Tips, tricks, positive reinforcement and other things to help you cope with working from home.
Note This article was edited to remove some Wellcome-specific content which is still visible on the originally published article on Wellcomes intranet.
Just to give you some background, I’ve worked from home / remotely for the last 10+ years, in that time I’ve moved from Canada to England and currently live and work from a remote farm out in the “boonies” in Gloucestershire.
There’s no silver bullet to being a productive worker at home, for a lot of people it’s going to be an intensely personal configuration of things that leads you to being able to work from home and ultimately becoming productive from home. I can’t stress enough that for some people it’s going to be hard, it’s a large adjustment, but remember that everyone will be going through it at the same time, make sure that you have friends, family and co-workers that you can lean on during this period to help you keep yourself sane and healthy during what is going to be a trying period for everyone.
Working from is going to take a level of self-awareness that you may not have had to deal with in the past, learning to read yourself and picking apart what’s causing you to feel lethargic, out of it, unproductive is going to be a large part of your life for the first little while, and you’re going to need to adjust how you do things as time goes by and your working environment changes.
Nothing below is a silver bullet, and if you have your own tips or tricks, it would be really good to see them in the comments below. Multiple team members in Wellcomes Digital and Data Labs teams contributed to the list below, thank you to everyone for your contributions!
Don’t Overinflate Expectations
You’re at home, you have no distractions (or limited distractions), you have nowhere you need to be, so you should be 1 million times more productive than being in an office right? That’s what Jason Fried told everyone isn’t it?
Lower your expectations for yourself, working from home is like learning any other skill and it’s rare that someone can jump into it and even be remotely as productive as they previously were working from an office. Give yourself room to breathe and observe and understand the things that distract you, the things that are getting in the way of you feeling productive and focus on mitigating or limiting (or embracing!) those things to start so that you can feel comfortable at home, on your own, working by yourself.
To help create some structure, I recommend you try either Bullet Journaling or the Pomodoro Technique to help you focus, but also to make sure that you’re being realistic about what you can accomplish and how you use your time. If you’re a dev and you’re more comfortable in the command-line try out TaskWarrior. Make a routine of sitting down at your desk in the morning and reviewing your bullets, task list, etc… and really objectively thinking about what you can get done in the time you’ve got… then only try and achieve half of that. Anything you do over and above that is a bonus!
To start at least, keep your same routine as if you were going to the office, get up, do the things you would normally do. There’s going to be a gap where you would have been travelling to the office, use that time to your benefit. Watch an episode of a show, go for a walk, read for a while to clear your head before you start into it, resist the urge to go and sit at your computer and start working. You need a baseline to start from that you can then try and figure out the best flow of your day that works for you.
Get dressed as if you were going to work, it helps you to separate your work time and home time mentally.
Early / Night Birds
There’s inevitably going to be people online and doing things early/late. Ignore them, most likely they’ve got a deadline, or they’ve forgot to close slack, whatever it is don’t let yourself fall into the same patterns just because you see others doing it. Don’t model your behaviours on what you perceive others are doing in their WFH time, as they may just be figuring out what works best for them, and there are some people who may be on different time zones.
Stop When You Need to Stop
Absolutely resist the urge to work through lunch, or put in that extra 30 minutes at the end of the day because the kids aren’t home yet, or sitting down at your desk 30 minutes early because the kids are already off to school, etc… Just get up from your desk, and walk away. It’s a slippery slope where you start to justify that extra half hour, but the truth is you’re probably not being very productive and walking away would be a better choice.
Don’t Eat Breakfast / Lunch / Dinner at Your Desk
Get up, go make yourself a sandwich, eat in a different room from the computer, go outside, whatever, just don’t sit at your computer and eat, you need to break up your day and you need to step away from the computer and stretch your legs and get blood flowing.
I have a weight bench, bars and dumbbells behind my desk and I go out and chop wood fairly often as a break. You need to do something. Sign up for Les Mills online, a yoga app, or some other online service and at lunch do a 20 minute workout, go for a walk, run on the spot, do sprints. You’re not going to be moving around as much as you were in the office, so your baseline physical activity will have dropped significantly working from home.
Celebrate Your Achievements
If you manage to do something, complete something, pony up and tell people on slack, Teams, wherever. Likewise, if someone achieves something and posts it up on Slack, Teams, etc… celebrate it and congratulate them. Then get up, go get yourself a cookie, coffee or treat and carry on.
