We’re facing an unprecedented time for both individuals and organizations alike, a time that very well may help define an entire generation.
Many are afraid they won’t be able to get enough done, with managing childcare, working from home with their spouse, and isolation from colleagues and the office environment in general.
And while no one knows how long isolation is going to last, the good news is you can be productive working from home.
In fact, many organizations around the world were already operating effectively as fully distributed companies before the crisis. So, with a bit of work and some adjustments in the way you operate, you can maintain the productivity of yourself and your team.
Chances are, if you’re reading this you had never worked remotely before the COVID-19 crisis hit.
Now, you’re quickly trying to figure out how you can work from home while maintaining the same level of productivity you and your team had when you were working at the office.
The good news is, there’s a lot you can do to optimize your environment and maximize your productivity while working remotely.
Working remotely is different, not less effective
The first thing you’ll notice when you sit down to work from home is that working remotely is very different from working in an office.
At first, it’s going to be very hard.
In fact, if you don’t work hard to figure out the optimal ingredients for efficient remote work, it will continue to be hard.
But that doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, with the right effort, you can make working from home just as productive as working in the office.
In some ways, this depends on the kind of work you’re doing. However, in general, the good news is working remotely just takes a different skillset and a different approach. It’s not inherently less effective or productive than working on-site.
Part I: Tips for transitioning to remote work at home
Before you can work with your team to maintain their productivity working remotely, you need to work on figuring out how to maximize your own productivity.
Working from home has several unique challenges you don’t have to deal with when working in an office environment.
Fortunately, once you know what the remedy is to those major challenges, it becomes much easier to be productive when working from home.
It still won’t be perfect, but don’t kid yourself. Working in an office setting with colleagues and team members also presented itself with its own set of distractions and interruptions.
With enough work, though, you can maintain a high level of productivity, just like you were able to do in the office (with some differences to account for your personality and the type of office work you’re doing).
Here are 3 tips for transitioning to remote work at home:
1. Establish boundaries
If you had to summarize working from home strictly in terms of the difference between it and working in the office, it would come down to this:
Where once there was a separation of work and home, now work and home collide into one.
This simple statement highlights why there’s such an issue with working from home. Within home and the office two entirely different things occur. In one, the office, we work. At home, we relax, perform personal tasks, and enjoy life with our families.
Once that separation ended, the lack of boundaries caused the greatest issues with working from home.
That’s why reestablishing those boundaries is the first and most important objective to transitioning effectively and productively to remote work.
There are really three different types of boundaries that come into play here, which we’ll break down individually:
These have to do with the physical space in which you work and it’s arguably the single most important element of maintaining productivity when working remotely.
Working from your couch or bed sounds great, but it’s one of the great mistakes of the new remote worker to think that you’ll be productive while sitting on the couch.
Sure, there are some that can make it work. But for most, it’s the kiss of death. The moment you sit down on the coach you feel compelled to take a quick nap or flip on the T.V.
Instead, follow these points to establish clear physical boundaries in your home:
- Create a separate workspace: If you have a space for a personal office, great. If not, buy or makeshift a small desk to stick in the corner of a room and reserve it exclusively for work.
- Don’t allow yourself to work anywhere else in your home: Be hard-line on this. It’s not just about being productive in your work, you need to protect that all-important relaxation time you’re used to spending at home.
- If you can, set up devices that are reserved exclusively for work: If you have a laptop for work, don’t start using it for personal reasons just because you’re at home. If you’re used to using a personal computer or smartphone for personal needs, continue to do so to maintain that digital separation.
Also, consider banning all devices from your bedroom. The reason for this isn’t obviously productivity-related, but it is.
If you don’t protect your physical spaces for relaxation and allow work to seep into your personal home life, you’ll find yourself quickly becoming burnt out, which makes being productive immensely more challenging.
So– no devices in the bedroom!
Next, let’s talk about time-related boundaries.
These relate to when and how you work.
