With the continued spread of COVID-19, many companies have asked their employees to work from home. And as we continue to see the effects of the virus, it’s highly likely that more companies will start implementing remote working arrangements as well. While 68% of Australian employers have been allowing their employees to work remotely, working from home for an extended period of time can be a challenging transition for many, even for those accustomed to working remotely occasionally. Studies have shown that if not managed properly, remote employees can feel isolated and left out, which could in turn negatively impact their productivity and motivation.
So to help you stay healthy, motivated and productive while working from home, we’ll discuss best practices on how to effectively manage your work and your team remotely.
Staying productive while working remotely
While working from home has its perks, it can be distracting. Errands, chores, family, housemates, TV, social media, and pets can easily shift your attention. Here are some tips for eliminating distractions and boosting productivity while working from home:
1. Dress for success
It can feel tempting to roll out of bed and over to your laptop in your pajamas. But, if you’re dressed for sleep, it can be much harder to get your brain to switch into productivity mode. So to help you better transition from sleep to work, try maintaining your regular morning routine to set boundaries between working and living at home.
In place of your morning commute, you might try another activity to boost productivity, such as taking a walk, doing a light workout or meditating. Then, make a healthy breakfast and get dressed for the day as you would be if you were heading into the office. Dressing for the tasks ahead of you will make you feel more motivated during your work day, and is also handy in case you have to hop on an unexpected video conference.
2. Set and follow a schedule
It is important to set your working hours apart from your personal home time. For transparency, tell your manager what your working hours are when working from home and indicate on your calendar when you are available.
Here are a few tips on managing your daily schedule to optimise productivity:
- Start your day off by reviewing the tasks you need to get done that day to make progress towards your goals throughout the week
- Provide key status updates to your manager and other team members at your daily or weekly catch-ups
- Prepare healthy snacks to keep you energised and motivated
- Take regularly scheduled breaks to stretch, get some fresh air, and rest your brain
Without the social component in an office environment, working from home can minimise distractions. But at the same time, it could also lead you to working for hours on end before taking a break. It’s important to remember that your health and productivity will suffer when we don’t build regular breaks into your work day. So try to break up your day by taking a few breaks to help your brain rest and recover. These breaks can take any form, including:
- Reading a book or magazine
- Listening to a podcast
- Stretching or some yoga poses
- Taking a walk
3. Create a workspace
If possible, it is best to set aside a separate space in your home for work. This will help you separate your home and work activities, and boost productivity when you’re working in your designated space. Communicate with your partner, family, children and roommates that even though you are at home, you are off-limits during your scheduled work hours.
Video technology is an incredible tool to leverage when working remotely. It helps us to stay connected with our colleagues, employees and manager, even when we are far apart. To optimise your video meetings, you should:
- Test out your computer microphone, speakers and camera before important meetings to make sure they work
- Be conscious of your physical background when in meetings, change to something more professional when needed
- Use your video camera whenever possible—keeping your camera on can improve understanding and communication
4. Pay attention to burn-out
The fusion of workspace and home space can lead to a lack of boundaries and breaks. Align with your manager and team on expected work outcomes so you are focusing less on how much you work and more on what you achieve.
If you still feel overworked, create work start and stop rituals, forced movement moments (such as walking the dog or taking scheduled stretches), and gamified breaks. For example, try the Pomodoro Technique by focusing for 25 minutes, then taking a mandatory 5-minute break. Here are some additional ways to create boundaries around work and home time:
- Shut down your computer at the end of day
- Avoid opening your email or online chat after you’ve decided to sign off
- Schedule an activity that starts around the time you need to disconnect, such as doing a virtual workout class, cooking, gardening, or catching up with a friend over the phone or via video chat
Communicating with your remote teammates
When working from home, in-person communications are limited. That means you’re not as able to rely on building rapport through small talk, body language and facial expressions. To maintain healthy communications with colleagues while working remote, here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. Schedule daily or weekly stand-ups
For software teams, a stand-up is a daily meeting that involves the core team, highlights progress, and helps flag blockers. In the standard format of a stand-up, each team member comes prepared to answer these questions:
- What did I work on yesterday?
- What am I working on today?
- What issues are blocking me?
The daily reinforcement of sharing individual successes and plans keeps everyone excited about the team’s overall contribution to the organisation.
2. Make online chat your “main office”
Many companies and teams use online chat to stay connected both personally and on work-related topics. You might consider creating light-hearted channels where people can share updates about non-work-related subjects such as cooking, exercise or their pets. You should also use chat regularly to communicate as frequently as possible around key goals and your progress towards them.
