Working from home effectively and efficiently during a pandemic
Not because you can, but because you have to.
Are recent developments regarding the COVID-19 virus also causing you to work from home? And are you someone who rarely did that in the past, or even not at all? Then you may wonder how on earth you will manage to work from home effectively and efficiently right now. It’s not simply a matter of taking your laptop and getting things done. Below you find five dilemma’s, including tips and suggestions to make the best of things.
Working from home is not uncommon for Dutch employees. ‘This is my work from home day, so I won’t be in the office today’ is a sentence that won’t raise any eyebrows here. What is new, is the scale on which this will be happening: the number of workers from home will increase drastically, among whom will be people who – until now – only rarely worked from home, or never even worked from home at all. These are the dilemma’s I hear my clients have, and people I know:
- “I am used to working in an office, surrounded by co-workers. I really need that; getting a coffee, having a chat. How am I supposed to find that social aspect in work when I am at home and won’t be seeing them?
You are not alone when you draw energy from these contacts with your co-workers! The social side of work is very important and part of the teambuilding you are looking for in such a group of people. Therefore it’s very understandable to miss that particular side of your work.
What you could do:
- Discuss this with your manager, the supporting staff and your co-workers. What can you do to compensate this? You could, for instance, organise a virtual version of the team meeting, while using programmes such as Zoom, Skype or Microsoft Teams to ensure that everyone can see and hear one another.
- Arrange a coffee moment with a co-worker: an appointment to call each other at a certain moment in your work day, or even use Skype to see and hear each other. Making this your coffee moment gives you a much needed break.
- If your team is divided into groups of workers in the office and workers at home, don’t forget to contact ‘people from the other group’. A call, a chat message, an email: maintaining contact remains important.
- Having a WhatsApp group with your co-workers may be tempting: using an existing group or creating a new one. Do consider that you shouldn’t muddy the waters of communication here – sending everyone cartoons on the Corona virus may seem funny in your eyes, but will annoy colleagues who find the increased traffic a distraction (‘ding!’). See also dilemma 5.
- “I don’t have an office at home, or even a desk to sit at; I really need to improvise. I want to prevent my laptop from collecting bread crumbs or that advertising leaflets will get mixed in with my paperwork. How do I keep this organized?”
Not everyone has the same need for structure when it comes to the place where you actually work. If you don’t mind typing on your laptop while sitting on the couch, or reading a document while taking a bath, this won’t trouble you. If you do want to be more organized in this, you could do the following:
- Designate a spot in your home as ‘the office’ and communicate that to any family members you may have. If this spot doubles as something else (like a small dining table, or your couch), you only have one option: show the discipline to clean up after yourself when you are done with activity X, to make room for activity Y.
- This will be much easier when your work is portable. Choose a folding crate, basket, bag or box in which your put all your work stuff and only take our what you need.
- Invest more time than you would normally do in the office in the closure of your working day: grab your things, discard what you don’t need anymore and choose whichever task you want to start with for the following morning.
- Should any personal mail come in during the day, or other items that could get mixed up with work documents, keep this pile away from your spot and out of sight. Don’t start sorting through it unless you are finished, or on your break. Don’t try to multitask and do both!
- “There used to be a clear line for me: work is work, home is home. I would like to be able to close the door behind me in both situations, but the line has become blurred. That’s the case when the kids come home from school in the afternoon, but with them at home fulltime this will be even more unclear: when am I off duty, and when am I at work?
Not all of us have kids, but there are numerous distractions in the home for everyone: putting another load in the washing machine, clearing out the dishwasher… And now that you’re home, shouldn’t you be sorting out your pantry and supplies? All very useful, but before you know it your working day is reduced to a few bits and pieces, while never really getting round to any actual work. This is what you could do:
- Whenever you come up with something else you shouldn’t forget, write down these loose ends You can do that on a notepad next to you, in your to do list or by using an app such as Braintoss.
- If you have kids, you will need to be clear about your working hours. You give clarity by maintaining certain hours (‘I can’t be disturbed between 9 and 12’) or by a visual indication (‘Laptop open means I am working, laptop closed means you can ask me a question’).
- You will probably now realize that even in the office, your productivity is not a linear thing; when in the office, you get coffee, or chat with your co-worker in between tasks. While working from home, don’t get overambitious: you are better off working in ‘portions of time’ with breaks between them, than try to work in one long streak of productivity. For instance: work for one hour straight, do minor tasks for 15 minutes, then continue. Shorter portions of time are also an option: organizing your inbox for half an hour while diagnosing your next steps, then handle phone calls for fifteen minutes. A work day is a series of sprints, not one long marathon. Use the alarm on your phone or an egg timer to keep track of those portions of time.
- See also dilemma 2 about the separation of your work place of the rest of the house.
- “When I’m in the office, my calendar is filled with meetings and appointments. To such an extent that I have trouble doing things in between, like dealing with email or reading documents. Now that my schedule has completely changed, I don’t know how to handle structuring my work day. How do I ensure that my working days have some sense of productivity left?”
Whether you need a carrot-and-stick approach to get into action, is a personal thing. You will probably know the difference only when you are truly working alone; this calls for you to set your own pace and rhythm. This is what you can do:
- Whenever possible, maintain the same working hours you would normally have, when it comes to your starting moment, ending moment and breaks. You have zero commute, so there is no problem when you take more time for your breakfast or for reading the paper.
- At the start of your working day, invest ten minutes in the structure of that working day. What will you be accomplishing today? Are there any Skype sessions or phone calls in your schedule today? Try to determine how much time your will need for the important tasks and be realistic: there are going to be interruptions and small tasks and they will take time out of your day.
- Working in portions of time – while using the alarm in your phone or an egg timer – may help you to maintain the rhythm you have come up with.
- If you are not the only one from your team having trouble with this aspect, it may be useful to work simultaneously while keeping an open Skype connection. You don’t even need to talk, but just the knowledge that you are connected to someone else may make the difference you need.
- “There is so much going on now, that it is very tempting to check the news and read what is happening. I keep on clicking on links and get completely distracted from what I was setting out to do. How can I remain focused?”
The situation is changing by the day and even by the hour. It is always wise to stay informed about the current situation, but it’s equally wise to keep your focus on matters that you do have control over. Such as the tasks that need doing. These are things you could do:
- Give yourself fixed moments during the day to visit news websites and social media, in between your working hours. This gives you a clear structure. For instance at 10 AM, 1 PM and 4 PM.
- Connect – if not blocked by the IT department – your smartphone and your computer so you can send WhatsApp messages while using your keyboard. This saves time and energy. Go to whatsapp.com to let your phone and computer ‘get acquainted’. You only need to do this once; whenever they are close in the future and you will type this address in your browser, you immediately see all of your messages.
- When you start clicking, choose a duration. Set your alarm to avoid endless browsing.
- When you notice there are too many messages blurring the conversation in the office WhatsApp group, consider creating two of those: one for ‘serious’ information and the other one for ‘fun and games’. Participating in that second group is optional. This way, colleagues who are not interested in a cartoon about toilet paper hoarding, can focus on other things.
- Would you like to know how much time you spend on social media and news website, or even block certain sites temporarily? To measure is to know, and blocking them is the smart thing to do if you really don’t take to heart the fact that you are cyber binging. You may try these apps for both phones and computers.
Good luck in working from home and in dealing with all other measures! Stay safe and read reliable sources, such as the website of the RIVM.
~~ This blog post is also available in Dutch, see here ~~
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