It’s been quite interesting reading the influx of posts about people adapting to their new reality of working from home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a consultant running my own business, I’ve been working primarily from home for over a decade now. About 80% of my work time is spent in my home office and the remainder at in-person client meetings, delivering speeches and running workshops. Whenever I’m asked for advice regarding working remotely I always tend to start by mentioning that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. You need to optimize your workspace and workday for you.
Of course, during the current COVID-19 pandemic, there is the added complexity of many of us having young kids at home (I have three) that need to be homeschooled at the same time. Depending on the age of your kids and the support network that you have, working from home at the moment can get tricky and requires a high degree of flexibility. This post assumes that you have a spouse/partner or someone from your support network to help you free up at least a few uninterrupted hours in your day for your work duties.
1.) Know your own circadian rhythm and set your work hours accordingly
Circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioural changes that follow a daily cycle. Here’s an image of a sample circadian rhythm typical of someone who rises early in the morning, eats lunch around noon, and sleeps at night (10 p.m.). Although circadian rhythms tend to be synchronized with cycles of light and dark, other factors such as ambient temperature, meal times, stress and exercise can influence the timing as well. Personally, I tend to look at an entire 24-hour cycle and optimize it in a way that aligns with my personal and professional priorities in life (I realize not everyone has that flexibility in their profession). If you are used to a clear divide between a workday and personal time, it’s important that you continue to set your workday hours firmly and stick to them. What you can do is try to optimize them as much as possible to ensure that your time is being used effectively. During the first few weeks, try keeping a simple journal to track three things to start: when you tend to get sleepy, when you are energized and when you feel really focused. Look at your tasks for the day (I use the Bullet Journal Method) and try to place them into the appropriate time slots. For example, I tend to work on my written deliverables that require high focus between 9 am and noon or at night (after 8 pm) once all my kids are in bed. I also find I get a boost of energy (not related to my caffeine intake) in the late afternoon, which I use to work out. Some of you may find that a quick 30min- 45min power nap during your “sleepy” time (usually somewhere between 1 PM and 3 PM for most adults) can work wonders by powering up your productivity for the remainder of the afternoon. Bottom line: Experiment, learn and apply.
2.) Ensure that you have a well-lit, dedicated workspace
While it can often be nice to just move from location to location in your home (I do that on occasion when seeking creative inspiration), having a “home base” is important for your own sanity and to help you mentally disconnect from work when you need to (the majority of your spaces at home should ideally not be associated with work). If you don’t have a dedicated room that you can use as an office, try to block off some space in an existing room. Work close to a window if you can, as nothing beats natural light. If you have limited access to daylight or none at all, augment what you have with 5000K colour temperature lighting during the day (it mimics daylight) and 3000K colour temperature light in the evening/night (assuming you’re still working). If I know I’ll be working through the night on a deliverable due the next day then I’ll keep the 5000K colour temperature lighting to stay awake (not wise to do this regularly as it will mess with your circadian rhythm). My own setup is four 2×2 5000K LED panel light fixtures mounted to my home office ceiling along with two task lamps on my desk that can switch between 3000K and 5000K as needed. My desk is adjacent to a north-facing window so I don’t get sun in my face at any time. This also helps with proper lighting during video calls throughout the day. For video calls during the night, I use a small Manfrotto LED light on a tripod + the two task lamps to augment side lighting. Bottom line: Create a dedicated workspace and don’t overlook lighting.
3.) Turn off push notifications on your phone and don’t touch it during your high-focus hours.
There is enough statistically significant and peer-reviewed research out there to make this a fact: Your phone is a serious distraction when it comes to staying focused. This is especially true since many people have emails, texts, IMs, and their social feeds delivered through push notifications. The latest neuroscience research clearly states that for the vast majority of people, multitasking is not possible. Don’t use the excuse that you have to be on-call with your team (emergencies are an obvious exception). Let them know when your focus time is and set aside separate time windows for answering emails and checking messages every day (e.g. 10 am and 4 pm). Communicate this with your team and the reason why you’re doing it but be flexible and leave room for exceptions. Bottom line: Find at least two hours each day during which you don’t touch your phone. And absolutely no cheating by enabling push notifications on your desktop!
4.) Commit to using a work-focused instant messenger with your team
If there’s one thing COVID-19 is teaching people about remote work it’s how useful Instant Messengers can be for work-related discourse. I’m referring to tools such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp Business, Facebook Workplace, etc. all of which have great cross-platform and cross-device applications. One of their main benefits is that they can dramatically reduce your reliance on email, especially for transitory messages between colleagues. When used effectively this can free up your time rather than adding “more things to check” as naysayers often say. Keep in mind that this is not meant to be a complete replacement of email but it should definitely reduce internal emails and email chains between colleagues. It should go without saying that it’s also not a channel to be used for sending protected/classified government information. Unfortunately, many government organizations still tend to err on the extreme side of caution (rather than reasonable side) and forbid access all together instead of allowing case-specific access and empowering through employee education (here’s a good recent Twitter thread on this — complete with links to some resources). Bottom line: Use the right tool for the right task at hand.
5.) Get some fresh outdoor air at regular intervals
People just transitioning to working from home often make the mistake of getting too comfortable not leaving the house. Even factoring in the current social/physical distancing requirements, you have no excuse not to go in your backyard, front porch, your balcony, or for a nice walk around your immediate neighbourhood. A fresh burst of air every few hours does wonders for me in terms of clearing my mind. Don’t make it a big production or you won’t end up doing it. A two-minute walk to your community mailbox can do the trick. Note: This should be separate from your exercise routine and should not be counted as such unless you’re getting your 30 minutes in there at least. Bottom line: Fresh air is good for the mind, body and soul.
6.) Wear comfy clothes, but don’t overdo it.
I’ll be the first to admit that the cheesy stock image I used for this post could have easily been me in my initial years working from home. Business top, party bottom (ok, at least I used joggers). These days, whether I have a video call or not, I dress comfortably but also in a way that I’d be comfortable presenting myself should a colleague come to the door (not just the Amazon delivery person). With that being said, study yourself and how much work you manage to get done in different types of clothing. You’d be surprised how easily your mind can be tricked into thinking it’s lounging/movie time just by what you’re wearing.