Working Remotely in the Time of Coronavirus

May 28, 2020

COVID-19 has thrown millions of Americans into the world of remote work.

To adjust to working in this new environment, we need to understand who we are and how the environment affects us.  Once we know that, we can select tools that will maximize our success.  

Types of Remote Employees

The Seasoned Pro: This person has worked at home before or does so now.  They know the routine and how to get stuff done. In the current environment, even the Seasoned Pro will benefit from dusting off the Remote Working toolkit.

The First Timer: The COVID-19 pandemic has jolted thousands of people into remote work with little preparation with tools to transition to this new way of working.  This environment without a co-located team can be isolating.  Technology challenges are stressful. Mental and emotional reserves are taxed.

The Caregiver: Schools are closed and students have moved to remote learning.  With children at home 100% of the time, parents have been thrust into the roles of employee, teacher and parent at the same time.  Some people are also caring for loved ones in the same home. These competing priorities are difficult to balance.

Remote Working Toolkit

Here are some tried and true tips to help you make your new office environment work for you.

  1. Move: Not having a commute is nice.  It saves on gas and reduces stress.  But, it’s easy to forget to move during the day now that you’re not walking from the parking lot, to lunch, to the printer, etc.  Add a reminder to your calendar to stretch.  Take a walk and soak in some sun. Have lunch outside.  Don’t have to be at the computer for a call?  Take your phone on a walk!  Play with your kids or dogs.  Do something that gets the blood flowing.  Can’t get away from the desk? Try deskercises!
  2. Structure the Day: When you’re in the office you have work hours even if you don’t punch a clock.  Set a routine and stick to it. Keep an alarm set to wake you up.  Take breaks.  Make sure to take time away from the computer.  It’s easy to sit in the chair and not walk away from the computer for 8 hours.  This can lead to burnout and decreased productivity.     
  3. Separate Work from Home: It’s easy to let work and home overlap when working at home.  Dedicate your work space separate from home environment to the extent possible.  This is especially true as we are self-isolating during COVID-19.  Children, partners, pets, are all looking for attention.  
  4. Create a space dedicated to work, like a corner of the living room.  Try not to work at the kitchen table or the bedroom.  Studies show that using the bedroom for non-sleeping activities increases insomnia.   Also establish expectations and boundaries with others in the home for interactions during the work day.  Have a visual indicator like a sign indicating you cannot be disturbed.  
  5. Set Up Your Workstation: Good ergonomics help you work at a desk for 8 hours and be able to walk away without muscle strain and pain.  Setting up an ergonomic workspace makes all the difference.  On a lot of conference calls?  Invest in a good headset.  Being comfortable and pain-free can make a huge difference in your health and productivity.
  6. Prioritize Interaction with Colleagues: Working remotely can feel isolating.  That’s especially true right now when we’re not able to be social outside the home.  When you’re in the office you see faces and talk to people all day.  Human beings are social creatures and interacting with others is important to our mental and emotional health.  Find opportunities to talk on the phone instead of sending an email or instant message.  Even better, use video conference calls!  Reading body language and seeing active listening goes a long way to making the remote working experience better for everyone.  Leave time in meetings for casual conversation.  Knowing there are people on the other end of the line gives perspective. It may surprise you how much it adds to your productivity.
  7. Get a Web Cam: Selectively turn on your video in a conference call. It’s not the same as actually meeting in person but meeting virtually “face to face,” helps you connect with colleagues much better than audio-only. Calls are often more productive when participants can see their colleagues engaged. Virtual eye contact goes a long way! As a bonus, if you’re someone that has trouble focusing while working remotely, a web cam may provide the extra accountability that you need to avoid multi-tasking on your next call!

The Myth of Multi-Tasking

Multi-tasking is when a person deals with more than one task at the same time. According to a 2014  Psychology Today article, people do not multi-task. They task switch.  Each time we switch tasks, there is a stop/start process that goes on in the brain.  That start/stop/start process is rough on us. Rather than saving time, it costs time (even very small micro seconds). It’s less efficient, we make more mistakes, and over time, it can sap our energy. Structuring your day, separating work from home, and setting up the ideal workstation goes a long way to preventing the need to multi-task.

The speed at which coronavirus has changed the world has added tremendous complexity to working remotely.  We have the tools for success to achieve healthy work/life balance and maintain emotional and mental health.  Together we will successfully shift this paradigm.