As the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to worsen, a lot of organisations will be making a move to complete remote working, which will bring new challenges, both practically and emotionally. So we’ve put together a quick set of tips which we hope will help organisations and individuals to make the move a success.
Tips for Companies
It’s alright for some
Some people will take to working from home really well; maybe they’re naturally at ease in a solitary setting, or the lack of spending 2 hours a day commuting gives them a new joy for life and work. Others will really struggle and will be climbing the walls by Friday. Maybe they thrive in a more social environment, or they really struggle to focus when they’re surrounded by temptations and distractions, like that wooden owl on the mantelpiece which seems to suddenly need cleaning. Or maybe they like working alone but they’re now looking after their kids because the school is shut. Different people will respond differently, so be aware of that, and cater to different people’s needs. If your organisation is new to remote working then people’s responses and needs will evolve as they adjust, so keep on checking in with people and listening to them as you go.
This is not a good test
These are not normal times, so don’t treat this as a trial run of how well working from home could suit your company. Some people will have kids to look after, or relatives to care for or worry about, and anxiety levels will be higher than usual. People might be distracted by messages and phone calls with friends and loved ones more so than usual. I’m distracted by writing a blog post when I should be building our online workplace wellbeing platform. If this emergency implementation of working from home doesn’t go swimmingly, don’t take that as meaning that it’s overall a bad idea or could never work.
When people are working from home, you can’t see what they’re doing, you can’t monitor them, or keep an eye on them to make sure that they’re not watching cat videos. Don’t try to. Asking people to make sure that they’re always online and that they respond to emails promptly as a way to check that they’re working is not going to work. There are multiple reasons for this. The first is that no matter how many ways you try to monitor people to check that they’re working, you still won’t know. I can respond to emails really quickly while also watching South Park. It doesn’t mean that I’m working, it just means that I’m online and responding to emails. And the second part of this, which if you’re an information-based company you’re hopefully already aware of, is that “working” is not a binary thing, particularly if the work has an aspect of creativity or qualitivity to it. To get the maximum output from people, you need them to work productively, not just work a particular number of hours. This is a topic that’s much broader than working from home, but essentially you need to optimise for people’s minds to be alert, engaged, productive, creative and happy. None of those things are achieved by implementing a strict policy of everyone having to be online by 9am sharp. Routines are good and should be encouraged, but they should be a tool not a rule.
And that leads to the last reason why an authoritarian approach to “making sure people are working” won’t work, which is that it demotivates people. Once basic needs are taken care of, the things that people generally want from their jobs are mastery, autonomy and purpose. So first let them take care of their basic needs, which right now might need more time than usual. And then give them the freedom to fulfil their purpose of helping your organisation to succeed.
Dan Pink shares more about mastery, autonomy and purpose in this Ted Talk: The Puzzle of Motivation.
There’s a secondary school in Devon called Sands School, which is entirely democratic, run collectively by students and staff. One of their policies is that students don’t have to attend any lessons. Nada. You don’t want to go to maths? No problem, don’t go. Students often sit around drinking cups of tea under the stairs and not going to lessons… at first. And then they quickly get really bored, realise that all of their friends are in lessons engaged in the satisfaction of work, and sooner or later (usually sooner) they join them. So maybe some of your employees will struggle to focus at first when working from home, especially in these extraordinary times, but if you’ve treated them well in the past and they love your organisation because it’s been kind to them, they will find their way.
Make sure that you check in with people to see how they’re doing. If you’re not using a chat tool such as Slack, then now is a great time to give it a try. I actually think that Slack can often end up being an endless stream of distractions, which isn’t entirely helpful. But if you’re moving to entirely remote working for the first time, then I recommend using it as a way to let people have contact with each other in a chatty and informal way, as a replacement for general face-to-face contact (more on that below).
Maybe set up a Slack room for people to share photos of their new home “offices” and discuss their new routines and strategies. Keeping a sense of workplace community is really important right now. You could also set up a lunchtime video call for people to socialise during their break.
Whether you can afford to give people financial help in setting up their workspace at home will depend on your organisation’s situation and how you see that evolving. But even if you can’t give people money, you can still let them take their monitor and keyboard home. Being hunched over a laptop on the sofa all day is terrible for posture. That keyboard/footrest/laptop stand/wrist rest isn’t going to do any good sat in an empty office, so if someone wants to take it home then you might as well let them borrow it.
Tips for individuals
Get it straight
Your posture that is. If you don’t have a working space already set up at home and you’re finding yourself in some kind of posture horror show on the sofa, sort that out. It might take you a while to figure out which particular combination of books puts your laptop at the right height, or which chair is best, so play around and try different things for an hour or so each. Just moving is good anyway, so keep on experimenting until you find what works.
