Unprepared for the unimaginable – temporary disruption
COVID-19 has forced millions of people in the US alone out of work already. Many millions still in work now do so from home, or try to, often for the first time. Given how highly unusual this situation is and the very real and understandable fear and uncertainty it carries with it, it isn’t surprising that even with a decent level of organization, goodwill and a proper setup, working from home is not an easy thing.
For just about everyone this is a time of enormous change. A lot of people are considering moving further away from the city, closer to their families, setting up their own businesses, or being faced with working remotely, not just during this epidemic but long-term, as companies reorganize, downsize or restructure.
Working from home (semi)permanently
I started my own business in 2016 and have worked from my home office for a large part of the past 3+ years. It took a while to figure out how to do that after having spent most of my working life in a 9-5 office routine. The key thing I learned is to reconfigure my expectations of what a day of work was supposed to look like. You can be very productive working from home, quite often more so than when you are in an office, provided you are able to focus for meaningful periods of time. The ability to get up and do any of the things you would normally do at home can be a huge distraction, or it can be a great way to refocus and briefly unwind after having put in a focused effort.
As long as you prioritize the things which need doing and are able to work on them with sufficient boundaries in place so that distractions don’t creep in, you are in a good position to work from home in a focused manner and therefore to be efficient with your time. How to get there varies by person and situation, changes daily and requires more than this simple summary but the most helpful things for me overall have been:
1. Finding and setting up space in the house /apartment which feels right is key to getting there. It might take some experimentation but once you get everything set up the way you want, (table/desk/lighting/noise levels) that problem of boundaries is solved. It isn’t always necessary to have an ascetic approach to the work space. I found that having “distractions” close by felt reassuring and didn’t tempt me away since they were already within reach. Having a place to work where you can happily sit all day means you don’t need a fence for everything else that is distracting. It also doesn’t have to be one spot, and moving to another location within the home office – or even another room in the house – can literally give you a different perspective on everything.
2. Limiting distractions within that space is as important as the space itself. Having a device which is dedicated to work is ideal. That could mean getting a separate laptop/desktop which is free of any other apps/software which would be giving you updates on your social media feeds, news, etc. If that isn’t an option, creating a virtual desktop with the basics for work on it is a great help.
3. Remote teamwork
The greatest challenge to managing a team remotely can be establishing trust as managers worry that staff are distracted when they are working from home – although many studies show that productivity generally increases when staff work from home. For the sake of accountability, managers can establish the expectation that emails are answered within 15 minutes or instant messages and phone calls answered within 5 minutes during work hours, for example. Status messages within messenger apps can also be used to indicate when staff are taking a lunch break or a day of leave.
One of the many advantages of managing a team remotely is that it can actually lead to improved communication. Instant messages and calls using software such as Skype or Slack allow team members to connect individually and in groups. Some feel so comfortable using these types of software that they use them instead of speaking to colleagues even when sitting in a shared office. Using video rather than just voice calls makes discussions flow more naturally when working remotely, and software such as Microsoft Teams even allows callers who are shy about sharing a view of their home to blur out the background.
Any good ideas or suggestions go out of the window in a situation where you find yourself at home with kids of course, although their age will probably influence just how tough it will get. Most of the time when I work in my home office, I am the only one making noise. My wife has a 9-5 office job and our two boys (2 and 4) are at the daycare. For everyone to be confined to our home during the coronavirus pandemic at once feels like a very long weekend, minus the ability to venture outside. In other words, it’s like being in a cage with a couple of wild animals (I love my kids a lot).
While older children may be able to do some schoolwork and entertain themselves independently with their smart phones, with younger children I can only recommend that parents work in shifts if at all possible. My wife currently works from 6 am to early afternoon, and then takes over the childcare while I work. But this requires flexibility whenever meetings can’t be scheduled to fit this timetable, and so we take it in turns to amuse them at the kitchen table and make conference calls from a room with a locked door, hoping the children won’t show up (like the BBC Dad). As I am writing this, my younger son is telling me “no work” and trying to get me to press the button on his faux walkie talkie. He has also regularly sent me to “time out” during the past week. There is only so much you can do with short attention spans and unlimited energy levels. For now, this is the new normal. If you’re a manager, being flexible and compassionate with team members in this situation in the interest of employee morale and loyalty is key. For parents, remembering that you are on the same team as your significant other and working together as a team makes dealing with children in this situation more bearable.
A question of balance
Under normal (non-pandemic) circumstances, it is often already hard enough to figure out how to balance work and non-work/life activities when you work from home. Deciding on what is important, setting priorities and allocating the right amount of time to everything seems to be a challenge for most people I speak to who work remotely/telecommute, including myself. One useful strategy is to spend a few minutes at the beginning/end of every workday planning what has to be done versus what it would be nice to accomplish. But even when I have organized my life according to carefully planned agendas and ambitious schedules, very often things end up fluid and variable…and I think it’s a good and healthy thing to be ok with that in normal times, but especially when you’re faced with something as unexpected as the coronavirus.
• Maciej Minkiewicz | mtm[at]therecruitingproject.com
Compliments of The Recruiting Project – a member of the EACCNY.