Nominate a Rubber Duck
Once a week, in your team, nominate someone as the rubber duck for the day. It’s that person’s job to take calls from other team members and listen to them explain work problems they’re working through and just be an ear.
Don’t Blame the Toaster
You might end up tending towards viewing things in your home in an adversarial way. For instance, you’ll start looking at your TV as the enemy of productivity. Try to avoid that line of thinking, it leads you down a path where you just become angry at your possessions and their potential to ruin your productivity and it can eventually trickle over into how you deal with other people as well.
Do Things You Couldn’t Do in An Office (Within reason)
Don’t treat it as a jail sentence, find the things that you enjoy that you can now do at home with impunity while you work. Celebrate those things. I can get up any time I want and wander into the living room and play a game of cards with my son, or call up a friend and chat while I work. Buy a really noisy clicky keyboard (https://www.pckeyboard.com/page/product/UNI0P4A). Or you can crank Journeys Don’t Stop Believin and sing it at the top of your lungs in the middle of the day, I don’t do that though, never.
Some of us absolutely cannot work with background noise, some of us absolutely cannot work without it. There are loads of ASMR and environmental sound playlists on Spotify which you can fire up to provide some white noise or background noise to give you a feeling like things are going on around you. Another good one is oddly video game soundtracks and the LoFi playlists on Spotify, no lyrics, just calm, smooth background music to work to.
What I do on occasion (usually when I get sick of music) is stick on a TV series in the background that I have watched before, it’s less distracting but also comforting because you know what’s going to happen next, so it doesn’t draw your your focus. Over the years I reckon I’ve played through all the seasons of Futurama about 40 times doing this and I’ve been sat at my desk and realized a season has ended and I didn’t tune into a single part of it.
LoFi Hip Hop Music — https://open.spotify.com/playlist/0vvXsWCC9xrXsKd4FyS8kM?si=NZF5SnErTXei...
See if there already is a chat group, slack channel or otherwise dedicated to work music at your org, if there isn’t, create one and start sharing your WFH playlists.
Avoid Podcasts if They Distract You
News-heavy, new content is going to distract you, as nice as it is to hear people talking, it has the ability to tear your focus completely away from work and you can quickly get frustrated not realizing that what you’re listening to is the root of the problem.
Try Pairing A Few Times
Pick a buddy for an afternoon, install Discord, and stay persistently on Discord with them or your team so you can strike up audio conversations at will and feel like you’re interacting more. Hearing other people socialize even if you’re not interacting will help with the isolation.
Schedule All-Hands Meetings
Set aside a time each week for your team to just have a call. No topic, no agenda, just jump on a call with the people in your team and chat about whatever is on people’s minds. You do this in the office constantly, you have passing conversations with people constantly, whether it’s a polite hello and chit-chat to the staff at Wellcomes doors, or a quick convo on the elevator on the way up to your floor. That isn’t going to happen anymore, and you need that social interaction so create time and space for it to happen.
Buy Healthy Snacks
I tend to munch a lot when I’m working from home. Buy / order some healthy snacks to munch on. There are loads of bulk things like nuts, dried fruit, granola, etc… that you can buy on sites like Amazon that will save you making loads of trips to the kitchen throughout the day.
Shut off the World
People make a lot of noise about office environments being distracting, etc… But in truth, digital things can be just as disruptive if not more so. If you feel like you’re getting easily distracted by team chats like Slack or Teams or even email. Turn it off, close them, even go so far as disabling the wifi on your computer. Take the morning off from the internet and just work, and then sign back in at lunch and review what you missed. If something is so unbelievably important that they need your answer to it immediately, people can call or text you. Make sure you tell people you’re doing this though, so they don’t worry about you.
If you have trouble with self-discipline when it comes to certain sites like Facebook or Twitter, try an app like Cold Turkey https://getcoldturkey.com/ to block those sites on your computer until out of office hours times.
Communicate with Partners / Roommates
Don’t get angry if you get interrupted by your family/roommates. Give them a heads up when you’re going to need some heads-down uninterrupted time to focus or when you’re going to be on calls so that they don’t inadvertently stress you out or do something you feel is disrupting you. If they are doing something that’s disrupting you, talk to them, communicate it and don’t silently sit and fume about it and let it ruin your day.
This is a fairly big one. If you have family that’s normally at home during the day, or your partner or children are going to be at home with you. Remember, this is a major adjustment for them as well, they’re probably not used to you being around all the time either and it might take them a while to adjust to your constant presence.
