struggles.
Here’s a list of my observations and thoughts on what has worked for me.
Be a person. Working from home has put serious strain on our communications technologies — and I’m not just talking about the stock webcams in many computers. But it has also revealed the shortcomings of our communications skills. It might have been acceptable to shoot off a one sentence email requesting a document from someone who works down the hall from you when you would see her or him every day in the break room, elevator, or parking lot to exchange pleasantries. Now we need to be mindful not to make those requests the sum total of our interactions, or we risk looking like an insensitive jerk.
Everyone is coping with the pandemic in different ways. Some are experiencing it as a minor inconvenience, whereas others might be struggling with serious mental health issues. And never forget that people are getting sick and dying. In an attempt to be professional or act normal or stay strong, don’t be self-centered or flippant. Spend another 30 seconds to inquire how they are coping or offer a recommendation for a television show or book. In short, be a person, but realize that being a person apart from others requires extra time and effort.
Reach out to others. One of the great advantages of working in a shared location are those random conversations that lead to creative or innovative thinking across divisions, teams, or offices. Working remotely means our interactions are more deliberate but also narrower. Make a practice of at least once a week checking in with people with whom you have not heard from that you have worked with in the past to see what they are up to and how you might help them or, even better, how they might help you. The pandemic has changed the priorities and functions of many businesses. We should use the distance as an opportunity not only to improve what we are doing now, but to make things better for when we get back.
Be a bite late. Whatever your morning routine consists of give yourself an extra 5–7 minutes past when you are expected to start. No one is going to miss you. If your workday is supposed to start at 9:00am, there’s no reason why you should sit down and start working exactly at that time. You’ll be amazed at how that extra headspace will reduce the pressure you feel to perform.
Work wherever it works. The prevailing wisdom about working from home is that you should have a dedicated and well-equipped space, which makes perfect sense — if that works for you. But you should also feel free to break up the day with brief stints wherever you feel like and put your feet up when the mood strikes. Our offices are all not large enough to have couches and coffee tables in them, so we should take advantage of the comforts of home while we have them.
Get mobile. Relatedly, you should try if possible to be untethered from your devices. The ability to get another cup of coffee or feed the cat during a meeting is vital. I’ve had to sit through a number of long and tedious webinars, but my AirPods have meant that I’m able to do dishes or fold clothes and not miss a thing. It blends work life and home life in a way that many would consider unhealthy, but that’s not what I’m feeling at 5:00pm when I’ve been able to tick off a couple of small tasks and am free to get on with dinner and a movie.
Take breaks. Even if you want or need to do all of your work in one place, you need to take real breaks, especially for lunch. This should involve closing down your computer, turning off your phone, and getting outside. You have to get outside. Using the pomodoro technique or calendar blocking are great ways to keep your focus and your sanity.
Control your inboxes. Email is a challenge for many people, and the amount has only increased with remote work. But it’s not only email: you could also be inundated with phone and video calls and meetings, text messages, Teams or Slack chats. Try to limit how many streams you have to monitor, and limit how often you check in to 3–4 times a day, perhaps with the first hour free. If you need to keep yourself available for your boss, teammates, or direct reports, then you should schedule times when you will not be available, or you’ll never be able to do any strong thinking or deep work.
Reduce your devices. Your tech needs might have changed. Being efficient and available at the office meant I had a laptop, a phone, a watch, and an iPad, which was probably overkill. Now I certainly no longer need the watch or the iPad, so I keep them powered down, rather than be bothered by their redundant notifications.
Pace yourself. Aligning tasks with your energy is always a good strategy, but it’s even more essential these days. And note how your energy levels might have changed with the move out of the office. Eating the frog — that is, doing your most difficult task first — is a great way to start the workday, but give yourself permission to put the frog off to later in the day or even tomorrow. Any projects that can be postponed perhaps should be. And don’t feel guilty if your “someday/maybe” folder starts to look a little bloated.
Quit when you’re done. Don’t feel guilty for not working while you’re technically “on the clock,” which might be easier said than done for some of us. Unless you’re a robot, there are probably a handful of hours during a regular work week that you would waste on shopping, surfing, or solitaire. Working from home means you have the luxury of not being stuck at work when you are not actually working; use that time wisely.
Be aggressively off the clock. Although you should not hesitate to let your life bleed into your work, you should be mindful not to let the imbalance tip in the opposite direction. Resist the urge to check email or do any work during non-working hours, especially on the weekends. It’s not a question of time; it’s a matter of headspace. You need to give yourself the psychological distance away from your work responsibilities, or you’ll start to feel not that you’re working from home but that you’re living at work.
If people insist on making demands on your time, you can gently tell them that you’re busy with self-care and that you’ll respond at an appropriate time. If you’re a boss, you should go out of your way to set the tone for your direct reports. Let them know that their time is theirs and that not only will you respect it, but that you expect them to do the same for the rest of the team.
It’s difficult to find balance in a time of imbalance, and, although many of the same principles are applicable, one approach will not work for everyone.