With the recent COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak and a lockdown in place in most cities, many of us are now required to work from home. For even the most flexible and efficient people, that can be a tough transition. How do you maintain your edge while working remotely? How do you get as much done when you aren’t in the same space as your colleagues? Can you wear pajamas all day and still take your conference calls seriously?
Our contacts at the CDC are predicting about six to eight weeks until we hit peak virus, and then four weeks after that before things go back to something remotely resembling normal. That’s two to three months of social distancing and isolation. We’re in this for the semi-long haul, which is probably a good thing in the big picture, as long as we don’t kill each other or completely drop the ball professionally along the way.
In other words, we’ve got to adapt. And as a team of people who have been working from home for more than a decade, we’ve discovered some great techniques, mindsets and best practices for getting things done remotely. If you’re wondering how to work from home effectively during a pandemic, then this article will help you weather the storm, keep your game up, and possibly even outperform during this period.
And it all starts with…
Your Tools and Workspace
One of the strangest parts of working from home is losing a dedicated area just for work. That office you always wished you could ditch or that open desk you found super distracting was actually an important space. It told your mind and body: This is where the work happens, this is what you have to do while you’re here, and this is where other people can expect you to get it done.
So the first thing you need to do now that you’re working from home is decide what your new “office” is. Find a space — even if it’s just a section of a table, a corner or a comfortable chair — that you can turn into your new “office.” Getting serious work done at the kitchen counter is a fantasy for most of us. It’s just a few feet from the fridge, a few more feet from the bedroom, and probably in the middle of a pathway that carries roommates, significant others, and a whole lot of distractions. You need a place that will signal “this is my work area” to your brain in the absence of a traditional office.
Getting the right technology is also key right now. And while it might just seem like another tool or a nice-to-have, it’s actually a critical part of operating at your best.
Let’s start with hardware.
Use a work laptop if you must — many of us get these from the office, or use a personal one at home — but if you’re working long days, take precautions. I recommend investing in an external mouse and keyboard to avoid fatigue and messing up your wrists. If you’re working ten hours a day on an 11-inch screen propped up on your lap from a La-Z-Boy, this will take a toll on your body. And you’re going to need that body to be in strong shape to ride out this strange period.
Next, upgrade your internet speed. While it might seem like a luxury, good broadband can make a huge difference in your performance. If you’ve got kids or roommates at home watching Netflix while you’re trying to video conference with your whole team, you’re going to want the extra horsepower. (Our resident expert here at The Jordan Harbinger Show recommends 250 megabits down and 20 up, especially when the network gets saturated or downgraded, but we might be a little intense on our bandwidth requirements.) Bottom line is, no one wants to be that laggy, pixellated, unintelligible person in the Zoom meeting just because their roommate is in the other room bingeing Tiger King. Even if you have to pay a little extra for a few months, it’s well worth it.
And speaking of video conferencing, I highly recommend using Zoom instead of those cumbersome conference-call dial-in services. Seeing your colleagues, and letting them see you, goes a long way in reducing the isolation of quarantine. It’ll also help you avoid the dreaded “Oh — sorry — no, you go — please — okay, well — what? — no, I was just — go ahead” conference call syndrome. Just remember that you’re on camera when you use Zoom, so you don’t pull one of these epic video conference fails. (When in doubt: Leave the laptop outside the bathroom door.)
Finally, if noise is a serious problem at home — as it is for so many of us (shout out to my son Jayden, who’s teething right now) — then get yourself a pair of noise-canceling headphones. These are a true gamechanger. Not only will they filter out the sound of your housemates arguing about whether Carole Baskin really killed her husband (can someone please solve this case during quarantine so I can stop thinking about it?), they’ll also give you an extra headset for conference calls, meditating, working out, and listening to podcasts. They’ll also make flights way more tolerable. (Not that any of you are flying right now. Right? Right?)
Of course, your technology and workspace are just tools to get your best work done. And getting your best work done these days depends on…
The hardest part of working from home, by far, is the disruption to normal communication. When you can’t pop down the hall to ask someone a question, grab a file or talk out an issue, a minor task can become a gargantuan headache. Before you know it, your inbox is overflowing with requests and your phone is filling up with voicemails (ugh) confirming a decision for the ninth time. You have to get very disciplined to stay efficient — and to stay connected and accountable to your team while you’re working apart. Let’s start by talking about tools, then get into best practices and mindsets.
My main recommendation for staying in touch efficiently is to make sure you’re using Slack or Microsoft Teams with your colleagues.
If your employer has a messaging platform in place, great. If not, you might want to set up a Slack group yourself just for your team or department. (You’ll be a hero for this.) If no one else follows suit, then the next best thing is to become super disciplined about your emails. Pack them with relevant information, be disciplined about responding, and find other ways — such as text, Skype, or FaceTime — to stay close with your most important teammates throughout the day.
