You’re working remotely to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Here’s how to stay productive.

On Friday, I unloaded tangled cables and a computer monitor from my car to set up my new, temporary office. It’s a grand space with a comfortable couch, 68" television, and a fridge full of food; now decorated with power cords and ethernet cables running in different directions. I do have to share the space, though, with a four-legged colleague who doesn’t work much. In fact, she sleeps most of the day.

That’s right — it’s my one-bedroom apartment.

An incredible number of people are now working remotely around the world, and this is undoubtedly an uncomfortable and challenging transition for many teams across industries. We’re doing our part and staying away from the office, but that means a lot of change is ahead.

What to expect

I spoke with several people who work remotely about their own experience, and they all agreed that shifting from working in an office space to working independently is not always easy. “I had to adjust to not having free coffee already made,” said Jason Woodward, who has been working remotely for a decade as a computer programmer. Of course, that wasn’t the only adjustment.

While the free perks in our offices will be dearly missed, there is much more that first-time remote workers will find themselves adjusting to. You can’t quickly “pop in” to someone’s office for a short chat, and when your entire team works from home — how can you build and maintain personal relationships? While there is a light at the end of the tunnel, here’s how you can manage to work from home in the meantime.

Set up your space

“Having a defined workspace is crucial for me,” explained Dom Rozzi, who has worked remotely at RHB Global for 10 months. And this should come to no surprise. Creating a defined space to “go to work” each day is the first step anyone should take in order to be productive – even if you only plan to work from home for a short time.

Make your workspace as distraction-free as possible, and no, not your bed. Working from bed sounds really lovely, but it can create a negative association for your brain when you're trying to use it for what it’s actually built for. Ideally, your distraction-free space will allow you to work productively but not shut you out from the world. Play music that won’t get you sidetracked, or park yourself next to a window so that you can take an occasional mental break…and see some sunlight.

If you have furry friends, try to find a space that will allow you some separation when you’re being productive during the day. “My dog mostly goes window to window or sleeps on the pillow behind my chair, but he does want to be on my lap during every conference call,” said Will Patch, who has been working from home for 8 months. “I’ve found that getting a sitting/standing desk helps – when I’m doing a webinar or podcast I can stand and he won’t affect the audio.”

Create your new routine

Yes, your house is going to be a little more chaotic — especially if you’re living with other people who will be working remotely, or have to care for children. But there’s no reason you can’t adapt your routine to one that will keep you equally productive while still managing the chaos.

Of course, this won’t be perfect, and it may never be, but consciously creating a new routine — or trying a few different ones — can help keep you on task. “I have established a routine in the morning,” explained Beth Miller, who has been working at home for 8 months at Campus Sonar. “After I see my kids off to school, I make a mug of tea and then go to work. Sometimes that means ignoring the breakfast dishes or walking past a laundry basket, but I’ve gotten pretty good at compartmentalizing.”

Balancing work and the rest of your life

For a lot of people, remote work sounds great! It presents grand ideas of mid-day yoga classes and finally being able to clean out the basement. But, that’s certainly not always the case.

For many people making the transition to working remotely in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, let’s get something straight — you’re probably still expected to be working during your normal hours. If you have a bit more flexibility, block out your time so that you’re still a productive employee, but are able to accomplish any other “life” tasks you need to handle.

Get your brain in work mode

Compartmentalizing, as Beth described, is a helpful first step to separating “being at work” from “being at home,” even if you don’t leave your house to do it. “Working from home takes a certain level of dedication, discipline, and focus,” said Rachel Cherry, who has been working from home full-time for two years. “When you’re at home, you’re surrounded by personal comforts and chores that need to be accomplished, episodes that need to be watched on Netflix…your comfy bed is only 10 yards away. The distractions of home will always be an issue when you work remotely, and you have to figure out how to tune them out and focus on work.”

This is where your new routine comes in. If you know that the dirty dishes will distract you throughout the workday, ensure that part of your routine involves getting the dishes done before you sit down to work. Or, maybe this task is a mid-day break that you allow yourself in order to walk away from your computer screen and stretch your legs!

No need to ditch your wardrobe

You know the phrase, “dress for the job you want, not the job you have?” When you work at home, you should at least dress for the job you have. “For a while, I was working in my pajamas and 5 o’clock would roll around; the UPS driver would knock on the door and I’d be mortified,” recounted Alex Simone. “I looked like a lazy, gross bum. Eventually, I started going to the gym in the mornings before work, showering and getting in real clothing. It made a huge difference in how I felt and how I could separate work from regular life.”

