Are you suddenly working remotely because of COVID-19? Perhaps it’s for the first time or it’s just not in your comfort zone. Here are some of my thoughts on how to succeed at working remotely — even if it’s new for you.
As someone with asthma and prone to respiratory illness, I’ve long bemoaned the tendency of people to show up to work when sick and spread infection to others. And I’ve worked in emergency management, where a basic tenet is don’t add to the emergency.
So it comes as no surprise that the public health emergency response to COVID-19 (or novel coronavirus) recommends that businesses prepare for or implement work from home for their employees if possible. By now, coronavirus is officially a pandemic, and our inboxes are flooded with status reports from organizations, most events are canceled, and many states have declared a state of emergency. Social distancing is an effective way to slow the spread of COVID-19 and perhaps you’re doing your part by working remotely for the first time.
For me, I was an early advocate of remote work, and was met with lots of resistance from leadership — particularly baby boomers — in the workplace. They were afraid of productivity issues — even though remote work is increasingly popular, the technology and tools make it easy to do, and the research shows that remote workers are more productive. As a copywriter, I find it much easier to concentrate in a library quiet setting. At home, I can also indulge in my writing process (which may involve pacing around and thinking aloud) rather than being lumped together in an open office setting.
To my surprise, some of my friends who have the option of working remotely prefer not to do so, mostly because they get distracted or enjoy being around other people. If that’s you, or you just aren’t accustomed to working remotely, here are some of the things that work for me.
Have the Technology Set Up for Success
Communicate to your employer right away if you don’t have access to adequate technology to effectively work from home. It’s okay to not be familiar with the tools that people use to collaborate and work remotely, especially if that wasn’t a job expectation before. If this is the first time that you’re participating in a Zoom meeting or using new technology yourself, ask for help and factor that learning time into your workday.
Be sure to follow any security protocols that your IT team shares. If some people on your team aren’t as tech savvy or you’re not using cloud based platforms and are concerned about confidential information, this is especially important. Bad actors are already exploiting fear of COVID-19 online. If your office didn’t have a plan in place, it might take a few days to iron things out. Accept that it’s part of the process of responding to an emergency like COVID-19.
Have a Designated Workspace
Personally, I like to work at the kitchen table. It’s where I did homework as a kid, I can easily access water or coffee, and mostly importantly, it’s completely free of distractions. I take everything off the table and put all the things I need to do at home out of my mind.
Some people find it difficult to blur the lines between work and home life. If you have a partner or roommate who works remotely, kids, or pets, it might be more challenging to set those boundaries. I know people who get dressed as if they were going into the office when they work remotely. That distinction helps them to get into work mode (and they feel more comfortable during video calls). Figure out what works best for you.
Be Disciplined and Accountable
I think it’s important to have strong time and project management skills to be effective at working remotely. That’s easy for me. Work time is work time, whether I’m doing it in lounge pants and avoiding a stressful commute or crammed three to an office.
In fact, one of the drivers of periods of intense concentration for me is the freedom that my downtime has when working remotely. I can eat healthier and there isn’t a continuous supply of treats in the break room. I can take care of an errand, do some stretches, or belt out a song rather than being bogged down in interpersonal office drama or wasting time chitchatting.
That sense of personal discipline and accountability can be reinforced by effective communication within supervisory relationships and among colleagues.
Be Overly Communicative
Communicate clearly — and often — with your colleagues when working remotely. Many companies use a platform like Slack or project management tools to have easy communication and clear timelines.
For me, I mostly work in G Suite and with social media platforms. I use project management tools personally, but not as part of a team. So it’s important to send those emails: update people on your status, recap any decisions made or next steps, and ask questions.
Relatedly, it’s important to hold others accountable. You need to have persistence in reaching other people. If you require an answer within a certain timeframe or if their input is necessary for you to proceed to the next step in a project, be sure to set expectations around response times.
Since you can’t walk up to people for a quick question, and some people are less reliable by email or genuinely prefer verbal communication, you might have to pick up the phone (even if you dread it!). Similarly, if you’re going back and forth more than a few times by email and can’t seem to understand each other, just pick up the phone.
One leader I know says that she worries about the people she doesn’t hear from. It sounds simple, but I’ve observed that, in general, people who don’t succeed at working remotely communicate poorly, are difficult to access, and don’t have much to account for their day.
It’s easy to show progress on a project. If you don’t have a tangible outcome yet, simply send an end of day email describing what steps you took towards your goal and outline any help you might need to progress further.
Find Ways to Deal with Social Isolation
Since I don’t need the social aspect of an office every day, and I wind up calling a lot of people for interviews or participating in conference calls, I can sometimes forget to plan for social interaction. I like to occasionally work with friends, so sometimes I’ll plan a co-working day, where we hold each other accountable to focus and do work, and enjoy lunch together.
With COVID-19, those of us who work remotely were relying on events for social time and most of those were canceled. It’s important to be proactive, so call or FaceTime loved ones or schedule in-person time to hangout. That’s not in my comfort zone, so I’ll be working on that.
You Will Meet In Person Eventually
This period of social distancing will end. Maybe you still won’t like working remotely or maybe you’ll decide to advocate for more flexibility in your workplace. The folks behind one of my favorite productivity tools, Trello, put together this fantastic guide about embracing remote work. If you work remotely in the long term, it’s helpful to meet in person periodically and it goes a long way towards understanding your team at a deeper level.
Stay safe and well.
About the author.
Jess Powers writes about marketing, food, and wellness. She has experience in nonprofit communications and emergency management. Follow her @foodandfury.