Companies around the globe have rolled out mandatory remote work. Whether you’re a newbie or WFH veteran, here’s what you need to do to stay productive.
Google, Microsoft, Twitter. Hitachi, Apple, Amazon. Chevron, Salesforce, Spotify. From the UK to the US, Japan to South Korea, these are all global companies that have, in the last few days, rolled out mandatory remote work policies amid the spread of COVID-19.
Realistically, shifting to the ‘home office’ will become the new normal for all of us, despite WHO’s declaration that coronavirus has officially reached ‘pandemic’ status.
Some employees will be on remote work for the first time, trying to find out how to stay on task in a new environment. But there are ways to deliver results and avoid going stir-crazy, from setting up a good workspace to interacting with your team.
Crank up the communication
Coronavirus or not, the key to remote work is clear communication with your boss.
“Have clear-set expectations for communications day-to-day,” says Barbara Larson, a management professor at Northeastern University in Boston “Ask [your manager] if they don’t mind having a 10-minute call to kick off the day and wrap up the day. Often, managers just haven’t thought of it.”
Most people spend their days near their boss, meaning communication is easy and effortless. But that’s all out the window with remote work. Communication breakdown is even more likely if your workplace isn’t used to remote work. Your manager might not be used to managing people virtually or your company might not have a ready-to-go suite of tools for remote workers. Such as the chat app Slack or video conferencing app Zoom, Larson says.
But even for those accustomed to it, working from home can feel unstructured and isolating. A study of 2,500 remote workers last year, Buffer found that loneliness was the second-most reported challenge. Loneliness can make people feel less motivated and less productive.
So when you work from home, as much as possible “good” face-to-face and instant contact helps.
“Out of sight, out of mind can be a real problem for remote workers,” says Sara Sutton, CEO, and founder of FlexJobs, a remote job listing site. “The very best remote workers will reach out to coworkers and managers regularly” through a variety of tools.
‘Treat it like a real job’
There are also some timeless WFH tips to call upon. For example, just because you can lounge around in your pajamas doesn’t mean you actually should. “Take a shower and get dressed. Treat it like a real job,” says Larson.
If you don’t have a home office, as much as you can create an ad hoc, bespoke space exclusively for work. “Not having a well-equipped home office space when [people] begin remote working can cause a temporary decrease in productivity,” Sutton explains. She says double monitors and a wireless keyboard and mouse make her more productive at home.
So instead of lying in bed with a laptop, try something more deliberate. The fix could be as easy as pushing a nightstand into a corner far from distractions, plopping down your computer and sitting in an upright chair, like you would at your office desk. (Be mindful of ‘tech neck’ and other ergonomic needs, though.)
This also serves as an important signal to those who live with you that you’re ‘at work’. “Create boundaries within your home that your family members understand. For example, ‘When the door is closed, pretend I’m not there'”, says Kristen Shockley, an associate psychology professor at the University of Georgia.
‘Psychological segues’, like a 20-minute morning coffee or afternoon exercise, can put you in the right working mindset
With a dedicated workspace where you can concentrate, it becomes easier to unlock the benefits of remote work. In a survey of 7,000 workers last year by FlexJobs, 65% said they’re more productive remote work, citing benefits like fewer interruptions from colleagues, minimal office politics and reduced stress from commuting.
Yet it’s also important to bookend your day. In that Buffer survey, the most-cited WFH complaint was the inability to unplug after work. If you can’t commute or enter and leave a physical office, Shockley suggests “psychological segues” that can help put you in the right mindset.
“Even if childcare isn’t an issue, it’s still easy when you’re home [to think]: ‘I have laundry to do, let me do it real quick,’” she says. “You have to [put] yourself in a frame of mind that you’re working.”
Avoid feeling isolated
Still, the enforced and sudden nature of the transition from an office to a home setting could leave some struggling to get used to the change, even with these resources.
“The coronavirus is pushing everyone into this kind of extreme working from home,” says Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University in California who’s given TED Talks about remote work. He says there are two types of remote work: short-term or occasional, and permanent or full-time. “It is kind of like comparing light exercise to marathon training,” he says.
The latter is still quite rare – Bloom says only 5% of the US workforce report that they’re full-time remote workers. With coronavirus, it’s not clear how long people will be at home, which poses additional problems. For example, parents find it harder if kids are at home when schools are closed, so good contact with managers is vital.
Prolonged isolation could also potentially impact on morale and productivity. This is why Larson suggests teams strive to preserve an unusual sense of normalcy and camaraderie.
“It’s a good way to bond – it’s kind of weird, but everyone’s feeling weird, so it’s fun,” Larson says, describing the “we’re all in this together” mentality. “It adds a little bit of levity and lightness to the otherwise difficult environment.”
Sutton also supports the idea of translating in-office social activities in an online environment. “Celebrate birthdays, give public praise for goals reached and projects completed,” she says. “Make time for casual conversations and ‘water cooler’ chat.”
‘Keep spirits up’
Make no mistake, these are stressful times. Negative news, thinking about sick or elderly loved ones and battling the urge to go panic buying. These can all delay answering work emails from home. But the more effort you make to communicate with friends, the greater chance evading loneliness that can lead to depression.
“Overall, a short-run period of say 2-4 weeks full-time remote work would be economically and personally painful, but bearable,” Bloom says. “A longer period of, say, 2-3 months full-time remote work could lead to serious economic and health costs.”
He agrees that solutions to this include video calls, regular manager check-ins and regular meetings with no agenda.
If you’re a manager, it’s on you to provide clear communication and it’s also crucial to keep up morale. “These days, it’s easy to feel anxious or discouraged,” Larson says. If you’re a manager, “acknowledge there are stress and difficulty. Your job is to be a cheerleader for the team.”
That’s particularly key if people end up remote work for more than a few weeks, which is a distinct possibility. “Set up a norm of some kind,” Larson says. “Keep people’s spirits up.”