Just like researchers recommend a bedtime routine to remind our brains that it’s time to shut down for the evening, a morning routine can do the same thing before you begin working. Many aspects of your routine may not change— morning runs, cup(s) of coffee, taking a shower, and even getting dressed for the workday. Maintaining a consistent schedule as best as you can will help you make a smoother transition to a new workspace.

Take active breaks

Every year, a number of people resolve they will take more walking or standing breaks at work, fearing that sitting too long will have severe consequences down the road. Taking breaks when you’re working at home is no different, and while the spread of COVID-19 makes these breaks feel nearly impossible, it will help your productivity in the long run.

“ My biggest advice is to take the time every day to get out of the house at least once,” suggested Chris Coons, a senior account executive who has been working from home for nearly a year. “My recommendation is to set alarms or use timers for lunch, breaks, getting fresh air, etc. I make a concerted effort to leave the house at lunch every day to go to the gym for some social interaction if I can.”

Ways to take breaks while working from home:

  • Walk up and down the stairs every few hours
  • Go to the kitchen and drink a glass of water
  • Find a change of scenery by working from another spot in your house
  • Start a crossword, sudoku, or another puzzle
  • Play your favorite song and have a dance party
  • Walk outside
  • Do a small workout routine of squats, pushups, or other bodyweight exercises
  • Read a book or watch an episode of your favorite TV show (and if you’re going to do this — set a timer so you don’t get sucked in!)

Being disciplined and aware of your own work style is key to figuring out your routine, when you should take breaks, and how often they should happen.

Manage the transition

Even if you create a new routine and follow it perfectly, with breaks and all, it may be a challenge for you and your colleagues to establish a new “normal” together. Platforms like Zoom, Google Drive, Google Meet, and project management systems may already be in place, but you’ll find yourself using them much more.

Rachel Cherry said, “working in an office was always a struggle for me because of boundaries. If you’re immediately accessible to people, they have no problem walking up to you and interrupting you at their whim. Working from home is a sure fix. Colleagues can email or instant message me when they need and I can respond when I’m available.” If these are the types of conversations you’re used to having in the office, now is the time to start establishing systems with your colleagues to have short, impromptu discussions or longer scheduled meetings. “Communication can be challenging initially,” Jason Woodward advised. “Give it time, and put extra effort into understanding others’ points of view. Don’t expect people to be immediately interruptible for your needs. You and your team should form policies that govern how people should expect to interact online.”

Build a virtual watercooler

And while there’s plenty of jokes circling social media that introverts have been training their whole lives for remote work, even introverts can feel isolated! If you’re transitioning from a bustling workspace to a quiet (or, perhaps equally bustling) home office, be sure to add some socialization time to your routine and daily schedule. Just as Chris Coons would head to the gym to get out of the house, consider how you can build in socialization time with your colleagues.

This can be as simple as virtual lunch or coffee in the morning using Zoom or Google Meet for face to face interaction. If you’re having an in-depth and complicated conversation over a messenger system like Slack, suggest a phone call or video chat to get to the solution faster. “I can not stress the importance of video conferences enough,” said Jill Whitaker, director of web services for Southern Utah University. “It is so much easier to have a meaningful discussion with people — especially groups of people — when using video compared to a phone call.”

So, what now?

The short answer: take stock of what needs to be done, and make a routine.

Develop a routine for yourself and for the people you share a space with. This may look the same as it did three months ago, or is a completely new way of getting through each day. These routines and methods for getting work done – from your coffee in the morning to using Slack more often – may not work great the first time, which may require a reassessment and quick adjustment.

Take breaks and don’t let your worktime bleed into the time you’ve blocked off for other responsibilities, like virtual meetups with friends or colleagues, or a board game with the people around you. Too much isolation can be damaging, too!

This is a concerning time for so many – well beyond how they will get their work done outside the office. Practice patience and kindness, and continue to make safe choices for yourself and those around you.

Thank you to everyone who I had the chance to speak to in order to learn more about working from home:

  • Rachel Cherry
  • Chris Coons
  • Beth Miller
  • Will Patch
  • Dom Rozzi
  • Alexandra Simone
  • Jill Whitaker
  • Jason Woodward

While many of us have the luxury of being healthy individuals at lower risk of serious consequences from COVID-19, I urge you to be selfless in this time of uncertainty.

Buffalo at heart. Voice of Jackie Watches Stuff Podcast. Cat’s nickname is Potato. Digital marketer. I run for beer and costumes.

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