By Dr. Shallon Brown
6 Lessons I’ve Learned from a Decade of Working from Home
About a decade ago, I was wrapping up my Master’s Degree at the University of Maryland Global Campus. By this point in my career, I knew that if I wanted to work a full time job while also completing my dream of obtaining a doctorate, I would need to get creative in finding a job that allowed me the freedom to work an odd schedule. Otherwise, I faced the possibility of having every free moment of my weekend occupied because of booked off weekdays.
So once I made up my mind that it was time to go for the gold, I decided to start freelancing 100% remotely. I had done some reading using self-help books, online blogs, and just talking to colleagues who had also made the switch, so I had a good idea of what I’d be getting myself into.
At first I was very excited. Picture it: no more shoulder surfing from co-workers, office drama, or high dry cleaning bills. No more worrying about the state of the car’s gas tank as I’m hobbling out the door, already late for that super important all hands meeting. And of course, no more gridlock, shoveling out of 2 feet of snow because your job is still open, or general commute exhaustion.
While I can say that I certainly relished in the initial joy of no longer trying to hawk down a glazed donut while being squeezed so tightly on the train that you couldn’t slide a quarter in between me and the person in front of me, there were elements that I didn’t envision which took some adjusting.
During the first month, I woke up at around the same time each day, gleefully swinging my slipper-covered feet while coding away and jumping around Zoom calls. But by month two, I found myself working periodically on weekends, trying to take advantage of being able to make that sweet freelancer cash while flexing my schedule. By month three, my body clock was a mess, I was eating less healthy due to the less predictable schedule, and my mental and physical fitness were deteriorating as a direct result. Before I knew it, I was just a step away from full burnout, and that’s when reality really settled in. If I was going to be able to sustain this work setup in the long run, I’d have to go back to the basics and stick with them.
Here are some of the biggest factors I have found over the years to increase productivity and ensure that you too can maintain both work-life balance and working remotely.
1. Routine is the Key to Long Term Sustainability – Recreating Normal in Your New Normal
For those who aren’t used to the ability to work in your pajamas, it may take a bit of an adjustment to get used to not needing to get dressed up, put on makeup or shave, get your hair all perfect, and head for that morning commute, all before eventually hitting the office door.
That said, if working from home is more of a struggle for you because you generally like the structure that commuting and in-person work gives you, there is no reason why you can’t still engage in the same time structure and basic routine. Try to get up at the same time every day. If you function better in work clothes, go ahead and put them on while you work from home.
Take a walk in the mornings to help keep your body going through those same motions, and get some exercise. Try to get offline at around the same time every day as well, and possibly even take that second walk at the end of the day to wind both your mind and body down for the evening. This will keep your circadian rhythm intact, and ultimately keep you feeling physically and mentally in a good place to do good work.
2. Reliable Tools, Reliable Work
This is especially important for developers. Now that we are all working remotely with less access to our IT specialists to help us with machine issues, it is important that we have the best tools to do our job, and ensure they allow us to churn out quality work. If you have an older or slower machine, try to work with your organization on obtaining an upgraded laptop. In addition, now is a great time to review your system stack for efficiency.
How long does it take the average person to get their machine set up for an environment? If the answer is longer than 1 day, you should consider an overhaul on your setup processes. This might include a review of your stack building tools. Remember that some versions of certain stack tools are far more reliable than others. In addition, older versions of hardware, and machines with less memory or lower-end processors will not allow for quick setup or speedy development.
3. Create a Space Where You Do Your Best Work
This includes investing in a dedicated space where you can focus without distractions, stay awake and engaged, and ultimately deliver your best work reliably. That means avoid working in bed or on the couch. If possible, add items like plants, mini desk fountains, small radios, or even fidget toys for those soul-crushingly long meetings. Pictures of your loved ones can also help you remember who this is all for as well. Though these are small items, they encourage you to want to go to that space everyday and give it your all.
4. Set Boundaries and Enforce Them….with Positivity!
Your office space (even if it is at your kitchen table) is still where you need to accomplish everything you did before you worked from home. As such, if you are living with other people, you will need to talk with them about how you all can now function best in that space without disturbing each other to the point of distraction.
Try to coordinate your interactions with those you live with around set times of the day. For example, work out a time mid-day where everyone is allowed to use that area freely, and avoid noisiness during your meeting calls. Should they need to use that room unexpectedly during the day, set up a group text and ask first. These acts of curiosity can go a long way to keeping you all productive (and sane!). For every day everyone in the house sticks to these rules, have everyone place a dollar in a jar – you can plan a collective vacation with the money you save in the jar, encouraging everyone to follow the new rules.
If you have children at home, this is an especially challenging time for sure. However, the same rules of schedules and boundaries should apply. Set certain times when your office area is off limits, and be firm in sticking to it (with the exception of true emergencies). Give small rewards and encouragement at the end of each day they stick to this structure to help reinforce the behavior.
5. Keep Morale High and Encourage Empathy as a Company Culture Model
Sure, at the end of the day, work is the means by which we all sustain a living. But let’s face it: many of us wouldn’t feel a fraction of as much attachment to our work if but for the casual and unexpected interactions with the people we work with. Those discussions about who just got engaged, what our favorite football team is doing this year (GO RAVENS!), reality TV drama, and who is planning the next company happy hour are all positive things we do at most organizations to make us all feel human and give us something to look forward to.
For managers, now is the time to remember that even for those who are fortunate enough to still be employed and financially stable, many people have situations at home that are dire as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, including sick or deceased relatives/friends, spouses that have lost their jobs, struggles to keep children stuck at home occupied, cancellation of plans for later this year, and the stress of potentially giving birth in a hospital during this outbreak. That added stress can lead to understandable issues with performance at work as well.
So go ahead and boot up those channels at Slack called “water_cooler” and encourage talk about non-work related topics (that are still of course going to pass HR muster). Schedule those Friday 5pm virtual happy hours, and let management use that as a time to discuss only positive news. There are many tools that can also give employees points and credits towards real rewards such as gift cards online for participating in Slack and other chat tools. Providing these positive reinforcement elements can help assure your employees you are doing all you can to support them during this time, and positive energy can assist with counteracting the negative impact of the current environment.
6. This is a Marathon, Not a Sprint!
If you are an overachiever like myself, you have a natural desire to want to prove you are willing and able to go above and beyond for the sake of bettering your organization. But just because you now may physically be able to work an extra 3 hours a day thanks to the lack of commuting doesn’t mean you should every single day.
While we all have to work extra hours from time to time, try to set boundaries around your time, and avoid just burning hours out of boredom. It will not only inevitably lead to burnout, but creates an unspoken expectation between you, your employer, and your colleagues that can be hard to alter after the fact. As a general rule, try to avoid burning more than an excess 10-15% over your expected allotment per week without a special circumstance.
While this shift has caught many organizations off-guard, we are here to help in any way we can, and greatly encourage you to reach out to us. We have helped many organizations make the transition to working from home smoother, and assist them with pitfalls associated with a remote work setup. You can have a remote environment that functions even better than your previous one in most cases with the right plan.
In my next post in this series, I’ll delve deeper into the heart of how to keep your company morale high, and ultimately bring your team closer together, even while social distancing.