Whether we like it or not, the current pandemic has required many of us to work remotely to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some of us have found the transition to working from home to be seamless. For the rest of us, the transition was abrupt and bumpy. Even companies like ours, where employees have always had the option to work remotely, having to do so every day for months on end has revealed several barriers to working efficiently from home. Here are some reasons why working remotely is hard, and what to do about it.
When you work in an office it’s easy to forget about the minutiae of home life. When you’re working from home, every little thing becomes a distraction. A trip to the bedroom to put on a sweater becomes snack time at the fridge. Watching a few minutes of TV turns into an hour long time sink.
The best way to avoid distractions is to hide from them. Seriously, because they aren’t going anywhere and neither are you. I find it most helpful to put on headphones to drown out ambient noise, and then close my email and chat apps. If there’s something urgent, my coworkers know how to reach me. Finding a quiet corner of the house to work is also helpful. It should also be visually quiet, meaning there are fewer distractions within your field of vision.
Interruptions are the distractions that you can’t hide from. They will hunt you down and pounce on you when you least expect it. In fact, I just had to pause for five minutes while writing this sentence because the UPS delivery person needed a signature, which required them knocking on the front door long enough for me to hear it through my headphone induced happy workplace.
It’s impossible to avoid them altogether, but interruptions can be mitigated before they happen. If you cohabitate with others, especially children, let them know ahead of time when you need an hour or more of uninterrupted time to work. Then use that time to hole up and focus on higher priority work.
I’ll admit it, I miss my coworkers. I took for granted the office chatter and the walks to the corner coffee shop. Those interactions are important and they matter to the health of the team. Unfortunately, we’re stuck trying to recreate these moments in a virtual setting.
I’m convinced that every company with remote employees should have a daily video call with absolutely no agenda. Let everyone just hang out and talk. We’ve been doing this at our company and it’s been essential for maintaining camaraderie among our team. Teams that play well together will also work well together, and these online get-togethers reinforce that simple and important truth.
One of the unexpected consequences of working remotely is having to embrace asynchronous workflows. In the office it’s easier to ask a coworker a question before moving on to the next task. Working remotely, it may be a few minutes to a few hours before you get a response. Meanwhile, you have to find something else to work on. This is what it’s like to work asynchronously. Granted, this way of working does have its advantages, but, our team did not realize how much of an impact it would have on our day-to-day.
Working asynchronously makes you reframe your view of collaboration. Before reaching out to a coworker for feedback or help, spend more time trying to figure it out on your own. Even if it’s going to take you twice as long. Working asynchronously will actually improve collaboration, because the team will have more time to focus on the bigger problems that have more impact on the overall outcome of your work.
When the novelty wears off
At first, working remotely seems awesome, and it is! There is a sense of freedom when working in your pajamas with the radio playing the music you want to listen to. Then the novelty wears off and your’re left with the stark reality that those cupcake crumbs on the desk aren’t going to clean themselves.
Working remotely requires a long term plan that embraces change. Because doing the same thing every day isn’t going to work. When you find yourself in the doldrums of remote work, find ways to break the norm. For example, I found a coffee shop that has a garden with wifi. In the moments where I can’t bear another hour working from home, I relocate. The change in my work environment creates a change in my outlook, and working remotely feels fresh again.
As much as we like to grumble about our commute, it does afford us some luxuries. Like, stopping for coffee on the way in, or stopping at the park for a jog on the way home. Listening to our favorite podcast while crawling along the freeway. Impromptu singalongs with Van Halen (windows up, to spare our crawling cohort).
None of us want to go back to the crawl. But, commuting does have two positive side effects that we might be missing from working remotely. It creates routine and it gives us a break as we move from home life to work life and back. Break up your day with a routine, like walking around the block before sitting down to the computer, or sit outside on a bench for 20 minutes or more before starting dinner.
My desk at the office is ergonomically perfect. Every piece of equipment is at the right height and my limbs all float at the right angles when I work. That is not the case at my house. My desk is in the kitchen and my monitor is perched atop two plastic storage containers. There is a vegetable rack next to my chair. With all the uncertainty surrounding when we’ll be able to go back to work, it’s hard to justify spending money on a temporary home office.
Ergonomics are important. But that doesn’t mean they need to be expensive. You can buy or make standing desks made from cardboard that sit on a table. You can also use plastic bins, like I did, to improve your ergonomics. One or two seat cushions can make a bad chair a good one. A few other things to consider: a headset, wireless keyboard, and wireless mouse — which will give you more options if you work on a laptop. A little creativity goes a long way in making your home work space more comfortable and avoiding a long term injury.
Our team prefers having the option to work remotely or from the office. There are some days we need to plug away alone at home or in a coffee shop to get stuff done. And on other days we’re going to be most efficient at the office. Right now, unfortunately, we don’t have the choice but to work remotely from home.
Remember that working remotely is hard, especially for those unprepared to do it in the midst of a pandemic. Be kind to yourself and your coworkers. Be thankful to have work, and don’t expect to be as productive as you were last year. Finally, remember to take breaks throughout the day to step away from the computer and recharge and realign. You got this.