With the continued spread of COVID-19, many companies have asked their employees to work from home. More will likely do the same as we continue to see the effects of the virus. While it can seem like a simple transition, working from home can be challenging, especially when it comes to productivity, communication and motivation.
In this article, we’ll discuss best practices for working from home including staying motivated, productive and healthy.
Staying productive while working remotely
While working from home has its perks, it can be distracting. Errands, chores, family, housemates, TV, social media and pets can easily shift your attention. Here are some tips for eliminating distractions and boosting productivity while working from home:
1. Dress for success.
It can feel tempting to roll out of bed and over to your laptop in your pajamas. If you’re dressed for sleep, it can be much harder to get your brain in productivity mode. Try maintaining your regular morning routine to set boundaries between working and living at home.
In place of your morning commute, you might try another activity to boost productivity, such as a walk, light workout or meditation. Then, get dressed and ready for your day and make a healthy breakfast. Dressing for the tasks ahead of you will make you feel more motivated, and is also a helpful practice in case of unexpected video meetings.
2. Set and follow a schedule.
It is important to set your working hours apart from your personal home time. For transparency, tell your manager when your working hours are when working from home and indicate on your calendar when you are available.
Here are a few tips on managing your daily schedule to optimize productivity:
- Start each day off by reviewing the tasks you need to get done to make progress towards your goals that day and throughout the week.
- Prioritize your tasks by understanding the time investment, complexity and impact of each.
- Provide key status updates to your manager and other team members at an agreed-upon cadence.
- Take regularly scheduled breaks to stretch, get outside and rest your brain.
Health and productivity suffer when we don’t build in regular breaks for our brains and bodies. The brain is like any other muscle—it needs to rest. These breaks can take any form, including:
- Reading a chapter of a book
- Listening to a podcast
- Doing a short yoga video
- Taking a walk
3. Create a workspace.
If possible, it is best to set aside a separate space in your home for work. This will help you separate your home and work activities, and boost productivity when you’re working in your designated space. Communicate with your friends, roommates that even though you are at home, you are off-limits during your scheduled work hours.
Video technology is also an incredible tool to leverage when working remotely. It helps us to stay connected even when we are very far apart. To optimize your video meetings, you should:
- Test out your computer microphone, speakers and camera before important meetings to make sure they work.
- Be conscious of your physical background when in meetings, change to something more professional when needed.
- Use your video camera whenever possible—keeping your camera on can improve understanding and communication.
4. Pay attention to burn-out.
The fusion of workspace and home space can lead to a lack of boundaries and breaks. Align with your manager and team on expected work outcomes so you are focusing less on how much you work and more on what you achieve.
If you still feel overworked, create work start and stop rituals, forced movement moments (such as walking the dog, scheduled stretches), and gamified breaks. For example, try the Pomodoro Method by focusing for 25 minutes, then taking a mandatory five-minute break. Here are some additional ways to create boundaries around work and home time:
- Shut down your computer at the end of the day.
- Avoid opening your email or online chat after you’ve decided to sign off.
- Identify an activity that starts around the time you need to disconnect, such as a workout class, errand or appointment with a friend.
Communicating with remote teammates
When working from home, in-person communications are limited. That means you’re not as able to rely on building rapport through small talk, body language and facial expressions. To maintain healthy communications with colleagues while working remote, here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. Schedule daily or weekly stand-ups.
For software teams, a stand-up is a daily meeting that involves the core team, highlights progress, and helps flag blockers. In the standard format of a stand-up, each team member comes prepared to answer these questions:
- What did I work on yesterday?
- What am I working on today?
- What issues are blocking me?
The daily reinforcement of sharing individual successes and plans keeps everyone excited about the team’s overall contribution to the organization.
2. Make online chat your “main office.”
Many companies and teams use online chat to stay connected both personally and on work-related topics. You might consider creating light-hearted channels where people can share updates about non-work-related subjects such as cooking, exercise or pets. You should also use chat regularly to communicate as frequently as possible around key goals and progress towards them.
3. Combat miscommunication.
Communicating at a distance can lead to miscommunication and misunderstandings. This is partly because the rich texture of face to face communication (including body language and facial expressions) tends to collapse in written format.