Now that you have your physical space reserved and protected for work-related activities (and, equally important, spaces reserved for relaxation), it’s time to dive into the time blocks you reserve for work and relaxation.
This really comes down to two things:
- Create a fixed start and end time for your workday: If you’re used to going into the office at 8AM and leaving at 5PM, stick to that same schedule.
- Schedule regular breaks: Less about strictly remote work and more about simply being more productive, consider using something like the Pomodoro method to install regular breaks throughout your day, which has been shown to make us more productive.
Keep in mind that in terms of creating a strict start and end time to your day, that also means you have a strict schedule for relaxation time as well.
If you’re scheduled to be off work from 6PM until your bedtime, at let’s say 11PM, maintain that strict separation.
We’ll talk more about this later in the remote team productivity section, but the last thing you want for you or your team is for your established schedule to start being thrown off.
That schedule sends all kinds of important cues to your brain throughout your day which are important for maintaining focus and productivity, so you don’t want to do anything that will drastically throw off your schedule and mess with those signals.
Lastly, let’s talk about the importance of personal boundaries.
The most unique of the three types of boundaries, personal boundaries aren’t any less important than time or physical boundaries.
In fact, for many, especially those who are married and/or have kids, this will be the most important type of boundary of all.
Personal boundaries exist where what you’ve set up regarding your plans for physical and time-related boundaries converge with the people you live with (i.e. in most cases, your family).
Especially for those who have kids, it can be very difficult to keep interruptions down to a feasible level. For many, the overstepping of these boundaries by kids and spouses is the greatest threat to work from home productivity.
It’s hard for everyone involved. After all, you’re home! Your kids want to be around you and your spouse is used to communicating with you for all manner of reasons.
However, by not establishing strict personal boundaries for work time– as if you weren’t at home at all and actually in the office– working from home just won’t work.
To make sure that doesn’t happen, take time to set up an agreement with your family.
Make sure these elements of your agreement are clear:
- When you’re at work and when you’re available: Make sure they know when your workday begins, ends, and when your lunch break is as well.
- Where your work area is: Is there a room or area they can’t go during the day?
- How to contact you: Ask your spouse or older children to text you in case they need anything first before walking into the room, just like you were in the office.
With these 3 levels of boundaries in place, your productivity working from home will skyrocket. It’s really that important.
2. Manage external interruptions
In his book, “Your Brain at Work”, Dr. David Rock talks about recent studies on the effect of interruptions on humans while performing a task.
Most disturbingly, he notes that, “After an interruption it takes them 25 minutes to return to the original task, if they do at all.”
External interruptions don’t just pull us away from the task at hand for the length of the interruption, they pull us away for the duration of the interruption plus the amount of time it takes to refocus yourself on the task at hand.
Managing external interruptions is critical to maintaining productivity anywhere, but it becomes even more important when working from home with additional factors such as family and personal/home-related temptations.
Consider implementing some or all of these points to help you manage external interruptions:
- Manage your notifications: This includes cutting back on unnecessary notifications, centralizing your notifications onto one device (you don’t need Facebook notifications on your desktop and smartphone), and pausing notifications during work hours (most desktops allow you to do this).
- Use sound or music to improve focus: Music or sounds of nature can allow you to stay focused while working, no matter what sound is going on around you.
- Make your desktop a place of focus: By installing a website blocker like Freedom for your guilty pleasures during work hours, managing your hundreds of tabs which can be a source of distraction, and using other focus-aid apps like Inbox When Ready for Gmail.
Keep in mind that these are just a few ways to manage your external interruptions.
Each step you take might only remove a few interruptions a day, but those interruptions add up to a large amount of time when you factor in how long it takes for you to get back to maximum mental focus.
Part II: Tips for working with your team remotely
All around the world, founders and managers are scrambling to figure out how to maintain the productivity of their teams.
However, the reality is, remote work was already on the rise, with several thousand companies around the world already being fully distributed, and with more going that route every year.
