Due to the coronavirus pandemic, a period of working from home is becoming increasingly inevitable for many companies. For a number of employees, the experience is not only new, but it's also dreaded.
The pros, of course, are very clear: Supreme flexibility, undeniable autonomy and a commute that consists of walking down the hallway or a flight of stairs. The cons? It takes practice and requires a significant amount of self-awareness, discipline and laser-like focus.
My journey in remote work started in 2010, when I was building my first startup. Fast forward 10 years later, and I've amassed a decade's worth of remote working secrets.
Here are six mistakes successful people never make when working from home:
1. Working in pajamas
The most productive people don't wake up and instantly start working while still in their pajamas. Instead, they get ready for the day the same way they would if they were heading into the office — which, yes, involves dressing up in presentable clothes.
While the thought of working in your sweatpants without judgment might sound nice, your pajamas aren't exactly professional attire — nor will they put your mind in "work mode." According to a study from Northwestern University, employees, no matter what profession they're in, perform tasks better when they wear clothes that have "symbolic meaning."
Also, looking well-groomed and presentable will save you from the hassle of rushing to get ready each time an impromptu video meeting comes up.
2. Working from the bed or couch
Having a designated workspace is something I cannot stress enough. Good for you if you can work productively from the couch or bed, because very few can.
There is no one-size-fits-all setup that works for everyone. It will take some trial and error to find a workspace layout that supports your needs, but the key is to have it resemble your office setup as much as possible. You don't even need a private room; it can be a designated area in your home — far away from the bed and couch, if possible — that basically says: "NO RELAXATION ZONE."
Consider investing in a comfortable office chair (which you can get for less than $45) and a desk large enough to fit your stuff (i.e., external monitor, printer, keyboard and mouse, file cabinets). Some companies allow remote employees to expense these items, so check with your supervisor.
Lighting also makes a huge difference. Studies have found that cooler lights (the higher the correlated color temperature, the better) can make workers far more productive. Move your workspace closer to the window if you get plenty of natural sunlight; not only is it easier on the eyes, but research has shown it can decrease depression and improve mood, energy and alertness.
3. Going dark
Even on the slowest days, successful people who work from home always make it a point to overcommunicate.
As someone who has managed a team from home for several years, making sure everyone takes part in the conversation about what they're working on, assignment statuses, as well as their concerns and issues, gives me peace of mind. It ensures that nothing gets lost in translation and that no one feels neglected.
You don't have to be constantly checking and replying to emails (unless they're urgent). At the very least, have regular check-ins with your manager and team — through Slack, phone calls, emails. Get out of your comfort zone, talk about your goals for the week. Ask for — and give — direct feedback.
Treat it as a casual update, rather than a formal meeting. It will also help you build more sustainable relationships with people you work with.
4. Neglecting health
When you aren't in the office, there's usually even less physical activity: No conference meeting rooms to walk to, no coworkers to go on a coffee run with and no long hallways that lead to the printer or bathroom.
There were countless times when I'd find myself with back pain and numbness in the legs because I'd been sitting for five hours straight, without even realizing it. I'd get so lost in the silence of work that I would even forget to eat lunch (not counting the bags of chips and soda within arm's reach).
Even if you're a frequent exerciser, sitting for excessively long periods of time can be a risk factor of early death, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. But there's good news: Researchers found that people who sat for less than 30 minutes at a time had the lowest risk of early death.
I make it a point to carve out time throughout the day for take walks (having a dog makes it easier). There are also downloadable apps and programs that allow you to set walking goals to ensure you're moving an adequate amount, like Stand Up! The Work Break Timer, Randomly RemindMe and Time Out.
5. Not creating structure and boundaries
It's easy to get distracted by personal matters when you're working from home, because you're so much more accessible to people outside of your worklife.
That's why you need structure — a consistent schedule that you're strict about — to prevent distractions from disturbing your workflow. The easiest way to do this is to create a to-do list for each day. It should include very specific, measurable and achievable tasks. You may need to adjust tomorrow's list depending on what you get done today.
Maintaining structure also means setting boundaries. Of course, there are a few exceptions, such as if you're a single parent with a newborn. But for the most part, be clear with your partner, friends or those you live with about your work schedule. Consider setting a "Do Not Disturb" window of time where you can work freely without unnecessary interruptions.
6. Taking the opportunity for granted
The option to work from home is a great privilege, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. Some professionals, like hospital workers, are required to show up onsite for their jobs.
Of course, I can resonate with those who are working from home for the very first time but absolutely hate it. Early on, I had a hard time learning how to successfully manage my time and stay disciplined. But the experience has helped me grow in so many ways:
- My communication skills improved significantly. Having a strong presence when you're not in the office means learning to develop a clear and confident voice. Constantly talking to colleagues and clients over digital communication has helped me do just that.
- I'm a technology wizard. Working remotely comes with technological challenges. You may have a hard time connecting to your server. Your work computer screen just went black. Files seem to have disappeared. After spending hours on the phone with IT support, I'm now skilled enough to fix these common issues on my own.
- Increased self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Non-verbal cues are almost impossible to pick up on when you're communicating digitally. But after years of practice, I can easily pick up on tones and tell if a colleague is stressed, excited or depressed — and then respond accordingly.
Tom Popomaronis is a leadership researcher, commerce expert, cross-industry innovation leader and VP of Innovation at Massive Alliance. His work has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company, Inc. and The Washington Post. In 2014, Tom was named one of the "40 Under 40" by the Baltimore Business Journal. Follow him on LinkedIn.
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