If you notice back and forth messages or negative tone creeping in, use it as your cue to use phone or video. If you find yourself feeling offended or annoyed at someone’s message, remember that we tend to perceive neutral written messages as negative. When in doubt, talk it out. Ask questions to understand your colleague’s intentions.
4. Keep the team spirit.
When working from home, it is more important than ever to create spaces to interact with your teammates beyond projects and status updates. Working remotely can bring feelings of loneliness that might catch some people off guard. Here are some ways to connect while working from home:
- Use online chat as your office water cooler and happy hour.
- Set up an optional lunchtime video chat to discuss fun topics, such as a book you all choose to read together or your favorite homemade work from home meals.
- Virtual team building can help replace valuable in-person forms of communication that are missing from the remote office.
Managing a remote team
Leading remotely can present a certain set of unique challenges, especially if this is a new transition for you or your team. Planning, communication and expectation-setting can help maintain contentedness and productivity.
Here are some tips for managing a remote team:
1. Communicate clear expectations.
Take a moment to plan. What do you need to achieve, by when and what changes might you need to make to your original quarterly plan and goals? Type it up so you can start discussing it with your team. You will avoid misunderstandings when you create a document that serves as a source of truth. You might also share the document with stakeholders and other teams you collaborate with.
Schedule a team meeting to discuss if there are any new expectations and what, if anything, has changed with working remotely. In your agenda, include:
- Goal responsibilities and ownership
- How often updates are expected and in what form (written, video chat, recording, stand-up)
- Communication norms (which technology you want to use for each type of message, expected response time, dark time, etc.)
2. Cherish and protect your 1-1 time.
1-1’s are a time to make sure you and each member of your team are working towards the same objective(s), that the work that is being completed is the right work, and most importantly, to check on the well-being and engagement of your team.
Regular check-ins stop larger issues from festering, allow for immediate and regular feedback, and promote open communication. Dedicated one-on-one time with your team members becomes even more critical and important when managing a team virtually. Try allocating between 30 minutes to one hour with each of your direct reports for a 1-1 each week.
Getting the most out of 1-1s
Many factors dictate the best way to structure your meetings for success including the emotional needs of those you manage, your relationship and the team member’s experience level. The most important element in a successful 1-1 is creating a space where people feel comfortable discussing the issues and concerns on their minds. These meetings are primarily for the employee and their participation is vital.
Pro-tip: Pre-populate a shared agenda. It will help you provide context before the meeting and also allows both parties to take ownership of the meeting. Timebox the topics you know you need to cover.
With the constantly evolving media coverage of COVID-19 and this new way of working remotely for some, it is possible your team may be feeling overwhelmed or anxious. One of the responsibilities of a manager is to ensure your team feels supported and informed at all times.
Start your 1-1 with an open-ended question. This allows the most important and top of mind topics to surface. Here are some questions you might try:
- How are you feeling?
- What is on your mind?
- Do you feel like you have clear priorities?
- Do you feel in-the-loop?
- Do you feel isolated from the rest of the team?
- What are you most excited about?
- What are you most worried about?
- How can I help you?
Once you’ve fully heard their answers, be a facilitator of solutions. Uncover what they’re excited about, how you can mentor them to be successful, and unblock them to do their best work.
3. Provide feedback often.
If employees are more familiar with working in an office environment where they receive feedback daily, the silence in a remote position could cause uncertainty or confusion. It’s easy to assume the worst about your work when you don’t hear otherwise. Regular feedback lets employees know where they stand, gets everyone on the same page, and reduces the chance of a surprise and disagreements during a more formal review.
4. Share relevant information in a prompt, inclusive and organized way.
Keep employees informed by sharing information broadly to all team members in a timely manner. Your leadership is necessary for sharing relevant information that you need to trickle down to your team. Take time to understand what’s being communicated, why and what is being asked from your team.
Choose the right medium or a combination depending on the message and its implications. Some messages will require an email followed by a team meeting. When working remotely, especially in the beginning, more communication is better than less. Sometimes (and depending on your communication style) you can replace a long email with a video.