During 2020, we saw a seismic shift in working arrangements. The rapid response to the pandemic found many organisations quickly organising for employees to work from home and I suspect for most people we thought this arrangement would last maybe a month or two at the most?
There was no time to undertake health and safety arrangements; no time to purchase the right desk or chair and for many, we found ourselves working from home surrounded by shielding family members or simultaneously homeschooling our children.
There was rarely a discussion about whether this arrangement would be sustainable in the long term because we never expected it to last so long. And yet, most people just got on with juggling work and home life as best they could. The focus on many was doing what they could, as many colleagues or family members may have been furloughed or even lost their jobs as a result of what was happening.
Roll forward 6 months and this is now our reality – figures suggest that over 45% of people are working from home and for many, this has offered them an insight into a very new and appealing approach to work. No more commuter traffic and wasted time in cars or rushing around between locations or trips away to other cities.
However, for some, it has meant isolation, a sense of grief at the loss of the social interaction they have with colleagues, reduced quality of communication, and frustration at longer hours. Maybe even frustration at the lack of separation between our homes and our workplaces.
My proposition is that working from home is a skill that is mastered through practice; those organisations or team members who view it merely as a stopgap measure will not potentially realise the benefits.
Each of us working from home can take a proactive role in developing this capability to make it effective and enjoyable. I’ve compiled some suggestions to guide home working novices and veterans alike toward a successful and sustainable experience:
My first tip is over-communicate
We often do not realise how much we interact with colleagues when we share physical space. Maintaining a similar level of communication is key to keeping work moving and eliminating any misunderstandings that may arise. Set and articulate clear expectations across your team.
Pick up the phone a little more often than you otherwise might. Send status reports, even when you think everyone already knows how things are going.
It’s crucial that we all learn to use new chat channels like Slack, MS Teams, or even WhatsApp to share status and content. Using the right technology for the right outcome is also important, so be careful not to overdo MS Teams or Zoom and get Zoom fatigue! Sometimes the phone is better.
Define your boundaries
Mark the beginning and end of the workday in time and space. Take a ‘walk to work’ by going around the block and re-entering the home as work. Start your day with a ‘commute’ during which you might listen to a favourite podcast, read, or take the time to enjoy your morning coffee.
The point is to mentally prepare just as you might when you go to the office. Take time to compress when the workday is over, beware of any tendency for work stress or tasks to bleed into the rest of your life.
Take breaks and eat well
Every office workday, no matter how busy, has a few breaks and transitions – five minutes before a meeting starts, or the time it takes to walk to a lunch spot, or a chat on the way to the kitchen. Preserving precious opportunities to recharge and reflect is key to keeping home working sustainable.
No one can or should maintain 100% focus on work all of the time, and the most productive people actually take more breaks than you might think. Get up from your seat at least once per hour. Take a longer break every few hours and go somewhere other than the fridge!
Snacking on nutritious food such as almonds and blueberries and drinking plenty of water throughout the day also supports our cognitive energy providing much needed hydration to our brain throughout the day.
When remote, people tend to become even more reliant on email and phone. Make use of any and all available tools to maximise creative communication. If describing something isn’t working, take a photo and send it. Sketch an idea and scan it. Share screens or leverage social media in ways that you mightn’t before.
Choose a suitable space
If it looks like your home working arrangement is likely to become long-term, now is the time to review where and how you work. Just like at the office, it is best if you have more than one place you work. This can include multiple positions and postures, such as a spot on the sofa to read and a higher table for working at standing height. Don’t hesitate to experiment; walk around when you are on a call or use a car for a great quiet place for a conference call.
Without the natural relationship building that occurs when people are in close proximity, teams need to work to build and maintain trust and transparency. So, continue to work hard to build and maintain trust.
Keep people up to date, delivering when you say you will, and reporting back when you can’t. This takes deliberate and proactive action on all our parts because you won’t be bumping into your manager or a colleague like you would have in the office. Check-in and consider what is and isn’t working about the team environment that has been created. Be explicit and open with your team and be prepared to make adjustments.
And finally, the most important tip of all,
Spending time outdoors is proven to be beneficial to mental and physical health. Even if you did not usually do so when working at the office, this is an opportunity to try a new habit that supports long-term wellbeing and performance. At multiple times throughout the day, go outside for some fresh air and light – walk to the park, work in your garden, or just walk around the block.
Even if this shift is temporary for many, organisations and individuals that build their capacity for remote working will see benefits that persist. They’ll be more communicative and inclusive of people who aren’t always present in the office.
Once people have learned to thrive in a remote or home working environment, they can learn how to better integrate their work and life more fully. When people are trusted to work where they want and need to, they gain time to exercise and eat well, to be with their families, and to engage in activities they enjoy.
I have spoken to many people over recent weeks that credit remote work with triggering a transformation in their health and work satisfaction. That’s something I’m sure that we can all endorse.