10 Productivity Tips for Working From Home

Working from home has its advantages, but it’s important to protect yourself from burning out.
Brian Nordli
June 9, 2020
Updated: June 10, 2020
Brian Nordli
June 9, 2020
Updated: June 10, 2020

Heather Doshay may work from home, but her workday still doesn’t start until after she’s completed her morning commute. Every morning, she hops out of bed, merges into the hallway and takes the stairs down to the kitchen, where she fills up her HydroMate jug with water and retrieves an energy drink from the fridge. Once her morning beverages are in hand, she journeys back up the steps to her home office to sign in for the day.

The daily ritual may not seem like much, but in turning a six-step walk to work into a 60-step commute (give or take a few extra steps for a pair of shoes clogging the expressway), it prepares her for the day to come. And as a remote worker and VP of people for the distributed workforce at Webflow, Doshay knows how important any routine can be for productivity.

“I could literally wake up and walk six-feet and be in my office,” Doshay said. “Just walking downstairs and getting water, I’m thinking about my day, I’m starting my day. It helps you set that break.”

Without a few boundaries and rituals, the lines between home and office can blur quickly. Checking email after dinner can quickly turn a quiet evening into an all-nighter. Lunch breaks can seem like luxuries rather than necessity, and peaceful heads-down time can soon feel isolating. While that may result in a short-term burst of productivity, it all leads to burnout in the long run, Doshay said.

“I keep telling people if you’re working remotely right now and you’re doing OK, and you’re actually doing your work and staying productive, you could work remotely during anything — because this is the most unusual time.”

Those challenges have only become exacerbated as millions of people adjust to working from home for the first time during a pandemic, added Brie Reynolds, who works as a career specialist for remote job-listing site FlexJobs. Without the ability to leave the house and socialize, working from home can feel even more isolating, and the lines between work and home life more blurred.

Still, it’s important to note that this isn’t the typical remote work experience, she said.

“I keep telling people if you’re working remotely right now and you’re doing OK, and you’re actually doing your work and staying productive, you could work remotely during anything — because this is the most unusual time,” Reynolds said. “This is not how it usually is.”

Despite those challenges, companies everywhere are coming around to the opportunities and advantages of remote work and building the infrastructure to support it, she said. When done right, employees can experience greater work-life balance and flexibility working from the comfort of their own homes.

Whether an employee is working from home for the first time out of necessity or has chosen to do so, there are strategies and tools available to make the most of working from home. It requires drawing boundaries between home and work, careful organization and deliberate communication.

We spoke with remote culture experts Doshay, Reynolds and HubSpot Remote Work and Inclusion Program Manager Meaghan Williams for tips on how to work from home — productively.

Tips For Working From Home

  • Join an office social group.
  • Master written communication and communicate as much as possible.
  • Use tools like Loom or delayed emails can facilitate asynchronous communication.
  • Establish a daily routine.
  • Mimic a commute ritual.
  • Establish a dedicated workspace.
  • Set a “Focus Day” or try the “Pomodoro Technique” to manage the workload.
  • Journal to identify stress and work patterns.
  • Don't be afraid to take a mental health day.

 

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Image: Shutterstock

Communication Strategies

Join Pre-Existing Social Groups or Create Your Own

It may seem glorious at first, that golden silence as you boot up the laptop for the morning and start churning out code or crossing off to-do list items without the distractions of an office around.

But over time, not having a coworker to talk with about the latest Avengers film or Bachelor drama can actually become a big problem, according to Reynolds. While socializing may seem like the opposite of productivity, those interactions make work more manageable. A lack of connection can create stress and anxiety around the work and cause an employee to feel purposeless.

“When we cannot see other people’s reactions to the things that we’re doing, we can feel a bit lost,” Reynolds said. “When you don’t know someone very well, it can produce all sorts of anxiety and fears related to making a good impression and forming a relationship with this person.... It just feels like there’s a lot of pressure.”

As a result, it’s important to take time to have those moments of casual interaction. Initiating remote conversations with coworkers can seem intimidating at first, but there are a few ways to break that ice. Reynolds recommends that newer remote employees ask the manager how people at the company prefer to communicate — whether that’s Zoom or Slack, with emojis and gifs or written exchanges. Knowing those cues can make it easier to join the proverbial water cooler chats.

