As social distancing practices become widely recommended to slow the spread of COVID-19, many businesses are asking that employees refrain from coming into the office and continue their work from home, which is a stark adjustment for many.
It can be challenging enough to get up to speed for many who have never worked remote before, but the additional mental and emotional stressors associated with the pandemic can bring new disruptions that we are all in the process of learning to work with.
For Traject, collaborating with remote employees is a normal part of everyday life. Although a large amount of our employees are at headquarters in Bellevue, WA, we have a robust remote team in 22 cities and 11 other countries. Below are some of the ways that they recommend the rest of us get up to speed on effectively working from home, and making sure to take care of ourselves—and others—at the same time.
The best news? These are tried-and-true practices for adapting to new working environments, staying productive, and creating a company culture that emphasizes the well-being of employees—something we will all want to continue doing long after life at work returns to normal.
Create a dedicated space
The name of the game for many of these tips is creating boundaries that keep you from blurring the line between your work life and your home life—even though they now both take place at home. A dedicated workspace can help create a mental “work mode” and increase your productivity.
A different environmental context will also help you adequately unplug from work and recuperate. You’re less likely to feel the pressure to continue working once you have vacated your dedicated work space.
A common misconception is that this has to be an entire “home office.” In reality, many employees don’t have a spare room in their home that they can dedicate to a work space. Not to worry – simply create a great work space with what you have, just make sure it has these components:
Choosing a workspace in an area where you can control the noise level will not only help your concentration, but will also help conference calls go more smoothly.
This becomes more difficult to manage due to children, other family members, pets or roommates being home and near your workspace. In this instance, it may be helpful to find alternative work spaces, invest in noise cancelling headphones, or use earplugs—but it is more likely to be helpful for employees to adopt a flexible and understanding attitude as we’ll discuss below.
“I have a 10-month-old mini goldendoodle puppy. Lucy can be disruptive. Everyone with family or pets can be insecure or mortified when their family interrupts. I always try to be mindful of my mute button on calls. Personally, I appreciate when I get to see my coworkers’ pets or kids for a moment. It humanizes our team and makes me feel that much more connected to them.”
Garrett Sussman | Head of Content at Traject
You can’t stay focused for a whole work day if you can’t even occupy your work space for a whole work day without being in discomfort. Test out different standing and sitting options to find a mix and find supplies that work for you.
Investing in pillows or cushions can make a hard chair more comfortable, while moving from the couch to a sturdy chair can give you the structure you need to stay focused. You might even find that you need to switch between different positions throughout the day or find something in the middle. Comfort isn’t the same for everyone—find what works for you.
Plenty of surface area
Try to choose a space that has room for any additional monitors or devices you may require, where you don’t feel cramped and cluttered. Even if you don’t have a lot of space in your home, there are creative ways to make it feel like you do. Utilize unconventional furniture, invest in small storage or shelving, move things around, and tap into your inner MacGyver.
Things that make you happy
Work days are long and take up the majority of our waking hours. Reality check: you won’t maintain morale in your new remote workspace if nothing about being there makes you happy.
As we navigate uncharted territory with COVID-19, we also all have a lot of stress and uncertainty in our lives, and we deserve to include the little details that add some positivity and happiness into our lives wherever possible. Decorate your work space with pictures of family, friends, and pets, add candles, grow plants, buy a fun new to-do list from the Target bargain bins, whatever puts a smile on your face—it’s the little things! Take a look here at how others have gotten creative.
Managers: Be proactive. Check in with your employees. Ensure they have everything they need before they get to a point in their struggle where they feel the need to reach out.
- Does everyone on your team have access to the internet?
- Are they supplied with the correct devices and comfortable seating?
- Do they have space away from distractions or do they require assistance finding adequate workspaces?
Don’t assume anyone has certain resources, and decide as a leadership team how much you’re able to invest in providing resources for remote work.
Set your daily schedule
Decide what your working and non-working times are going to be and adhere to it, even if your workload only allows you to decide what that schedule can be one day in advance. Bonus: Did you know it’s shown to be good for your mental and physical health?
Create a to-do list for the hours within that time frame to help you prioritize your most important tasks and stay on track to work hard during work hours and not have to make up for an unproductive day throughout the entire evening.
Most importantly, log off when you say you’re going to log off. When you move to the couch to watch tv and eat dinner but your laptop just happens to be right there, it can be too easy to reach for it and blur that work life/home life boundary.
Managers: Discuss with individual team members what schedule works for them, be as amenable as possible to their wishes, and help them stick to it.
Some team members may work better if they are able to extend their hours but use the work from home flexibility to stop in the middle of the day to run errands or go for a run. Other team members may wish to work earlier than usual in the morning to adapt to children that are home earlier in the afternoon.