According to Global Workplace Analytics, 3.2% of the U.S. workforce now works from home with remote work growing by 140% since 2005, roughly ten times faster than the rest of the U.S. workforce:
Another survey by Dr. Peter Hirst of MIT Sloan School of Management found that offering remote work options offered to employees made them happier, more engaged, and reduced attrition.
So, investing some time and energy into learning how to maintain productivity with a remote team might make it worthwhile to offer remote work options after the crisis.
Here are four tips for working with your team remotely:
“Experts recommend sticking to your daily routine even when working from home”
New Yorkers and Londoners: pic.twitter.com/tsbMaYxJoq
— The Greek Analyst (@GreekAnalyst) March 16, 2020
1. Have your team stick to their daily routine
One of the greatest killers of productivity is to have your routine completely upended.
Sure, you might have gotten distracted while working in the office and interrupted by people coming into your office or from frequent meetings.
However, your morning routine, your commute, and the office all acted as powerful and effective triggers that shifted you into “get things done” mode each day from the moment you woke up to get ready for work.
Utilize the power of triggers to simulate your team’s workday
In James Clear’s Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, he talks about the power triggers in building habits.
Specifically, the fact that triggers are the first step in establishing any habit and that by creating your own triggers, you’re able to control the creation of new, positive habits:
As soon as you began working from home, you not only lost those useful triggers, you and your team were put in a position where new counterproductive triggers existed, such as:
- Your T.V.
- Personal computer
All those things are now calling out to you as you work, drawing you in to partake in just a moment’s rest, relaxation, or pleasure.
To stop these things from becoming harmful distractions, you need to do everything you can to make sure that you and your team retain as many of these preexisting positive triggers as possible to “simulate” your workday.
- Encourage your team to continue waking up and starting work at the same time, and consider suggesting a new morning routine that will replace their morning commute to help them shift into work mode.
- Replace daily stand up meetings with Zoom meetings or something similar.
- While you’re at it, keep all other meetings in place exactly when they usually would be. This will also silently encourage your team to get dressed so that they’re presentable, keeping the habit of getting dressed for work in place as well.
- Maintain weekly hangouts digitally such as Happy Hour Fridays or whatever other rituals you have in place.
- Continue 1 on 1 meetings with your people as well, as that’s a key time during their week where they can express the unique challenges they’re experiencing with remote work.
There are a number of ways you can simulate your team’s workday and help them stick to their daily routine.
The most important thing is simply that you retain as many of those elements as possible to help your team feel like it’s work as usual.
2. Understand how intention and perception affects remote communication
There’s an aspect of remote communication that is easy to miss but which can cause issues when that’s the only way you communicate.
You might bring in video chat for meetings, but when chatting through text apps like Slack or email, our primal programming can lead to harmful assumptions that damage relationships between you and your team members.
Coined by author Robert J. Hanlon, the concept of Hanlon’s Razor states that we should “assume ignorance before malice” when communicating with those around us.
Why is this important?
According to a study in the Journal of Consulting Psychology, a whole 55 percent of communication is visual, including movements of the face, eyes, and body including posture and the use and positioning of our legs and hands.
When communicating face-to-face, there are countless non-verbal cues we pick up on which send signals to the brain that the person we’re communicating with means well or is “on our side”.
However, when communicating via text and even audio, we’re missing those vital cues.
Still with me?
The problem with this, our ancient survival-oriented programming causes us to label anything we’re uncertain about a threat. So, when we’re missing those visual and auditory cues, the right (or wrong) phrase can lead us to assuming the person is talking down to us, being negative, or attacking us when in reality that’s not the case at all.
To help us survive, in the past, we evolved to assume someone that wasn’t from our tribe was an enemy until proven otherwise. So, our programming is set up in a way that we “lean” in favor of treating someone we’re communicating with as an enemy unless we see otherwise.
Digital communication removes those vital cues and triggers that survival mechanism, which can cause all kinds of obvious problems.
What to do about it
So, what can you do?
