Updated: Apr 3, 2020
The global spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, is keeping people at home. Across the United States and Canada, preventative measures have been put in place to decrease the risk of infection and stop the spread of the virus. Conferences have been cancelled, virtual meetings have zoomed (all puns intended), and businesses have been urged to allow employees to work from home where possible.
Here at Integrated Informatics, much of our team works remote in addition to those based in our head offices as well as on-site for clients. This, of course, is under normal circumstances. Now that businesses and homes across North America are on lock-down, all of our employees in Houston, Calgary, and St. John's are working from home with the added flexibility they need to care for themselves and their families.
While many of us know the advantages of being able to work remotely, we also know the challenges. It can take time for teams to adjust to that WFH (or "Work From Home") life and, more so, to transition to the sense of solitude and added accountability it inherently brings. The good thing about this, however, is that everyone who works remotely has something in common.
Everyone who works from home must decide when to work, where to work, and where the boundaries between their work and personal life stand...and they must do this on their own.
While it is true that it is up to each individual to figure out the work style that fits them, our team is always willing to offer advice to fellow coworkers new to the WFH life. We like to help where we can - and maintaining productivity no matter the distance is certainly on our resume. We have put together 15 tips for leading a fruitful remote-working life based on our own experiences and the lessons we have learned along the way.
1. Keep as close to your normal business hours as possible.
For most employees, your work hours are determined based on your business's operating hours, your commute time, the availability of staff across different time zones, etc. You may be used to starting work at 8 AM and leaving the office by 5 PM. You may even be someone who arrives in the office by 6 AM to beat traffic, heading home as early as 3 PM. No matter the case, most experts would recommend sticking to your normal hours as closely as possible.
Why exactly? Well, there are a number of reasons. It will help get you moving in the morning since the start time is already part of your daily routine. It also gives your coworkers the opportunity to communicate with you as usual given that they are also used to this schedule. Most importantly though is that it helps you avoid the dreaded "work creep" which can be one of the biggest challenges when WFH.
Treating your Close-Of-Business time the same way at home as you would in the office is important to ensure you are taking time for both yourself and your family.
2. Carve out a dedicated workspace in your home.
This is easily one of the most overused WFH tips, but that does not make it any less valuable. While you do not have to have a full desk set-up at home, it is recommended to designate a space as your "work zone" even if it is in a location where you have to break it down at the end of each day.
Having this space carved out not only gives you a comfortable (and hopefully ergonomic!) place to get things done, it also acts as a way to set your mind for work-mode.
Not to mention, it is a reminder to those you live with that you are - in fact - working and may not want to be bothered (see Tip #7 for more information about this).
3. With that said - Do not be afraid to change up where you work. Just be careful not to make it too comfortable.
When you are working from home, it can be tempting to grab your laptop and head straight to the couch. Unfortunately, this is not the best choice for everyone. For some people, it can be harder to concentrate when they are working from spaces that are typically for more leisurely activities like binge-watching Netflix.
Need a change of scenery within your four walls? Try moving to the dining table, kitchen counter, or even setting up outside if your Wi-Fi connection allows.
4. Try to stick to your morning routine - or at the very least, create one that works for you when WFH.
Arguably one of the most convenient aspects of working remote is the lack of a commute. It cuts down on time and frustration. For some people, however, this lack of urgency has the potential to wreck an otherwise productive morning.
It is too easy to roll out of bed five minutes before start-time, brewing your coffee while your computer boots up. This can sound fun for the first couple of days. Unfortunately, it can easily turn into a bad habit - and one that is difficult to shake when moving back to the office.
The simplest way to combat this is to stick as closely to your regular routine as possible or even develop a routine for your WFH time that offers some of the same elements as your normal one. For instance, go for a walk, stream an at-home workout video, learn how to make your favorite coffee drink, etc. The goal is to stay on track, mentally and physically preparing you for the day ahead.
