03.24.20

How to Overcome Remote Work Challenges in an Isolated World

By Mark Saunders

Last week we shared some tips on how to be efficient when COVID-19 has you working from home and we touched a bit on how, for many people, remote work is not their norm.

As we attempt to flatten the curve in the current coronavirus crisis, for some, the reality of working from home might seem like a vacation from their in-office life, but for others it can feel a bit daunting.

Take heart. Plenty of people do it and plenty of organizations support it. If done right, it can help with that work-life balance we all strive for, but it does require consideration in a few areas to overcome common telework challenges.

Time Management

No more being stuck in a traffic jam for hours each way. The relief! For some, that’s hours of their day they get back. However, this often leads to the idea that there is suddenly unlimited time to undertake your work.

Just like those moments when you’re at work and a birthday celebration in the kitchen distracts you for a short while, leaving you wondering where your day went, you can get distracted at home just as easily. Perhaps easier.

It’s essential to be painstakingly cognisant of where you spend your time. Some strategies I’ve advised in the past include:

  • Use to-do lists
    • Don’t just create lots of lists with to-do at the top. USE them. If there are to-do’s still on the list at the end of your day, consider whether you could have been more productive and completed them or if you were simply over-reaching.
  • Use time-tracking software
    • At Content Bloom, we use a formal time-tracking system and everyone is expected to include a level of notation that explains to our clients the valuable work we’ve done for them. This reiterates what and why you did what you did – everything should have a purpose!
  • Use time-mapping and time-box tasks
    • This will help you understand how you’re spending your time. Make not of not only your work, but those important tasks that you now have the benefit of keeping up with while at home.
  • Removing items that will otherwise distract you during your work day
    • I’ve removed all Raspberry PI’s and other IT Gadgets from my work office. If you can manage your time-boxing and allocate 30 minutes to tweak that media streamer on your PI, then you’re likely fine. (But you’re reading this article, so I’m guessing – like me – you’ll need to remove those desktop distractions!)

Technology

Love it or hate it – you’re going to use it.

There’s a plethora of tools out there to do everything from managing your time to ensuring communication with your colleagues. But keep your goal in mind.

It’s all too easy to get bogged down with multiple, often overlapping, functionalities and each additional app sometimes only adds to the complexity of the stack you are going to have to support. Remember, you are working from home and it’s unlikely you will be assigned your own tech support resource. Mitigate that by:

  • Using the tools that your company (or existing co-workers) already uses. With this, there is familiarity if you have an issue and it’s likely someone in your organization has already found a fix.
  • Using tools that are tried and tested. Now is not the time to spend hours installing, configuring, testing, tweaking, uninstalling and starting again. Your time is still precious and you could easily spend ½ a work day messing with new apps. Don’t start now.

Another thing to consider –  your connectivity. If you’ve never worked from home before, you may not have full visibility of the stability of your network. Speak with your ISP-provider to understand what you are paying for and what you should expect and understand what the escalation process for bad connectivity is. Whether it’s day one or day fifty, you’ll likely need it at some point.

Communication

Remote communication can sometimes lack the effectiveness of face-to-face meetings. You’ll miss that opportunity to catch-up over the water-cooler on how that project is going. It can be a challenge, but it’s not insurmountable. Don’t forget to:

  • Stay connected
    • There are plenty of communication tools to help you stay in touch. Some may be better for 1:1 or mobile and some better aimed towards conference calls and the like. From Skype, GoToMeeting, Slack, and many others, you have the luxury of choice. But as mentioned above, speak with your IT department – what do they recommend or, even better, support? Speak with friends and get real feedback on tools they use and seek out reputable reviews.
  • Think about how you present updates
    • Maybe a one-hour group meeting with a PowerPoint presentation worked before, but now you’re all dispersed. Perhaps something else, such as a simple dashboard, suits.
  • Make time for group calls to keep in touch with the team(s) you manage or work in
    • Be sure you’re up to date on task progress, plans, goals, and any challenges anyone may be having.
  • Make time for individual catch-ups
    • Make it personal so everyone knows they have the opportunity to speak frankly and openly, as though they’d popped into your office.
  • Be clear on your expectations.
    • State them. Clearly. Don’t underestimate how many times you’ve subconsciously walked over to someone’s desk and double-checked that they’ve “got it OK”. You’re working from home and misunderstandings could well take a day or so to become apparent if there isn’t clarity surrounding your expectations.

Overworking

Different hours, increased flexibility, different weekly pattern … what could go wrong?!

Read up on sleep deprivation and you’ll see. If you’re not managing our time efficiently, you could easily end up spending more time at work than you realize.

Don’t underestimate the effect overworking can have. i.e. exhaustion, less personal time, lack of focus, lost family time, etc.

  • Be transparent with your team on when you are available/unavailable
    • I like to ensure my shared calendar is up to date so people can self-serve and schedule time with me as needed
  • Prioritize
    • If there’s not enough time to do the tasks you set, then assess your workload and determine if you’re trying to take on too much. This is no different than if you were in the office. If you’re taking on too much, you need to take on less and do so early.
  • Take a break
    • Use healthy distractions – take a walk, or to be on the safe side,  a quick dose of isolated fresh air, play with the dog, have a snack. Do something that gets you stretching and refreshes your mind. If you’re stuck on a task, stepping away can give you a set of fresh eyes and help but things back into perspective.

Distractions

Distractions. Everywhere. They come from not only external influences but also internal.

Some people are easily distracted. Some people actively seek distractions. The first challenge is to understand your ability to focus and to avoid distractions.

External

  • Create your own space
    • As noted previously, remove items that you don’t need for work. Ideally, have a specific machine for work.
  • Turn off your phone
    • If you don’t use it for work, turn it off. (All the way off, not just set to vibrate.) If you must have it on, then set it up so it’s done so in the least distracting method you can.
  • Time-blocking
    • If you’ve not blocked time for the activity you’re undertaking, you’re distracted.

Internal

  • Procrastination
    • Some people are just procrastinators. In the home-working scenario, this can be a real pain point. Every job will take longer than it needs to, the pressure is increased, and high-priority jobs are started as time slowly dwindles from you. The practical way to challenge this is head-on.
  • Prioritization
    • This seems like a no brainer, but do high-priority items first. If you’re spending too much time working on low-priority items, the higher priority ones are still waiting in the queue and will require your personal time to complete. By nature, it’s easier to put aside a low-priority task, so leave them to last. (This can be tough if the most interesting tasks are the lowest on the totem pole, but trust me.)

Your Health

COVID-19 has taken over headlines and directly impacted the way businesses are running in a time of social distancing and mandated remote work. Whether it’s in the middle of a global pandemic or not, take care of yourself.

  • Keep a balanced diet.
  • Move, exercise, stretch.
  • Sleep. Eight hours is the general recommendation (and if you’re sleeping at your desk you’re not doing it right!)
  • Don’t ignore your mental health.
    • Leave plenty of time for real-world conversations. I like to schedule time with my team where we just chat about what went on over the weekend and we explicitly side-line work chat until the next call.

Do you struggle with working from home and prefer the office?

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