How to Work From Home: Five Tips to Make Your WFH Experience a Success

Productivity is important, but so is staying sane. We asked seasoned remote workers for their advice about both.
Jeff Link
June 15, 2020
Updated: August 31, 2020
Jeff Link
June 15, 2020
Updated: August 31, 2020

Thirty-seven percent of remote workers wear their pajamas during the day.

That may not be a best practice, especially on a Zoom call, but it’s the reality, according to a Monday.com survey of 1,000 full-time employed men and women in April that aimed to show the impact of working from home on people’s behaviors.

The survey brought to light some other interesting findings, among them: 69 percent of employees enjoy working from home more than they expected; half struggle with work-life separation; nearly half feel less productive; and 17 percent work with a child or pet in their lap.

“Sixty-nine percent of employees enjoy working from home more than they expected; half struggle with work-life separation.”

Whatever these results signal about remote work, it may become a more salient feature of professional life. A separate survey of 500 venture-backed founders conducted by the Kung Group — a leadership coaching firm in Silicon Valley whose clients have included Apple, Oracle, and Microsoft — found 60 percent of CEOs say “working remotely has had zero negative impact on employee productivity, 65 percent of CEOs wouldn’t return their companies to the office (yet), even if stay-at-home orders were lifted; and 66 percent of CEOs are considering letting go of (or downsizing) their offices.”

The upshot is we may be asked to settle into a new way of working for quite some time. Your kitchen table may have sufficed as a provisional office at the early stages of the pandemic, but as we come out of it, having success as a remote worker will require more thoughtful consideration. We spoke with several remote work experts for advice on how to be effective — and stay sane — when working from home.

How to Work From Home Successfully

  • Minimize distractions.
  • Establish goals and boundaries.
  • Keep your workspace comfortable and clean.
  • Communicate with your colleagues.
  • Focus on your well-being.

 

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Image: Shutterstock

Minimize Distractions

Cutting down on distractions is key. Brie Reynolds, a career development manager at FlexJobs, writes that “getting buy-in from whomever you’re sharing your home with, so they know that when you’re working, you’re really working” is an important first step in staying productive.

She recommends turning off notifications for “social media, news and anything else that flashes or goes ‘beep’ during work hours” and practicing time management methods, such as the Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s. Forcing yourself to focus for short time intervals — Cirillo did this by setting a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to 25 minutes — then taking a five-minute break, “makes it more likely that you’ll actually get things done,” Reynolds writes.

“For some people, it’s a strict ‘no TV until after work hours’ rule. For others, they won’t allow themselves to do laundry during work time.”

Setting clear boundaries to avoid creature comforts and household obligations that can pull you away from work is also important.

“For some people, it’s a strict ‘no TV until after work hours’ rule. For others, they won’t allow themselves to do laundry during work time. By avoiding the biggest distractions in your house, you’ll lower your chances of getting completely sidetracked during the day,” Reynolds writes.

Still, with families taking care of children home from school, managing elder care or dealing with illness, some distractions are inevitable during a time of pandemic, said Ravi Gajendran, who is a professor of management at Florida International University.

“So, the starting point for dealing with interruptions and disruptions should be organizations and managers recognizing the reality of how people are coping with the pandemic and saying, ‘Look, we are going to build in some flexibility from a mindset perspective, but also from a time and schedule perspective,’” Gajendran said.

 

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Image: Shutterstock

Establish Goals — and Boundaries

Working from home can feel liberating, giving you more control over how you allocate your time, but this freedom has a flip side.

“It’s up to you to establish goals and set boundaries for yourself, away from the watchful eye of a manager in the office,” Reynolds writes.

Keeping a regular schedule and working in the same place can help you maintain the rhythm of ‘going to work’ each day, she said, even though you’re at home. She recommends setting clear weekly goals and clarifying your priorities and expectations with a manager to make sure you are both on the same page. Though it’s tempting to reply to emails or scan industry news feeds at the start of the day, the better route, according to Reynolds, is to get your hardest work done first or during those times when you tend to have the most energy.

“The first thing is to have boundaries that say, ‘Look, I’m going to start work now and I’m going to end at this time and that’s it.’”

For Karinna Briseno, a customer advocate at Buffer who has been working fully remotely for four years, that tends to be in the afternoon. Over the past six months, she has tracked her weekly habits and work output on an Excel spreadsheet to identify patterns that help her structure her day.

“If I have a really productive day on Friday, I go back and figure out what the circumstances were surrounding that day. How can I recreate that again?” she said.

While workplace productivity is important, boundaries should also ensure you don’t work yourself into the ground.

“One of the interesting things about working during this pandemic is that work actually gives you a sense of control,” Gajendran said. “It gives you a sense of relief from the pressures of having to deal with other stuff at home. And so work can be a sanctuary.”

If taken to the extreme, that can lead to interminable workdays that provide little time to recharge and reconnect with those around you. “And so the first thing is to have boundaries that say, ‘Look, I’m going to start work now and I’m going to end at this time and that’s it.’”

Briseno self-consciously enforces a hard stop to her work day by logging off consistently at 5 p.m. and leaving behind whatever is left on her agenda to transition to a workout regimen. “I’m realizing how important that is, not only for work but, more importantly, for me personally. It just helps put me in a better mental mind space.”

