For some of us working remotely is heaven. We can focus and get things done. For others it’s a pain. Hard to find a rhythm and work seems to go on and on well over regular working hours. The benefits of remote work are clear for ‘deep work’ – when we want to get away from the distractions in the office. Teamwork, however, often feels more complicated remotely.
With many of us at home fighting the COVID-19 coronavirus we should be able to do all our work remotely. Can it be done? Moreover, working outside the office may become the new normal. Being able to focus and get things done regardless of place may become a basic skill. In this article I am introducing 7 tips to make remote work as productive and engaging as possible.
1. In the end we are all people – even when we work remotely
Whether in the office or at home, you need to pay attention to your natural rhythms. According to Adan et al, 20% of have a chronotype that makes them morning types. This means that their cognitive performance peaks in the morning, hits a valley during mid-day, and rebounds during the afternoon. Another 20% are night owls that have the opposite rhythm. The rest are something in between. Your focus is at its best during the peak and lowest in the valley. During rebound your time is best used on routine work.
I am clearly a night owl. Trying to write this article at 10 am was mission impossible. I tried. However, at 3:15 pm my creative process started. I should not even have tried to start earlier. I knew better. But the thought that hard working people start early is rooted very deep. I should have focused on my emails and Slack messages in the morning – during my rebound – and save the deep work to the afternoon.
When working from home the daily rhythm gets easily blurred. People don’t recognise the different phases even when their cognitive performance can vary up to 20% during the day (Hines 2004). Therefore, paying attention to your personal rhythms is crucial. Remote or not.
2. Start your day with a routine – make it a point that work starts
To get a running start to a good remote working day, routines play an important role. At the office, routines are automatic. You have breakfast. You choose your clothing. You drop your children at school. You commute. When working from home you need to force the routine. By having a ‘now-it-is-starting’ routine you tell your brain, very clearly, that work is starting. What could a starting routine look like?
- ‘Commute’ to work by walking around the block. Or take the stairs of your apartment building.
- Take a moment to calm yourself. Maybe meditate.
- Change into your ‘work clothes’. Staying the whole day in your PJ’s is comfy but doesn‘t boost your working mode
- Prepare a cup of coffee
- Look through your to do list before opening the laptop
A routine is anything that primes you to work. In the same way at the end of a remote working day you should have a ‘get-back-home’ routine telling yourself it’s time to leave work behind.
3. Pay attention to the place – ‘go to work’
In the same way as it is important to have routines to signal the start of work, it is important that you have a dedicated physical place to work at home – a place that tells you it is time to focus. It can be a corner of the dining table or a separate room. The working spot also frees the rest of the home for leisure –work should not fill the whole house.
Also think about physical and cognitive ergonomics. What are your temptations at home? If it’s the TV calling you, place your remote on a top shelf and take it back only when you end work. Maybe the temptation is cleaning the house. Find your work spot so that you don’t see the mess. Or schedule a set time for cleaning instead of thinking about it all the time.
4. Create a plan for the day and reflect
A feeling of accomplishment is a major driver for us. At home we easily drift from one topic to another, spend all day working, and nothing gets done. Use a few minutes in the morning to write down what you want to achieve during the day. At the end of the working day, reflect on what you got done. The feeling of accomplishment gives you a boost of energy.
Remember to take your personal rhythm into account when creating the daily plan. An early bird schedules the deep work to the morning, an owl to the afternoon. Book also time for lunch, breaks, and possible household chores.
5. Agree on ways of working in your team
We are socials creatures. At the office we spend quite a bit of time in informal meetings – by the coffee pot, in the corridor, in the lunchroom. When working remotely we risk losing that. Agree with the team how communications is best done. E.g., the following:
- Use instant messaging like Slack or Teams for all internal ad-hoc communications
- For informal discussions and funny videos – use WhatsApp. Or have a dedicated #bythewaterfountain channel in Slack
- Email is only for customer communication and sending more formal messages
- Check in on an agreed channel 2-3 times a day. Just to create the connection.
- When using virtual meetings like Zoom or Teams always have the video on. It’s nice to see each other!
- Meetings on video should be shorter and more to the point than a face to face meeting
- When using video take care of the lighting and try to have a calm background. You can’t always avoid an energetic 3-year-old running through the screen. But that’s OK – it makes us more human 😀
The list can be anything. The main thing is that you agree together how to communicate. If you are a team leader the same applies: be available, check-in, be clear, trust, overcommunicate.
6. Maintain your energy – establish a rhythm
Even the sharpest brain cannot be 100% focused the whole day. Swedish psychologist Ericsson has found that we can do a maximum of 4 hours of focused work a day – in 1 hour periods. Try to create a regular rhythm for your day:
- Plan your breaks in advance to make sure you take them
- Go out – be active
- Exercise at home. 10 minutes a day is so much better than zero.
- Load the dishwasher in between focused work sessions for a natural break
- Break for lunch and snacks. Remember to make or order lunch, and keep your regular meal rhythm. Eating properly is one of the best ways to keep your energy high
- Use the Pomodoro technique (wondering about the name? It comes from an old tomato shaped kitchen timer):
- Decide on the task to be done
- Set your pomodoro timer (traditionally to 25 minutes). Use any timer with a countdown feature, or even a specific pomodoro app
- Work on the task
- End work when the timer rings and put a checkmark on a piece of paper
- Take a short break (3–5 minutes)
- After four Pomodoros, take a longer break (15–30 minutes)
7. Do something in a new way
Working remotely can be a new experience. Why not try something out of the ordinary? Learn a new tool. Start messaging colleagues in a new way. Have walking phone conferences. Try what works for you – go wild!
Bonus: Learn a new skill
It’s never too late to learn a new skill. For remote learning, here’s a great collection of 450 Ivy League courses you can take online right now for free – from business to art & design and social sciences.
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