In 1930, the prominent economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that workers at the end of the 20th century could expect to clock only 15 hours a week, thanks to advances in technology.
So much for that.
Nevertheless, though Keynes’s numbers might have been off, he was certainly correct in assuming that technology would drastically change the nature of work. One accelerating trend on this front is remote work, made possible by videoconferencing, high speed internet, and the cloud.
Due to recent events, many businesses and schools have had to adopt work from home (WFH) policies for their employees and students rather suddenly. If you find yourself in this boat, here are a few tips on how to work from home as efficiently as possible.
Write down tomorrow’s agenda tonight
Work begins at the office when you stroll through the door in the morning. At home, however, there is no such official action to kick off the day, and your start time has a way of getting blurry. For instance, you might spend a few hours scarfing down breakfast, like some sort of Roman emperor. When you finally clear your platters of food, it’s time to feed the cats…which prompts you to read a few Wikipedia articles about feline evolution (there goes another half hour).
To avoid this situation, you want to have your schedule locked in from the moment you wake up, which means planning the day before you go to sleep. Most importantly, write your agenda down. Ideally, the very first item on your to-do list should involve another person (e.g a phone or video call). Creating a schedule will force you to show up on time!
As you settle into your new working arrangement, you might find that your current technology at home is not up to snuff for remote work.
First priority is making sure that you have enough internet bandwidth for seamless teleconferencing. You’ll want to double check this before it becomes an issue. Conduct a few “dress rehearsal” video calls to make sure that all systems are go. If you live with others, figure out how having multiple computers affects connectivity. It would be a bummer to miss an important meeting because your roommate decided to stream Titanic! If you need to increase capacity, contact your internet service provider to see what options are available.
Once your internet is all set, you’ll want to see if you require any additional hardware or software. You might look into some productivity apps to manage time more efficiently. Before shelling out for high end programs, check to see if there’s a free or cheap version you can use. Above all, be sure to communicate with your company’s IT department to ensure that you’re working efficiently and safely–particularly if you’re handling sensitive information. On a related note, keep your personal browsing on your own devices and network. You don’t want to have to explain to HR why you spent three hours uploading cat videos!
The Residence vs. The Oval Office
When setting up your working arrangements, you might model them after those from the ultimate WFH job: the American presidency. The White House is divided into “The Residence,” where the president lives with his or her family, and the executive area, with rooms like the Oval Office. While you might not have a bowling alley in your home, it’s helpful to create a bright line between “work space” and “life space.”
You can get creative in how you do this. If you have the ability, you might consider painting the walls in your work area a different color. Office décor and materials (stapler, rolls of tape, etc.) will really get you into work mode, so arrange an workspace that is easy to use, comfortable, and helps you focus on tasks without distraction.
The more distinct the boundary, the better. The goal here is to physically separate the stresses of a job from the rest of your life while you work from home online. It’s tempting to answer work emails while snuggling with the cats in bed, or field personal text messages while sitting in your new work-from-home space, but those should be avoided if possible. After all, you wouldn’t want to see the president walking through the West Wing in pajamas.
Many offices have amenities and distractions for blowing off steam: a ping-pong table, a massage chair, or even an office pet (though they still won’t let you bring in the cats).
One benefit of working from home is the ability to choose your own healthy distractions. You can follow a workout routine, take a walk, or noodle around on the guitar. Since both your work and personal life are now confined to one area, it’s important to know when to take a break.
And thinking beyond simple distractions, you can use the newly available time to “sharpen the saw” (in the words of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). Moving to remote work affords you the time to learn a new skill or subject that can make you more productive. To this end, you might consider working with an online tutor (like many professions, tutoring has moved online in a big way, and presents distinct benefits over in-person lessons, especially in 2020).
Living with a roommate/spouse/partner can be an incredible boon during your time working or studying from home. Along with some much-needed human interaction, housemates can hold you accountable. Together, you could create a pretty sweet co-working space to mimic an office. Checking in with each other on deadlines or even turning work into a competition can help you stay focused.
Of course, this cuts both ways. A distracting housemate will draw you away from important tasks. And if your relationship is already frayed, working from home can add even more tension. It’s best to have a frank discussion (beyond any you’ve already had as roommates) setting down boundaries and guidelines.
- Where will phone conversations take place?
- TV on or off during work hours?
- Is music all right?
- Are the cats allowed in the work area?
- Is now really the time to get another cat?
All important questions to address up front.
No matter what your living situation, you’ll find a way to make it work. Having a teammate in the work-from-home process can help immensely.
Keep the usual lines of communication open
The natural back and forth that takes place in an office may seem pointless at times. It’s easy to dismiss Karl and Dave’s Monty Python impressions as idle chit chat. But this sort of low-stakes banter allows team members to check in with each other emotionally and reinforces cohesion. When the whole office is using purely online communication, this can get lost.
To maintain a sense of community, it’s a good idea to schedule daily virtual hangout sessions – even for just 10 to 15 minutes. These can be unstructured, giving folks time to “shoot the breeze.” Along with offering social benefits, such a forum will allow team members to raise important concerns face to face. While emails are certainly more efficient, it’s difficult at times to read the emotional intent behind them.
Thus, scheduling video calls (one-on-one or as a group) will boost morale and simulate the natural conversations that arise in the office. Plus, you’ll finally get a chance to introduce your co-workers to the cats!
Explore new philosophies of time management
By necessity, offices follow a communal schedule. Most workplaces set their start times between 8am and 10am, provide an hour for lunch, and close sometime from 6pm to 8pm. Do these hours align perfectly with the circadian rhythms of every human being? Of course not! In fact, for a large share of the population, working “business hours” feels completely unnatural.
If you’re one of these unfortunate souls, working remotely can be a great opportunity to explore different methods of managing time and break the chains of a fixed office schedule. Rather than forcing yourself to bed early every night and cursing the cats when they wake you up at 2am, you can adjust your sleep cycle to match your optimal performance times.
What to do with the time we’re given is a deep existential question. Fortunately, there is a wealth of literature on time management. This list of bestsellers is a great place to start!
Working from home is a prime opportunity to rethink certain assumptions you’ve held about time. You might just discover a new time management system that has positive spillover effects on your personal life as well!
Always look on the bright side
While you might not have come to this situation voluntarily (or happily), it’s important to try and see the silver lining where you can.
You might find that you excel at this lifestyle and are actually more productive at home than you were at the office. If that’s the case, you’ll want to make sure your boss knows about it. If you can deliver the same results while saving the company office space, the powers that be might allow you a greater degree of autonomy going forward.
While he might be disappointed that his descendants are still working at least 40 hours a week, Keynes would no doubt marvel at the possibilities that technology has provided. What seems like a frustrating setback now might turn into an exciting new chapter for your work and life.