A busy home-worker, pictured here with his human. Photo: Getty
A busy home-worker, pictured here with his human. Photo: Getty

BusinessMarch 18, 2020

Nine ways to make working from home easier in a Covid-19 world

A busy home-worker, pictured here with his human. Photo: Getty
A busy home-worker, pictured here with his human. Photo: Getty

Dr Sarb Johal is a specialist in the psychology of disaster recovery and pandemics. He also works from home. Here he shares what he’s learned.

You may be a seasoned veteran of working from home, or you may be a complete newb to this and don’t really know where to start. Thanks to Covid-19, and if you’re fortunate to be in an industry which has ongoing work for you, it’s likely that for at least some time, working from home is going to be a thing for you.

A policy of home-working will be new for many organisations. And even if it isn’t, the current situation might mean that many more people than usual will work from home, and often at the same time. Your office base might even be completely empty. To get this new working arrangement right you need structure and a shared understanding of what’s expected – both for the organisation, and for the person working at home.

Remote working and working from home. Same thing, right?

Actually, no. Working from home has most often been seen as a temporary situation. Perhaps you don’t have any face-to-face meetings tomorrow, so you decide you’ll avoid the office for the day. It’s also something you might do on occasion when you need a block of time without the interruption of co-workers poking their heads in your space. You might bring your laptop home for the day and set it on the kitchen table. For most, it represents a significant change from your normal routine and your normal pace of work – which can be a very good thing once in a while. It’s effective mostly because it’s different from normal. You still have the framework and structure of your office, and the people who are still there adjust their work in light of your absence.

Remote working is fundamentally different. In the current Covid-19 situation, organisations will need to prepare for people working outside their offices on a semi-permanent basis. This requires a very different set of abilities, resources and skills. To work like this day after day requires a self-starting attitude and ninja-level time management skills.

Maybe not like this:

Yes, the office perks can be incredible at home. But they can be incredibly distracting too. As can other people being around, whether they are adults you share your living space with, or children in your family.

Nine tips for better remote working

So, this new way of working is going to take some bedding in. As someone who has been doing this for 18 months now, with three small kids at home (and a very understanding spouse), here are some suggestions to get you started:

1. Do something that is not work first

If you were working out, you’d probably stretch and warm-up first (I know you don’t, but you should). The thing is, if you don’t you’re probably not going to perform your best, and you might get hurt and you’ll be sore for days. The same is true for work. Start your day warming up, and make it a non-work thing. For me, it’s walking our dog for 20 minutes. So, go for a walk, listen to a podcast, or exercise. And no, email doesn’t count.

2. Chunk your time

One of the great things about remote work is that you don’t have to show up at 8am and stay ‘til 5pm. Also, one of the worst things about remote work is that you don’t have to show up at 8am and stay ‘til 5pm. So many distractions competing for your time. So, block your time, and give each block of time a purpose: email, writing, research, meetings, etc. This makes it easier to control your flow of work, and makes sure you’re able to handle interruptions when they come, and get back on task when you engage again. Check out the Pomodoro technique for one way of chunking your time that lots of people find helpful.

3. Turn off notifications

Nothing kills work like incoming notifications. Turn them off, and then set a reminder to check your emails three times a day; start of the day. Just before lunch, and once more just before you finish your scheduled working day. Don’t get sucked into the email vortex that kills many hours for even the most productive of remote workers.

4. Create your place

Even if you like to mix it up and work in different places, in these times of physical distancing you’ll need a workspace where you can hunker down a suitable distance away from others to get things done. Start creating this now if you can. Just don’t take all day about it.

5. Get out in the world when you can

It’s important for your own state of mind to realise that self-isolation / staying at home / remote working doesn’t mean complete lockdown (not yet anyway). Change your focus, literally – use your eyes to look into the distance every now and again rather than staring at screens or sheets of paper all the time. Get up and move around in between your chunks of allocated work. Go for a walk where you can be outside yet still stay an appropriate distance away from others. All this will help you be more productive, and also feel more balanced.

6. Shut the door

I’ve found that this is one of the hardest things about remote working. Sometimes I have to say no to the people I love. Take time to create the expectation that when you’re working, you’re not going to be available for piggy-back rides, or gaming sessions with your kids. My family knows that when the door is shut, it’s work time. And work with your partner / housemates / other adults on this too. Make it like you’ve left and gone to work elsewhere, knowing you’ll be home at the end of the day and there will be plenty of time for piggy-backs then.

7. Dress for work

Yes, you could work in your pyjamas. But if you change and put work clothes on, you’re much more likely to make the mental shift into work mode, and then stick to a work-mode structure. Staying in your slouching around clothes makes it all too easy to blur the lines, and suddenly, you’re cleaning parts of the house you never knew needed cleaning, or making that cold-brew coffee you’ve always thought would be amazing. Get dressed at the start of the day, and get out of your work clothes when you’ve finished working. Your attitude goes with the clothes.

8. Know when your day is going to end

It’s tempting to let your structure slip and end up working far longer into the day than you intended to. If this continues, it’s not likely to be particularly good for you, or those around you. If you’ve ever crammed for an exam, you know that you’re far more likely to be more productive when your time is limited. Set a time to finish working and stick to it.

9. Finally, remote working can be really lonely

Tell someone about your day – what you’re working on and what you got done. It’s also more likely you’ll get stuff done if you know someone is going to ask what you did.

Bonus tip: Write yourself an email at the end of the day. Send it. Writing it will help you focus your thoughts at the end of the day, and reading it later will help to motivate you as you look back on what you’ve achieved.

Keep going!