Working from Home: 12 Ways to Stay Productive and Sane Over the Long Haul
Updated: Mar 16
In the beginning, it's all sleeping late and pajamas. But after a few days, you'll be craving structure and solutions.
Over the past few days, we've seen several posts on how to adjust to working from home, and all have good advice. Most of them are addressing the short-term best practices and how to focus or track kind of stuff.
There's also a bigger discussion to be had, and that’s how to approach the productivity and emotional challenges that present themselves when working from home over an extended period of time. The efficiency that is typically made possible by an intentional office set up, real-time brainstorms, natural social interactions, built-in movement, etc., starts to diminish in their absence. But there are ways to preemptively prepare and combat these very real obstacles.
On the chance that social distancing lasts more than two weeks (or becomes even more extreme), below are our team's aggregation of insights and best practices gleaned over time.
Consider Your Setup Most people don't realize that, in the office, expert vendors and facilities have put thought into your physical workstations and environment. Working from your sofa or kitchen table may be fine after hours or when you have to crank something out over the weekend. But it won’t take you long to notice the downsides of your casual setup. Hunching over a laptop, squinting at small text, and having your elbows, wrists and hands pinned at angles that limit blood flow all can take their physiological and musculoskeletal toll. Balance Hack: Anything you can do to create a “desktop”-like setup, whether expensing a wireless keyboard so that you can push your screen back or using a TV around the house as a second monitor can make a big difference in preventing discomfort. Not sure how to set your seat or table height for maximum posture support? There are tons of guides out there including this one from MayoClinic.
Parcel Your Day Though it’s tempting to roll right from the bed to the desk, years of experience has taught our team that if you get up, shower and put on some civilian wear among other “transition” rituals, you'll feel a sense of changeover into (and out of) your workday. Otherwise, it can all start to feel like one big extension of your morning. Before you know it, it’s 5pm and you haven’t moved from your chair, brushed your teeth or been outside. Trust us, you won’t like the way that feels, and your body will be craving blood flow, Vitamin D, social contact and other natural parts of an office day. Balance Hack: Timeblock your day, strategically grouping similar tasks together, and make sure to schedule in breaks to stretch, breathe, move, clean up, or just look away from your screen in between tasks. Perhaps most important, schedule an END to your day every day and create some rituals around it. This might be messaging peers and letting them know you're about to sign off, lighting a candle or playing some music, starting to prepare your dinner – anything that helps you definitively shift from work mode into self mode. Work creep is bad enough at the office, but when it's sitting on your dining room table staring back at you, it’s easy to get sucked in until late hours of the evening.
Choose Your Communication Method Intentionally When you’re in the office, you communicate through a mix of emails, telephone conversations, messaging, and face-to-face contact. Any lack of clarity is easy to resolve because of proximity. But when entirely dependent on technology to communicate, you’ll need to choose your method with intention. Balance Hack: Asynchronous methods such as email are best used to deliver the information or data that addresses the “what” of a situation or ask. To address the “why” or anything that might be emotionally charged, you’ll benefit from choosing synchronous methods such as video conference, telephone or, if necessary, real-time texting.
Be Extra Clear About Workloads and Deadlines Because you're not in a physical environment together, it's easy to lose touch with teammates’ workloads. Get ahead of frustration and misunderstanding by creating intentional deadline agreements. Balance Hack: When something is asked of you, communicate your understanding and the reality of your deliverable timeline rather than just thinking about it. If there are too many steps in the way of truly knowing if you can meet a deadline, communicate your timeline for the first step and ask to circle back when that part is complete. Likewise, if you’re asking something of another, ask them when you can expect a realistic turnaround from them rather than assigning it. Humans don’t like to live up to expectations. In fact, often, we rebel against them. But humans do like to live up to mutual agreements.
Mind Your Notifications While real-time messaging and emailing will be critical to productive response times, it can also slow you down during periods that require sustained concentration. Balance Hack: Turn on Busy, DND or Sleep modes and set a status or auto-reply email that notes what you’re working on, when you’ll be done and how they can reach you (i.e. text messaging) for critical asks. Knowing when you'll be back will prevent coworkers from spinning if your input or collaboration is required to push a project forward but prevent you from feeling like you're in a never-ending fire fight.
Manage Your Attention When working virtually, every meeting is held in front of a computer. In order to gain the kind of focus that you might in a conference room, you’ll have to take deliberate steps to do so. This will prevent, “Sorry, I was distracted – can you repeat that?” moments from turning a 15-minute meeting into a 30-minute one. Beyond time management, your virtual meeting behavior will be noticed and if on the aloof side can often erode trust. We all know the feeling of being on a call and hearing the other person typing on the other end. It sucks. When it's happening every day multiple times a day, it's magnified. Balance Hack: If you hear typing, call it out gently by asking that person if they need a minute to respond to something. On our team, we've learned that for creative or strategy calls, video conference eliminates these issues well and naturally. For regular team calls, use this rule of thumb: When someone else is talking, step away from your computer so that you can truly absorb what they are saying rather than drifting into our inbox or project status.