All of this will save you typing up 700 emails per day just because you can’t walk over to Lydia’s desk and ask her when the marketing roadmap will be ready. (Lydia’s probably in her Cookie Monster PJs right now, drinking Riesling from a thermos, browsing the Joe Exotic subreddit, living her best life, making yours more complicated. C’mon, Lydia. Get it together! We even have a Slack channel dedicated to Tiger King memes! Join us!)
Next, I recommend over-communicating with your team about your goals and status.
If appropriate, share morning and evening updates with your manager and/or teammates. A brief message — by email or (even better) by Slack or an equivalent — outlining what you’re working on that day, what you need from them, and what you’ve accomplished since the last message will go a very long way. This is the “last mile” that gets disrupted when you don’t have casual hallway bump-ins or regular all-hands meetings in the conference room. It’s usually up to us to bridge that gap on our own. Make it a priority.
In a time like this, you want to be overly connected and overly visible, even if you go a little overboard. Every job and office is different, of course, but this is a general best practice.
While we all want to keep crushing work even under lockdown, it’s also important to manage expectations with your team. Because no matter how much you do to maintain continuity, working from home will always be harder than working at the office.
So tell your manager and colleagues what you can and cannot get done from home. Identify any limitations on your time, technology or ability to collaborate. Communicate the challenges that will complicate a deadline or slow down a process. It’s better to call these things out in advance than pretend that working from home will always be smooth sailing. There’s a learning curve here in quarantine, and you’ll need to communicate realistically in order to shine through it.
At the same time, be extra patient with yourself and others right now. We don’t all get through this transition at the same rate. Some of our roles are harder from home, some are impossible, and some require a completely new way of doing business. Kindness and understanding with your team will make this period a lot more manageable. It will also distinguish you as a positive, empathetic colleague in a time when positivity and empathy are sorely needed.
Finally, one of the hardest parts of working from home is the blurring of lines. When you go to an office, you can separate your family, friends and personal time from your work. When you work from home, though, all those worlds converge — making it really hard, and sometimes even impossible, to manage any of them well.
That’s where boundaries come in.
First, explain to your family (spouses, kids, parents, etc.) that you cannot engage with them more than is strictly necessary during work hours. If your husband wouldn’t text you a bunch of questions while you were at the office, then he shouldn’t constantly pop into the living room to chat while you’re working from home. If your mom wouldn’t ask you to step out at lunch to have a glass of chardonnay and discuss Carole Baskin’s YouTube strategy (the woman is straight crushing it on social media, let’s not deny it), then she shouldn’t pour you a glass in the kitchen between your job interviews.
These boundaries will allow you to carve out — and defend — that crucial psychic space you need to get your work done.
But boundaries work in the other direction, too.
Once work is over for the day, draw a line in the sand with your colleagues and managers. There’s usually no need to be working on a deck at 10:30 p.m. if you were working on it all day (no matter how bored you and your colleagues are right now). And while you might have gathered in the kitchenette at the office to talk about why Geoff in Operations keeps posting weird conspiracy theories to his Twitter, you don’t need to have that conversation on Slack at midnight. Save that for your breaks. And keep your obligatory work socializing to work hours — unless, of course, you want to chat after hours, or you absolutely have to talk with your colleagues about whether Joe Exotic really did it or whether Jeff set him up. (Friggin’ Jeff.)
Back when life was normal, you probably took for granted the natural boundaries that having an office created. In the absence of that space, you have to recreate it by drawing those boundaries yourself. If you don’t, then blurring your home and work life will quickly lead to burnout. So be mindful about this, and be a little more deliberate about carving out the mental and physical space you need to do your best work.
Which will also allow you to calibrate…
The other frontier of this battle is your mind. For most of us, working from home sends contradictory signals to the brain, like swimming in jeans or making love while CNN is playing. It just doesn’t feel right. To get work done, you have to minimize those contradictory impulses with the help of a few simple techniques.
First, I recommend dressing up like you’re going to work, at least for the first few days. There’s no need to wear heels or put on the full suit you’d wear for a C-suite presentation, but definitely don’t lounge all day in your sweatpants as you work from your home computer. You will feel unproductive, gross and probably a bit imposterish, which is the last thing you want when you’re trying to maintain your edge while working remotely.
(By the way, the whole “business up top and party down below” outfit that’s popular right now — you know, like wearing a button-down shirt and PJs to keep up appearances on Zoom — will probably only make things harder. Again, you want to avoid those contradictory signals. Plus, if you decide to get up and cross the room during a video conference, you don’t want to be the person who accidentally reveals that they’re wearing a blazer and undies. Believe me, it’s happened. Not a good look. Literally.)
The research bears this out, by the way. One fascinating study, for example, found that wearing formal clothing actually influences the quality of our thinking — something we desperately need when we’re working from home.
In several experiments, the researchers found that formal clothing enhances our ability to engage in abstract thinking and global processing. Why? Because dressing up cultivates “felt power,” or our subjective sense of our own relative power in a situation, which led to higher processing and action identification.