Despite the varied work spaces and working hours, facilitate collaboration where you can. If you consistently see someone online outside of the hours you agreed on, take this as an opportunity to check in—they may be struggling with a certain project or may need to be reminded to disconnect.
Identify your productivity weaknesses and proactively eliminate them
Sometimes social pressure is enough to keep you from falling into a productivity vacuum—in an office full of people, if you don’t want to be seen as addicted to your phone, you will likely avoid pulling out your phone all the time in front of your coworkers. But what about when you’re alone at home and there’s no one to see you procrastinating?
Be realistic about what your weaknesses are and come up with proactive solutions.
Are you addicted to social media? Set a limit on your daily use of certain apps.
Do you already know you always start getting distracted and tired about 2 hours into the work day? Schedule a break to walk outside or spend 15 minutes doing something you enjoy.
Give yourself the best chance of maintaining productivity up until the moment where you know you get to take that break.
You can also always use one of these productivity apps that help keep you on track and maintain momentum as you move through different tasks.
Managers: Check in with team members on what distractions they may struggle with and assist them in getting resources to keep them on track. Have them expense accounts for productivity apps. Adopting these resources on a team level and using project management platforms or check-in meetings (or both) can also alleviate productivity pitfalls.
Don’t forgo casual conversation
Remember earlier in this article where we had that reality check that we spend the majority of our waking hours at work?
This means that work is also where we get the most opportunity for socializing, and receive the important support we can gain through socializing with our coworkers.
Don’t be shy about sending coworkers messages asking how they’re doing, sending along articles that people may find funny or interesting, or creating dedicated time on calls to chat about life outside of work.
Check with others at your business to see if they’re interested in setting up “watercooler” conversation conference calls or create new slack channels that people can join based on their interests outside of work.
“It is physical distancing, not social distancing—finding ways to connect and engage with each other is critical during this time, and finding ways to have casual chats while working remotely really helps ward off cabin fever and promote digital connection.”
Katelyn Sorensen | VP, Sales & Marketing at Traject
Managers: Set up a ‘free time’ conference call at your company for watercooler conversation or for people to virtually coexist while they eat lunch or participate in workshop meetings. Consider also setting aside the first 5-10 minutes of video team meetings for personal conversation and eliminating pressure to dive into work conversation immediately.
Use video whenever possible
Put a face to the name for your team members and others at your business. If your company culture is not used to being on video, it can make people uncomfortable. It’s something to be sensitive to, but at the same time, it’s an essential element to healthy and efficient communication.
Using video can work wonders in mitigating confusion or maintaining a strong relationship with teammates when others can more easily see your facial expressions, witness gestures, and understand your tone.
Additionally, having set times of the day where you know you need to be prepared and presentable will further help strengthen that boundary between work life and home life – differentiating between professional time and personal time may become a little difficult if you start spending both of them in a bathrobe.
“Making any contact more human and personal is always better. Seeing their interest, smiles and other facial expressions improve the conversation and improve everyone’s understanding.”
Aaron Weiche | CEO, GatherUp
Managers: Make all team members aware of a policy that prefers video well in advance. Everyone can be prepared to be present and professional when a meeting is about to begin. That way, no one is caught off guard when asked to turn their webcam on. As always, practice what you preach and appear on all of your own conference calls using video as well.
At Traject, we typically start Slack video calls for anything that is
- Internal participants only
- Smaller groups
- Able to be coordinated and started on the fly
A great option for meetings that need to be on the calendar in advance or that include external guests is Zoom. For casual hangouts with coworkers and friends, try Houseparty. Houseparty is a video conferencing platform that comes with games and prompts baked-in in case conversation runs dry.
Make time to get outside or get some exercise
In the wise words of Elle Woods, “Exercise gives you endorphins, and endorphins make you happy.”
It’s common in an office to get up and move around. You attend meetings in various locations, you make cups of coffee in the kitchen, or you go out to pick up some lunch. When working from home, it may be easier to sit in one space all day. In times like the current COVID-19 situation, this difficulty can be exacerbated by closings of restaurants, stores, and gyms.
Allow yourself time to unplug, take a walk, and fill up on that valuable vitamin D and fresh air. Better yet, make it live natively in your daily schedule so you never miss it.
If you know people in your office that are used to maintaining a higher level of exercise and may be struggling, share ideas that are still available to them, like your favorite running trail in the city or a home workout plan you found online.
Managers: Allow flexibility in working schedules for breaks to go outside or fit in exercise to maintain morale and health on your team. If someone is struggling from a lack of opportunity to leave their workspace or lack of access to exercise, help them brainstorm ideas of activities they can do or places they can go that may help them.
Maintaining consistent communication with your coworkers can sustain your support system, continuously ensure that everyone is on the same page with current projects, and help solve little problems before they become big problems.
