Remote work can be lonely. Long hours of solitude and no one to bond with can contribute to depression and other mental health issues. Still, for many of us, the benefits of working at home outweigh the challenges. So we’re willing to figure out how to make it work.
But now we’re in this bizarre situation where people who had no intention of becoming remote workers are stuck at home, trying to do their part to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
While it sometimes sounds fun to work from home, the current state of affairs is jarring for those who weren’t prepared for it. And the lack of a schedule, social isolation, and temptations of Netflix can all be barriers to getting your work done and keeping your spirits up.
In the long term, working from home is not for everyone. But if you have to do it for the foreseeable future, here are some tips that can help you get through it with your sanity intact.
One of the recommendations that nearly all remote workers make is that you need to get dressed. I’m not advocating getting “office-ready” if you don’t have to leave the house. But take a shower, brush your teeth, and at least put on “daytime pajamas.” You know the ones I mean.
Aim to start your workday at the same time as you would if you were going to the office. It’s tempting to be lazy with no manager wondering where you are at 9:05am. But starting your work at the same time as usual will help you stay in a routine. And routine is vital for staying sane and productive.
Now, this may sound odd. But consider wearing shoes while you’re working. Something about shoes on my feet tricks my brain into thinking this is work time, instead of lounge time. I haven’t found any science to back this up, but there are anecdotes online from people who agree — shoes help.
Choose your communication channels
One of the biggest challenges of remote work is communication. If you and your team are used to working in an open office or right down the hall from each other, you’ll need a new method of communicating during this spell of social distancing.
There are plenty of good options, like Google Hangouts, Slack, or Asana. And the basic versions of each are free. Make sure everyone in the group knows what to use as the primary method of communication until you’re all together again.
Try to avoid a method like texting. If you’re texting, you’ll have to keep your phone nearby. And that’s a time-suck waiting to happen. In fact, I suggest banishing your phone to another room to silence the call of social media. Turn the ringer up so you can hear it if you get a call.
If you have to keep your phone next to you, I recommend and app called Forest. Forest lets you plant a virtual tree that will grow during your pre-set time. You can access your phone if you need to, but your tree will die. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked up my phone only to put it right back down because I don’t want to kill my tree. It’s adorable.
Once you’ve established your communication method, use it. Every member of the team should know what the other members are working on. The status of projects should be clear. Check-in with your boss, your reports, your coworkers, other teams, everyone! Overcommunicate. It will help you all to feel more connected as you move forward.
And finally, be prepared for video calls. Just because you don’t have one scheduled in advance doesn’t mean your boss won’t ask you to get on one at a moment’s notice. You don’t want to get caught in an old stained sweatshirt, hair like a mop, yesterday’s mascara on your cheeks. Put on a simple top. Comb your hair. Video calls can help reduce your feelings of isolation, so welcome them!
Set up a comfortable work-from-home station
A comfortable workspace is key for successful remote work. A day or two with your laptop on the couch may be fine. But we may need to ride this out for several weeks or more. So spend a little time setting up a good work station.
Ideally, you would have a dedicated workspace that is separated from the rest of the home so you can have some privacy. A desk is great, but even a folding table will be fine. If the house or apartment is quiet, the kitchen table could work too.
Next, are there any supplies you could borrow from the office to make your remote work more efficient? A second screen, keyboard, some sticky notes? You could also purchase a used screen from a second-hand electronics store or from Facebook Marketplace. If you’re not allowed to leave the house, I understand this might not be possible. But making your remote work more comfortable will make remote work easier when you’re getting cabin fever.
Once you’ve got your space and work necessities, try to dress up the environment a bit. Light a candle. Put on some music. I’m easily distracted by music, so I look for something quiet and repetitive music with no lyrics. I find lyrics and even some classical music too distracting. So I listen to a lot of chillhop and ambient tones. If the house is noisy, grab a pair of headphones so you can tune out distractions.
How else can you make your workspace pleasant? I like to turn on my salt lamp. I don’t believe the generate negative ions or anything else woo-woo. But it does create a pretty rosy glow that I really like. Makes me feel fancy.
Spending a little time maximizing your environment can put you in a much better mental place for a day of working alone.
Try virtual coworking
I’m doing this literally right now. I have two relative strangers who can see my every move through a Zoom call. One is in France (lucky), and one is in South Carolina. Neat!
