With the spread of the novel coronavirus affecting everything from international travel to the availability of hand sanitizer, mitigating COVID-19 in the United States has become a growing concern. That’s why many companies are mandating or recommending that as many employees as possible work remotely until the virus can be slowed.
Plenty of people fantasize about working from the comfort of their own home, foregoing their commute in favor of more sleep, family or exercise time. But working remotely is a double-edge sword — sure, you get to stay home, but it can be harder to focus on actually working. Whether it’s a pile of laundry that suddenly looks more appealing than your bosses’ to-do list, or a quick three-hour binge of that one Netflix show you’ve been dying to watch, staying productive at home can take a little extra effort. Plus, the isolation can quickly become a downer for those used to socializing at work. And some people, of course, would prefer to stay in the office.
So, first thing’s first: you should probably sit up straight, eat some breakfast, and put on some pants. How else can you stay focused on the job and mentally healthy while working remotely? Here are four tips from work-from-home veterans and workplace experts.
Take care of yourself.
As a first step, don’t neglect your physical and mental health. Meditate. Do jumping jacks in your living room. Practice yoga. Whatever it is that works for you, do what it takes to care for your body and mind.
Learn a new skill.
Let’s face it. If you’re stuck at home, you’re probably not going to become an expert on how to run a mass spectrometer. But you could beef up your computer programming skills—for instance, by learning how to create a fancy new graph in R or how to produce documents in LaTeX. You could also read a book about a new topic or circle back to that online course that you never finished.
Location, Location, Location
Try to find yourself a dedicated and comfortable spot to work that you can associate with your job and leave when you’re off the clock — that means get off the couch, and definitely out of bed.
“It definitely helps if you have a dedicated space for working from home,” says remote worker Matt Haughey, creator of the long-running community weblog MetaFilter, and writer for Slack. “I started doing this kind of work sitting at a desk in the middle of my living room of a small San Francisco apartment 20 years ago, and it was a pain to stay on task and not get interrupted.”
Since then, Haughey has set up a dedicated home office where he can close the door and shut out distractions. He has also gone to local libraries to take advantage of their free Wi-Fi — but given that today’s work from home recommendations are meant to prevent spreading COVID-19, heading out into a public place is likely counterproductive.
Find a Buddy
You might find it easier to be productive without your most chatty coworkers constantly buzzing in your ear. But social interactions — even with coworkers — can alleviate feelings of isolation and loneliness. Durham University’s Dr. Thuy-vy Nguyen, who studies the effects of solitude, thinks the psychological effects of working remotely for extended periods is often overlooked or ignored, despite it being an essential factor in our mental well-being and team bonding.
“We’re used to social interaction,” she says. “It facilitates cooperation and closeness.”
To help fill the socializing gap while working remotely, Nguyen recommends finding a colleague you can hit up when you’re feeling the need to chat with someone. Alternatively, buddy up with a friend who works elsewhere and is going through the same experience. Hopping on a social video call instead of Slack or text isn’t a bad idea, either.
Have a Plan
Nguyen also recommends that, when working alone, you should keep a more structured daily schedule than usual.
“Usually our time and the structure of our day are influenced by other people,” she says. “You’re going to experience your day as lacking the normal structures that you usually have. People might have a hard time dealing with it. So one of the things that we found in our trying to understand solitude, is that time spent alone is better if it’s structured.”
For Haughey, his schedule includes multiple breaks throughout the day, either to play with his dog or take a long walk around the neighborhood and grab the day’s mail.
Think About How You’re Communicating
Haughey says it’s important to go beyond email and use other digital tools that can better replicate the in-person office experience and provide for clear communication.
“There will be a sense of isolation of course, and it depends on how well your team communicates, or how much they’re willing to amp up communication using other tools besides face-to-face conversations,” he says. He communicates with his team using chat apps like Slack and videoconferencing services like Zoom. “Screen-sharing is another killer aspect of getting people on the same page,” he adds. “If I’m in a meeting to give feedback, chances are the host is sharing their screen as well so we’re all looking at the same thing as we toss ideas around.”
Harvard Business School’s Prithwiraj “Raj” Choudhury, who studies remote work and the relationships between geography and productivity, found an interesting solution to boosting camaraderie among remote workers: pizza parties. While researching remote work habits at the U.S. Patent Office — which implemented a more robust “work from anywhere” policy in 2011 — Choudhury discovered a manager who hosted weekly lunches via videoconferencing.
“She would order the exact same pizza to be delivered at the same time so the team would have that bonding experience and still feel like a team,” says Choudhury. “This is the future of work, so we cannot just keep doing stuff in the old familiar ways, we have to create new processes.
Furthermore, better communication while remote can help maintain your relationship with your colleagues, managers, and direct reports. It’s also important for managers to encourage employees to share their opinions or concerns about a particular project so they don’t feel like they’re being dismissed just because they’re not in the same room.
Remember Everyone Works Differently
Managers should remember that not every employee actually wants to work from home, a shift that can be stressful for some. As companies increasingly mandate that many employees must work from home during the coronavirus outbreak, it’s key they communicate as much as possible and help employees struggling with the change, says Nguyen.
“If management actually forces people to stay at home, then that would add another layer of stress,” she says. “Giving employees as much information as possible can ease the burden caused by the disruption.”
Be nice to your fellow humans.
If you live with others, being cooped up with them fulltime might be less fun than you imagined it to be. Channel your frustrations into something harmless—for instance, by punching a pillow, exhausting yourself with pushups, or placing a tea towel between your teeth and screaming as loud as you can. Whatever you do, don’t punch anyone.
Do fun stuff.
Close your eyes and think back to the time before you went to grad school. What was giving you joy? Is there an old hobby you can pick up again? One upside of your home confinement is that you no longer need to spend time commuting back and forth to work. Can you reallocate that time to doing something that will bring you joy—or, at the very least, alleviate some stress?
It’s an incredibly turbulent time for most of us. Take care of yourself and others, and remember to wash your hands!