Lessons from working a world away

With the spread of COVID-19, governments, business and all other manner of employers are encouraging their employees to work from home. While this isn’t practical for everyone, those who can take their work home with them can benefit from understanding what works for them and what doesn’t.

Nine months ago my wife and I moved from Australia to Canada for her work. I’m lucky enough that my employer trusted me to work entirely remotely, and I packed up my laptop and we moved across the world. My new role was to manage teams across Australia and the UK to create internal IP. This meant creating a home office, conducting calls across a lot of international time zones and working out how to motivate myself without the benefits of an office, physical colleagues or a water cooler to gather around. Since then we have managed to begin winning some business here, but I still work the majority of my time from our study, tripping over baby toys and listening to the family downstairs.

The popularity of flexible, remote working has increased substantially in recent years, but doing a day here and there is very different to long periods of consistent remote working.

The current situation reduces the appeal of working from cafes or libraries but for those who are facing the likelihood of long-term remote work, I have found some things that work for me. I’m privileged enough to be able to afford to implement these solutions, and recognise not everyone is able to, but most don’t require any equipment or additional resources.

Not all of these will work for everyone, the key is to find the ones that best fit your personal preference and situation.

Structure and plan your day

  • Working from home often comes with fewer meetings (both formal and spontaneous). This means in theory you have the potential to get more work done. But it also means your meetings / engagements do not structure your day automatically like they may have previously. It is useful to think not just ‘what will I do today?’, but specifically ‘what will I have finished by the time I sign off?’ and work to that. Being deliverable-oriented provides you with focus and structure and help you work out when enough is enough.
  • Try, as much as possible, to stick to a log off time. It can be easy to continue with your computer on in the background every night. Remote working can easily slip into always ‘being on’, and its tempting to continue to work sporadically for much of the day and night (especially when that’s not required and isn’t productive), or randomly respond to emails all evening as your ‘little green light’ appears always on. Setting boundaries helps push you to be more productive during normal work hours.
  • Keep up your morning routine. It can become very easy to roll out of bed and straight onto the laptop — and stay there. If you normally exercise, have breakfast, have a morning shower or anything else, keep doing it! A mental break between getting up and starting work is refreshing and necessary.
  • Get dressed. While it might seem like the dream to wear pajamas all day, getting dressed helps to set the right frame of mind for the upcoming work day,
  • Try to do something outside of ‘work’ each day — go for walk, call (with video if possible) a friend or family member and make sure you take breaks. Exercise indoors, or from a park, can be a great way of avoiding gyms. There are plenty of apps that will give you free trials and are a great workout — try Kayla Itsines or Freeletics. It can be easy to neglect exercise, whereas even on the lowest intensity days going into work accounts for a few thousand steps — think of ways to make these up.
  • Starting the day with team check-ins can work really well, but be mindful that not everyone starts the day at the same time! Organise with your team the most agreeable time, and remember you wouldn’t show up to a meeting and launch straight in — chatting is even more important remotely than it is in person.
  • Working remotely can lead to long days and feeling burnt out by the time Friday hits if you have not given yourself enough time to switch off. Build short breaks into your day to make a cup of tea or stretch. Your brain and body will thank you and you will be more productive.

Stay on track

  • Working remotely requires you to think through a task in more detail before starting. Thinking about your tasks in detail before you begin can stop you getting confused or sidetracked and breaking your momentum. If you can foresee how you might get stuck and sort those out before jumping in it can prevent distraction for yourself and others.
  • Try different methods to get and stay focused. What works in the office will probably work at home, but you might need to experiment. Having background music can reduce distracting noise, for example. Experimenting with different lighting and sound can help you figure out the best way of working, particularly if you have others in the house.
  • Identify what needs to get done each half day/day/week. Most people use ‘to-do’ lists and use a raft of self-management techniques, but these become even more valuable when working remotely to focus your effort. Tools like the Eisenhower Matrix can help to prioritise your tasks.
  • Stay off social media. It can be tempting to open your phone or a new browser window — and before you know it this becomes automatic. The Chrome add-on Stay Focusd can be great to break this habit.

