Today four universities in my home state announced a temporary shutdown due to COVID-19. A number of U.S. businesses are arranging for workers to work remotely, rather than risk coming into the office or commuting on public transport.
Working or studying from home takes some adjustment if you’re not used to it. I made my adjustment back in 2009, when a medical condition prevented me from leaving my house – sometimes, for weeks at a stretch.
I’ve worked from home for over ten years now. Here’s what I’ve learned about doing it successfully.
Create a Dedicated Workspace
It’s tempting to sack out on the couch when you’re working from home. (I’m on my couch right now.) Working where you relax, however, can have two negative effects: It can distract you from work, and it can make relaxation time feel like a chore.
Instead, create a space to work in. If you’re lucky enough to have a separate room, use it. If not, set up a desk or a card table or a corner of the kitchen. Put a TV tray at one end of your couch and use that end for work; when not working, sit on the other end.
The goal is to have a place you can do your work and store work things (papers, your laptop, etc). Choose a place you can focus on work and that you can walk away from when work time is over.
Schedule Your Work Time
Carving out a space in which to get into “work mode” is important. Carving out time to do the same is just as important – if not more so.
You may not need to stay on your ordinary work schedule while working from home, especially if you typically have a lengthy commute. It is a good idea, however, to stay on a regular work schedule that parallels your ordinary schedule. You’ll be available to co-workers and clients (see below), and you’ll be able to retrain your brain into a work/home schedule more easily.
Try to work during the same block of time each day. Alert your family that you are working and are not to be bothered. Don’t respond to things like the front door or personal phone calls while you’re working. You wouldn’t be home to answer the door if you were at the office, and you’re still not available during work hours even if you are physically home.
Communicate With Your Team (More)
One of the biggest things that surprises new telecommuters or remote workers is how much more electronic communication is necessary when you don’t work in a face to face environment.
Communicate with your boss, co-workers, staff and clients even more than you think you need to. Get into the habit of sending a check-in email at least once a day, updating others on your progress. If you lead a team, make the check-in a part of everyone’s work day.
Communication also helps maintain relationships. You’ll be able to help co-workers adjust to working remotely, and you’ll maintain the human connections we’ll desperately need should COVID-19 seriously destabilize social and economic functions.
Use Multiple Channels
To boost communication, use or recommend using multiple channels and types. Skype, FaceTime, teleconference calls, shared Google Docs, email, text, Slack, Messenger, WhatsApp, and the like are your friends in a remote-work situation.
Each of these tools performs a different role, and the combination of roles can help a team complete tasks they might struggle with on any one channel.
For example: I’ve worked with a remote content marketing team for nearly two years now. We communicate daily via Slack and email. We meet on GoMeetMe, and we work in shared Google Drive files when we need to collaborate on particular tasks.
Each of these channels performs a specific function that would be clunky over any other, if not outright impossible. Emailing documents back and forth is a nightmare compared to working in a shared Google Doc. Having voice conversations really helps us with idea generation as a team and helps us support one another (and I say this as someone who struggles with auditory processing). And I appreciate that the pet photos and bad puns stay on Slack, where they aren’t cluttering up my inbox.
We have more tools and channels for communication at a distance than we have ever had before in human history. Apply the strengths of several to help keep yourself and everyone else on track.
Back Up Your Data – And Yourself
Automatic backups are ubiquitous these days. If you typically work with an office computer or tablet, chances are good that your company has some kind of automatic backup system in place, in addition to the ones embedded in programs like Google Drive and Microsoft Word.
At home, however, you may need to do your own backups. Keep all your work information backed up to an external drive, if possible. Use a thumb drive or an external hard drive for large projects.
In addition, it’s important to “back up” yourself. Should the worst occur and you find yourself infected with COVID-19, you may end up requiring hospitalization or at least extensive bed rest.
In this situation, you may need someone else to contact your boss, co-workers, or clients in order to let them know what has happened and how you are doing. Make sure someone trustworthy has a way to contact someone on your work team. For example, give your spouse your boss’s email address or phone number.
The goal of working remotely is to reduce your chances of contracting or passing on COVID-19. Ideally, you won’t need a backup person – but it’s best to have one just in case.
Clean Your Devices
Our laptops, tablets and cell phones are surprisingly dirty – more than your average pet toy or toilet seat. Washing your hands religiously doesn’t do much good if the first thing you touch is your germ-ridden keyboard.
I’m certain my keyboard was one of the dirty ones. I know exactly when my toilet seat was last cleaned with bleach (this morning). My laptop? I also know exactly when that was last cleaned: Never.
(Well, almost. I fixed that before I started writing this post.)
Fortunately, there are plenty of online guides to cleaning laptops and other devices. If yours has been to the office or commuted with you, clean it as soon as possible.
Walk Away At the End of the Day
Last but not least, when you’re done working at your newly-remote or newly-telecommuting position at the end of the day, leave work behind.
Leave work behind physically, by shutting down your laptop or tablet, depositing it in your workspace, and physically leaving that space (even if that just means shifting to the other end of the couch). Leave it behind mentally by focusing on other tasks, like making dinner or playing with the dog. If a work task continues to bug you mentally, write it down and put it on your work pile to deal with in the morning.
One of the great disadvantages of working from home is that it enables us to work all the time. Because we can work all the time, we start to think we should.
We should not. Working nonstop is unhealthy: physically, mentally and emotionally. If all you do is work, you can’t be fully present for your own needs, much less for those of your friends, family and neighbors – people who will need each other, and whom you will need, if things get worse.
Set a schedule that includes your quitting time for the day, and stick to it. You can tackle the next task tomorrow.
Working from home takes some adjustment, and it’s not ideal for everyone. By planning ahead and maintaining good communication, however, you can ease the transition and protect your own and others’ health at the same time.
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