As we all know, the recent COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in some extraordinary changes all over the world. One of these changes is that many people who have worked in an office environment for their entire career have suddenly found themselves shifted to working remotely. At first, this may seem like it isn’t that big of a change. After all, you’ll save commuting time and expenses, and you already pay your bills and do many other office type activities at home, so what’s the big deal?
However, it may be a bigger deal than you realize. There are some surprises on this path that could cause you some unexpected problems, and for some people, working remotely is more difficult than they imagined. At the same time, though, there really are some great benefits with this arrangement that are just waiting to be discovered.
I’ve worked from home for over 17 years, and I’ve learned a few things along the way that have helped me to successfully keep plugging away. Here are five tips for making the most of this situation and working successfully from home.
1. Set an Alarm
One of the biggest traps that derails a successful attempt to work at home is failing to keep to a regular schedule. It’s very easy to say, “Oh, I’m at home, so I can sleep in a little later.” The problem is that it keeps getting later and later, so you compensate by working later and later. Soon, your 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. day has turned into 12 p.m. to 8 p.m., and it feels like you are spending more time at work than you used to when at the office.
Set an alarm, get up, and follow your normal morning routine of exercising, reading the news, getting dressed, and then starting work. The more you can keep your work schedule on schedule, the more productive you will be.
2. Build a Nest
Another great detractor to working successfully from home is not having a work-station setup. You start out in the living room, but someone is talking loudly on the phone there, so you go into the den, but little Johnny has an episode of “PJ Masks” turned up as loud as it can go. Before you realize it, you’ve wasted a lot of time going from place to place in your own house, trying to find a quiet corner in which to hunker down.
The best thing you can do is to set up a spot in your home that you can designate as an office area. It will signal to everyone else that you are “at work,” and you can walk in, sit down, and jump right into the day’s task load. I know that this will be tough for many who live in smaller houses or apartments, but if you can designate a spot in a basement, attic, garage, or anywhere where you can focus on work, it will be extremely helpful.
3. Manage Interruptions
This one, as you can guess, is tough. How do you tell your family and loved ones to go away? The answer is that you don’t. You gently manage everyone’s expectations instead. With a designated office area at home, it is a lot easier to establish some boundaries that say, “When I’m in here, I am not to be interrupted.” On the other hand, these are unique times, and more than likely, you have other people in the home with you who normally would be at their jobs, schools, or daycares. You may be in a very tough spot.
If so, perhaps these recommendations may help:
- Don’t get frustrated when you are interrupted. Remember that the others who are cooped up with you aren’t having much fun either. They may be experiencing heightened feelings of boredom, isolation, detachment, and even fear. Be patient with everyone.
- With smaller children, find ways to engage them with what you are doing. Try something simple, like asking them to get you a cup of coffee, and then reward them with praise when they do that—for example, “Thanks, Suzi. You helped mommy with her work by bringing coffee to her.” By involving them in ways like this, you will help them to feel like they are part of your team instead of being on the outside, looking in.
- Manage your time with everyone in your family. Schedule lunch breaks with your spouse or significant other and set times for a reading break or other special activities with children. This way, everyone can plan on when you will be available instead of interrupting you. And since you have been setting your alarm and getting up and working at a regular time, try starting even earlier and scheduling more time during the day with other people.
- Make sure to manage online meetings the same as you would regular meetings in the office. It can become very easy to start thinking that virtual time is free time, but it is not. You still need time to get your regular work done.
4. Smile: You’re on Candid Camera
I’m betting that most every laptop in use today has a camera on it, so make sure that you use it. We humans need to see each other. When you can see the person that you are talking to, you can see their reactions, which helps you to connect better and builds trust. Using your camera isn’t necessarily for you; instead, it is for your co-workers.
Imagine if you went into a conference room at your office for a meeting, and everyone hid behind an opaque mask. It sounds ridiculous, yet why do we do that in online meetings? If your hair is out of place, put on a hat or whatever you need to do to feel presentable. The important thing is to turn on the camera. In fact, you can do fun things on camera in your online meetings, just as you would do in the office.
Last September, I met with my boss online before going to PCB West, and I decided to dress accordingly for the “road trip,” as you can see (Figure 1). Her laughter was well worth the extra effort to clean the cobwebs out of my (very) old motorcycle helmet.
Figure 1: Tim Haag in motorcycle garb for an online meeting before road-tripping to PCB West.
5. Reach Out
Never before have we seen the forced isolation of people like we are now, and for extroverts, it is extremely difficult to function without regular social interaction. There may be members of your own team having a difficult time working from home, and the best thing that you can do is to seek them out and check in with them.
The other day, a friend of mine posted on social media that she was struggling with the isolation of working from home, and a bunch of us jumped in with greetings and other forms of silliness to pump her up. This morning, one of my co-workers sent out a company-wide message, asking how everyone was doing in general and checking up on us. Anything that you can do to help your co-workers through this time will pay extra dividends in productivity.
Here are some additional recommendations to keep in mind:
- Make sure to schedule the appropriate team, department, and corporate meetings. You don’t want to overload everyone’s calendar with meetings, of course, but you need to stay connected to each other.
- Schedule virtual “happy hours” with your co-workers. My company has been doing this for a while now with great success. On designated days after the normal end of the business day, we grab a beverage and meet together online, just for fun.
- Don’t forget to stay connected with extended family, friends, and neighbors. Yesterday, I had a great time talking with my next-door neighbor. We were appropriately socially distanced from each other across the fence and chatted like normal.
These are difficult and unique times, and if you are transitioning to working from home for the first time, you also have this new mountain to conquer. But it can be done! Several of us have been working from home now for a long time with great success, and I am confident that you can too. And if you need someone to chat with, drop me a line.
Tim Haag writes technical, thought-leadership content for First Page Sage on his longtime career as a PCB designer and EDA technologist.