For some, working from home is already an established and welcome way of life, whilst for others a sudden and enforced period of homeworking can feel like a daunting disruption to normality.
With the current coronavirus situation, homeworking finds itself in the news again.
Technology is clearly the enabler here but, amongst the encouragement for folks to suddenly be video conferencing, virtually meeting and remotely collaborating with confidence, it is worth pausing to think about the human element here. For no matter how seamless and connected technology can enable us to be, it alone can’t magically help us all make the transition to happy homeworkers.
Tips for homeworking (speaking from experience)
Having been a permanent homeworker since 2006 and having managed a team of fellow homeworkers since 2015, I’ve been reflecting on what seems to work well (and what doesn’t). To a large degree it’s about finding what works best for you. And you will only discover that through trial and error.
1. Set some rules
I’m a creature of habit when it comes to my working day. I like to start at the same time and, where possible, take my breaks at the same time. This provides a structure that avoids the need to blur work time and home time.
Some like to leave the house in the morning, go to the shops or walk the dog, and then return home to start the working day. Others carry out a symbolic act such as putting on 'work' clothes or simply closing the door behind them when they enter the homeworking area. This creates a clear signal that the working day has started. My working day starts by making a cup of tea in my ‘work mug’ before heading off to my desk…
Rules at the end of the day are also important. If you can close the working day when you close your laptop, great. But if you can’t and find yourself checking emails well into the evening, at least have a cut-off point (no devices after 8pm, for example) or establish device-free zones in the house to maintain balance.
2. Embrace interruptions (to a degree!)
When I first started working from home, I revelled in the relative peace and tranquillity. The lack of interruption. The opportunity to really get your head down and stuck in to something substantial.
I discovered that although I seemed to be super-productive in the mornings, by early to mid-afternoon I would suddenly grind to a mental halt, seemingly incapable of concentrating on anything but the simplest of tasks.
It didn’t take long to realise that the lack of interruption was to blame. For as we all know, in the average office environment people are forever popping over to ask a quick question, or even just to pass the time of day. And, as well as serving an important social function, such mini-interruptions kept my mind sharper for longer. Once I started viewing my working day as a marathon, not a sprint, I started to actively embrace opportunities to break it up.
The odd ten minutes spent unloading the dishwasher, putting the washing on the line or tidying the lounge seems to make all the difference to staying productive through to the end of the working day.
3. Don’t be shy
In an office, many conversations begin through happenstance. Bumping into the right person at the right time. Overhearing your name mentioned in someone else’s conversation. Discovering an unrealised overlap between your work and someone else’s whilst waiting for the kettle to boil leading to fruitful collaborations.
This kind of serendipity is much harder to realise when working remotely. You have to make a concerted effort. Tune into it, seek it out and then actually do something to make it happen. Whether its writing the email, picking up the phone, or pinging the instant message. Unless you do so the connection is far less likely to be made.
I’ve also discovered that your webcam is your friend. Sure, you can talk to someone just as well with your camera turned off, but it’s so much more social, more ‘human’, to turn it on and to be able to see the person you are talking to. Believe me, if you do end up working from home for any length of time, seeing a friendly smile from a colleague can make a huge difference to your day.
4. Retain the ties that bind
Emails are too formal (and too numerous). An unscheduled phone or skype call can feel an imposition. But a quick ‘hi, are you free’ nudge on Skype or Teams often feels just right. It’s the remote equivalent of the knock on a colleague’s office door with a ‘do you have five?’ plea. Sometimes the question can be asked and answered in the exchange of a few quick messages, other times it seems to lead quickly and naturally to an agreement to ‘have a quick chat’.
In addition, Yammer, Slack and similar platforms provide an opportunity to create social groups around specific interests, or even just places to share experiences or vent frustrations around working from home.
5. Ask for help, don’t wait for it
We are often all too good at hiding our feelings, stresses and worries from those around us, even when we see our colleagues face-to-face. Working at home, often alone for long periods of the day, can both exacerbate feelings of isolation and anxiety and make them even easier to conceal.
Don’t wait, ping that message to your colleague!
6. Trust your team
Perhaps I’ve just been lucky, but I’ve never found managing a home-based team a problem. It may have been different if I had felt the need to endlessly check in with what they were up to at any given moment, or spent my time obsessing over them starting late, leaving early or having two hour lunch breaks every day. I never did. I trusted – and still trust – the team to know what is required of them and to manage their time accordingly.
Checking in regularly with my direct reports is vital, as is the time we spend together each week as a whole team and in sub-teams. Clarity on goals and workload is important and so I operate a ‘virtual open door’ policy.
Yes, my diary is punctuated with meetings, but beyond those I try not to block out large portions of my calendar to work on particular tasks. Doing so can give the impression to others that I am ‘busy’ and shouldn’t be disturbed. Whereas I would far rather face the odd interruption and know that the team feel I am there if they need me.
Find what works for you - homeworking trial and error
I mentioned at the beginning that finding what works for you is important. One way of doing this can be through spending a couple of minutes at the end of the working day asking yourself the following three questions:
- What worked well today?
- What didn’t?
- What might I try tomorrow?
Then, a simple rule of thumb can be applied:
Do more of what is working for you and actively change that which is not.
I hope this gives you a few ideas for things to try, and good luck!