I won’t claim to be a trendsetter in any sense of the term, but as an introvert with many years of experience working on distributed teams and for remote employers, social distancing is second nature already.
(If you’re unfamiliar with the term, social distancing, or limiting people’s exposure to others in order to slow the spread of contagious diseases, is the current guidance from the World Health Organization and other worldwide healthcare professionals on how to best combat the novel coronavirus or SARS-Cov-2 pandemic. For more info on how you can help make that happen, visit flattenthecurve.com!)
Working from home is obviously ideally suited to social distancing. It also means I have the flexibility to get things done in the time best suited to that work, but it’s also an ongoing object lesson that what worked in the office office doesn’t always translate to the home office. So with my long and mostly successful history of working fully remote in all kinds of conditions, here are a few tips to make the most of your new work/life balance.
Establish your new commute
Now, we all know one of the big benefits of working from home is eliminating your commute. Not only does working from home help reduce pollution and stress, but it can also add usable hours to your day! But, traffic and transit woes aside, traveling to and from the office does provide a huge benefit: allowing you to switch from home mode to work mode and back again. When work and home are in the same place, it can be difficult to enforce working hours and boundaries that allow you to enjoy a healthy work/life balance.
So, take the time to “commute” to your new office. Get up, get dressed (this one’s very important!), have breakfast, then take a short turn around the block or your building. If physical movement doesn’t do it for you, set a buffer period of time in which you don’t engage in anything for work or home. Listen to a podcast episode or an audiobook chapter. Get in your fifteen minutes of Duolingo for the day (Tha Gàidhlig math!) or practice your sketching skills. Whether you decide to do something productive or frivolous, take that time just for you before you dive into the day.
And when the work is done? Pick an activity that will help you disengage and decompress: listen to your favorite band, do some exercise, meditate, or reverse the turn around the block that started your day. It’s much harder to “leave work at work” when you don’t physically leave your workplace anymore, so make sure you’re giving yourself the space and time to do so.
Set your boundaries
First, you need to establish boundaries with your team and boss about the hours you’re available. Be realistic about them, too! If you don’t, you’re going to find that work starts creeping earlier in the day and later in the evening and well into your weekends, regardless of any other plans, priorities, and obligations you might have. Instead of letting yourself get to a point where you start to resent a lack of boundaries, set them early. Have a frank discussion with the relevant people in your reporting structure about when and how you will be available for work and when you won’t, then build that into your calendar and make sure people are aware of any hard stops before they become an issue.
On the homefront, you’ll need a similar approach. Even if you were lucky enough to have an office with a door when you actually had an office, you likely built up a number of cues—visual and verbal—that let your colleagues know when you were open to interruptions. It worked great, mostly, and you’ve probably forgotten how you established those boundaries in the first place. This means you get to do it all over again now, except this time your closest colleagues are the cat and dog and family. Good luck!
One of the most effective ways to let the other beings in your home know when you have to be completely immersed in work is to—wait for it—talk to them about it. Explain how important it is that you aren’t disturbed during certain times, make sure they have a clear understanding of what and when those are, then schedule the Do Not Disturb times in your calendar and theirs. Write them on a note posted on the fridge or any doors between your desk and the common spaces in the house. Make sure everyone is on the same page and they understand what constitutes an emergency urgent enough to interrupt. You may also want to discuss and agree on what methods of communication are best for everyone. People in charge of childcare may need a more direct method, like texting, than your mom in Florida, who’s happy to call your cell and leave a message when you have it on silent.
Obviously this same approach doesn’t apply to any of the non-human family members of your house. A cat I lived with several years ago was blissfully happy to sit on a cushion near my keyboard as long as she got pats from time to time. Current furry roommates are less inclined to wait to be acknowledged, but they love the pile of blankets on a nearby chair they can snuggle up in, and I love the doors I can close between us when they’re needed. You’ll be the best judge of how much interaction your pets will want—and quickly grow to demand—during the day, so be open to experimentation until you find the right solution for all of you.
Be open to breaks
For many people, it’s going to be impossible to enforce the same kind of “don’t bother me” boundaries they enjoyed in an office setting. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing! One of the benefits of working in close proximity with other people every day is that natural breaks in your day are built-in. You catch up over coffee in the break room, take a few extra minutes to chat on the way back from the restroom, and grab the chance to step out for lunch when someone mentions your favorite churro truck. Embrace those same kinds of chances at home!
Schedule time to be with people who don’t live in your house
One of the big challenges a lot of people have when they make the transition to full-time working from home is, frankly, going full hermit. You start out going for walks, doing activities outside the house, keeping up with friends, showering, changing out of your PJs, talking to human beings who aren’t related to you and didn’t deliver your burritos. But then you look up one day and it’s Friday night, after ten, you’re still working on a spreadsheet and you … can’t remember the last time you did most of those things? Yikes.
It’s going to feel weird at first, but start scheduling personal interaction time on your calendar just like you do for work meetings, scrums, and heads-down focus blocks. Set aside that hour to meet a friend for lunch (if you’re in an outbreak area, try putting together a lunch group via Zoom or FaceTime!), to play with the dog, to get a close colleague on the phone to find out how they’re doing with things other than your urgent project. Build social media breaks into your day—it’s a lot easier to be excited about seeing what the world is up to in tumultuous times if you put some limits on how and when you access it. Make an appointment to surprise your parents with a midday call and let them tell you all the memes they saw this morning that you saw last week. (I love you, mom and dad.)
Make sure your personal interaction time is a good mix of getting together with friends and family and with work colleagues. Set aside time during the week to have a casual chat with your remote team and keep the conversation off of work topics. Check in with friends who also work from home and schedule virtual social time.
My current company, Simplus, is wonderful at fostering a sense of togetherness even though we’re all separated by distance and time zones. As a remote team, we have regular check-ins with our departments and full company, many opportunities to have open conversations with the leadership team, and regularly scheduled social activities where we have a chance to get together on video to, say, cook a meal or learn how to paint. It’s a perfect structure to help us thrive as people, as a team, and as champions for our clients.
There you have it. Whether you’re brand new to remote work or making the transition to full-time under these less than ideal circumstances, this is a great time to refine and redefine the way you work. There are tons of great resources and support available, and you’re definitely not alone. Good luck!