As part of government measures many office workers are now working from home, perhaps for the very first time. This is an unprecedented and unsettling time.
One of the positive things that is coming out of the current coronavirus crisis, is the sense of “community and cooperation” that is arising. As an illustration of this, much advice is now being shared on how to work remotely, often by those who have been doing it for some time.
As one of those who is now working entirely from home, like others I have looked for support in adapting to this change.
This has culminated in an A-Z of both of my thoughts and others' recommendations of how to settle in and work well in our new work spaces.
A: Ask for what you need
As we adapt to this new way of life, we are likely to find there are things we need to be best able to work from home.
Ask your manager if you need equipment, to change your hours or other form of support in working from home. And, ask any people you live with for what will help you too (see G: Ground rules). Noting that this is likely to be a conversation that happens more than once.
B: Breaks matter
Without social cues and the usual office interruptions, it can be easy to lose yourself in your work and not take the breaks your body needs or finish when you should. This is especially true if you are alone.
Remember, the brain can only pay sustained attention for between 40 and 60 minutes. Then it needs to take a break; a break that gives the thinking part a rest. So set a timer of some kind and walk away for 5-10 minutes (your back will thank you too).
For ideas of what to do when you have a break read are your breaks working?
C: Check-in regularly
Up until this point, your manager could informally check-in with you when they saw you at the office.
Schedule a regular, at least weekly, one-to-one check-in. This is the time when you can let your manager know how things are going for you in your new set-up, raise any concerns and discuss priorities or workarounds.
As long as you are trying your very best there can be no question of failure (Ghandi)
D: Distractions and their management
Usually, when you are not in the office, you are free to do what you please. However, the office is now part of our out-of-work lives (we might be working in our home or in a place we visit (friends or relatives’ home)).
This means we have to be alert to ways in which we may become distracted and plan how we will handle them when they arise (see also K: Know that it’s not just you and V: Visitors)
E: Eat at regular times
Just as with breaks, without our social cues from office life around us we may skip meals or work through lunch.
When you think about, and create, new rituals and routines (see R later), remember to include scheduling your meal times (taking them away from your workstation).
F: Flexibility is key
We are in a very different and challenging time right now; things that we took for granted can no longer be taken as a given. Flexibility (an element of a resilience mindset) is going to be key to getting through this as an individual, a family, an organisation, a society and as a nation.
New ways of doing things are going to arise due to both government guidance and individual necessity; trying to be open, non-judging and flexible will help everyone make the choices they need to adjust to the changes being asked.
G: Ground rules and boundaries
Boundaries are going to be important now. Not just with others around you but with yourself. Establishing ground rules helps you start as you mean to go on.
Shutting a door, red and green cards or wearing something are all visual cues you can use to indicate you are working. Deciding when to finish and how you will stay finished now that your work is living with you also needs to be considered. You might want to think about pets if they start to become bothersome see V: Visitors.
Perhaps you used to be in a workplace where others offered to bring you a drink when they went to get one. If you are lucky perhaps others in your household will look after you.
Good practice is to start your work time with a large glass or jug of water beside you and aim to drink at least three of these in your day, along with anything else. If you are using a timer to remind yourself to break, then refill the glass or jug in your breaks.
Adjusting to the new ways of working might be difficult at first. It will certainly be a change. But there are likely to be some interesting new tools for those of us who were formerly office-bound and all too familiar with long commutes.
The use of digital applications (see T: Tools and Technology) will bring with them efficiencies, as well as challenges. Use this time to explore innovative ways of working that will help you both now and in the future.
J: Join in other ways
As we each work in separate spaces now, the community collective that came from being together in an office may feel diminished.
Find alternative ways to join together. Consider setting up a virtual coffee break, lunch or meditation session that people from your workplace can join if they wish.
K: Know it’s not just you
The people I know who are successful at working from home are those who have done it a long time and are very self-disciplined.
As we are likely to be new to this, let’s give ourselves some slack. It’s early days and we are yet to have found, let alone established, systems and practices to best support our new way of working.
This means we are not going to be as productive as we were in the office right now and that ultimately such productivity may not even be achievable because the home environment is simply not fit for that. You are not alone with concerns of this nature.
L: Leave home
Those who usually commute to work will have used that time to transition and prepare for the day or evening ahead. With work and home essentially blended, it is easy to not go outdoors.
Instead of your usual commute, at the beginning and end of your working time you might take a walk around the block or even a bike ride if you feel so inclined. It'll energise you before and help you process and transition when you’ve finished.
M: Maintain a regular work pattern
Having routine work hours helps you maintain a work-life balance, reducing stress and avoiding burnout. It also helps an organisation manage its staff and output.
