With the world in a bit of a spin over COVID-19, many companies are taking precautions and encouraging people to work from home wherever possible. But running a business remotely, or working from home longer term, isn’t always the pyjama-wearing tea-fest it’s cracked up to be. Since we’ve been operating a distributed business model for years (i.e. most of our staff work from home all the time), we’ve picked up a few tips along the way.
In many cases it’s perfectly possible to work from home, or run your business from home, successfully. There are in fact many advantages to it, and some people find they are far more productive working away from the busy office environment. In fact, research has shown that often, employees trusted with working remotely and managing their own time are often more diligent and hard-working than those tied to an office. Trust and empowerment go a long way…. Of course, we do understand that not all jobs can be done remotely, but for those which can, here are our top 12 tips for successfully managing your business or role from home.
Caveat: at the time of writing, UK schools are still open as usual. If they shut, all bets are off and you’re on your own 😉
1. Plan ahead and get your IT ducks in a row.
While for many people that only involves making sure you can log into your email, for many others in security-conscious roles, it will involve more complex tech requirements. Make sure you have the access you require set up, whether that’s password generators, VPN access or anything else. If you’re not sure, speak to your IT department so you’re confident you can access everything you need to fulfil your role remotely.
2. Be structured.
This comes up on a lot of wfh advice pages but it’s true; trying to keep to a routine not only helps you stay in a workplace frame of mind, it also makes you as reliably available as you would be at work. This will give colleagues, managers, direct reports and your clients peace of mind that everything is in hand. And trust us, if you’re doing this long-term, you really do need a bit of routine! See also, daily priority and to do lists – definitely a big help when planning your days.
3. Dress for work.
Not only does this eliminate the possibility of having to conduct a conference call in your PJs when you didn’t know it was a video call, but it does actually make you feel more like you’re at work. Some people even opt to wear shoes rather than slippers for particularly important calls. Footwear is up to you, but you’re unlikely to be at your most professional in your dressing gown.
4. Designate a space to work in.
Not everyone has a study or office at home but try to allocate a specific area for work – ideally not the sofa! You’ll need a desk or table (the kitchen or dining room version is fine) and a comfy but ideally straight-backed chair. Be firm with family about the fact you’re working and need peace and quiet. Obviously with younger children this could be tricky, but other family members will have to accept that you can’t be interrupted every five minutes. (Parents are a particular liability on this front!)
5. Manage distractions.
Yes, manage, not entirely eradicate. And why? Because it’s impossible. Just as it is impossible in an office as well, so don’t beat yourself up about it. But you CAN manage distractions (depending on your personality, this will be trickier for some than others!) If you have chores to do, try to limit them to designated breaks like lunchtime. Don’t be tempted to turn on the TV (though the radio can be quite good background noise, depending on how hard you have to focus.) And limit how much you access social media – try to stick to your break times only, or you’ll be sucked into the rabbit hole and the whole day will vanish. (If you’re a social media writer or manager – well, good luck with that one!)
6. Technology is your friend!
Yes, limit social media but we have a host of brilliant platforms and apps available these days to make remote working a doddle. Video conferencing is easy on Zoom, Skype or Google Hangouts (other video conferencing operators are available…) and sometimes a video call is just that bit better than a phone call for keeping in touch and making it feel more like a meeting. Slack is great for quick chats, and grouping conversations into workflow areas to keep it relevant. Yes, it can be distracting, but it can also be the closest thing to being with your team, so it’s worth trying, especially if you usually work quite collaboratively. Google Docs is also good for collaboration in real-time, allowing editing and comments easily without sending files. There are great file transferring sites (WeTransfer, for e.g.) and file-sharing platforms (Dropbox springs to mind) so don’t worry about sending massive attachments on email that are out of date after one round of amends.
7. Leave the house!
Yes you’re working from home but fresh air and exercise are your friends. You need to get up and move around regularly and do try to get outside, even if just to eat your sandwich – the fresh air will really help you stay alert and give you that extra bit of energy (especially in that post-lunch lull section of the day. You know the one we mean.) Added to this, we’d recommend getting plenty of natural light, and, at the risk of sounding like we’re giving house-plant advice, drink lots of water too.