Here’s how it works: a few people meet up in Zoom or Skype. Set an amount of time you’d like to work. Then, everyone in the room tells each other what they’re going to be working on. After intros are done, you mute the call, and everyone just starts going. At the end of the session, each member will report back on what they accomplished.
The idea is to support your virtual coworkers, and create a bit of connection while you’re at it. I found it really comforting to work “with” my new friends. Separated, but not alone.
If your whole office is working remotely right now, why not ask your favorite 2 or 3 coworkers if they’d like to work remotely with you?
There are also online services where you can meet up with people on a certain schedule, although they usually charge a fee. Or if you need a free community, check out MyWorkHive. Sign up to get access to their “remote work” Slack channel where you can chat with other remote workers and find friends for virtual coworking.
Schedule your day
Creating a schedule appears on nearly all lists of remote work tips. And there’s a good reason for that.
Most humans like some kind of anchoring events that break up the expanse of hours. When your day is a yawning chasm of time spread out before you with nothing to break it up, it can feel defeating. So create a schedule.
Start with when you’ll start and finish working. If you’re used to working 9-5, stick to that schedule. Now add a little time for lunch.
Next, you’ll fill in your morning and afternoon activities. The amount of detail you want to include is up to you. I keep my schedule relatively open, with large blocks of time for client work. Then I can decide on a daily basis which client jobs I want to fit into each timeslots.
I also include time to work on some fiction writing, do admin tasks, and exercise.
Scheduling your time will help you to stay on track. Without it, it’s very easy to turn a 5-minute “break” into an hour-long housecleaning session when you’re supposed to be working. Try to reserve the household chores for after work hours.
Look after your mental health
Friends, we have to stop checking the news.
Or rather, I have to stop checking the news. But I’m pretty sure it’s not just me. If there’s a massive change, you’ll hear about it. Obsessively refreshing news feeds isn’t helping, and it’s just feeding the anxiety.
Here are some things we can do instead:
I do about 10 minutes of meditation a day, usually as an afternoon break. I use a free app on my phone called Insight Timer that has thousands of guided meditations. You can filter by topic and time, starting with 5 minutes. I always feel better after I do one.
Check-in with friends and family
We’re all in this together. Reach out to your loved ones to reassure them (and yourself) that we’re not alone. Just hearing that you’re thinking about them can be a huge help to people who are struggling.
Caveat — if you’re a major empath and other people’s stress is going to make yours much worse, it’s also okay not to do this.
Acknowledge special occasions
Remember that the world is still turning and time is still going by. Birthdays, work anniversaries, or major accomplishments should still be recognized. Maybe the whole team can’t get together to share a cake, but you can do a group video call and acknowledge the event. Keep that morale up!
Take breaks and move around
When you work remotely, there’s very little to interrupt you. You may find yourself in a groove, and then realize you haven’t moved in 3 hours. That’s no good.
I like to set a time for 45 minutes to an hour, and then stretch my legs for a couple of minutes. Some people like sessions as short as 25 minutes. I find that to be too short, but it may work for you.
During your breaks, try to get some movement into your day. Consider taking a walk if you’re not quarantined and if you live in an area where you can walk while still maintaining the CDC’s recommended 6-foot buffer.
If you can’t take a walk, do some yoga stretches or a short workout. You can do pushups, situps, high knees, and squats with no equipment. If you don’t know what to do, there are tons of free workouts on YouTube.
Also, open the windows. Get a little fresh air to take the sting out of your confinement.
And finally, take a real lunch break. Step away from your work for 30 to 45 minutes, have a meal and let your mind reset.
Don’t feel like these breaks are “slacking.” Remember, you’re not having conversations with coworkers in the halls or losing time to meetings that should have been emails. You’ll be plenty productive even with breaks.
Working from home with kids
I don’t have kids, which I know makes everything about this situation way more difficult. Since this is something I personally don’t know about, I found a couple of articles with remote work tips for folks with little ones around.
Is this good advice? My “kid” weighs 6 pounds and is covered in hair, so I don’t really know. But I do know this will be a difficult transition with kids out of school and mom and/or dad home all day. You have my sympathy and support.
Be kind to yourself
This is a scary situation. None of us have ever seen anything like it. It’s okay if you’re having a little trouble staying focused or keeping your stress in check. Many many people are in the same boat.
Exercise, meditation, a bubble bath — these things can all help to ease the anxiety while also following social distancing recommendations. And if anyone wants to try virtual coworking, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.