“When you don’t know someone very well, it can produce all sorts of anxiety and fears related to making a good impression and forming a relationship with this person.”

Joining pre-existing employee groups can also make navigating those social interactions easier. At HubSpot, Williams encourages new remote workers to join a Slack channel with colleagues working in the same city, state or country that they’re working in, along with any other social groups that match their interests.

Williams is part of a virtual crochet group that logs onto Zoom once a week. Those activities give employees something in common to talk about, and they create natural opportunities for remote workers to meet others in the company whom they may not meet otherwise.

 

Master Written Communication

As a remote worker, one of the most important skills to master is written communication. Without the ability to swing by someone’s desk to convey a verbal message with a friendly tone and body language, a lot of import is placed on the written word, which can easily be misinterpreted.

Managers writing “Call me” can send a chill down an employee’s spine. Simply writing “Hi” and waiting for a response before initiating an exchange can gum up productivity. As a result, rule No. 1 for remote workers is to communicate clearly and as much as possible, according to Doshay.

“It’s important to over-communicate. If you don’t, people are going to make their own stories in their head of what’s going on,” Doshay said.

Doshay encourages remote workers to share as much detail as possible in their written communication, even if it seems extraneous. If a conversation gets off-track with misunderstandings, don’t hesitate to schedule a video call. During those conversations, Doshay said, using “I” statements can help diffuse tension and get to the bottom of a situation.

“It’s important to over-communicate. If you don’t, people are going to make their own stories in their head of what’s going on.”

When it comes to submitting a project, she suggests anticipating all the questions that may come up and writing an FAQ attached to it. It’s also important to note upcoming deadlines and any other work that needs to be done before meeting to discuss the project.

Taking those steps speeds up the exchange on a project, especially if the employees work in different time zones, Doshay said.

For messages on platforms like Slack, Williams tells her team to think of it like a voice mail rather than a beeper. Including all relevant information and a deadline is key to getting quick and useful responses.

Williams also recommends for new remote workers to map out a contact tree for when emergencies arise at different hours of the day. That way, if a remote worker has an IT issue when the main office is closed, or a customer complaint, they know what to do.

Lessons From Distributed TeamsSome Tech Companies Never Had Offices to Begin With

 

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Image: Shutterstock

Get Used to Asynchronous Communication

It’s also important to master asynchronous communication. For less urgent matters, Doshay suggests tools like MixMax and Slack scheduling apps to send delayed messages when a coworker is back in the office.

“If I want to show someone how to do something or answer a zillion questions they shared with me, they can follow along as I answer their questions in a video link.”

But writing isn’t everyone’s jam, and some things can’t properly be conveyed over writing. In those instances, Doshay said she uses an app called Loom, which allows users to share their screens and record video messages.

“If I want to show someone how to do something or answer a zillion questions they shared with me, they can follow along as I answer their questions in a video link,” Doshay said. “It saves so much time and hand-ache.”

 

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Image; Shutterstock

Strategies for Establishing a Routine

Set a Routine for Your Workday

There’s a natural cadence to working in an office. At noon, the smell of food indicates it’s lunch time. At 5 p.m., traffic starts to build and there’s motivation to leave to avoid lengthy delays or large crowds.

At home, none of those signals are in place, making it difficult to distinguish when the day starts and when it ends. It’s critical for a remote worker’s sanity and mental health to create their own daily work schedule and stick to it, Reynolds said. Otherwise, it can be easy to overwork and get burned out.

To create some boundaries, set an alarm or calendar alert to signal the start of the day and the end of the day, Reynolds said. The alerts can signal to the brain that it’s time to shut the laptop off and disengage from work.

“What that does is it gets you into work mode and you can shed your personal thoughts, and it’s almost like you’re commuting to work because it’s the same time you get into the rhythm every day,” Reynolds said. “And at the end of the day you have your stopping time.”

If that isn’t enough, Reynolds recommends making a commitment to go for a walk with a family member or neighbor (when that is allowed) as soon as work is finished. The same strategy can work for afternoon breaks to walk the dog or do yoga.

Remote workers with flexible schedules should take the time to track their work patterns at different hours of the day, Reynolds said. It can help them identify what times they’re most productive and help them plan the day around that.

“It can help you avoid the burnout that comes with overwork.”

