With the spread of the novel coronavirus affecting everything from international travel to the availability of hand sanitizer, mitigating COVID-19 has become a growing concern. That’s why many companies are mandating or recommending that as many employees as possible work remotely until the virus can be slowed.
Plenty of people fantasize about working from the comfort of their own home, foregoing their commute in favor of more sleep, family or exercise time. But working remotely is a double-edge sword — sure, you get to stay home, but it can be harder to focus on actually working. Whether it’s a pile of laundry that suddenly looks more appealing than your bosses’ to-do list, or a quick three-hour binge of that one Netflix show you’ve been dying to watch, staying productive at home can take a little extra effort. Plus, the isolation can quickly become a downer for those used to socializing at work. And some people, of course, would prefer to stay in the office.
Although it is always preferable to establish clear remote-work policies and training in advance, in times of crisis or other rapidly changing circumstances, this level of preparation may not be feasible. Fortunately, there are specific, research-based steps that managers can take without great effort to improve the engagement and productivity of remote employees, even when there is little time to prepare.
Common Challenges of Remote Work
To start, we need to understand factors that can make remote work especially demanding. Otherwise high-performing employees may experience declines in job performance and engagement when they begin working remotely, especially in the absence of preparation and training. Challenges inherent in remote work include:
Lack of face-to-face supervision: Both managers and their employees often express concerns about the lack of face-to-face interaction. Supervisors worry that employees will not work as hard or as efficiently (though research indicates otherwise, at least for some types of jobs). Many employees, on the other hand, struggle with reduced access to managerial support and communication. In some cases, employees feel that remote managers are out of touch with their needs, and thereby are neither supportive nor helpful in getting their work done.
Lack of access to information: Newly remote workers are often surprised by the added time and effort needed to locate information from coworkers. Even getting answers to what seem like simple questions can feel like a large obstacle to a worker based at home.
Social isolation: Loneliness is one of the most common complaints about remote work, with employees missing the informal social interaction of an office setting. It is thought that extraverts may suffer from isolation more in the short run, particularly if they do not have opportunities to connect with others in their remote-work environment. However, over a longer period of time, isolation can cause any employee to feel less “belonging” to their organization, and can even result in increased intention to leave the company.
Distractions at home: We often see photos representing remote work which portray a parent holding a child and typing on a laptop, often sitting on a sofa or living-room floor. In fact, this is a terrible representation of effective virtual work.
Tips for Working From Home
Working remotely can be hugely rewarding, but only if you keep your productivity up, maintain a healthy work-life balance, and nurture your business relationships.
Take scheduled breaks. Try setting an alarm to get up and stretch every hour or so. (Standing desks, which at home may mean perching your laptop on top of a bookshelf, also pay large dividends for overall health.) Walk around your home while chatting on the phone with a friend. Move to a separate area — away from your email — to eat lunch for 30 minutes. Breaking up the day and moving your body enables you to refresh and can increase your productivity when you return to your work. When the weather is nice, I like to do conference calls while taking a walk outside.
Overcommunicate. Working remotely requires you to overcommunicate. Tell everyone who needs to know about your schedule and availability often. When you finish a project or important task, say so. Overcommunicating doesn’t necessarily mean you have to write a five-paragraph essay to explain your every move, but it does mean repeating yourself. Joke about how you must have mentioned your upcoming vacation six times already, then mention it again.
Create a Morning Routine
Deciding you’ll sit down at your desk and start work at a certain time is one thing. Creating a routine that guides you into the chair is another. What in your morning routine delineates the start of work? It might be making a cup of coffee. It might be returning home after a jog. It might be getting dressed (wearing pajama pants to work is a perk for some, but a bad strategy for others). Create a morning routine that ends with you starting work.
Maintain Regular Hours
Set a schedule, and stick to it…most of the time. Having clear guidelines for when to work and when to call it a day helps many remote workers maintain work-life balance. Working a swing shift is bad for you, and that applies to remote workers, too. That said, working remotely sometimes means extending your day or starting early to accommodate someone else’s time zone.
Take Sick Days
When you’re ill, take the sick time you need. If you have sick days as a benefit, they’re part of your compensation package. Not taking them when you need them is like throwing away money. If you’re a freelancer without sick days, it can be very easy to fall into the opposite time-is-money trap and try to power through illnesses.
Keep a Dedicated Office Space
In an ideal world, remote employees would have not only a dedicated office, but also two computers, one for work and one for personal use. It’s more secure for the employer, and it lets you do all your NSFW activities in private. But not everyone has a separate office in their home, and keeping two machines isn’t always realistic. Instead, dedicate a desk and some peripherals only for work use.