As I write this, many firms are shutting down their physical offices and having professional staff work from home. While most of us have done work from home before, often late at night or on a weekend, many professionals had not worked full time from a home office for an extended period.
I’ve been a consultant, trainer and coach for the past twelve years. I work from a home office in my furnished basement. Most of my coaching is conducted over the phone or video. Here are some of the things I learned about being productive when working from home.
1. Get dressed.
While it is tempting to work in your jammies, you will be more productive if you “show up for work”. Shower, brush your teeth and put on some decent clothes. Remember that you will be connecting with co-workers and clients via video. While you are in your home, you are still going to work, so you have to tell your brain, “Today is a work day, even though I’m not in my office.”
2. Stick to your routine as much as possible
If you normally work 8:30 to 5:00, try to keep to the same schedule as much as possible. Even when you are working from home, try to live by the same rules that you have a work. You wouldn’t leave work to go for groceries in the middle of the day, so fight the urge to treat working at home as a working vacation or a busy weekend.
3. Create a dedicated workspace
Find a place in the home where you can minimize distraction and focus on work. Don’t just set up camp at the kitchen table (unless that is your only option and you can take over the space for the next few weeks or months). Clear the workspace from clutter and distractions. This is your “office” where you will expect yourself to be working. Try to avoid the bedroom or high traffic areas of the home, if possible. Make sure you have adequate lighting, seating and room for your laptop and work materials.
4. Minimize distractions
The hardest thing about working from home is maintaining focus, especially in times of anxiety and change. Everything seems to call out for attention. The laundry, children, partners, social media, news, and that pile of random papers – they all want your attention. Just because you are working from home doesn’t mean that you can crank up the Spotify, watch CNN, have Facebook open on the second monitor and play Switch with your ten year old, all at the same time. Try focusing on doing one thing at a time. And do it well.
5. Manage your time
Use your calendar to schedule meetings and block out time for work that requires concentration. Use “time boxing” techniques to assign time on your calendar for important tasks. Schedule time between projects to check on email and texts. Try to stick to your plan as much as possible.
6. Focus, and plan for breaks
My grandpa used to say, “Plan your work and work your plan.” Consider working in sprints of 60 to 90 minutes, then take a ten minute break to walk around and clear your head. You can’t effectively focus on work, check email and texts, monitor social media, and deal with external interruptions all at the same time. Focus on one task and do it well, take a short break, and re-focus.
7. Use your commute time wisely
The average worker in the United States has a 30 minute one-way commute. Many have a longer commute. Working at home gives you an opportunity to re-purpose that commute time. Knowing that distractions will pop up when working from home, consider starting your work day when you normally leave the house and end when you would normally return from the office. This might give you an extra hour or to deal with those non-work activities that arise during the day. This is especially true if your kids are home from school during this time.
8. Build in time to connect with colleagues
This is important, especially for extroverts. Many of us will feel a little lost and anxious after days (or hours) of social distancing. Build in time in your day for a phone or video app conversation with a co-worker each day. Find ways to brighten someone else’s day with humor and caring.
9. Use video meeting apps
Applications like Zoom (free for small meetings up to 45 minutes), Microsoft Teams (free for a limited time), Skype or FaceTime are great tools that put you “on screen”. Connecting via video may be awkward at first, but it will help you feel more connected and accountable to each other. Before long, it will become second nature.
10. Don’t be too hard on yourself
These are anxious times with a lot of changes. You will not be 100% productive on your first day (or days) at home-work. Social isolation during the Covid-19 crisis will be hard. If you find yourself wasting time on unimportant tasks or zoning out because of lack of sleep, give yourself a break, find a new direction, and move on. Eat healthy and get exercise. Constantly beating yourself up about how you are falling behind or how you are not doing everything perfectly will only slow your progress.
11. Stop working and shift gears at the end of the day
Develop an “end-of-work routine” that helps you transition from work mode to home mode. It may be literally shutting down the computer and putting your phone away. It might be having a conversation with your partner or someone else. It might be putting an “out-of-office” notice on your email. You need to shift from work mode to home mode at some point, otherwise you end up living in work mode, which produces guilt and anxiety (and lowers productivity).
12. Take time to reflect and be grateful
In times of crisis and change, it often helps to spend some time to reflect and an opportunity to evaluate what’s working in your life and what’s not. Take some time to re-calibrate and make some changes in your life. Focus on those things that you are grateful for and look for ways that you can help others.