Thanks to Covid-19, millions around the world are re-thinking their businesses, setting up makeshift offices, and trying to make working remotely even remotely successful. And while WFH has its perks, its downsides can put a serious damper on your productivity—and sanity. To help you survive and thrive, we asked the pros for their best advice on how to get dialed in and stay that way.
It’s 10 a.m., and I’m staring out the window of our guest bedroom-turned home office, noticing the green leaves of the Aspen trees are just starting to turn yellow. There’s a loaf of sourdough in the oven that I’ll turn into the most delicious avocado toast for lunch. I also threw a load of laundry in the dryer, cleaned the kitchen, and plowed through 57 e-mails—all since I wandered over to my desk at 7:15 on this Monday morning.
After nearly a decade of working remotely, I’ve got the work-from-home situation pretty well dialed in. But it didn’t start that way.
When I left my office job for what I imagined would be instant work-from-home bliss, I moved to a cottage in the countryside of Ireland, a home that was as damp as it was adorable. My quintessential Irish cottage might as well have been a cement bunker, and the wifi I so desperately needed to get e-mails from my editors in New York came via a portable hot spot device (a “dongle,” as the Irish called them) I had to place in the exact right spot next to a window in the attic.
In the years since I’ve faced my fair share of other WFH challenges. I’ve taken calls from my car, balancing my laptop on the center console so I could take notes. I’ve learned how to set up a makeshift desk on any kind of table without ending the day with an aching neck. I’ve figured out ways to come up be productive without huddling around a whiteboard with creative co-workers. And I’ve even found a few antidotes for the lack of hallway hellos and coffee walks with colleagues. But it took time.
Here are my best tips from my own career to help set you up for WFH success.
Transitioning from office life to a work-from-home scenario is going to involve some ups and downs. This is especially true right now when we’re also dealing with the anxiety, uncertainty, and major lifestyle changes the novel coronavirus has introduced in all of our lives.
This is How I Do It: 6 tips from a WFH pro
Tip No. 1: Remember how lucky you are.
It’s important to recognize that the ability to work from home is a luxury. A big one. Think of all of the restaurant and childcare workers who were forced to go on unemployment over the course of the last few months, or the frontline healthcare workers who put their own lives at risk to help the rest of us. I’ve found that acknowledging the privilege I have to be able to do my work from a home office takes the edge off of those 12-hour days when I’m dealing with an insane number of deadlines.
Tip No. 2: Find your magic hours.
I’ve learned that I can get more done between 7 a.m. and noon than I used to do when I went to an office from 9 to 6. I’m sharper early and more focused when my e-mail “ding” isn’t going off every minute. If you find that the time you’re most productive is outside regular business hours, have an honest conversation with your boss. You may find that your manager will have an open mind and a willingness to helping you work when you’re most productive.
Tip No. 3: Get “ready” whatever way works best for you.
I do my best work while guzzling coffee, still in my PJs—sometimes until 1 p.m. A friend of mine who’s worked from home for years does her hair before she starts working every day because it makes her more productive. Working well means doing what works for you.
Tip No. 4: Set up your workspace.
Look, sometimes you’re going to have to set up shop at a kitchen table, or the living room couch, or even the bathroom. I’ve taken calls from my bedroom closet for some guaranteed silence. But I can also tell you that carving out a specific spot for a desk and comfortable chair has seriously amped up my focus, productivity, and comfort.
Tip No. 5: Spring for faster wifi.
Economic times are tough, which means it might not feel feasible to spend hundreds on your tech setup. But if you do have a little extra savings, it’s a wise investment. For me, that meant buying a nice monitor, keyboard, and mouse to make my desk at home feel more like it did when I worked at a magazine office. Lightning-fast wifi has not only made it so that far fewer expletives come from my side of the room as I’m waiting for images to load, but better bandwidth has also led to the bonus of better Netflixing at night.
Tip No. 6: go easy on yourself.
The bottom line is that transitioning from office life to a work-from-home scenario is going to involve some ups and downs. This is especially true right now when we’re also dealing with the anxiety, uncertainty, and major lifestyle changes the novel coronavirus has introduced in all of our lives. So, take it easy on yourself. Do all the things you can to be as efficient and productive as possible. Then, cut yourself some slack if you have a few “off” days. Remind yourself that you (and your co-workers!) are doing your best. You’ve got this. It just might take a little time to find your groove.
Whether you find yourself overseeing newly remote employees or you’re looking to successfully manage up in this new, work-from-home world, here are practical tips to help you lead or manage up.
In the early days of COVID-19, most office workers were loving their new WFH status. No commute meant later wake-up calls and more time to sneak in workouts. Easy access to the kitchen inspired cheaper-than-takeout lunches and cuddle breaks with kiddos and pets.
Then, Zoom fatigue set in. Maybe interruptions from anxious little ones started impacting your productivity, or unsettling news headlines became a constant distraction.
While those of us lucky enough to be able to work from home during these tumultuous times have a lot to be thankful for, the experience comes with its ups and downs, says Amita Mehta, a business strategist and leadership consultant in Lambertville, NJ. “We’ve all been thrust into this new way of working, which has led to many people feeling a little like fish out of water,” she says. “So many of the historic approaches to being a good leader and employee require a complete pivot, which I think will be great as our new, virtual work life becomes more of the norm—but might feel a little uncomfortable.”
The antidote to that discomfort, says Mehta, is team-building—even if it has to happen virtually. “Whether you’re a manager wanting to keep your people happy or you’re an employee who wants to prove your value to your organization, there are a few specific things you can do to create and stay connected with your work village, even if you’re not seeing them at the office.”
