Twelve months ago, one of the first blogs I posted to iluli centered around my home office – offering an insight into the daily trials and tribulations of remote working, and my recommendations to overcome them. I expected it would be relevant – and helpful – to a handful of readers at most, given that the overwhelming majority of the population are office or field-based.
Today, we are in the midst of a pandemic that is changing the way we live and work – and fast. Millions (perhaps, billions?) of workers across the globe have been ordered to work from home as part of stringent social distancing measures, aimed at reducing physical contact to stem the spread of the virus.
Restaurants and pubs called last orders, flights were grounded, sport seasons reached unceremoniously premature ends, and school bells across the land fell silent.
Lockdown has been extended by another three weeks – minimum. We’d be kidding ourselves to expect life will miraculously snap back to “normal” after that period. At best, we’ll begin to acquaint ourselves with a “new normal” following a phased lifting of restrictions, but I’d bet on it being many, many months before that will happen.
It is undoubtedly a scary time, and one that I didn’t expect to ever experience outside of the four walls of a cinema.
Films including the 1995 Dustin Hoffman vehicle Outbreak (where Friends’ virus-carrying Marcel the Monkey wreaks havoc across Africa and America), and 2011’s Contagion – a sobering tale directed by Steven Soderbergh – offered us a glimpse into what might happen if a virus took hold without a cure. Panic-buying, quarantine, rioting, army-intervention… it all sounds so “Hollywood”, and yet this is set to become our reality for the foreseeable future.
The oft-quoted British mantra of “Keep Calm and Carry On” is as apt as ever in our current predicament, but how do you “carry on” when taking a giant leap into the unknown?
There are many wonderful initiatives gathering pace around spreading kindness – phoning elderly people to keep them company, picking up supplies for those in isolation, singing from the balconies of quarantined buildings, clapping for carers at 8pm each Thursday evening…
Another thing that we can easily share is our knowledge. Working from home may feel daunting, confusing or downright suffocating, but it doesn’t need to. With the right tools and mindset, it can feel inspiring and liberating.
Here, I share my top ten tips for working remotely. They may not work for everyone (and they may sound simple!), but if they can help even one person navigate this tricky period then they have been worth sharing.
1) Focus on food - It’s an old one but a good one: eat balanced, healthy foods that give you energy. Sitting down at your desk for the day may not burn calories, but you are still giving your brain one hell of a work out! You wouldn’t drive without fuel in the car, so why should your body be any different? Nourish to flourish, that’s what I say! Try to steer clear of eating at your desk though… it’s a one-way ticket to bad snacking habits and we all know crumbs can be a bitch to get out of your keyboard!
2) Get dressed! Anybody who has worked at home for a substantial period of time will confirm how vital this step is. Pyjamas and loungewear are for resting in – how do you expect to feel awake, alert and motivated if you’re super soft, snuggly apparel is telling your brain to wind down for the day? The advice from my previous blog on home working is just as, if not more, relevant today:
Habits play a significant part too, and my top tip to aid separation is to change your clothes. I often wear a shirt to work even though I’m technically at home. Many of the video conference calls I partake in include teams with dress codes, so it is important that I’m presentable and smart too. I am representing my employer as well as myself, after all. There is also something incredibly satisfying about switching to casual wear in the evening when returning home to bathe the kids. It’s only a small thing, but it has a huge impact.
3) Take breaks – one thing that has always surprised me about newbies to home working is the lack of trust. Conversely, many do not trust their employers to trust them to do their job properly. They feel like they have to be “always on”, ready to answer the telephone at any moment or to respond to an email immediately just to “prove” they are working. This is a seriously unhealthy foundation for any business to survive upon, let alone thrive.
Trust – from both employers and employees – is imperative for remote working to succeed. I expect most office workers wouldn’t hesitate to make a mid-morning coffee and have a quick chat with colleagues in the kitchen. “Water cooler talk” wouldn’t be a thing if that wasn’t the case.
Home working should not be any different. Taking 10 minutes or so to chat with your other half whilst making a drink or enjoying a breath of fresh air outside isn’t going to be the downfall of the company. It will clear your mind, energise you and better equip you to deal with the next task on your to-do list.
4) Keep on moving – as above, a short walk outdoors or a quick pedal on your exercise bike can make the world of difference to your physical and mental health. Yes, it may seem like a small thing, but even 15 minutes of exercise from Monday to Friday amounts to nearly 60 hours across the working year.
A “typical” 9-to-5 job (8 hours a day, five days a week for 47 weeks of the year) equates to 1,880 hours of work (and I’m positive that is the bare minimum for most workers, taking into account overtime and commuting). In that context, a mere 60 hours of exercise doesn’t seem unreasonable…
Start by adding exercise (such as HIIT work-outs) to your daily schedule and develop a routine from there. Your general movement levels will have dropped significantly since working from home, but with a little discipline you can fill the gap with little or no equipment.