5. Get dressed. Seriously.
While you do not have to put on a suit and tie - unless you really want to! - most people working from their home office or dining table would suggest changing into an outfit that does not include pajamas. This is advantageous both for those who may see you via video conference call as well as the simple mental shift that comes with changing into clothes better suited for the job at hand.
6. Update your to-do list every morning.
If you are not already a fan of to-do lists... First, why?? Second, listen up. They will be your best friend, your boss, and your ruler when working remotely. Everyone takes a different approach for when they create them, how often they check items off, and the format they use to organize them. Here are a few tips for getting the most out of your to-do list...
Limit your Daily List to the 3 to 5 most important tasks to get done. This helps prevent being overwhelmed by how much you can realistically get accomplished in the hours you are on the clock.
If there are more than 5 tasks you want on the list, consider moving them to a Master List for the week, month, etc. You can then move things to your Daily List as the need (and time) arises.
Update your list every morning at the start of the workday. This refreshes your memory, refocuses your priorities, and provides you the opportunity to modify expectations should a new project arise or a coworker needs your assistance.
If you are a digital nomad, store your lists in an app like Wunderlist, Trello, Evernote, etc. The default Notes app on your computer or phone is also a great option. Bonus points are given if the app you use syncs across all your devices!
If you are a pen and paper type of person, write your to-dos down in a dedicated notepad so you can easily cross things off as they are completed. Also, do not underestimate the power of Post-It notes.
7. Communicate to the people you live with that you are working. This is especially important if you have a video or phone call and do not want to be interrupted.
Do you remember in Tip #2 when we mentioned that having a dedicated workspace can help give friends and family the signal that you are working and should not be bothered? For anyone with children or even roommates, you know that this truth only goes so far.
It is important to set boundaries with those you live with, letting them know when you need to focus most and ask them to keep interruptions to a minimum if possible.
This is especially important in the event you have a conference call via video or phone. Giving them a heads-up about your meeting schedule can help to prevent disruptions or the embarrassment caused by your coworkers catching your kids belting out the Frozen 2 soundtrack at the top of their lungs.
8. When on a conference call, use headphones and mute your microphone when you are not talking.
Most people who work in an office setting and are used to holding all meetings in-person in a conference room may not realize just how noisy phone or video calls can actually be. When conducting meetings online, it is recommended to wear headphones so that you can hear clearly and drown out any background noise from that same Frozen 2 serenade we mentioned. It is also advised to mute your microphone whenever you are not actually speaking during the call.
This helps to cut down on any audio feedback that could make it difficult for other listeners to hear when the main presenter is speaking.
In addition to this, remember that it is sometimes okay to turn off your own video during a call if it is not required - and may be recommended if you know there will be disturbances in the background that could distract other attendees.
9. Take frequent breaks. Schedule them into your calendar, set a reminder on your phone, or even set a timer to remind you to look up once in a while.
When working in an office, there are regular activities that allow us to take a break without even realizing it. For instance, your coworker drops by to catch up, you walk to get a coffee, you take a quick call in between meetings, etc. These things happen so naturally that we do not realize how much of a relief they offer in an often hectic schedule - and this becomes glaringly obvious when you WFH and no longer have these natural interruptions. It is too easy to just hunker down and not look up for the next 8 hours in those scenarios. However, it is encouraged to take small breaks every now and then. A few ways you can do this include:
Schedule a 5-minute break after a meeting to decompress before you jump back into your work.
Set an alarm for every hour on the hour to remind you to stretch, hydrate, or simply step away from your computer. If you have an Apple Watch or another brand of smart watch, see if there is a setting that reminds you to stand each hour.
Make a point to take at least 30 minutes for lunch if you are able. Try not to sit in front of your computer while you eat.
10. Discover your high productivity periods - and work within those as best you can.
This tip applies to working remotely as well as in the office. No matter how hard we push ourselves to knock out our to-do list, we all have times during the day that are more (and less) productive than others. It could be 8:30 AM after you have settled into your office. It could be in the 2 hours before the end of the workday. It could even be that hour right before your next meeting.