In other words, the threads we put on our back (and legs and feet) directly impact how we process objects, people and events. So if you’re feeling a little slow, hazy or out of the loop while working from home, throw on that blouse or blazer, pull on some proper pants, give yourself a shave, and let your clothes help you connect to those feelings that you normally access when you physically go to the office. It might seem like a silly ritual, but it actually has a huge influence on your performance.
Managing Your Time
Working from home can turn a normal day into a blur of hours that either tick by way too slowly or fly by before you know what happened. Either way, productivity usually takes a major hit. Without the natural accountability of an office — where Janine from marketing can serve you some vicious side-eye for texting your best friend at your desk, or your boss can catch you watching Tiger King conspiracy videos on YouTube — you’ll need a little extra structure to stay on task.
One system I love is the Pomodoro timer, a famous time-management system that demonstrably increases results.
Based on the old-fashioned tomato timer, the Pomodoro system basically creates a predetermined interval of work — usually 20–30 minutes — followed by a set break, usually five minutes long. After four of these intervals, you get a longer break, usually about 15 minutes.
If you follow this simple technique, you’ll break your day into concrete, manageable pieces in which you know you’ll get a certain amount of work done. You’ll also budget your breaks instead of taking them willy-nilly, which will allow you to really enjoy them and avoid faffing off when no one’s around to crack the whip.
Scheduling these downtime intervals, by the way, is just as important as scheduling your work intervals. I recommend using your breaks to go for a walk (if you’re not under total lockdown), play with your kids, do some squats or lunges, or jump rope in the garage. In times like these, you need to get out of the house and be active in some way, or you’re going to go insane being cooped up for the next couple of months.
So use the power of the Pomodoro not just to keep you chained to your desk, but to give yourself the disciplined freedom to use your brain and body in a different way.
To make this happen, you can use an actual physical timer, your phone timer, or any number of easily accessible web-based timers. The one thing I don’t recommend is eye-balling the time on your own. You want that external stimulus dictating when you begin and when you end — that’s what makes the system work. (It also feels a bit like cooking, which is strangely comforting.)
One piece of advice here: Make this system your own. If you work better in 15-minute or 40-minute stretches, then adjust those intervals to your liking. If one 20-minute break works better than four five-minute breaks, great. The important thing is that you have some structure — any structure that keeps you connected to your work and out of an unscheduled Joe Exotic music video rabbit hole.
Blocking and Calendaring
In addition to a timer, your other best friend right now is your calendar. If you use your calendar religiously, you’ll take back control over that blob of hours and get a ton of work done.
In practice, this means blocking out swaths of time on your calendar for specific projects and tasks, scheduling phone calls in advance (rather than making or taking them when the mood strikes), locking down team check-ins and deadlines, and even scheduling your downtime when work is finished. I also recommend using to-do lists in conjunction with your calendar for all those miscellaneous tasks, blocking out time here and there to get those off your plate.
So the end of your day on your calendar might look something like this:
- 3-4 p.m.: Team check-in
- 4:15-5:30 p.m.: Finish sales deck
- 5:45-6 p.m.: Review deck with your colleague
- 6:30-7 p.m.: Do a final pass on deck, turn it in
- 7-7:30 p.m.: Make dinner while talking to Mom
- 7:30 p.m. on: Watch Tiger King until you pass out or Joe Exotic marries yet another random guy, whichever one comes first.
As you calendar your day, use the Pomodoro technique to enforce your commitments. If you’ve scheduled a half hour to answer emails, then set that timer for 30 minutes, and schedule a five-minute break after. That’s how you can link up these techniques to become a productivity ninja at home.
On a related note, do your best to keep to a consistent schedule. It can be very tempting to keep your own hours during this period, but varying your sleep and wake times will throw a wrench in the works, disrupting your sleep, focus and sense of normalcy. Even if you’re a manager or founder who makes their own hours, I highly recommend sticking to a consistent schedule. Your calendar and timer will help you stick to that commitment, too.
Performing in Lockdown
We’re living through unprecedented times. The rules are vague, the systems are shaky, and the way we manage our lives, our schedule and our expectations is being radically redefined. What used to feel like clearly delineated worlds of work, home and the rest of life have now collapsed into a hazy free-for-all. Our productivity, connection and sense of control are the first to take a hit.
All of this can feel very intimidating and destabilizing, and it is. But it’s also an opportunity to come back to the simple techniques, practices and mindsets that allow us to do our best work no matter the circumstances. It might take a little extra work to cultivate and protect them right now. But that work will pay even greater dividends as the rest of the world continues to struggle with getting stuff done.
So put these strategies into place, make them your own, study the results, and double down on the practices that work best for you. Most importantly, find a way to take care of yourself while you also take care of business. Draw those boundaries to protect your systems, but also try to find a little enjoyment in this new way of operating. There’s wisdom and productivity there, too.
And for more information on how to weather this strange period, check out our recent Feedback Friday episode about working from home, which will not only give you some tried-and-tested methods for getting things done, but also make you feel a little less alone in the meantime. As always, we’ll be here the whole time, learning along with you and keeping you company!
[Featured photo by Dimitri Karastelev]