7 Tips for Working from Home and Staying Productive Amid the Pandemic
If you're one of the thousands of professionals working remotely amid the COVID-19 outbreak, we've got some tips to help you find your footing from your home office.
As someone who has regularly worked remotely for several years, I know firsthand just how great it is—as well as how challenging it can be.
Although the ability to work from home (WFH) is usually viewed as a luxury or a cool job perk, the reality today is that thousands of Americans are logging in to work remotely for the first time amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The amount of freedom that working remotely allows you can be both a blessing and a curse. Some people will hit the ground running and thrive in a remote working environment. Other folks will be really excited about the opportunity, but might ultimately struggle with all of the new freedoms, distractions, and tribulations that come along with this responsibility.
For many professionals the show must go on come hell or zombie apocalypse.
Working from home is a challenge itself, but trying to focus amid the chaos and panic of this global crisis definitely adds a layer of difficulty. So if you’re somewhat new to the WFH game, I’ve got a few tips which have helped me over the years that I’m certain will make this transition a little easier, and ensure that you’re being productive during what is shaping up to be a trying time.
Stick to a Schedule
The freedom of not having to be on a set schedule is a big part of what is so appealing about working from home. But if you’re looking to stay productive, a little structure is exactly what you need.
Set the hours that you’re planning on working, and then lay out a rough schedule for each day.
Your schedule doesn’t need to be down to the minute, and it doesn’t need to be so rigid that you can’t adapt as new issues arise, but as simple as it sounds, a schedule will help to keep you on track.
When I first started working remotely, I was so happy that I could spend my days however I wanted. So much so, that I didn’t structure my day at all and I started falling seriously behind. I got so behind that I regularly found myself working later into the evening than I ever did when I was going into the office every day.
About a month into working from home, I noticed a pattern. I would start a project, and whenever I would get bored or hit a roadblock, I would just move on to start something else. Or I would receive an e-mail or slack message and I would abandon whatever I was working on, to deal with that. Then after a few hours of half-assing multiple projects, I’d feel like I deserved a break.
“I’ll just check in on ESPN for a few minutes– ah the dryer is done, let me grab that real quick. Oh look, now it’s lunch time!”
Before I knew it, the day would be half gone, and I’d accomplished nothing except a load of laundry.
During the first few weeks that I was working remotely, I would roll out of bed at 8:55, hit the Keurig button with one eye open, and then fire up my laptop as I tried to shake the cobwebs.
I would stay in comfy clothes most of the day, and I wouldn’t comb my hair unless I had a video call; in which case I would only get ready from the waist up, like a newscaster.
Ultimately, this meant that the first hour or more of my day was not very productive at all, because I was still waking up. Furthermore, sitting around in my pajamas all day didn’t really help to keep me motivated to work. In fact, it inspired the opposite. When I’m dressed for bed all day, then all day feels like it’s bedtime. Once I committed to getting showered/groomed every day, my mood and productivity noticeably improved.
To be clear, I’m not saying that you need to spend an extensive amount of time getting primped as if you’re about to take prom pictures. For me personally, a shower and a fresh set of casual-Friday-clothes is all I need to flip the psychological switch that it’s time to work, and not time to relax.
Designate Your Space
This is easier for some than others, but choosing where your workspace will be in your home is a crucial decision. People tend to gravitate toward the kitchen table, but if your spouse or kids will constantly need to be in and out of the kitchen, this can get distracting quickly.
Obviously, a spare bedroom, garage, or basement would work best so that you can minimize noise and distractions, but I know that’s just simply not possible for a lot of folks. If you are unable to find a quiet space with a door you can close, you should focus on finding the place in your home that is quiet and has the least amount of foot traffic.
Of all the distractions you’ll find at home, it’s often your co-inhabitants that will account for the highest amount of your time. If possible, utilize noise cancelling headphones and a room divider that can help keep distractions out of your eyeline.
Do Not Disturb IRL
Unless you live alone, it’s imperative to set boundaries with the other people you live with.
Some people will understand immediately, and be very respectful. Other people won’t understand, and will think that if you’re not in the office, you’re not busy, and you have time to chat, or empty the trash, or run to the store.
This gets even more difficult if you’re a parent and you have children to contend with while you try to work.
Regardless of how mature your co-inhabitants are, my recommendation is to have an open and honest conversation about what you need from them in order to secure a peaceful workspace. Be open to them having requests and concerns too, because this is their home as well.
Clarity is Key
Working remotely can get tricky when it comes to effective communication. Sometimes what would take you 25 seconds to explain face-to-face, could take several minutes to try and clearly articulate via email or text. This is especially true if you need to give feedback.
When your main form of communication is text-based it is very easy to be misinterpreted, so it's important to be as clear as possible. Being deliberate with your language, and being mindful of context will ensure that your coworkers are clear on what you're trying to get across.
Aside from being clear with your own communication, it's also your responsibility to do your best to ensure that you fully understand what other people are trying to say—especially your superiors.
One common pitfall I see is that a lot of employees are afraid to ask for clarification because they feel they might come off as inept. So what ends up happening is an employee will follow unclear instructions, submit work that is incomplete or incorrect, and then have to spend additional time redoing the work. Trust me when I say that most (good) bosses will appreciate you asking for clarification, rather than you asking to extend a deadline because you need to redo an assignment.
Get on the Horn
I come from an era of people where the absolute last thing we use our cellular telephones for, is phone calls. I know I am guilty of having my phone in my hands while I've received an unexpected call, and then I patiently wait for the call to go to voicemail so I can resume scrolling through pictures of overweight dogs on Reddit.
Choosing not to use the telephone in your personal life is your choice, but when it comes to working remotely you're going to need to get comfortable on the phone, and fast. Working from home means that you can't dodge phone calls, and you're probably going to need to initiate your own.
It turns out there's some science as to why some people are uncomfortable on the phone, and it makes a lot of sense. When you're having a telephone conversation, you're unable to see the visual feedback of the person and their facial expressions, and that can make some people very uneasy. If you fall into this category, substituting phone calls for video calls could help to alleviate some of the discomfort.
If there’s one thing I can guarantee about working from home, it’s that at some point there will be unexpected noise. And it will probably be during a phone call with someone important.
Whether it’s landscapers, construction workers, or your dog, you’re going to be dealing with something loud and uncontrollable in the near future.
A few months ago my next door neighbors were remodeling their house, which meant that every day from 8-6 there would be an unpredictable procession of cement trucks, drills, hammers, and power saws.
When it first started happening, I tried to take calls and just hope there wouldn’t be any noise for those few minutes. That was almost never effective, so when someone would ask what all the commotion was, I’d sheepishly tell them about the construction next door, almost ashamed to admit that I was working remotely.
Now I fix that with one line that usually ingratiates me to whomever I’m speaking to:
“Just a heads up, I’m working remotely today and my neighbors are putting a new wing on their Mc-Mansion so you might hear some power tools.”
In every single case, the person understood completely and even got a laugh out of it.
Don’t Mess it Up for the Rest of Us
There are some folks among us who will use the opportunity to work from home as an excuse to slack off, or let things fall through the cracks. It’s important to remember that working from home is a privilege. There are a lot of people who don’t have the option to work from home, which is exactly why I work hard to make sure that my employer never regrets trusting me with this responsibility.
Be safe and considerate out there my fellow remote workers!
Do you have a unique question about working from home, or a tip that didn’t make it onto the list? Let us know in the comments!