More on Remote Work10 Productivity Tips for Working From Home

 

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Keep Your Workspace Comfortable and Clean

Carving out a dedicated work area in your home with a comfortable, ergonomic workspace can go a long way in improving your performance, said Job van der Voort, a former product manager at GitLab who launched Remote in January of 2019 to help companies onboard global employees and contractors.

A “not-so-fun fact” reported on the website of the Logitech Ergo Lab, a research arm of the Swiss manufacturer Logitech, is that “15 percent of computer users in the U.S. experience pain or discomfort in their fingers, wrist, forearm, hand, shoulder or elbow on a daily basis.” And with “heavy computer users [performing] 3 million keystrokes and [moving] their mouse up to 17 miles each year,” according to the site, slight adjustments to your office setup can make a big difference over time.

“There’s a reason offices tend to look boring. It’s because everything is standardized to follow ergonomic advice.”

Van der Voort said investing in a high-quality chair and desk is a good starting point. A wired connection can cut down on latency problems that interrupt video calls, and a comfortable sofa in a leisure area can be a nice option for stretching your legs and changing your perspective. Most important, he said, is to adjust the height of your desktop or laptop to eye level, at a distance of arm’s length from the screen, so you don’t strain your shoulders and neck.

If you’re sharing a space with friends or family, Briseno recommends investing in noise-canceling headphones to limit the sounds of others working or socializing nearby.

While some people, like Briseno, prefer the ambient noise and social atmosphere of a coffee shop or coworking space to a quieter home environment — a scenario impossible under quarantine — the effect can be recreated with a little creativity.

“I’d say bookmark some Spotify playlists without lyrics to get you in the zone,” Briseno said.

More on Remote WorkHiring Now: 50 Top Tech Companies With Open Remote Jobs

 

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Communicate With Colleagues

 Gajendran said it’s important for managers to set a precedent for frequent communication, by establishing individual check-ins and hosting regular team meetings over teleconference services such as Zoom.

Not only can teleconferences help employees feel they have contributed to the team’s goals, revealing where their contributions fit into the business agenda — they can also minimize redundant information streams.

“Otherwise, what could happen is you could be communicating a lot, but doing it over email where it’s easy to get involved in long chains of unending emails where nothing is getting resolved,” Gajendran said.

Identifying the right channels to accomplish the goals of various communication types is equally important, Reynolds notes. Whereas email can be useful for probing deeper questions or addressing issues that aren’t time sensitive, online chat is the better venue for quick status updates and casual conversation.

“Some people call this ‘working out loud.’ You’re letting important people like your manager and teammates know what you’re working on and accomplishing.”

Some people call this “working out loud,” Reynolds wrote. “You’re letting important people like your manager and teammates know what you’re working on and accomplishing, and where you’re getting stuck and need help. You’re also regularly offering help to the people you work with, to deepen your relationships and show you can be counted on.”

Communicating openly, however, is not always easy. Gajendran pointed out that, in the current economic climate, it can be difficult for employees, particularly those in sales roles, to meet benchmarks — setting the stage for uncomfortable, but needed, disclosures.

“So from the employee’s perspective, it’s important for them to reach out to the manager to clarify, OK, given these new situations and new circumstances, what should I be doing now?” he said.

Open lines of communication may give a manager better insight into an employee’s particular circumstances and prompt a reexamination of daily and weekly goals, Gajendran said. Though pre-pandemic targets may be unachievable, revised benchmarks can help an employee regain a sense of confidence in their performance and earn a manager’s trust by meeting expectations. At the same time, the new workflow can benefit the organization and its mission.

“You can’t sell widgets, but maybe there are other projects, right? You could do some analysis. You could say, OK, let’s come up with a report and plan what’s going to happen six months from now,” Gajendran said.

 

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Focus on Your Well-Being

For many workers, being physically separated from their colleagues and friends can be psychologically taxing.

“Loneliness is definitely something I’ve struggled with before, working remotely,” Briseno said. “I feel like we all have.”

To counteract such feelings, according to Reynolds, it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough downtime and social interaction, even if you’re in a situation where you need to stay home or self-isolate.

“Even picking up the phone to call someone, rather than sending an email or a text, can make a huge difference.”

“It might be taking a walk around your block to say hello to neighbors, or setting up Zoom lunches with friends or family, or even having a ‘virtual coffee’ with a coworker through video chat — try to get some facetime with people at least a few times each week. Even picking up the phone to call someone, rather than sending an email or a text, can make a huge difference,” Reynolds writes.

At Remote.co, an optional daily all-staff call with brief news and agenda items helps employees become more familiar with their colleagues, who often extend the dialogue on Slack channels or through games like Dungeons and Dragons and Minecraft, book clubs, and coffee and wine groups, Van der Voort said.

A question of the day — for instance: “You wake and find out 50 years have passed since you went to sleep. What is the first thing you Google?” — keeps these meetings light-hearted and helps promote bonding among staff.

Briseno said Slack channels focused on fitness, pets and jokes, as well as a program at Buffer that pairs interdepartmental colleagues in hour-long meetings to foster “deep connections” has helped her stay connected and engaged. The company’s newly launched trial of a four-day work week has also helped lift her spirits.

“It’s an opportunity to  prioritize our well-being and mental health and place us as humans and families first. So it gives us a chance to go grocery shopping or do laundry or hang out with kids,” she said. “It’s a really cool opportunity for us.”

While the four-day work week might be a fantasy for many, the core lesson remains: make time for friends and family, keep up with daily domestic routines, and take care of yourself.

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