Working more independently from home can also make teams more susceptible to a negative communication bias. This happens when people only make the concerted effort to reach out to others when they’re experiencing a problem they can’t solve themselves, and communication between team members therefore becomes disproportionately negative.
Combat this by proactively sharing updates on projects you’re working on with your team. Share news of finished projects with your company as a whole. Celebrate your wins. Develop that culture of sharing and support.
Sharing a newly completed landing page or a freshly written blog to teams that don’t usually have visibility into your accomplishments is a practice that will keep everyone better connected during remote work. These actions can transform the cultural fabric of your company and carry on as a best practice when everyone is together in the office again.
“The extra check-ins my team has set have allowed me to ask the questions I normally just lean over a desk to ask, and I’ve been able to move through my workload at the same pace I maintain in the office. When we have adequate check-ins for professional things, it leaves us time to check in on a personal level without feeling like we need to rush to cover project updates.”
Anna Dievendorf | Marketing Manager at Traject
Managers: Schedule additional meetings for short check-ins that replace surreptitious questions and comments that often happen beside desks in the office. Project management platforms can assist with these check-ins. Practice overcommunicating with these tools by breaking down each task on the board into the most granular sub-tasks possible.
Consider also assisting your team with sharing updates by promoting accomplishments company-wide on their behalf or creating a short weekly round-up of what your team has been up to.
Assume miscommunication, not malice.
Some interactions over Slack or email will feel cold due to lack of facial or body language.
Assume positive intent. Always politely ask for clarification if you feel unsure of the intent of someone’s message—It will derail toxicity in remote communications.
This is also an especially important time to give fellow employees the benefit of the doubt and assume that outside stressors related to dealing with a global pandemic may affect someone’s tone or attitude. Most likely don’t consciously intend ill will.
Managers: Assist team members in both asking for and providing clarification when miscommunications happen. Communicate often with team members about stressors that may be affecting their temperament.
Ask for feedback
Just like taking on any other new project or learning any other new skill at work, ask for feedback on what you’re doing well and what needs improvement with your remote work style. Be as transparent as possible.
Work with your manager to set goals and schedule check-ins to discuss progress on these goals and feedback on performance.
Managers: Be proactive about scheduling check-ins and be prepared with constructive feedback before check-ins occur. In the spirit of being flexible to team members’ changing situations, use this as an opportunity to find out any other factors that an employee feels is affecting their remote performance.
Be flexible and support each other
Bottom line, we’re currently experiencing something in the world that is unprecedented. An unprecedented number of people are now working remote full time. Many people are navigating this transition that have never worked from home before. Many will require a grace period and additional coaching as they practice something that is truly a skill in its own right.
In addition to the inherent difficulties of working under a transition to a new environment, people may be responsible for navigating other struggles that affect their work. Many children are now home from school and require homeschooling, employees may become sick or have family that becomes sick, or a myriad of other tangential difficulties may arise.
Be flexible, be kind, and maintain a culture where people feel comfortable confiding these struggles so employees or managers are able to brainstorm solutions for everyone.
“Our employees are our #1 priority. It’s crucial to take care of yourselves and your families during this time–this novel situation and the daily onslaught of bad news can contribute to greater emotional and mental stress. It’s important to practice self care, whether that’s unplugging from the news and social media for a few hours, meditating, reading a book, cooking a meal, playing a game, or whatever that looks like for you”
Alice Song | COO
Here’s a few of the things Traject has done so far to support various struggles that employees are facing – feel free to borrow these ideas or suggest others.
- Scheduling a daily zoom meeting around lunch time for employees to log into at their leisure and eat lunch and chat with whoever else is able to sign on at that time
- Sharing log in credentials to to Peloton, Insanity, and other home workouts for employees whose gyms have closed down
- Creating a company membership to the meditation app Calm, and making it available to all employees
- Offering a stipend for home workspace supplies
- Scheduling a short “coffee chat” over video conference in the mornings
- Creating dedicated meetings for individual teams to simply check in on mental/emotional health
- Ramping up office pet Slack channels and social media to show off one of the silver linings of an unideal situation: spending more time with our furry remote coworkers!
- Creating a hackathon to foster some friendly competition at Traject and see if employees can come up with new ideas to use the tools in our suite to aid anyone in the community that may be adversely affected by the current pandemic
- Hosting an Ask Me Anything with senior leadership to give them an opportunity to be overcommunicative and transparent with employees
- Sharing documents like this one in company-wide Slack channels that speak to the difficulties of working at home with kids
Take care of your employees and they will take care of your business. An organization is nothing without the people who make it all possible, so while it’s important for each individual employee to use the best practices outlined here to create the best remote environment possible, some of the onus is also on employers to facilitate these accommodations.
Start a conversation at your business about how these tips might work for you and your coworkers, and let us know of any new ideas in the comments.
Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay productive!