5) Limit distractions – type in “procrastination” in Google and you will be presented with thousands of articles offering advice, not dissimilar to this one, about how to be more effective at work (WorkLife with Adam Grant is a podcast I’d highly recommend!) However, once you’re in a working frame of mind, the single biggest thing you can do to help yourself is to limit distractions.
Listen to music rather than podcasts. Steer clear of the television altogether – even old repeats of The Chase and Catchphrase can subconsciously tear you away from the task in hand. Our brain copes best when we concentrate. You wouldn’t drive along the motorway with disco lights flashing in your car, would you? So don’t overwhelm your brain at home either.
6) Put your records on – as mentioned above, music can provide a calm, productive environment in which to work. Depending on your task, I’d recommend sticking with playlists rather than the radio as the between-songs chit-chat can prove tricky to drown out. I’ve always struggled to work in silence – it feels a bit too much like an exam hall for my liking – so ambient background noises are a welcome relief. What’s more, there’s music to suit every mood (and taste!).
One of the biggest benefits of working away from the office is environment is that you and you alone are the DJ! No more having to listen to House music on a Friday afternoon, or starting your week with a dose of Drake’s Hotline Bling…
7) Find your “happy place” – mine just so happens to be surrounded by iMac screens at the end of my garden, but yours could be anywhere in your home. Perhaps you have a study. If not, try the dining room table or the kitchen counter. Even work in your bedroom from time to time if you need a break from the kids or the pets!
Wherever you choose, make sure there is plenty of light, comfortable furniture (that’s at the right height!) and surround yourself with the little things that make you happy – family photos, smart stationery, a coffee machine, a calendar with daily jokes on… whatever it is, now is the time to set yourself up properly for the long haul ahead.
8) Don’t over do the to-do list – it can be tempting to expect you’ll get a lot more done at home, away from the “distractions” of the office. Whilst this may be true, it can also be much harder to motivate yourself. Perhaps you’re a social butterfly who relishes face-to-face brainstorming sessions, or you find the presence of a manager unlocks your best work.
In the early stages, it’s important to be honest with yourself about what is and isn’t achievable on any given day. You’ll feel a much greater sense of achievement for ticking off all five of the things on your to-do list in a day than writing down 15, and failing to do 10.
From a planning perspective, I swear by Evernote (having tried – and failed – to adopt numerous other project management tools). I have a section entitled “Must do today” to keep me focused and help me prioritise. I like to meet my commitments but I’m not a huge fan of working until 1am on a regular basis! The key is find what works best for you and stick to it. After all, if you don’t manage your workload effectively – and set your own boundaries - no one else is going to do it for you.
9) Take baby steps – if you’ve seen What About Bob?, the 1991 comedy starring Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss, you’ll be well acquainted with the concept of “baby steps” – or, in the words of Dreyfuss’ Dr. Leo Marvin, “setting small, reasonable goals for yourself one day at a time… one tiny step at a time”.
In the current climate of huge, radical change, baby steps may not feel like enough but - when it comes to working from home - they are your best bet. Set yourself low expectations and small goals and, over time, they will lead to much bigger and better things.
Finding a comfortable place to work is one such small step, getting into a good routine is another. Seeking out new or different ways to communicate with colleagues and clients might be the next one. These are challenges in themselves, and ones that need to be tackled before you can dedicate any time and energy to “bigger” ones.
10) Stay connected – at the end of the day, we are not machines. We are not programmed to work 40+ hours a week without other thoughts entering our mind. But let us spare a thought for others too, and all try to do the best we can with what we have. Even a simple phone call could prove to be a lifeline – you never know, you might find you’re the one who needs it most.
Even if it’s just sharing what you’ve been up to on Slack, it’s worth doing. Take the time to talk to your team mates – whether via Zoom, on the phone, on email or Whatsapp. With any luck, you’ll find you have more shared interests with your co-workers than you realised! You’re working for the same company, after all…
As the news bulletins continue to remind us, our efforts to combat and contain Coronavirus will be a marathon, not a sprint. Working from home can be frustrating, lonely and hard-going, but it can also be an opportunity like no other.
Without the daily commute, you can spend more time with your family or on your hobbies. Without the “distractions” of the office – the endless meetings, 1:1s and catch-ups – you can finally take the time you need to work through your inbox. Perhaps even implement that colour-coded filing system you’ve been dreaming about since 2009!
But above all else, be kind to yourself! This is an incredibly troubling time for absolutely everybody. No one is immune from worrying. If you find your mind wandering - fixating on toilet rolls, food or child care - that is absolutely fine. Allow yourself to acknowledge those thoughts and feelings, and then get back to the task in hand when you’re good and ready.
Good luck and keep safe!