Working from Home? Here’s how to make the most of it…(and still get more work done)
“Let’s meet for lunch on Friday, I’m <air quote fingers> ‘Working From Home’ <air quote fingers> “
Until March 2020, that was how many people saw Remote Working. Then,….COVID.
As the guidelines clamped down again, more of us are resigned to Home-Working/Roam-Working.
So how do you balance productivity with health and well-being when you’re working from home, rather than at the office?
WFH (pt.1) was seen as a bit of a novelty, coupled with crisis. People adapted, sat at kitchen tables, coped. But WFH (pt.2) looks here for the long haul. Workplaces are again closing, but with plans for months, rather than week by week, sending people into the relative isolation of their home office. Or kitchen.
I’ve worked from home for the most of the past 10 years. Done right, it works brilliantly. But done wrong, it’s tough.
I first tried it 15yrs ago, it hurt both my mental well-being AND my productivity. But now, I’ve nailed it. How? Read on…
I’ll be honest: The first time I found myself working from home, in my early-30s, I had a tough time. I felt disconnected, and so I craved connection which led to distraction. I struggled with finding a schedule that worked and fitted with the ‘non-commute’ lifestyle.
5 years later, I was in a different place. I’ve been very focused on staying connected to the outside world, balancing my productivity with what’s good for my mental health….and taking advantage of the flexibility remote working affords.
Its more challenging for everyone now; the ability to change venue and work out of a coffee shop for a few hours has gone from being hindered by wearing a mask, and inhibited with Covid-fear, social distancing rules to now being outlawed by fresh lockdown rules. The freedom to use shared workspaces to benefit my Myers Briggs ENFP (and fuel the high-E within it) has been curtailed. But it is possible, partly through the use of video media, but also because I already have some basic habits in place that ensure remote and home-based work works and doesn’t compromise my well-being.
Forget the 8hr day
Working in an office is regimented with set hours. Finishing before 5.30/6.00 is ‘leaving early’, arriving after 8.30 is ‘being in late’; side-looks and hidden comments are often abound for arrivals/departures inside of those times. Yet much of the defined workday is made up of meetings where you are mostly listening, or providing/receiving analysis (a.k.a justifying what you have been doing).
Add in the coffee machine chat, random interruptions, spontaneous collaboration, people ‘having a quick word’, or ‘picking your brains’ and you’ll soon work out that the working day is little more than ‘time in the office’, and in reality around half of an actual “working day”. Or less.
My workdays are uninterrupted unless I choose to have them interrupted; When I need, I can easily get more done in 4 hours straight than I’d accomplish in 10 hours in an open office….but when I work for that 4 hrs straight, I actually work for 4 hrs straight. By the time I’ve finished, I’m often exhausted. It shows how little real focus occurs in a modern office, and is the biggest reason most employers have seen productivity level upheld, if not exceeded during the last 6 months.
Don’t clock watch. Don’t run to time, or work until a set time. Work until that particular task(s) is/are completed, then break. Just 5 mins or a 60min workout; a moment of fresh air. Take the dog for a walk. Make a coffee and sit in a different room. Go for a run. Ride your bike. Switch off in whatever way works for you.
….then finish the day when all tasks are completed…or when enough are completed.
Alone, not lonely
Elephant in the room. Working at home can be lonely. Sitting in your home office/kitchen/bedroom, with no one else in the building is great for productivity, but bad for mental health. On days when I don’t have many business/video calls, I try to either get out, work in a coffee shop during normal times, to get some human interaction, do a bit of exercise, walk the dog, or even just call a friend/family member, especially early in the mid-afternoon just when productivity starts to flag.
Choose three things a day
When you aren’t using outdated/societally defined office hours to decide when work starts and ends, you need some other structure that lets you know when you’ve done a day’s work.
I’ll often start my day, no matter how early, by spending 30secs listing just three top priorities for the day. I’m old school – I’ll use post-it notes on my desk/screen, a visible tool to remove them once each task is completed. I’ll alternatively share them with my research team so I have a sense of accountability.