Here, Mehta shares her top tips for both managers and employees for making the most of work in the time of COVID.
Be a Better Leader Right Now
Start overcommunicating. When you’re in an office setting, there are plenty of ways of keeping tabs on what your employees are up to. You might mention a project when you’re heating up your lunch in the kitchen or ask one of your team members to take a quick walk for coffee to get a sense of how much is on his or her plate. But when your meetings are taking place on a computer screen, it can be trickier to get this kind of information—which is why being really clear about your expectations is crucial, Mehta explains. “However, this isn’t about becoming a micromanaging kind of leader,” she says. “Rather, lay out your plan, be clear on your expectations, and don’t be afraid to follow up to make sure you and your employees are on the same page.”
Be transparent about what’s happening on the management front. In turbulent times like these, people want more information—not less. Which means it’s more important than ever to help your employees see the company’s mission, and what the leadership team’s vision is for making goals a reality. “Nobody wants to be a cog in the wheel, simply churning out work,” says Mehta. “Keep your people plugged into the company’s north star. It’ll inspire everyone to work harder and stay the course if they know the why behind what they’re doing.”
Have realistic expectations. We are in the midst of a global pandemic. Life has turned upside down for so many of us, which means it’s more important than ever to try to understand what people have on their plates. “Work and life are bleeding together in a new way these days,” says Mehta. “As a leader, you have to recognize what your team is going through on both fronts and match your expectations with reality.” That might mean learning to be a bit more flexible—and recognizing that everyone has a different way of working. “You don’t want to police your employees. You want to tee them up for productivity.”
Get to know your employees in a new way. Taking time to get to know the people on your team can go a long way toward helping you set realistic expectations—and also help you get the best, most efficient work out of your employees. We have five generations of workers right now, says Mehta, which means some individuals might be more comfortable doing video meetings and being on Slack all day than others. Familiarizing yourself with the people and personalities on your team can help you understand their strengths and pain points, adds Mehta. “For example, your go-to morning huddles might be a great opportunity to talk about each person’s challenges that week, in addition to what’s on everyone’s plate,” she says. “You’ll build trust and a sense of comradery by focusing on things other than work every so often.”
Be vulnerable. Yes, you’re a leader. But you want to show that you’re human by letting your employees know what’s happening with you. “Don’t be afraid to talk to your team about the tough stuff you’re grappling with, like childcare and home-schooling,” says Mehta. “Managers are often reluctant to do this; you feel like you have to have everything together. I get that. But know this: When you let your people see that you’re vulnerable, too, it creates a climate of trust and inclusion, and makes them less afraid to talk to you about what’s happening in their lives.
When you let your people see that you’re vulnerable, too, it creates a climate of trust and inclusion and makes them less afraid to talk to you about what’s happening in their lives.
Be a Better Employee Right Now
Connect with your team members. Take a few minutes to reach out to your co-workers for a check-in about work and life stuff. Think back to how many conversations you used to have at the office, even if they were brief; those chats with your co-workers helped you get a sense of how your teammates were doing, both at work and at home, says Mehta. “Because we’re not having those hallway conversations right now, take a few minutes to plug in with your co-workers,” she says. “Doing this not only makes you closer with your team, but it puts you in a prime position to be a dot connector for your manager.”
Speak up about your untapped skills. Now more than ever, it’s important for employees to make sure they’re seen as relevant and crucial to an organization. Considering this, now is a great chance to pipe up about skills that might’ve gone unnoticed before, says Mehta. “Be proactive in the work you’re doing and the work you could be doing,” she says. “Talk to your boss about how you can be a utility player. Show your manager where you can plug yourself in to help someone else on your team.”
Be vulnerable with your boss. You’re probably in the mindset of not wanting to over-share with your manager. But we’re living in unprecedented times, and it’s more important than ever to be open and honest about the tough stuff you’re dealing with—both professionally and personally. “The key is proposing solutions when you talk about your challenges with your manager,” says Mehta. “When you share the tough stuff happening for you, it’s a way to strengthen your relationship with your boss. Be sure to offer suggestions for how you can manage everything that’s on your plate so your conversation feels productive.”
Make meetings work for you. Zoom fatigue is real. “What I’m hearing from so many people right now is, ‘I’m in meeting after meeting, which I know is important—but I can’t get my work done,’” says Mehta. There are a few ways to handle this. For starters, make sure you understand why you’re meeting—and confirm that it’s crucial that you attend. “It’s OK to suggest that this meeting might be better handled over e-mail or be bi-weekly instead of every week,” says Mehta.
Learn how to draw boundaries. A common complaint of work-from-home pros is that it can be challenging to know when work ends and personal time begins. After all, when your office is right next to your bedroom, it’s can be a little too easy to blur your work-life boundaries—and it can be tempting to snag your laptop and answer e-mail as you watch Netflix or crank out some work on the weekend. One way to avoid this is to be deliberate about how you structure your work hours, says Mehta. “If there’s some flexibility around when you get your work done, set your schedule, and then be strict with yourself about sticking to it,” she says. “It can also help if you’re clear with your manager about your work hours and non-work hours so he or she knows what to expect.”
If expectations start to change around when you’re online or responding to work queries, talk about it in your one-on-one meeting with your boss—something Mehta says is important to have weekly, at least. “It’s way easier to draw work-life boundaries when your manager and the rest of your team is on board with what that looks like for you.”