While we are all facing a wide variety of challenges right now, one that many people have in common is working at home for an extended period for the first time. We certainly understand, as ProSolutions has been a work-from-home (WFH) company for more than 30 years, and we have all gone through that transition process ourselves.
While everyone's specific situation is unique, we can find some similarities by drawing from this excellent survey from Buffer and AngelList, where they compile three years of remote work surveys to give us a picture of what the most common struggles are. Let's look through the key ones and recommend methods you can try to overcome them.
20% Collaboration and Communication + 10% Being in a Different Time Zone from your Teammates
- One of the key losses in terms of communication and connectivity is that you can’t see the status of those around you easily. This makes it very important to overcommunicate. For example, from home, you can’t tell when a colleague looks stressed and is feverishly working away in a panic. You might unwittingly give that person an extra task, causing tensions to flare. To avoid these situations, colleagues should regularly communicate about things like their current availability and bandwidth for new tasks, ask questions about scheduling and needs instead of making assumptions, and use a more direct and clear way of writing (for example, avoiding sarcasm or subtlety).
- Consider ways to replicate the more open communication of an office setting, if that how you are used to working. Use public channels in places like Slack and open up video conference calls so that anyone on the team can drop in if they are interested. Put a focus of having most communication happen as openly and publicly as possible instead of in private messages and emails.
- Have official office hours while you will be available on whatever instantaneous methods of communication your company uses, like Slack. If you’re in different time zones, try and find times that overlap at least part of the day and prioritize collaborative tasks during that time to make the most of it.
- Be prepared for video conferencing to have technical snags. These methods have always had periodic issues, but right now, we are putting more and more strain on the system with so many people only able to connect digitally. Try to start critical meetings a bit early to allow for technical issues at the start-up, and have a plan for what to do if you lose the video feed entirely, especially for critical client communications. Tech tip: scheduling video meetings to start at odd times, such as 10:28 or 10:33 instead of right at 10:30, can also help ease the simultaneous load on the system.
- Use cloud-based file storage and document collaboration, such as Office 365, Google Sheets, and so on to allow you to more easily work on shared files.
- Leverage the open lines of communication discussed above, as they not only help keep workflow moving, but also allow for personal connections.
- Keep in close communication with team members throughout the day to help feel connected. Include personal questions in your messages occasionally so you can still have some small talk and connection from time to time. More often than you have in the past, try asking people how they are doing.
- When reasonable, move more communication out of email and instead into direct messaging, phone calls, and video chat, as they feel much more personal and connected.
- Try arranging regular opportunities for social time, using video chat like Zoom, Skype, Slack, Google Hangouts, Houseparty, and more. You can use this for the occasional shared lunchtime, coffee break, or after-work happy hour, whatever makes sense for the ways you and your colleagues work.
18% Not Being Able to Unplug
This can be a huge challenge, especially right now when we don't have activities outside our homes to distract us once the work day is over.
- Have a specific "quitting time" each day or a planned stopping point.
- Turn off your computer at quitting time, if you can. Having it on makes it easy to keep thinking about work or to go back to do “just one more thing.” If you have to keep your computer on, shut down all programs used exclusively for work and turn on “do not disturb” functions wherever you can so your phone isn’t blowing up with Slack notifications throughout the night.
- Have a physical space that is only for work, if possible. If you don't have a room (or part of one) as an office where you can close the door (literally or figuratively) after you leave, have a way to pack up all of your work at the end of the day and efficiently put it away.
- Keep your work and personal files separated as much as possible. You can even consider having separate profiles on your computer if you can’t do separate computers. Maintaining this gap is often better for the security of your work files, too. And it can also help prevent awkward screen sharing sessions where you have to remember to hide the personal material on your desktop.
12% Distractions at Home
- Share your basic schedule with your family, friends, and neighbors. This helps them understand that you will be focused on work during that time and (hopefully) minimize interruptions.
- Get dressed and ready for the day. This doesn’t mean you have to dress exactly as if you were going to the office, but the change of clothes is a good signal to yourself and others around you that you are in “work mode.” This can be especially helpful if you have younger children at home who are confused about when you are and are not working.