Show Some Team Spirit You're simply not going to get the same connectivity through the wires as you do in person. You have to create it. Balance Hack: Examples include organizing a virtual (video) group lunch, coffee break or happy hour – but no work talk. Other options include a “show and tell,” during which team members take turns demoing a skill or something they know well, both work related or otherwise. Electing someone to kick off each group call with an icebreaker or connection method is also a great way to keep the human touch alive.
Weave in Some Movement By this we don't mean exercise (see the next bullet point for that). Instead we mean incidental movement that in the office naturally permeates the day i.e. walking to and from a meeting, navigating the pantry or swinging by a colleague's workspace. These intervals of walking do a lot more for your mental and physical function than you realize. You're not going to get that in the three steps it takes to get to the bathroom or grab some water at home, so you’ll need to supplement what you do get with some planned walk breaks. Balance Hack: Go get the mail, clean up around the house between projects, take the dog for a longer walk than usual, run an errand. if possible.
Plan Your Exercise Nothing supports immune, musculoskeletal, sleep, and emotional function overall as well as a strong commitment to self-care. Whether you can still visit the gym or are housebound for the time-being, you can still get in a workout. Balance Hack: Apps such as www.sworkit.com, www.glo.com, Neou fitness, Peloton and many trendy franchises or CrossFit boxes have online classes. Amazon Prime has tons of workout and meditation options as does Netflix. Want the free stuff? Go into YouTube and explore trainers such as AthleanX who post great ways to stay toned with no equipment. Bonus: Our pals at Yoga Today extended a $30 special code to our readers: YOGALOVE30. Or for a quick fix, try the classic CrossFit workout 21-15-9 (movement suggestions: pushups, situps, squats) – you’ll be surprised how it will energize you.
Eat the Good Stuff Pandemics are no time to resort to Cheetos and ramen as sustenance. Especially with immune function in mind, you need micronutrients to feel and perform at your best. Stock up on plant-based options including veggies and whole grains, as well as healthy proteins for balance and energy. Under duress, it’s easy to reach for the chips and even easier to eat the whole bag since nobody’s watching, which will likely make you feel bad or guilty, hampering the confidence on which productivity thrives. Balance Hack: Just read a stressful email? Have to start something over again? Before you hit the refrigerator try a stretch or pushup break instead.
Don't Underestimate the Derailing Effects of Isolation People need people. If you're new to working from home, that's already a huge reduction in your people exposure. No coffee shop repartee. No elevator banter or gazes. Add to that the current social distancing guidelines, it might start to feel like you're either in solitary confinement or, if surrounded by kids/family, locked in an asylum. If we go into mandatory quarantine such as other parts of the world have done, that need will go exponential. Balance Hack: Make a plan for virtual dates. But not just with colleagues and family. We also need contact with our people, the ones who we most deeply connect with and align with our creative and intellectual perspectives. Staying inspired and heard is important to maintaining the sanity that productivity requires.
Infuse Some Creativity Chances are, you've already cut back on socializing and going to cultural events, especially as venues shutter for the duration. But cutting off your creative outlets can leave you feeling off, uninspired and perhaps even depressed. Balance Hack: Use the time to resurface your passion projects. Pick up a long-abandoned hobby or dive deep into a new one. That short story you always meant to write? Hey, over here. That dusty guitar? Make it weep. Our take is that some of the most creative breakthroughs of this decade may come out of this time. Will yours be one of them?
This list is the result of an amazing team who has worked virtually for years and knows how the variables of remote work intersect with the fabric of real life.
But we also know there are tons of organizations who have mastered the art or remote work and likely have brilliant processes, protocols and tools we could all benefit from. Please share them here! And if this article addresses a challenge you have long wondered how to address, please share this, too.
Balance Integration is a boutique NYC-based consultancy who supports large global organizations in shifting their cultural models form change-vulnerable to resilient. With change being the only constant of the future of business, we consider the shift critical to organizational sustainability. Creating such a shift requires multi-lever support, including values assessments, leadership alignment, process reviews, manager training and broad-based employee modeling. The results are empowered workforces with the psychological safety to innovate, enthusiasm to contribute, and drive to help the company succeed. Once equipped with the power of the collective, it's difficult for an organization to fail. If you're interested in exploring what a relationship with Balance Integration could look like for your organization, please reach out to email@example.com.