When WFH, these disparities can become glaringly obvious given there are more places for your attention to wander.
Try tracking your productivity with the intention of identifying these peaks and valleys in your focus - and with the main goal being scheduling your workday's tasks with them in mind.
For instance, schedule meetings during your slower periods to help you build your attention; save your hard-hitting tasks for those time periods you know you will be hyper-focused. This will help you to be more productive while taking advantage of your own natural work rhythms.
11. Not feeling as motivated when remote? Use apps - like those for the Pomodoro Technique - to help you tackle tasks in small increments and build momentum for the bigger to-dos.
Do you know that old adage that goes, "I can do anything for 5 minutes"? Keep this in mind when you are feeling less than motivated to clock-in from your kitchen table. One method that many productivity junkies swear by is the Pomodoro Technique, a methodology that breaks tasks down into short sprints of time (often 25 minutes) and encourages a break as a reward in between each sprint. Apps like Focus To-Do and TomatoTimer help you automate this process and keep you moving.
12. Feeling isolated? Miss chatting with your team throughout the day? Schedule video calls with coworkers who share similar work habits.
One of the most challenging parts of WFH for many people is the transition from being surrounded by coworkers in an office to spending the day solo. While some employees combat this by exploring co-working spaces or working from coffee shops or libraries, those days where you have no choice but to stay home call for a little more ingenuity.
Our team has had many people make this same transition, and many of them say the same thing - make the effort to communicate with your coworkers.
One way this can be done is chatting with them via messaging apps like Slack, Microsoft Teams, or even text message (if allowed). Another way is to hold video calls with coworkers where you both work on a project, work on your respective to-dos, or even spend a few minutes simply chatting. This can help you better adjust to the solitude as well as strengthen the bonds with your team that would otherwise be built through small talk in the office.
13. Listen to music - and shake things up with your playlist.
For many people, the quiet that comes with WFH can be a difficult adjustment. Playing music while you work can help boost productivity and liven up the dead silence of your home office.
While you can play your favorite songs and artists, do not be afraid to branch out. Genres like classical, instrumental, acoustic, or even jazz can help you better focus. Ambient music like white noise or even playlists that simulate the background noises you would find in a coffee shop or office (like this one) can help give you that added energy boost. Check out playlists on Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, etc. that are built for focus or studying as those may be helpful for many people looking for a little noise but nothing too intrusive.
14. End your day with a routine.
Just as you would start your day with a routine, you should end it with one as well. For those who work in an office, this end-of-work routine is typically your commute home, unpacking your work bag, and changing into clothes that are more comfortable. When you WFH, much of this is taken out of the equation.
In this case, it is recommended to find activities that can help you turn off your work brain or simply get out of work-mode.
This may be going for a quick walk, taking a workout class, calling a friend or family member, playing with a pet, etc. Your work-end routine can be as simple or as complex as you want, as long as it is repeatable.
15. Realize that everyone works differently. It may take time and communication for your team to adjust.
Our final tip for working remotely is a simple one - but one that we often have to remind ourselves of, nonetheless. Much of the workforce is conditioned to working in an office setting. The transition to WFH can be difficult for many while others may find that it makes them even more productive. Everyone works differently, and this fact may be exacerbated when the work environment changes. Employees may require more frequent check-ins to ensure they are on-track; likewise, managers may need to hold more regular staff meetings to allow teams opportunities to ask questions and brainstorm ideas.
It is important for employees, supervisors, and managers alike to keep an open line of communication throughout the transition and be open to new ways of accomplishing their goals.
Integrated Informatics Inc. is located throughout the United States and Canada, working with clients in-person and afar. With employees in-house and remote, our team is adept in accomplishing our goals despite distance. Find out more about our office locations in Houston, TX, Calgary, AB, and St. John's, NL as well as our remote teams online.