3. Combat miscommunication
Communicating at a distance can lead to miscommunication and misunderstandings. This is partly because the rich texture of face to face communication (including body language and facial expressions) tends to collapse in written format.
If you notice back and forth messages or negative tone creeping in, use it as your cue to use phone or video. If you find yourself feeling offended or annoyed at someone’s message, remember that we tend to perceive neutral written messages as negative. When in doubt, talk it out. Ask questions to understand your colleague’s intentions.
4. Keep the team spirit
When working from home, it is more important than ever to create spaces to interact with your teammates beyond projects and status updates. Working remotely can bring feelings of loneliness that might catch some people off guard. Here are some ways to connect while working from home:
- Use online chat as your office happy hour
- Set up an optional lunchtime video chat to discuss more lighthearted topics such as what books people are reading and television shows they’re watching
- Virtual team building can help replace valuable in-person forms of communication that are missing from the remote office
Managing a remote team
Leading remotely can present a certain set of unique challenges, especially if this is a new transition for you or your team. Planning, communication and expectation-setting can help maintain contentedness and productivity.
Here are some tips on how you can improve remote working for your team:
1. Communicate clear expectations
Take a moment to plan. What do you need to achieve, by when and what changes might you need to make to your original quarterly plan and goals? Type it up so you can start discussing it with your team. You will avoid misunderstandings when you create a document or deck that serves as a source of truth. It could also be beneficial to share the document with stakeholders and other teams you regularly collaborate with.
Schedule a team meeting to discuss if there are any new expectations and what, if anything, has changed with working remotely. In your agenda, include:
- Goal responsibilities and ownership
- How often updates are expected and in what form (written, video chat, recording, stand-up)
- Communication norms (which technology you want to use for each type of message, expected response time, dark time, etc.)
2. Cherish and protect your one-on-one meetings
One-on-ones are a time to make sure you and each member of your team is working towards the same objective(s), that the work that is being completed is the right work, and most importantly, to check on the well-being and engagement of your team.
Regular check-ins stop larger issues from festering, allow for immediate and regular feedback, and promote open communication. Dedicated one-on-one time with your team members becomes even more critical and important when managing a team virtually. Try allocating between 30 minutes to one hour with each of your direct reports for a one-on-one each week.
Getting the most out of one-on-ones
Many factors dictate the best way to structure your meetings for success, including the emotional needs of those you manage, your relationship with them and the team member’s experience level. The most important element in a successful one-on-one is creating a space where people feel comfortable discussing the issues and concerns on their minds. These meetings are primarily for the employee and their participation is vital.
Pro-tip: Pre-populate a shared agenda. It will help you provide context prior to the meeting and also allows both parties to take ownership of the meeting. Timebox the topics you know you need to cover.
With the constantly evolving media coverage of COVID-19 and this new way of working remotely for some, it is possible your team may be feeling overwhelmed or anxious. One of the responsibilities of a manager is to ensure your team feels supported and informed at all times.
Start your one-on-one with an open-ended question. This allows the most important and top of mind topics to surface. Here are some questions you might try:
- How are you feeling?
- What is on your mind?
- Do you feel like you have clear priorities? Do you understand the “why” of those priorities?
- Do you feel in-the-loop?
- Do you feel isolated from the rest of the team?
- What are you most excited about?
- What are you most worried about?
- How can I help you?
Once you’ve fully heard their answers, be a facilitator of solutions. Uncover what they’re excited about, how you can mentor them to be successful, and unblock them to do their best work.
3. Provide feedback often
If employees are more familiar with working in an office environment where they receive feedback daily, the silence in a remote position could cause uncertainty or confusion. It’s easy to assume the worst about your work when you don’t hear otherwise. So try to provide feedback as often as possible to your employees. Regular feedback lets employees know where they stand, gets everyone on the same page, and reduces the chance of a surprise and disagreements during a more formal review.
4. Share relevant information in a prompt, inclusive and organised way
Keep employees informed by sharing information broadly to all team members in a timely manner. Your leadership is necessary for sharing relevant information that you need to trickle down to your team. So take time to understand what’s being communicated, why and what is being asked from your team.
Choose the right medium or a combination depending on the message and its implications. Some messages will require an email followed by a team meeting. When working remotely, especially in the beginning, more communication is better than less. Sometimes (and depending on your communication style) you can replace a long email with a video.
As many of us adjust to remote working, it’s important that we take care of both our own health and productivity, and that of our employees. With these tips, you can tackle the potential challenges your team may face when working from home to ensure that they are continuing to stay motivated, engaged and on the right path to success.