Adjusting to remote work when you are not accustomed to it
Although I consider myself a planner and pride myself in being prepared for the unexpected, facing an unpredicted pandemic was not anything I had considered. It has required some sobering behavioral changes that have had, and will continue to have, a huge impact on our lives. Among other things, one of the first actions taken by many companies was to close down onsite operations and ask employees to work from home. With regular work filling 40-60 hours per week (including normal travel time and preparation), working remotely may be one of the greater challenges faced by those people who have been fortunate enough to keep their jobs.
Plan ahead and set yourself up for success.
Having worked independently and remotely for more than 25 years, I’ve adopted some habits to help me stay on track that I’ve pretty much taken for granted. Hearing from others about the challenges they face has prompted me to analyze how I’ve made it work for so long. If this is the first time you have worked remotely, you may be finding there are more adjustments needed than the obvious accessibility challenges defined and remedied by your employer. Plan ahead and set yourself up for success.
Define your work space. Make sure your “office” is not in the center of other activities. If the dining room table is currently the only flat surface available, you’ll need to be more creative about cordoning off an area that will be your designated “office” and can be claimed as a do not disturb zone. In some cases, employers are allowing staff to take home what they need from their work stations. If you haven’t yet asked, make your needs known. Your employer may be able to provide you with a small stand and ergonomic chair that will take up little space. The most important point is that you treat the space the same way you treat your work space. Outside visitors to your space (e.g. children, partners, friends) should not be allowed without a security pass (:‑J) that only you have defined. Make it clear that when you are in your “office” you are not to be interrupted.
Make sure you have everything you need. Your employer will likely provide the proper devices, technology and security. You’ll need to make sure you have the proper Wi-Fi connections or cable access and any key contact information that may not be stored electronically. Consider the smaller details. Make sure you have pens, scratch paper, sticky notes, toner/ink for printing and anything else you take for granted as being available in the supply room at work when you need it.
Establish regular work hours. Just because you are at home doesn’t mean that you can take off for two hour lunches without clocking out or making a plan for finishing what was expected within your normal work day. Let others know what your work hours are and then stick with the schedule. The more you deviate, the more you are likely to be randomly interrupted by anyone entering your home during your normal work hours. The more consistently you stick with the schedule, the easier it is for others to adjust to your routine and wait until you are done with work to engage you in other things.
Get dressed. It’s very easy to stay in pajamas all day. Fight the urge! Getting showered and dressed as if you were going into the office. You don’t have to go all out, just put on clothes that make you feel like you are staying with your normal routine. It will make you feel better and also send a message to family members that you are WORKING.
Plan your work a week in advance. On Friday each week, review what you got done and make a note of any unfinished work while it is fresh in mind. As you look at work that is slated for the coming week, make sure to plan the time to finish what was missed in addition to new project that need to be completed. Use your calendar to determine specific times you will work on each task based on all associated deadlines, allowing for the time allotted to virtual meetings or phone calls. By doing advance planning on Friday, you will be able to hit the ground running Monday. Taking the time to create a plan for what needs to get done when it is no longer fresh in your mind reduces productivity. If you begin the week with a plan, you will be better able to stay on task and less inclined to be distracted by everything going on around you. You may also encounter urgent needs during the week. Having a plan for what must get done in front of you, allows you to more easily reschedule less time-sensitive work, versus having it fall through the cracks. The other key component is managing your time and making sure to log the reasons you fell off course so you can adjust the next week.
Plan and prepare your meals and snacks in advance. Early on, one of the toughest battles I fought was resisting the urge to run to the refrigerator or pantry to grab a snack any time I got stressed or felt isolated. Short of putting a padlock on the refrigerator, the remedies I found to be helpful also required planning ahead. Make sure there are “safe snacks” available if you can’t resist the urge. Celery sticks, cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, cucumber slices, nuts, raisins are easily stored and can be quickly grabbed. Lunch time is also a vulnerable time for two reasons. The first concern would be skipping it altogether, which leaves you ravenous later. The second hurdle could be to seek comfort food to make up for the lack of human contact. It’s important to plan ahead to avoid the temptation. Whoever invented boxes of salad was a genius. It’s now just as fast and easy to grab a bowl of beautiful greens, add some vegetable toppings, previously cooked chicken, and a little grated cheese, as it is to make a sandwich with some less healthy options. Shopping can be done in advance and I use Sunday to plan and cook for the week so that dinners are available, which helps me resist the urge to bring in a pizza as a reward for being in all day. Many of these options would be great to adopt now and continue with when you return to the office.
Check your posture and get up frequently! It’s easy to get caught up in your work and stay glued to the computer. Early on, when I got engrossed in something, I stayed hunched over and sat in positions that easily put my back out for days. I learned the hard way that inattention to my posture and moving can cause very severe problems. I have since learned to be ultra-conscious of my posture, foot placement and complete back support. I also make sure to get up once an hour at a minimum and take a jog up and down our stairs. I typically do laundry early in the day, which requires me to run up and down the stairs at least once per hour until noon. Later in the day, walking down the street to get the mail is another ritual. At the end of the day, if it is still light outside and not too cold, I walk a 3-mile loop around the neighborhood. If that’s not a good option, I’m fortunate to have a treadmill in my basement and I religiously spend an hour on it three times per week. If you live in an apartment that has stairs, you can get up and take the trash out. Take your recycle out separately so you force yourself to make more than one trip. Once outside, take the opportunity to walk around the complex once or twice. The key is to give yourself a reason to get started, and then keep moving for 10-60 minutes each time, based on what your routine allows.
Learn how to purposefully stay in touch with people. Working at home for some people is like a death sentence. The lack of human contact and feeling of isolation can be overwhelming. As an introvert, I found remote work to be less problematic than others find it. Many people rely on their workplaces to provide much of their social connections. The issue with allowing the situation to dictate who you are in contact with is that when you leave the company without figuring out how to stay in touch, you lose the connections. Working remotely may not be leaving the company, but it may feel like it. Having worked solo for so many years, I’ve developed electronic means of communications over the years that have allowed me to stay in meaningful contact with a huge network of people, including business contacts, friends and supporters. Knowing other people’s habits and their chosen means of communication has allowed me to easily find support at any time of day. I use LinkedIn, Facebook, Messenger, email, texting to communicate status and practical information. Others use IM’s, Teams and Instagram, to name a few. Although I may not meet in person with many of these contacts, I know that because I stay in touch, if I ever really feel panicky and need an ear, I can call. When at all possible, the human exchange of real voices is much more calming than social media. Using the telephone or a face to face interface is still the choice when you are starving for human contact. The key is to learn what the people in your network use so you can stay connected and know the best way to reach them when you feel isolated.
If you’ve seen the 2011 movie Contagion, I’d say that this is an uncanny real life version of it that hasn’t yet played itself out. To say the past month has been strange would be an understatement, and although at this time, there isn’t an end in sight, we know that, this too, shall pass.