As Engineering Manager at Maven, a rapidly growing fleet management software company, I have had the unique experience of working from home for the past few years due to a relocation that was required for my wife’s career. Hundreds of miles from the main office, I continue to work from home full-time, whilst also observing many friends, colleagues, and society as they transition to working from home temporarily during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even for companies that are experienced in accommodating distributed (remote) teams, the proliferation of COVID-19 has a lot of workplaces in a tight spot. A significantly higher percentage of offices have gone fully remote for much longer than ever before.
Transitioning the majority of the workforce to be fully or even partially remote often causes disruption for both employees and employers. People need time to adjust to their new work environment and reach their peak productivity. Those not accustomed to remote work may struggle with the lack of immediate feedback only accomplishable in a face-to-face, direct feedback environment.
While keeping the possible shortcomings of working from home in mind, I have compiled a list of tips based on my three years of experience WFH to help individuals maintain a more stable and productive home office environment and daily routine. Not all of these suggestions are feasible for everyone’s situations, but I would recommend attempting to adhere to them as much as possible.
Maintain Your Routine
If possible, you should attempt to maintain your routine – especially if you are not accustomed to working from home. Get up at the same time, go through your morning like you’re going to walk out the door and go to work, right up until the leaving your house. It’s tempting to sleep in or cut corners when you just have to roll over to your computer and you’re “online”, but maintaining your routine puts you in the right headspace to actually start doing work. And yes, this includes putting on real pants instead of staying in your pajamas. There’s a lot of jokes about answering your calls in your underwear, but it’s not good practice.
Set Boundaries – Spatial and Temporal
It’s very important to establish boundaries when working from home. Your home is where you go to relax, recharge, and enjoy yourself. It should stay that way. Not properly compartmentalizing your workspace at home will lead to less satisfaction with your off time.
Consider the temporal aspect. When you work from home for a long time, it’s easy to fall into an “always on” mentality where you’re right there with your setup. You can just hop on and handle something or just sit down in the morning before eating breakfast. Instead, you should strive to work as you normally would and not let “working from home” turn into “working whenever you are home”. Take lunch at a normal hour and leave time for short and (perhaps most importantly) intentional breaks throughout the day.
Spatially, it’s good practice to try to separate out your workspace from your living/sleeping space. Even if it’s just a spot at the table that you’ve set up, make sure you intentionally enter this space to work and exit the space when not working. Doing so can establish boundaries and help to combat the “working whenever you are home” phenomenon.
I advise against working from your couch or your bed (at least 100% of the time) as these are your spaces for rest and relaxation. It’s a bad idea to let your work bleed into these areas of your life. You should try to be comfortable, but not let yourself slip into just lounging on the couch as this will invariably lead to YouTube or Netflix binging for the next 10 hours.
Organize Your Work Area
Make sure you remove distractions from the area where possible or remove yourself from areas that contain distractions. Close out of programs that may be distracting. Your goal is to create a space in which you can compartmentalize your work within your home so that when you enter this area, you’re in work mode. When you leave your work area, you’re simply back at home.
At many offices, people have dedicated laptops that they can take home, which makes it easier to avoid certain distractions. For those that use their home setups (like me), at least initially, close out of programs like Steam to raise the barrier. This also adds another reason to not work from your couch or bed where you’d be in tempting proximity to a TV where you may just end up binging Netflix instead of getting work done.
When in Doubt, Over-Communicate
Over-communicate and make yourself available via whatever instant messaging platform that your company uses. Being co-located reduces the communication barrier significantly when you can just walk over and talk to someone. Availability in an instant messaging platform, such as Slack or Microsoft Teams Instant Messaging, is something that is hugely important when operating remotely. Instant messaging acts as decent replacement for that face-to-face communication. When everyone is making an effort to keep in contact, it significantly reduces the strain of going remote.
With more people remote right now than ever before, more people are going to feel that strain of not getting immediate responses and not being able to talk face-to-face. This is something that an entire office has to be on board with to make it work.
For a functioning near-fully remote office, all workers need to make sure that they’re looking at their messages consistently throughout the day. Responses should be given in a timely manner, even if you can’t handle the request right now. Uncertainty in an unanswered message can cause people to be less productive, especially if what they’re doing depends on that response. This is not to say that you must be glued to your messaging program 24/7 and that this should supplant your other work. Just remember that this is the only link that your remote colleagues have to you.
Do What You Need to Do to Stay Sane
I learned this very early on when starting to work from home. I’m an active person and when I was in the office, I was constantly moving around and talking to people. Transitioning to remote work instantly cut off that outlet. When working remotely, your entire world lives through your computer, so there’s little incentive to get up and move around. If you’re used to leaving the house every day, this can lead to feeling cooped up very quickly.
Typically, my suggestion here is to make sure to simply go outside and go for a walk. Given the circumstances, though, people may not be comfortable doing so, or may not be able to do so. Take short breaks, walk around your house/apartment, do pushups, meditate, play with your pets, etc. Working from home can be isolating and we all need a break every once in a while, so use that time to try to recharge a bit in whatever way you need to (and can) in these times.