If you’re going to reap the benefits of letting go of the eight-hour day, you need a different way of managing time and ensuring you’re working at a sensible pace.
Your “three things” above are part of that system, but it is also helpful to set up some other structures to track where time goes. Mike Vardy, author of the book Productivityist uses the term “time theming” – the idea being you dedicate certain times (or days) to specific tasks or types of tasks. It enables easy scheduling of calls and meetings, knowing (and being known for) holding those meetings etc on certain days.
There are time tracker apps available – I personally find they cause more time loss and distraction than they fix, but I know some contacts who struggle with a lack of strict structure do benefit from their use to optimally mix productivity and your sanity.
Learn your natural energy cycles
When you’re working in an office, you show up at a prescribed time, work a prescribed day and leave at a prescribed hour. You do this irrespective of whether you are wired up and fuelled with maximum energy & motivation….or shattered, burned out and suffering from advanced CBA.
A huge productivity win form working from home is the ability to follow natural energy cycles. Give 100% when you feel 100%….. take a break when you’re not on it.
We’ve all seen colleagues (and seen in ourselves) work really hard at doing nothing when they (we) are just not on it….and waste hours or even a full day.
When I first started working from home, I’d panic when I hit a productivity slump, worried that being busy was all that was important (as poor managers had told me repeatedly for years earlier in my career). Accepting slumps, productivity downturns are not only important, they ensure a swift bounce-back. Take a break. An hour of exercise, a ‘duvet’ morning, a day of fresh air…or just a day off to recharge and get personal tasks/chores/objectives done. You’ll bounce back so much stronger.
A trick I’ve used for years is frequenting certain coffee shops, members clubs, restaurants etc. to work…..’Roam-Working’. It satisfies my ‘high-E’ personality, fuelling my energy whilst providing familiar, sporadic social interaction – 2 min social conversations over a coffee, but decent coffee in a familiar setting, rather than stood next to a watery office drinks machine (or worse, kettle and own brand instant coffee). In these hospitality settings, I’ve not only got to know other regular customers, but equally importantly got to know the owners, the staff, the baristas, etc. At a practical level it means they will often act as defacto PA when meeting people, but more importantly all round, it serves to provide a momentary sense of community, not only to benefit mental health in an otherwise solitary day but also to add enjoyment to the time there, fuelling creativity.
Various levels of lockdown have hindered that ability, but even under the stricter lockdowns when even coffee-shops were take-away only or closed, I’d schedule a video coffee with a contact/friend, just for 15mins to say hi. These chats fuelled my energy but also added a sounding board to my ideas and ideation to my plans (and hopefully theirs). Seeing a friendly face can be a huge tonic when stuck in the same four walls 24/7.
Everyone seems to have fallen in to one camp or another over lockdown – either got fitter by seizing the opportunity to exercise more (as I have, having increased my cycling over Lockdown 1.0 and since committing to scheduling a weekday, daytime exercise session at least once per week) or having seen the reduced mobility of being in the office have a negative calorific impact.
Without the walk to the car park, to the sandwich shop, to meeting rooms, to client meetings, etc, the average passive exercise has plummeted. Research has shown that for office workers, the average daily step count has dropped over 55% due to working at home….and that’s before the impact of having the home fridge (and wine cooler) in easy reach.
Modern smart/fitness watches track steps, so committing to a minimum count is an easy metric, but I will typically ‘save’ 60min worth of conversational calls and head out to walk the dog, to a coffee shop, with airpods, and make those calls whilst walking. The fresh air and heightened heart-rate improves my mental cognisance whilst also increasing the calorie count (and time away from tempting treats).
The impact risks being even worse after the gluttony of a lockdown Christmas and with Gyms now closed to aid the post-festive weightloss….. I’ve set myself exercise targets, and offered to help several friends with their commitment and accountability – community support!
The only thing for sure is that working from home is here to stay. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of people working flexibly increased 0.2% per year to just 5% by the beginning of 2010. That number went from 5% to just over 50% overnight in March….and 70% of those have no plans to ever return to a formal workplace. However you chose to work, you need to make it work for you.