A quiet place
This might be tricky if your entire household is now housebound, but if you can, get somewhere that’s a focussed work area. People seem to differ quite a lot in terms of how much of a division they need between work and “not work”. Some people are happy working in the living room, while others need to have a ritual of “commuting” to the shed and locking themselves in. Be aware of the separation (or lack of it) as you go, and figure out what works.
If you’re using the same computer for work and life, then you might want to try setting up a separate user account for each one. You’re much less likely to get distracted on Facebook/Twitter/personal emails if you’re not logged into them on this account. And when you’re done with work for the day, you can log out of that account to separate it off, ready to come back to tomorrow. Personally I just use a separate web browser for my work stuff. When I quit that browser, my day is done.
Different locations can also give you different moods for different types of work. Maybe you spend the first 20 minutes of the day on the sofa responding to emails, and then you transition to the table to get stuck into a big task. It might sound silly, but those symbolic transitions can be useful.
If you’ve got multiple people in your household working from home in the same room, try to use this to your advantage. Having other people sat there with you focussed on their work is a great motivator to sit there and focus yourself. This is especially true if they work for different organisations or do different things, as you’re less inclined to have a casual chat about it.
Different things work for different people, so find out what works for you.
Get some air
I mean this in two ways. Firstly, go outside for a walk regularly. Going for a walk improves brain activity. So rather than having that 7th coffee, go for a walk. The second way I mean this is that you should open the window regularly. If you live in a city then the outside air quality probably isn’t great, but it’s nearly always better than the quality of the air inside. An increased concentration of CO2 (from your breathing) has a dramatically detrimental effect on multiple aspects of brain function, so make sure that you open the window in the morning and every few hours to keep yourself alert and productive.
Get a routine
The freedom to work in your pyjamas may be liberating, but letting your daily routine go out the window along with the CO2 is unlikely to be productive, or even enjoyable, so try to keep a regular routine. Committing to (video) meetings is a good way to keep yourself on schedule, but unnecessary meetings aren’t good for anyone, so committing to a schedule for yourself is better, it’s just a bit harder. Maybe you’re not a morning person, but now that you don’t have a commute you can start work earlier and finish work earlier, which feels great. As already mentioned, productivity isn’t measured in hours though.
The home can be full of distractions such as household chores which you’ve suddenly taken a keen interest in. When I’m working on a difficult coding problem I often find that going and doing some mundane, mindless task for 10 minutes is actually a great way to let my brain work on the problem. But in order for those chores to be productive thinking time, you need some work to be thinking about. So start the work first. Once you’ve had a productive hour of solid, focused, work, then you can use a mundane task to give yourself some movement and some mental processing time. Reading Twitter, messaging people or looking at the news are not healthy brain breaks though, they just distract your thoughts onto something else. I find that the best tasks for brain breaks are ones which require all of your hands but none of your brain cells, like hanging up the washing or vacuuming. Ok, maybe some of your brain cells, don’t vacuum the washing.
You can still have real chats
Sometimes chatting face-to-face is still better when you need to discuss something. The asynchronous nature of emails and Slack messages is great for letting you focus on a task and respond to the messages at your convenience. But when you find yourself just typing messages on Slack and not managing to actually do anything else in between, just pick up the phone or have a video call to get the conversation done. Make casual video chats a part of your way of working. “Quick Hangout/Skype?” should be a regular part of your messaging vocabulary.
Wash your hands
Just in case you haven’t heard this advice in the last 7 minutes. Wash your hands! Often. Sanitise your keyboard. And your mouse. And your phone. And, especially if you’ve got several people in your home, sanitise surfaces, handles, lightswitches (not with water), the lot. Soap destroys the Coronavirus’s protective lipid capsule. Soap is your friend.
If your company is digitised enough to make the transition to remote working, then the challenges that the transition brings are less likely to be of a practical nature and more likely to be about how we battle our own psychology and emotions to remain happy, engaged and productive, especially when the world is in such turmoil.
When there’s a strike on the London Underground, a lot of commuters have to take a different route. What’s amazing is that when the strike is over, a significant number of people don’t change back to their original route. By being forced to make their journey in a different way, many people actually discover that there’s a better route to the one which they’ve been using for months or years.
In this time of such uncertainty and tragedy, I hope that you are able to draw something positive from it by trying something new, and maybe even discovering that it’s better than what you’ve been doing.
Find out more about our online workplace wellbeing platform at FidlLeaf.com