Besides having all meetings and important communications done via video chat, develop the habit of assuming positive intent instead of negative and explain the principle and its importance to the team.
When communicating with a team member and you’re not sure what was intended by their message, notice when you make any kind of negative assumption about their intention and note it.
Then, remind yourself that you’re likely misunderstanding them because you have limited information to go off of and either ask for clarification or to have a quick video chat with the person to make sure you’re understanding them right.
3. Be wary of the effects of isolation from remote work
One of the most unexpected and potentially serious effects of remote work is the isolation you feel after having worked from home for so long.
Some remote workers make it a point of going to coffee shops or frequently meeting up with friends to retain some semblance of social connection, however weak or strong.
If that’s not possible, however, isolation is much more likely.
What’s the problem with social isolation?
Beyond just being unfun, isolation has a dangerous consequence with a real physiological effect on both our body and mind: loneliness.
The impact of loneliness on mental health
Without regular, deep interactions with other human beings, the mind gradually breaks down to the point that it even affects the physical body.
We know this because of neuroscientist Stephen Porges’s discovery of the vagus nerve, a nerve responsible for influencing various aspects of our physical and mental well-being.
According to Porges’s original research, the vagus nerve split into two some two-hundred to three-hundred million years ago, the first section which we retained from our reptilian ancestors and the second which we inherited from our first mammalian ancestors. However, it’s the newer version of the vagus nerve which is the important one in this instance.
That second newer version of the vagus nerve fires any time we interact with another human being and activates our “social engagement system”, that then sends signals throughout our body.
Our social engagement system works much like a muscle. The more you use it, the better shape it’s in. But the less you use it, eventually, that muscle becomes weak and can even atrophy. That’s what severe loneliness is. And that severe loneliness can be caused by long-term isolation.
Why does this matter? Research has shown that prolonged isolation can eventually lead to several serious conditions such as anxiety and even clinical depression. In other words, it’s no joke.
What you can do to help you and your team
Remain aware of the impact that social isolation can have on your team. Work to encourage social interaction among your team and them and their own social network.
Ask them how they plan to set up their schedule and what they’ll be doing with their free time.
Over time, check in with them during your regular 1 on 1s or when you touch base and ask them how they’re doing.
Here are some more ideas to fight isolation and stave off loneliness:
- Practice meditation to maintain mental health
- Exercise regularly
- Take a walk around the neighborhood to get outside and smell some fresh air
- Take a scenic drive
- Be intentional about creating spaces or ways for your team to make small talk. Set up a digital water-cooler type environment on Slack or through open Zoom meetings.
- Encourage end-of-week digital celebrations like having a drink over Zoom after work.
Remember: physical isolation is different from social isolation. Whether your team can get up and leave the house and visit friends and family or not, they can still be socially active using digital tools and among their own family in-house.
Encourage these activities and you’ll help your team maintain their mental health, which leads to all other things.
Remote work doesn’t have to mean unproductive
There’s a lot you can do to create the optimal environment working from home to maximize your productivity, as well as the productivity of your team if you’re a manager or founder.
No one knows how long this situation will last, but one thing is for certain: it will end and life will go back to (relative) normalcy.
However, remote work has been growing in popularity long before this. In fact, many who study the trends believe it’s the future of work.
According to AngelList founder Naval Ravikant:
“It is probably going to be the single most important new category in hiring. We’re going to see an era of everyone employing remote tech workers, and it’s not too far away. In fact, now’s the time to prepare for it.”
And that was before the crisis hit.
So, investing some time into learning both:
- How to be effective when working remotely (whether necessary or voluntary), and;
- How to manage a team remotely if you’re a leader so you don’t skip a beat in terms of productivity and efficiency
…is a worthy investment of your time.
Think of this time as an opportunity to learn how to manage yourself and your team in the “Future of Work” and you’ll find it a far more valuable investment of your time. One that can pay huge dividends long after we recover from this difficult moment in history.
And if you’re looking for more resources to help you maximize your productivity while working remotely, check out these guides: