My Work from Home Tips – structure, communication and courage

I’ve been working from home for a while now. Here are my top tips, adjusted to our current circumstances of a sudden mass adoption of work from home. This post covers three main themes:

  1. Establish a structure for your day
  2. Agree with your team the best ways and times to connect
  3. Lean in to the technology – feel the discomfort and do it anyway

I spend a bit of time below discussing item 1, so please do read on to the other two even if you already have the structure of your day sorted.

1. Establish a structure for your day

I don’t want to say routine, some people think that is oppressive. However, you need a structure. Most people do 40-60% of their day within the framework of a daily routine and established regular habits. Your brain needs this to manage its cognitive load over the day. By putting you on autopilot for certain parts of the day your brain is equipping itself to be able to provide you with those times of cognitive excellence and concentration.

So upending the routine for your entire working week is a big change for your brain to manage. There are a few strategies you could adopt in response, especially when making such a quick adjustment:

  1. Option 1 – Replicate your existing work routine at home as much as you can
  2. Option 2 – Start from scratch
  3. Option 3 – The hybrid approach (recommended!)

Let’s look at each in more detail.

Option 1. Replicate your existing work routine at home as much as you can.

In this option you scaffold a new location on to your existing routine. It is logical to work with the habits that your body and mind are both in. However, critical to making this work is understanding the cues you use to transition from one part of your routine to the next. Managing these cues and substituting the ones which won’t work at home is critical to protecting a productive day.

You are probably blissfully unaware of the cues within your daily routine that you use to move from one task to the next. So first take some time to identify these cues. For example, you may recognise that you use the office morning tea catch up as a reward for getting thorough a batch of focused work. When at home and without this target to aim for, you may be tempted to give up on the concentration earlier. So set up a virtual morning tea meet up with your colleagues to ensure you have the same sort of incentive and reward for applying yourself with focus.

Replacement or substitute cues can require solutions which are not in your existing skill set. Don’t let this be a hurdle, as missing a cue can unravel the whole routine. Instead take your idea to someone else to implement. You bring the idea of a virtual morning tea catch up and ask one of the other participants to set up the technology to make this happen.

What if your colleagues are not keen? Well the best thing about this current situation is you are no longer limited to those people who are usually in your workplace staffroom. Book in a catch up with someone else, especially someone you know who is self isolating alone. You create the cue and reward you need, and do a good deed for someone else too.

So identify your old daily cues, transitions and rewards. Then replicate or substitute these to suit your new work day.

Option 2. Start from scratch

At the other end of the continuum is the “fresh start” approach. Unshackled by the in-office routine, you make the most of the flexibility. Technology enables you to design virtually any sort of remote working day. But it has downsides – things get tricky with time wasting temptations around the home and the likes of Netflix. So it’s important to have a routine. As described above your brain functions best with a structure even if it is fairly lose.

Try a block system or ‘time-blocking’. Divide your day into blocks. Your blocks may be anything from 1.5 to 3 hours long.  Take all the things you need (and want) to get done and assign to a block. Beginners start with just your work related activities, or you can make the most of this opportunity and do a clean slate block system for your entire day. This gives you natural times to achieve certain tasks and in effect creates priorities and deadlines throughout the day for your tasks and activities. You are breaking one long to-do list into more manageable chunks and also ensuring you better manage how you spend time against each task. 

For work tasks you may group into say four types, such as focused report writing, thinking and strategising, communicating with others and getting through those mundane tasks. Think about what time of day you perform each of these activities best. If you are doing similar things in your blocks each day, your body will find the new pattern and prime your brain for this activity which re-enforces your system.

For example a work day with a block structure could look like this :

Block 1: (2hours) Report writing and focus work (when your mind is fresh)

Block 2: (2hours) Team catch up and communications (this is a good time for everyone and your mind is fried from block 1)

Block 3: (1.5 hours) Exercise and lunch

Block 4: (1.5 hours) Procedural tasks – forms, replying to emails, all those things which need ticking over (done during the post lunch slump)

Block 5: (1.5 hours) Report writing and focus work plus thinking and strategising

Block systems are also great for managing those distractions or looming jobs around the house. Prior to this week (has it only been a week?) my normal routine was to return home after the school drop off and get straight into work. A block system enabled me to ignore the getting-to-school-on-time mess (and any other house work) because that was not ‘allowed’ as part of my first two blocks of my work day. Apart from keeping any washing machine loads ticking over, any other housework is only done in the third block of my work day just before I head back to school for the pickup. So I could ignore those distractions because I knew those tasks belonged to another part of the day and that was when I would get those things done. 

For those also navigating kids at home during this time, a block system can ease the childcare burden. Rather than having one parent on mornings and one on afternoons (as is a common set up), it provides a more nuanced management tool. It is hard to get kids to give a parent some peace for 4 hours at a time when the child knows the parent is in the next room. It becomes more workable for each parent to get a block both morning and afternoon and everyone can spend time together in a decent sized lunchtime block.

So try using blocks to allocate the different types of activity you do. Also ensure you have designed the transitions and cues to really give your structure the best chance of success. It may seem almost juvenile to design yourself a reward for completing each block, but remember than the daily routine you have done for years has disappeared overnight. Be kind to yourself and ease the transition with some incentives.

Option 3. The hybrid approach

My recommendation is to mix the above two approaches. Both have their pros and cons and depend on your personality type and who else is in your bubble with you. Work with the best of your old routine, making use of your body clock and easy transition habits. However, don’t be scared to redesign parts of your day to suit the realities of this situation we are all in. For example, get out and do your exercise during the day instead of your usual evening time – move the work time around to accommodate it.

And think of each week of this lockdown as a transition. Stick with the usual routine to start with and then explore redesigning parts of your day to suit the opportunities of work from home as the weeks go by. Continue to evolve and refine it. We may know more in a week or so about how long this may go on, but it certainly seems prudent to consider it may stretch on. So it is worth setting up a plan, if only to give yourself some psychological agency over your situation. Things you have some control over are always easier than what is foisted onto you. Designing your new work day can give your situation a more positive spin within your own mind.

Establishing a new routine takes time – you need to stick with it and reward yourself. You are re-programming your brain and your brain will fight you a little on this as its role is to keep you on the status quo.

2. Agree with your team the best ways and times to connect

There is no point each member of the team setting up perfect schedules for their work-at-home day if the times to communicate with each other are not aligned. So have conversations within your team and with the others you are working with regularly.

The key issue is to determine what communication needs to be real time and what can be done more flexibly. Technology provides some great alternatives to what we thought of as necessary to do in person before. For example, did you know that you can record a Teams meeting so that some participants can choose to watch it later – great for those meetings when a couple of key people are driving the meeting and most are there to observe.

Be clear as to if real time communication  is necessary or not. Then this allows you to use the right tool for the purpose of the communication. Work from home is going to lead to more asynchronous interactions and a broadening of the methods we use to communicate. I will talk more on this later in the week. Purpose designed team work hubs like MS Teams really provide the chance for a wider range of interactions and more timely responses. But if not all team members are trained on Teams it can get a bit tricky. Teams requires not only the skills to use it, but a mindset shift with regards to communication which can be a big ask of a person in a sudden adjustment of their wider routine. 

For now, just make sure that team members are clear and can speak frankly around what suits each best, what works for the team and how it will all work in practice. Create expectations through discussion rather than assumptions

Agree protocols to keep everyone’s work flowing, if people are asking questions but not getting answers within a few hours then it could be a hurdle to that person getting work done. Look for the bottlenecks and proactively resolve them.

What are some other hints to making communication with others successful during this time?

  • If you have time set aside for focused work then block this out in your calendar. Then when team members (within your organisation) are scheduling meetings they will see those times don’t suit you best. If tagging it as ‘busy’ really doesn’t come easily to you, then book it out as ‘tentative’ at least.
  • Give an indication of your best times to talk on your email signature. For example “Best time to contact me is 11am to 1pm weekdays”.
  • If emailing or texting outside of standard hours, consider scheduling your reply. This delays delivery to not disturb the recipient. ‘Schedule reply’ should be in your text options on your phone and instructions for scheduling an email in Outlook are here. I went through a patch of working evenings and I definitely used this so that I could send off replies without worrying about disturbing people.
  • Remember to keep your availability status up to date so that others know when you are available. If you are an Office user, search ‘presence’ or ‘availability status’ in Microsoft to find out how to adjust settings in programs such as Teams. Adjust your work hours setting in MS Office if these have changed due to the lockdown, so people understand your availability. If you receive My Analytics productivity reports, this will also ensure you get better data about your metrics.

3. Lean in to the technology

For those familiar with Brene Brown, she talks about “leaning in” to emotional discomfort rather than shying away from it. This global situation is certainly evoking all sorts of discomfort for us all emotionally. And learning and adapting to new technology without that helpful colleague sitting next to you can be a contributor to this. You are now experiencing all of your work interactions via technology and if this does not come naturally to you it will be uncomfortable.

But consider that now is the best time to be learning to better use technology. Have the courage to try new things and be curious. Lean in to the tech tools you have always been reluctant to engage with.

Remember many people are in the same boat as you. Tech providers are creating fantastic training resources for absolute beginners as to how to use their products and services.  It has never been more ok to explain away any tech mishaps with a “sorry, I’m new to this”. Make the most of this opportunity to explore new ways of doing things.



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