The news is currently filled with anxiety over coronavirus and workers are being encouraged to work from home where possible to limit or delay its spread.
For many people used to commuting daily and working in shared offices, this is a huge upheaval which will take a while to adjust.
How do you stay motivated and productive when you're not at your desk and held accountable by your colleagues next to you?
Remote working has become popular over the last few years. The internet has transformed how we work, and improvements to connection speeds, authentication systems and cloud architecture make working home a viable alternative for many office workers.
Working from home certainly doesn't suffer the same stigma it did years ago when it was synonymous with sleeping in late, daytime TV binges and excessive time in pyjamas.
A good number of years ago, I was getting my hair cut. It was about 11 am on a weekday, and we had the usual small talk as she attempted to tame my unruly mop. The question I was waiting for dropped a moment later "so, is this your day off?" My reply was that I work from home so have some flexibility in my day. Usually, this gets a nod, and we move onto the weather. I'd not met this hairdresser before. She processed my reply, stopped snipping and locked eyes with me via the mirror. "Do you really work from home, or is that you don't have a job?"
Fears over reduced productivity from remote workers have proved to be unfounded. A large-scale experiment was conducted with 16,000 employees of a Chinese call centre. Workers were randomly assigned to either work from home or at the office for nine months. The home workers enjoyed a 13% performance increase due to fewer breaks and sick days.
At Invision Community we not only make a product designed to bring people together online, but a good number of us also work remotely. Our HQ is in Virginia, USA but we have team members in the UK, Europe and Australia. Remote working allows us to hire the best people we can find, and not just those who are within a few miles of our HQ.
I spoke with our team to get their tips and strategies for working from home and still getting work done.
Rikki, lead UI designer
Get out of the house every day
It's easy to fall into the trap of being a hermit for days on end. Particularly in the summer, I like to take a walk to get lunch every single day. It gives me a chance to get some fresh air, a little exercise and most importantly get away from my office properly (instead of just being in the next room, which doesn't feel like it's really taking a break).
Don't take your work home downstairs with you
Another easy trap to fall into is working every waking hour because you're always 'at work'. Set fixed work start/end times and stick to them. Leave your office at the end of the day and consider the work finished. If you do need to hop back to work later because something cropped up, go back to your desk to put yourself in work mode - don't be tempted to start working from the sofa.
Olivia, Customer Success Manager
Organize your workspace
You may not be lucky enough to be able to repurpose a dedicated room in the house, but that doesn't mean you can't find a good spot to work from. Choose a place that is free of clutter and well lit.
Organize your work
I'm a big fan of to-do lists. Keeping my lists organized helps me stay on track and prevents me from drifting too far from what's important. I like the "To Do versus To Get Done concept."
Plan in breaks away from your screen. There's always one more email to write, but setting times to take a break is vital to keeping your energy and focus. Working from home means that you cannot rely on others to remind you!
Check-in often with teammates
At Invision Community, we use Slack to keep in touch and recreate the 'water cooler' moments where we discuss our favourite TV shows, movies and more.
Reframe "my office is always open" to "I'm always available for a call". Remind your colleagues often that they can start a voice call if they need to talk.
Stuart, developer and migration specialist
Minimize human distractions
When you're working from home, it's easy to get distracted, especially by other people! Remind your family and friends that during your work hours you're working. As much as you'd love to spend the day drinking tea (or beverage of your choice) and chatting, you do have a job.
How we do it
There's no doubt that we're fortunate to have a team that is self-motivated and responsible. Remote working can allow individuals to drift, and productivity suffers.
We use a combination of software platforms and a few simple strategies to keep us all informed, organized and feeling part of a greater team.
We use Slack to not only onboard new clients, but also to organize product development, feedback and support. These channels are well used, but without a doubt, our 'general' channel is used the most. This is where we hang out socially and chat during our breaks. It's easy to see this as unproductive or distracting, but I feel that it helps build us as a team and helps forge relationships with each other.
We use a private Invision Community as an intranet hub which does the heavy lifting for organizing releases. It also acts as a repository for feedback, new feature ideas and development discussions.
We encourage breakout groups to voice call to resolve hot topics and pressing issues. It's amazing what you can get done in a few minutes by voice.
We hold a stand up voice meeting weekly where we organize the week, discuss anything pressing and run through development tasks. This call is developer-focused, but it's held company-wide, so it is inclusive. We try and avoid human information silos where possible.
Above all, just keep talking
It's just as important to share your personality as it is your work. Make sure you check in on quiet colleagues to make sure they're OK. Not everyone is super-chatty, and some prefer to switch off and focus. However, it's easy to feel a real sense of loneliness and isolation if you don't have a partner or family living with you.
It's essential to put effort into maintaining relationships online. Working remotely means less interaction with your colleagues, and it's easy for multifaceted personalities to become a flattened disembodied persona online. Without the office 'vibe' and body language cues we often take for granted, it's easy to lose that personal connection.
