Derek DeWitt, Communications Specialist for Visix, Inc.
In the US, telecommuting had been growing before the COVID-19 pandemic and companies found that employees who could work from home at least some of the time were more productive, and those workers reported that they were happier. Companies with remote work policies also saved literally billions of dollars in 2019 alone, plus had lower turnover rates and increased employee loyalty.
There’s a lot of talk about how the current situation may be the “new normal”. With more people working from home in every industry, and more students of all ages having online classes, the WFH culture is growing each day. And when this is all over and things get back on track, there’s a good chance that systems for remote working and learning will stay in place and even expand.
Although people tend to enjoy the option of working from home, many people who find themselves suddenly exiled from the office completely report feeling stressed. Even when people have spent considerable effort getting their physical office set up correctly, they’re still struggling.
Once you’ve got a good desk and an ergonomic chair, that’s it, right? Wrong. Although finetuning your workspace is important, you also have to practice good habits to stay happy and healthy in a work-from-home environment.
- Set Boundaries
If you live with other people, you need to set up boundaries, so they understand when the work area is off limits. Some of this will depend on where you’ve decided to work – try to make it as out of the way of normal household life as possible. A separate room with a door is ideal.
But people still may need to be reminded about your work hours, especially if you’re doing a lot of conference calls, or trying to teach or learn online. Your partner, spouse or children are not trying to disrupt you on purpose; they just need some good ground rules everyone can agree upon that will become second nature over a pretty short period of time.
Studies show that it takes someone 20 minutes to get back on track after being interrupted, which just lengthens your day – and that’s something you definitely don’t want to do.
Some of the boundaries you need to set are between you and work. If you usually left the office at 5pm, then quit working in your home office at the same time. Do not fall into the trap of working longer hours just because you’re at home.
If it’s possible, have one computer and area for work, and another for personal use. Keeping the lines clear between work and home is a lot easier if you only use this one computer, or sit at this one desk, during work hours. This also means you shouldn’t use personal software, email, social media accounts or messaging apps for work stuff. Keep the two separate or you will never know peace.
- Balance Both Worlds
Just because you’re physically at home, you should still treat your workspace and the time you spend there as work (or school). This means maintaining the same routines and professionalism as when you were commuting, while enjoying the benefits of working from home.
Have your usual breakfast before starting your day. Shower and get dressed. That may seem like a funny thing to say, but a lot of people don’t because, “Hey, I’m at home.” But keeping routines in place will help you mentally move from your home to your office, so shower, shave and dress as if you are going out in public. This is especially important if you’re using video conferencing or distance learning platforms.
And when you are “at work” or “at school”, treat your computer like a work computer. This means no checking personal email or social media, no web browsing. No watching TV. That’s stuff you can do once you’re on a break or off the clock.
The good news is that you might be able to set the alarm a little later than you had to in the past. If that doesn’t work for you (some people automatically wake up at a certain time), then take a little more time for yourself or your family in the morning. Alternatively, you could start your day a little earlier and end your day earlier as well – just control your overall hours.
Another perk is listening to music while you work. This can lighten or energize your mood while getting rid of distractions at the same time. If you can’t play music on speakers, use headphones instead of ear buds if you plan to listen for longer periods of time. You want to be as comfortable as possible. You can even use noise cancelling headphones if music will be too distracting.
It’s important to still feel part of a team when you’re at home, so participate in any online social events your organization has, or start your own. If your company or school publishes daily updates to their website or intranet, check frequently to stay connected to what’s going on. If you’re missing the digital signage that used to give you your news, maybe have that feed on a separate monitor so you can glance at it periodically, just like you would if you were physically in your facility.
- Take Breaks
When you’re at work or school, you take little breaks all the time. It might be just a couple of minutes to chat with a colleague and refill your coffee, but a break is a break. One cause of stress for people now working from home is that they sit down at that computer and then don’t get up again for six hours. This is a terrible mistake.
Just like you want your work routine to mimic what it was when you went into your office or school, you also want your downtime to be replicated as closely as possible. This is for both your physical and mental health. Computers cause eye strain, which can lead to headaches, blurry vision and fatigue. Having good lighting is important, and making sure you see some natural light once in a while throughout your day is just as important as having an ergonomic mouse and keyboard.