- Choose a designated office location within your space that helps minimize distractions. Try to stay away from areas other people will need to be in/around frequently. Think about what makes you lose your focus - is it being near the kitchen and thinking about food? Is it seeing the TV in the living room and having Netflix call to you? Try to position yourself somewhere with less to steal your focus. And while you might have to get creative with desk options in light of the current situation, we generally recommend a desk or table with a good amount of space to spread out that also doesn't have a lot of clutter (and where you aren't worried about knocking over liquor bottles with your mouse).
- Try to prep or plan food in advance so you are not distracted by trying to figure out what to eat or when to start dinner. And if you prepare snacks such as fruits, vegetables, and nuts on Sunday night, you can have the benefit of quick and healthy breaks ready throughout the week.
- Try to make your work area more calming. Consider background noise, such as quiet music, if you need to mask other ambient noises or if you focus better with music. Make sure you have headphones if you have housemates around, though. And if you like to have the sounds of people around as you work, consider something like Hipstersound, which replicates the sound of being in a public space.
7% Staying Motivated
Without your boss and colleagues around to help keep your brain on track, it can be very natural to have dips in motivation and focus throughout the day.
- Take regular breaks just as you would in an office. Step outside when you can to get some fresh air, take your lunch away from your computer, and walk to the kitchen for a beverage. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization, recommends that people working from home during this time take a 3 minute break every 30 minutes.
- Stay hydrated. If you drink out of a clear cup, you can more quickly see when it’s empty, then go refill it. As you do, try to take a few “laps” around your place to get your body moving.
- Try to walk around (when reasonable) while on phone calls. This extra physical activity can help keep your mind clear and focused, especially in longer meetings. Just remember to mute if you're going to be creating noticeable noise.
- Try to stay in your designated office location primarily, as this emphasizes to your brain that you are in work mode, but when you feel your focus slip, consider a change of location. If you do this sporadically, it can feel like a fresh experience and help get your brain in gear.
Even with all those challenges, however, a whopping 98% (!) of the people surveyed said they would like to continue doing remote work, at least some of the time, during the rest of their career. If that isn't a ringing endorsement, I don't know what is. So while you're working remotely (at least temporarily), let's take advantage of all the benefits that come from working from home.
While two of these aren't specifically relevant to our current situation since work at home is the only remote work option available, the others still apply.
32% Ability to have a Flexible Schedule
- As discussed above, it's generally a good idea to maintain a basic regular routine. But within that framework, working at home gives you much more flexibility to change things up when you need it. Just be sure to clearly communicate your changes to your colleagues.
- It also means you can be more flexible. For example, if you don't sleep well or are feeling run down, you may be able to take a quick nap in the middle of the day and then work later to make up for that time.
21% Not Having to Commute
- Not only do you not have the physical transportation time, but you also most likely get to streamline and simplify your routine for getting ready in the morning.
- Actively utilize the time you would have used to commute. For example, it can be beneficial not to sit down immediately in the morning and start working. You could use that former commute time to exercise, walk the dog, do something with your children, or get something done around the house. Or, if you'd rather start early, try to "get home" earlier in the evening. Consciously make the most out of your extra time.
11% Ability to Spend Time with Family
- In addition to the extra time you now have because you don't have to commute, you may also want to find intervals throughout the day to interact with your family: children, significant other, or roommates. This may be a quick "how're you doing" moment while you take a coffee break, a brief walk, or even a short game, all depending on your situation and interests.
- If you're taking care of smaller children while juggling your work, you may certainly need to keep your children close while balancing interaction time with keeping them occupied with toys, games, videos, and activities. If this is the case, we recommend trying to plan out your work tasks so that your most "focus-heavy" ones take place during naps or other key times, to make the most of those down times.
Whatever your situation, we know that no one solution fits all, so we recommend trying out those ideas that speak to you, and be sure to give yourself the time and emotional space to get used to it. Maybe right now while everything is in such upheaval, wearing pjs is just what you need to keep it together. Perhaps just make it every other day.
We wish you all the best during this unprecedented time and hope you and those near and dear to you stay healthy.
Thanks to my ProSo colleagues (Jana, Betsy, Cindy, Dana, and Poppie) for your contributions to this article!