Build depth by asking how your colleagues weekends were. Ask about their hobbies and pets. Work at keeping a connection with the person behind the computer.
In our team we have little sub-groups that focus on our hobbies. There's the running/workout club where we share our training plans and give each other virtual high-fives. I've actually found it easier to stick to a running plan knowing that my colleague is running too (and beating my times!).
If you only take one thing away from this, maintaining strong relationships with your team is key! If your team isn't keen on video calling, then make sure you voice call regularly. I can't stress how important it is to verbally talk to your colleagues. We start each call off with some light hearted chat and listening to the inflections in other's voices and have them laugh at your silly jokes recharges your soul.
Take advantage of technology
Apart from using Invision Community as a hub and company-wide information repository, there's a lot of apps you can use to make your work time more productive and avoid the constant distractions partners and children rattling about the house can cause.
I work from home and have two young children. School holidays can be challenging when the house comes alive during the day, and there's a constant stream of potential distractions.
I use "focus music" with noise-cancelling headphones when I want to knuckle down and write code or blog articles. Right now, my kids are at school, and I'm listening to Metallica at an unreasonable volume through my Homepod speaker. For some reason, loud metal music helps me concentrate.
There are only so many power chords you can take, and I've found Brain.fm to be very useful. Brain.fm uses "neural phase-locking" via music to help you focus. I have no idea what that means, but it does help me get into the zone on days where I struggle with productivity.
I have the attention span of an anxious squirrel. It can take me a long while to get into the zone and mere seconds to pop back out.
When I'm writing code, it's less of a problem. I just put on Brain.fm or some music, and I get lost in time and space as I build complex constructs in my mind before bringing it together in my code editor.
However, when I'm writing articles, helping support, hopping between tasks, or doing general administration work, I rely on a Pomodoro timer. The idea is that you work in sprints of 25 minutes, followed by a short break, usually 5 minutes. You repeat this cycle four times and take a longer break.
Many apps can track your time in this way, including web-based tools such as the amusingly named Tomato Timer.
Using this technique helps me get into the flow by giving me "permission" to take breaks but only once the work block has finished. I might pop out of focus and think about checking up on our community or Facebook and get back to work when I realize I've still got 12 minutes of work left.
Work/life balance doesn't exist
You'll often hear people talk about their work/life balance. You are better off thinking in terms of work/life integration.
Now, I'm not suggesting that you work all day and night. I'm not one of those "sleep when you're dead" people. I like to sleep. I have a partner and two kids I want to enjoy and passions outside of my computer (although my guitars are gathering dust again).
The reality is that when your workstation is just a door away from the rest of your life, you're going to work outside of the traditional 9-5 routine despite how rigorous you may want to define a working day.
This might be because you took the morning off to watch your kid's school play or you may have booked a haircut during the day as it's much quieter. My advice would be to look for pockets of time that won't impact the rest of your family or free time. I tend to earmark an hour once the kids have gone to bed as potential "work overflow" time. This allows me to integrate my work schedule with my home schedule without it taking over my life.
Working with your laptop in a coffeeshop is a massive cliché. Every single time I've walked into Starbucks, there have been dozens of people at tables squinting at laptop screens.
It's an attractive idea. You get to mingle with fellow humans. You get a change of scenery and a decent cup of coffee.
You also get a constant source of distractions, poor quality and insecure Wi-Fi and sideways glances from staff who'd love to free up your table.
Also, what do you do with your laptop when you need a restroom break? Do you take it with you? What if someone sits at your table while you're gone?
It's just not for me.
Exercise and movement
I won't lecture you about health and fitness, but I do want to highlight one downside of having no commute and office building to move through: being super-sedentary.
If you used to clock up 10,000 steps walking to the train station, walking to your office and then clocking up steps as you moved between meeting rooms and social areas, then expect that number to drop sharply.
There are days where my Apple Watch tells me I've done less than 1500 steps during the day. To combat this, I make time during the day to go for a walk or to exercise. I'm fortunate that I have a treadmill in the garage along with some weight lifting equipment. If you don't have any equipment, then a short walk is better than nothing. As a bonus, you'll get some fresh air and vitamin D from the sun.
I also have a standing desk so that I can get on my feet during the day and an exercise bike I can use while working with the desk at its highest position.
Find ways to incorporate movement into your day for your own mental and physical health.
Despite the many challenges working remotely can cause and the learning curve of taking your work home, the vast majority prefer to work from home. In a study of 100 remote workers, only six said they'd return to the office if given a chance.
If you're new to working remotely, then there will be mistakes. There will be days when you feel that you've achieved very little and probably yearn for some human interaction and be told what to do next. It's all part of the process.
Keep lines of communication open, check in on your colleagues and embrace the freedom working remotely gives.
Edited by Matt