Unless you’ve been living under a stone for the last few months you’ll be well aware we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, with the current advice being stay at home to contain the virus. Aside from being unable to work in my favourite cafe and having to panic buy loo roll I’ve, rather fortunately, been largely unaffected.
I’ve been mostly/fully remote for over three years now and work in an industry (and for a company) where the technicalities of rapidly switching the entire workforce to fully remote has been quite straightforward. However, of those in jobs where remote work is possible, or even encouraged, most are not used to working at home for more than a day or two at a time. For many, the physical separation between work and home is very important and working from home is reserved for life convenience reasons only.
Since I’ve been doing this for a while I thought others might find my thoughts on effective remote working helpful. Although the advice below is not specific to the current situation, most of it will hopefully be relevant.
There are three topics I’m going to cover: working environment, working practices, and mental health.
It probably goes without saying but a good, reliable internet connection is essential. I’ve been with Zen since I started remote working and they’ve been exceptional, though aren’t cheap! It might not be feasible for you to change providers, but you can optimise your current setup or invest in better hardware to get the most from your current connection.
If possible, create a dedicated working space with a good chair, big monitor, keyboard, mouse etc. Choose an area well lit with natural light and open some windows, even if it’s cold! The air might not be so “fresh” in central London (although pollution levels are currently much lower) but the CO2 levels in your house increase a surprising amount over the day if you don’t let some air in, which can leave you feeling lethargic and foggy brained.
Get a good headset with a mic, it will make conference calls so much easier and reduce background noise for your colleagues. Gaming headsets are good - I have a Razer Kraken. Fluorescent colours aren’t required but are encouraged!
If some/all employees are remote your working practices need to be different then when everyone is co-located. Specifically, they need to be more deliberate - there are no water cooler chats or stopping by someone’s desk to check something. In particular, meeting management needs to be on point as you lose the in-person communication subtleties. Someone needs to manage who is speaking and what is being discussed, with everyone on mute except those talking. Ideally everyone will have their video on - you can’t pick up on body language if everyone is a disembodied voice!
Most companies nowadays use some kind of instance messenger, such as Slack or Microsoft Teams. If your company doesn’t I strongly suggest you start, especially in the current climate. Assuming you are using one of these tools, outside of meetings have work-related discussions in public channels (probably not in #general, but in a team/project specific channel!) so others can then “overhear” and help out if necessary. It also helps keep the rest of the team in the loop.
People who don’t like remote working often tell me it’s because they can’t concentrate at home as they’re distracted by Netflix, social media, or their kids! Personally, I find it easier to be productive at home - I’ve always found myself more distracted by talking to people than things on the internet - so I’m perhaps not the best source of advice on this. I do still need to be disciplined, though.
When I want to concentrate I turn everything off - Slack, email, phone, etc. I turn everything back on again when I need a break, which is normally after an hour or two. You can also get apps that block access to social media etc. for periods of time, in case you’re tempted! I’ve not found a need for these but they might help some.
Remote workers I know with young kids have told me of the importance of setting clear boundaries. An ex-colleague had a work hat - a bright red fedora if I remember correctly - and trained his kids he cannot be disturbed whilst it was on. I don’t have kids, but to me this sounds easier said than done!
Staying mentally healthy and staving off cabin fever is perhaps the biggest challenge facing those not used to frequent remote working - the majority of people aren’t too keen on being isolated for long periods of time. My typical strategies for dealing with this are definitely not applicable right now! For example, most days I try and get human interaction with someone other than my girlfriend. I’ll either work from a coffee shop early doors, getting home in time for our daily stand-up, or have lunch at a cafe in town.
In the current situation, this can be somewhat replaced by having video calls for a general chat rather than work, either with friends or colleagues. It’s not going to quite be the same but it’s better than nothing. I would encourage you all to be more active in non-work discussions on your work’s messaging platform (e.g. the #random channel on Slack).
Get some exercise. Most days I’ll exercise (cycle or gym) before work or at lunchtime. I prefer lunchtime as it gives me a complete mental break from work. In the UK we’re currently allowed out to exercise, but this is not the case everywhere. If you’re not allowed out then there are lots of online resources to help you workout at home. For example, Joe Wicks (a.k.a The Body Coach) is running P.E. classes for children via YouTube, and Darebee has a great variety of indoor training programs requiring little or no equipment (we’re currently doing their 50 push-up challenge).
When working from home it’s very easy for work and home life to blur. You need to separate them. So no working from bed in your pyjamas! Get ready for work as if you’re in the office - shower, dress, etc. Having a designated work area helps with this separation. Mine is the desk in our spare room, which is also where we hang the washing, much the amusement of my colleagues on video calls! Work only in this location and do other life things elsewhere.
Finally, you need a hard stop at the end of the working day, which may need to be an external factor. In normal times my hard stop is when my girlfriend leaves work and I start making dinner, the alternative being her hangry wrath! What yours is depends on you life situation - perhaps your kids start screaming for dinner at 5pm or your favourite TV show is on. Whatever it is, make sure you’re disciplined about it.