8. Don’t be tempted to work late into the evening just to show how dedicated you are.
If you normally leave the office at 5, then don’t feel obliged to work longer just because you’re not “at work.” As long as you’ve achieved what you need to, then give yourself a break and enjoy the lack of commuting time to do something else instead. Equally though, if you prefer working late but have zero energy at another time of day, go with it!
9. Embrace the flexibility!
Yes, manage your distractions but actually working from home can be extremely liberating and can allow you a chance to get other things done too. This can be great for your peace of mind and elusive work/life balance. There’s no reason it can’t be fun. If you need to walk the dog, get the kids to school, stick some laundry on, go for a run – then do it. Just make sure you manage your time, availability and workload accordingly. There are loads of advantages to working from home so make sure you grab some of them and enjoy the experience.
10. Check in regularly.
This is particularly relevant if you manage other people, but really does apply to everyone. Structured catch-ups on a regular basis will help to keep things on track, and will help you to support more junior members of the team. Remember, different people will respond differently to the freedom of remote working, and while many will thrive, others may struggle and need more support. Often, people need to know they have those regular touchpoints planned in to motivate them. Slack (mentioned above) is great for regular check-ins, or you could set up a work WhatsApp group chat (but check your HR policy on that one first please!)
11. Summarise your day.
Just as to-do lists can help you plan and structure your day, it’s also worth doing a little summary at the end of each day to capture what you’ve done. Not only is this a handy way to appease any managers who might need reassurance of your productivity, it’s also an opportunity to reflect on what went well, or what might need more focus. Importantly, it’s also a way to draw a line under work for the day and sign off. It’s very easy to get sucked into working silly hours when you work remotely on a regular basis, so for the sake of your sanity, set a finish time and get into the habit of closing off the day properly. Certainly, when starting out working from home, this is a good tip!
12. Consciously acknowledge what’s working and what’s not.
Working at home will not suit everyone, and some people will really struggle with the isolation of it. To an introvert this may seem unimaginable, but for people who get their energy from the buzz of other people and being in a noisier, more dynamic environment, it can be really tough. So be aware of what makes you tick, and compensate – use the WhatsApp ground, the Slack chat, the video calls, pick up the phone more and talk to people, and get out and about when you can. Don’t be a distraction to others who relish the peace, but remember that everyone will respond differently, and it’s OK if you’re not finding it easy.
And finally, a few benefits and challenges of working from home:
- No commute! Not only is that better for the environment, it’s also a lot of extra saved time that you can put to better use.
- Getting “life” jobs out of the way, whether it’s receiving a parcel or getting the laundry out while it’s sunny.
- Fewer work distractions and time-wasting chats
- Employees can feel really trusted and empowered by working from home so it’s a great opportunity to let them show what they can do. Have a little faith – the vast majority will be keen to show how responsible they are, not just binge-watch Netflix all day.
- Video calls and phone calls tend to be more focused and time-bound than meetings in person, and usually stick more to the point, so they take up less time.
- No immediate brainstorming opportunities or spontaneous chats to sort minor issues
- Missing human contact – which will be fine for some, and less so for others. Do use the technology at your disposal to counteract this if it’s an issue. Feeling lonely or isolated are real issues of regular remote working so it’s good to be aware of the risks upfront.
- Some roles require equipment or access to systems that are very difficult to achieve, which can be limiting in what you’re able to do.
- Missing out on the “gossip” – often the informal office chats are where relationships are built and developed, and also where snippets of info about clients and projects are gathered.
Being forced to work remotely will be viewed differently by each individual, and how feasible it is to do your job effectively from home will depend on your circumstances and role. But modern technology makes working from home a very real possibility for a lot of people, and once they’ve tried it, a lot of people find they are more productive, and much happier, as a result.
It’s entirely possible that what starts as an enforced regime to tackle a spreading virus could have unforeseen benefits longer term – if companies see how effectively meetings and teams can operate remotely, then perhaps it could reduce the environmental impact of work travel and commuting, offer better work-life balance for employees, and boost wellbeing and productivity.