If you’ve got kids like I do, and you’re worried about how things are going to go with you at home and them at home, and this whole work thing. Don’t stress about it too much, accept the distraction of having random conversations or cwtches. Treat it as a new job perk and not an impediment to getting things done.
If your kids are old enough, spend the next couple weeks communicating to them that you are now entering work time and that you need them to let you get on and that you will come and play with them at your break/lunch/after work. And go play with them at your break. It’s not going to magically make them leave you alone right away, but if you keep at it, they’ll start to get accustomed to it.
Make a sign with your kids that you can hang on the door saying “Shop Open” on one side and “Shop closed” on the other, so your kids understand when they can and can’t come in to see you.
If you have to do things like collect children from school at the same time every day consider blocking that out in your diary otherwise someone will book an important meeting at 3pm which you can’t make.
Don’t make your desk/space too important
There’s an article by Stephen King, where he talks about when he first started to make money, how he bought a big solid desk, and put it in the center of a dedicated office for him to work in. Years later he moved his desk to a small one in the corner and put in a TV and couch so he could sit and watch the game with his kids while he figured out what he was doing. His work desk is probably smaller than what we have in the office.
The point being, don’t rely on a space and things to make you magically productive. There’s no difference fundamentally between a giant mahogany desk with a £500 Herman Miller desk chair and your kitchen table other than the former creates an unrealistic expectation that magic is going to happen the moment you sit down at it.
Accept Low Productivity and Adjust Accordingly
You are going to have days where it just isn’t working for you. The kids might be all over you, the noise outside might be driving you nuts. On days like that what I like to do is separate my tasks into two sets 1) Things that are really hard problem solving issues and 2) Things that require you to think, but are short to complete, don’t require a lot of set up and will give you a sense of accomplishment in a short period of time. Work through the items in bucket 2 until you feel like you can tackle an item from bucket 1.
People Are Visual
If you have apps or tools that let you diagram and draw things, use them to help you communicate concepts. I have a an old wacom drawing tablet and AutoDesk Sketchbook (it’s a free drawing application) which I might bring out of retirement and start using. If you have the ability to create quick, ad-hoc visuals to support your communication, do it if you think it will help.
Use Video on Calls
I know you want to sit in your pyjamas while your work, but try to make yourself presentable and have video on during calls, using only audio means you may miss out on visual cues in understanding other people on the call, and it generally gives everyone a better feeling if they can see who they’re talking to versus a blank/black screen.
Set an Alarm for Lunch and End of Day
There won’t be visual cues of people getting up and going for lunch, talking more, etc… going on around you. If you need the extra structure, set an alarm on your phone for lunch and end of day so you have something to pull you out of any deep work and remind yourself to call it a day.
Break The Thousand Mile Stare
If you find yourself staring at the screen unable to really get moving, pop open a text editor (Notes on macos for example) and just start writing. Write anything, it doesn’t matter what it is, write a poem about what you’re working on today, your gricery list, a bucket list of things to do, random gibberish, a short story, it doesn’t matter. Just get your fingers moving and things pouring out of your head to clear the slate. You can do this for up as long as you need but I find after 15 minutes of I feel a bit more ready to tackle some actual problems.
- Don’t work from the couch, or bean bags, it will come back to haunt your back.
- Put a big jug of water on your desk in the morning, you WILL forget to hydrate.
- Ping your co-workers regularly, share funny links, tell jokes, just interact, it will help others adjust as well.
- Not everything needs to be a video chat / call, share a document and collab via chat, don’t drag others into a meeting unless there’s an absolute necessity for it.
- It can help to leave the house once you’ve finished for the day, even for just a few minutes to mark the end and disconnect yourself from work.
- Write and speak more in-depth than you normally would, there won’t be visual cues during conversation for people to pick up on, so overcommunicating in some situations might be key to getting a point across.
- If you have a mac and an iPad, you can set up your iPad as an extra external monitor.
- If you have a smart TV kicking around, or even an old TV kicking around, you can configure that as a secondary monitor.
- If you have a Samsung Fridge, I guess you might be able to configure it as a secondary monitor…
- Your food bill is probably going to go up, watch your intake, eat light meals to avoid the mid-afternoon slump you get from carb-heavy recipes.
- Try not to listen to new music (with lyrics), it will inevitably draw your attention away, build a playlist of songs you know and try to stick to those during work hours.
- Check to see if your organisation has any rebates, perks for internet or 3g/4g dongles so you can work from more than home, places like the park, etc… to get some fresh air.