The American Optometric Association has what they call the 20-20-20 Rule. This suggests you take a break every 20 minutes, for at least 20 seconds, and spend that time looking at something that is at least 20 feet away. This helps work your eye muscles and reduce strain on them.
Some people use productivity tools like RescueTime, Time Out, Pomodoro and literally dozens of others. These force you to take short break by essentially freezing your computer screen for 20 seconds or so. Most of these apps let you set the frequency and how long the freeze is, and most include a helpful bit of relaxation advice as well. Not a bad idea if you find you lack the willpower to force yourself to take breaks on your own.
- Try Something Different
Vary things as much as you can. This may seem like it’s at odds with the advice to keep to a routine, but it isn’t. We’re talking about small shifts and changes throughout the day. If your desk can convert to a standing desk, change heights from time to time. Try using a pillow in your chair for lumbar support for a while, then work for a while without it (or a different pillow). Maybe change the lighting a bit at different times of the day.
This is all part of mimicking the in-office experience. Sure, you have your workstation or cubicle or office or classroom when commuting, but there’s actually a surprising amount of variety going on at your office or school. So, mix it up a little bit a home every couple of hours.
If you can go outside at all during the day, do so. Even if it’s just walking around the block for five minutes. Just like you went outside when commuting there and back, on your lunch hour and during breaks, you should try to do that at home as well. Fresh air is a great destresser and energizer.
- Stock Up
Most offices have a steady supply of things you might need during the day, like paper clips, pens, staplers, etc. Have these things readily accessible in your workspace and make sure you don’t run out. Better to have a bunch of paperclips and not need them, then really need them and not have them.
The same goes for snacks. Many offices have snacks on hand, and both hot and cold drinks. Make sure you have plenty of these around. If necessary, set up your day’s snacks the evening before, so you don’t have to interrupt your flow just to have a cup of coffee or a protein bar. And drink plenty of water. It really helps.
- Personalize and Beautify
Make sure your workspace is perfect for you – the monitor is the right height, the chair is set up just the way you like it, etc. Tossing in a few personal items is also a good idea. That may seem obvious since you’re at home, but it’s important to personalize your workspace there just like you would at your office.
Having some colors around can be a nice treat for your eyes. Put up a poster or quote to motivate you when you’re lagging. Maybe put a couple of plants near you’re work area. They’re pleasing to look at, produce oxygen, and offer you a chance for a small break when they need to be watered. Plus, studies show there’s an average 15% productivity increase in work environments that have plants.
Some people add scents to their home office space as well. This could be a scented candle or a fragrance diffuser, or even just a nearby bowl of fresh citrus fruit (which can double as a healthy snack). This is not only pleasant but helps further delineate between “home” and “work”.
- Stay Organized
Keep your work area as clutter-free as you can. Hide cables or go wireless whenever possible. Have commonly used items inside of a “work triangle” (within arm’s reach at no more than three sperate points). Use a pen pot to keep things neat.
Use drawers or shelves to store papers and other things you use rarely. And create a system. Workers spend a full week each year looking for misplaced papers, even in the office. So, save yourself that time and frustration with a little planning and organization.
Organize your electronic communications as well. Use a calendar and consider a project management app if you need one. Only check email three times a day at designated times. Let your co-workers know when you’ll be online, so they understand if you don’t get right back to them. If something is super important or needs immediate attention, then pick up a phone, or use instant messaging in Slack, Teams or whatever software your organization prefers.
- Clock Out
When the work or school day is over, it’s over. Leave your home office immediately and try to avoid returning to it again until the next work period. And do not do any work outside of business hours – that includes checking email and messages on your phone.
Relax, do something to treat yourself and unwind a bit. Do something completely different than anything you did during the workday. Go for a walk, play with your dog, cook a meal, whatever – get away from screens. Consider this down time to be in lieu of your commute.
And get some good sleep. Starting the next day rested will go a long way towards making that another successful day.
These are just some of the things you can do to help make working from home not only less stressful, but more productive. You just might find that you end up preferring this way of working to actually going in. And if you need anything from your employer or school to make you better at working from home, be sure to ask. There’s a good chance they have a system in place for helping everyone transition to this new normal.