When working from home, try to establish as much as possible a regular work time. As more and more of us stay home – including children – your hours may not be the usual 9-5 but try and establish a work pattern. It’ll give you a sense of agency at a time when you may be feeling that you have no control.
N: No pyjamas
Get dressed for work. It is easy to get up, grab coffee and switch the laptop on whilst in your pyjamas. Believe me, I know. Just don’t.
OK, you might not put on a jacket, but it is known to help with managing distraction and focus at the beginning of your work time, if you continue to dress for work. Keeping this kind of routine will make it easier to come back to the office, when you do.
In the workplace, you might have mentioned something to someone whilst getting a coffee or when you saw them in a corridor. Working remotely takes all these chance encounters for communication away.
This means you need to, what might be considered, over-communicate. You will have to perhaps say often when your working hours are, what you are working on, when you are available as well as remind people when tasks are due or notify them when done.
P: Plan your food
Unlike at work, when you might have gone to the shop or grabbed a takeout at lunchtime, you no longer have that luxury.
It is good idea to plan what you will be eating for lunch ahead of time, especially as we are now going shopping for food less often.
Q: Question everything
Communication is different now; more is done via chat tools which means the cues we pick up in face to face conversation (tone, body language) are not there. This can lead to misunderstandings. Even with face time, with a large team, you can not see everyone at once.
It is important then to question and confirm what you hear so that you feel clear on what has been shared.
R: Rituals and routines
We are creatures of habit; routines and rituals help us navigate our day giving us cues as to what to expect and prepare for. The cornerstones of our office working day have disappeared as we now work remotely.
It is helpful to find and establish new ones that get us work-ready and transition us at work end. These will be particular to your circumstances and it may take a while to determine what works best for you and those around you. And, that’s OK.
S: Speak up
Now all meetings must become virtual, people can be overlooked or literally not seen, when the screen only shows the first 4 or 6 folk who join a meeting.
It’s important that you are there and that people know that you are. Even if it’s just with a “Hello, it’s Bob,” and “Thanks, Bye” when it ends, let them know of your presence.
T: Tools and Technology
When in the office, perhaps you could just look around and see if the person you wanted to talk to was available. Now it’s not so easy.
It’s important then to have a means of letting others know when you are available for conversation, meetings etc. There are various tools that might be used to achieve this.
Blocking out task time in a calendar can ensure people don’t try and book a meeting when you need to get your head down, especially if you have set the status.
It is good practice to agree which communication channels and tools everyone is to use and how.
U: Understand change can be uncomfortable
Whenever there is change, we can feel less confident and uncomfortable. ‘Change theory’ suggests that we pass through various emotions or phases to ultimately accept a new normal. Broadly they are: shock; blame; frustration; doubt, fear, sadness; acceptance; experiment and finally integration.
It is suggested that creating goals (however small) for ourselves, and shifting our focus towards them, can help reduce the discomfort we might feel as we adjust to change.
Usually when you are at home, visitors can and will drop by. However, just because you are now at home doesn’t mean people can visit – especially when we are social-distancing.
These are one of the distractions, you will have to prepare a response to. Alternatively, be pro-active, when you have established your new routine let people know how you will be working and when you will be available. We need our friends and family, they help us be resilient.
W: Work area
Whilst you currently no longer have your usual place of work nor the desk set up that was right for you, you need to create a place that is as far as reasonably possible conducive to working.
You may be lucky enough to already have, or are able to make, a permanent workspace in your home. More likely it is going to mean creating a “pop-up” office in a multi-functional space that you can move when you are finished for the day. Whichever it is, it will be helpful for your routine, mindset and others you live with if you have a regular place where you’ll work.
I know, not really an X but this is an important element and ties to K: Know it’s not just you and Y: You do you below. Things are not as they were so expectations need to be managed and adjusted. Yours, your manager's and your colleagues.
Do this by communicating openly and honestly about what is realistically achievable for you. Recognising that this might change on a week by week basis.
Y: You do you
At this time, it is easy to compare ourselves with others, using them as a yardstick as to how we should be. However, how each of us manages to blend our work and home lives will be unique to our particular set of circumstances.
All any of us can do is our best and if we do that there can be no sense of failure or lack of achievement (let’s thank Ghandi for that one).
Z: Zero in on today
Things are definitely going to be different for some time; how different or for how long is anybody’s guess.
Taking one day at a time may seem like a cliché but focusing on what is a priority for that day, and at times in this moment depending on your circumstances, will give you a sense of control and thus resilience.
The ask that we change our way of working came fast, our ability to do so may not be quick or easy. I hope you find this A-Z helpful as you adapt to your new way of working.
Take care of you.
Further reading on working from home