Have a dedicated work space and maintain your well-being

  • Set physical boundaries between home and work, if you can. Having somewhere that you can close your laptop (and ideally a door) provides a sense of ending your workday. A study found people who work from home tend to work longer hours and create an overlap between work and personal life. Don’t be like the study.
  • Pay as much attention to your setup as you would in an office. This means finding a chair that helps you sit up straight; having a table or desk at the right height; and if you can use a keyboard, mouse and monitor to improve posture, save your eyes, improve productivity. These are all, of course, tax deductible (so keep any home office receipts). There are some relatively inexpensive options out there.
  • Giving yourself a change of scenery can be very refreshing. A dedicated space away from the normal hive of activity in the home is essential. Find ways to build in changes of scenery within the house during the day or working outside to break things up.
  • Stock the kitchen with healthy snacks and do not eat lunch at your computer. As tempting as it is to eat that block of chocolate you normally look at after dinner, having healthier options means you do not finish your day feeling like you’ve been at the movies. Try fruit or yoghurt, and give yourself time to eat these, and your lunch, away from your computer It can be tempting to shovel something into your mouth while reading emails, but you’ve saved time on your daily commute so use that time for a real lunch break!
  • Time can fly when you get in the flow in ways that are almost impossible in an office. Make sure you have a big glass or bottle of water next to you. Without social queues to spur your visit to the kitchen, you can find yourself forgetting to get up, eat and drink. Seriously.
  • Do not work from bed. Working from bed makes it harder to sleep as you reduce the separation between work and rest and can increase the feeling that you are always on the job. It can also impact your quality of sleep as using electronics before bed reduces the melatonin needed to fall asleep.
  • Maintain a sleep schedule. For those who work from home, sleep cycles can get thrown off very easily. You might find yourself getting up earlier or later. Try to keep consistency from day to day.

Communication is more important than ever

  • Clearly communicate your working arrangements with your team and continue to communicate these to establish ground rules. The advantage of working remotely is you have more flexibility, but that means different things to different people. Ask your team members how they like to communicate. Some people prefer messenger, others email so they can process things at their own pace, and some communicate best through calls. It can be important to be clear to your team: when you are not contactable; how best to communicate with you; what the boundaries are; when your most productive time is — everyone has their own circadian rhythm, so plan your day around that and communicate it to your team.

This is good project management — but it’s even more important with a remote team (just like managing an interstate/international team).

  • Set yourself ‘quiet time’ to get hard thinking done, and block this out in your calendar to show others. Working from home is similar to working from the office in that you have times when you want to be available, and others when you want to put your head down and do work. For managers who are overseeing multiple people, lots of little interruptions can mean a lot of inefficient time. During designated periods of ‘quiet time’, you don’t need to respond to every instant message (IM) or call immediately, the same as you might take yourself offline in an office. Do not think that people will automatically assume you are not working just because you are not immediately responsive. This goes for when you try to contact someone — think about if your question can wait, or be grouped with others and do not be upset if you don’t get an instant response.
  • If you have the luxury of being in the same timezone as those you’re working with, use video or voice calling for real-time chat and calls as much as possible. It’s the closest thing to being in the office and probably replicates how you communicate when in the bigger offices anyway. Plus, really quickly, you may need to hear people’s voices to break up the day. Do this with the above point in mind.
  • Your normal style of email communication is likely not precise enough when it comes to giving instructions on a task, particularly if you’re used to talking people through things. Make a practice of reading through your instructions / guidance from the perspective of someone with little or no-assumed knowledge. It’s almost impossible to underestimate the level of assumed knowledge. Context is even more helpful than normal in remote scenarios.
  • Productivity tools can minimise unnecessary communication and help project management. Using tools like Trello or MS teams to record and track tasks and priorities can help
  • Try to use video calls for meetings when you can. Communication is much easier, you pay more attention and it makes everyone feel and act in a more present manner.
  • If you’re finding working from home a little lonely after a couple of days, so are most people. There’s a reason why people tend to do it a couple of days a week, at most. Things that can help include: reaching out to colleagues via phone / Skype; changing your working space like going to a park bench for an hour of work; doing something that is expressly not work in the middle of the day like walking your dog or someone else.
  • If there are other people in your house, communicate with them about your work. You can use signals to show that you are ‘working’, like having headphones on, a closed door another system to indicate when you are available to chat.

Remote working need not be a bad thing — in a lot of ways I’ve found it a positive and rewarding experience. Productivity and flexibility both increase if you set yourself up well and work out the ways of working that best suit you. Plus I’ve never been this fit!

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