At Webflow, Doshay blocks off an hour for lunch each day because she knows it’s when her productivity and patience is at its lowest. It’s important for remote workers to identify those moments and take that time for themselves, she said.

Ultimately, establishing boundaries gives the brain time to recharge and come in for work refreshed each day.

“It can help you avoid the burnout that comes with overwork,” Reynolds said. “It can help you feel like you’re on a regular schedule, so that you’re not worrying about work when you’re not working and then worrying about life when you’re at work.”

 

Mimic a Commuting Ritual

Beyond coming up with a work schedule, a morning routine can go a long way toward maintaining mental health.

For Doshay, that’s her walk to fill up her jug of water and grab an energy drink. For others, it could be walking the dog or going for a run. Whatever it is, finding something to do that kick-starts and ends the day can make it easier to distinguish between working hours and non-working hours.

“If you’re remote, it’s 10 times more important to set a ritual because your commute is so short,” Doshay said.

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Image: Shutterstock

Establish a Dedicated Workspace

In a perfect world, every person who works from home has an office they can walk into with natural light, great Wi-Fi and lighting in front of them for the perfect video call.

While some people may be so lucky, others have to make do with working from a kitchen countertop or at whatever flat surface is available. Whatever the situation, Doshay said it’s important to find a spot in the house and make it a dedicated work space.

If it’s a tiny room with a kitchen table, make one seat the workspace and don’t eat there. If you only have one seat, try turning the table in a different direction to signal working time. Otherwise, the separation between work and home life can blur, Doshay said.

“Even the physical reminder can be a really healthy boundary.”

Another strategy that can help is to purchase a movable standing desk or use a stack of books and work on top of the table.

“Even the physical reminder can be a really healthy boundary,” Doshay said.

For parents, it can be good to communicate to the rest of the family that one section of the table is for work and that toys or food shouldn’t be left there, Williams said. But separation isn’t always easy. Managers should also be flexible and know that children may pop in and out of videos.

 

Set Focus Days or Use the Pomodoro Technique to Manage the Workload

For four days out of the week, Doshay is available to anyone in the office who needs her help, and her calendar is filled with meetings and appointments. Wednesdays, however, are blocked off. That’s her day to focus on her own priorities.

Since remote work can feel like a never-ending parade of Zoom meetings that eat up time, it can be difficult to make any progress on other tasks. Setting a “focus day,” or a day that’s blocked from any appointments, can be helpful in tackling projects or crossing off items on a to-do list.

Another strategy to maintain focus throughout the day is the “Pomodoro Technique,” Reynolds said. The strategy involves working in four 25-minute increments with five-minute breaks in between. After the fourth stint, the person can take a 30-minute break to go for a walk, stretch or make lunch.

The strategy breaks the work up into manageable chunks and creates natural opportunities to get up and walk around, Reynolds said. If the workload still feels like too much, make a to-do list with five tasks for the day and cross them off.

 

Set Expectations With Your Manager

Another source of work-from-home tension for newer remote workers is a constant feeling of dread and stress that the work they’re doing is never enough.

Whenever a person starts a new remote job, Reynolds recommends that they have a direct conversation with their manager about expectations. They should ask what key things the manager will be looking for in their work, how often the manager wants them to check in and how frequently the manager wants them to send updates on projects.

“Basically it’s about getting really clear about what your manager expects of you and even asking them, ‘What does me being productive look like to you?’” Reynolds said. “That’s one of the biggest things that gives remote workers anxiety is when they don’t communicate and they’re not getting enough information from their managers about what they should be doing.”

Reynolds suggests having the conversation once a quarter for at least a year. Doing so can help remove any uncertainty and relieve anxiety and stress. After that, a pattern will develop and the conversation won’t be as necessary.

 

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Image: Shutterstock

Mental Health

Journaling Can Help You Identify Stress and Find Healthy Work Patterns

Don’t underestimate the power of a journal.

Since the days tend to blur together working from home, it can be easy to get stressed and to be unable to identify the source.

To find that balance, Doshay encourages remote workers to track how they feel every day at different hours in a notebook. Those entries can help people find patterns in their schedules — for instance, that meetings burn them out and that they need at least a 15-minute break to recharge, she said.

“It took me journaling to realize what causes me stress, and it’s having healthy breaks that separate the workday out so that I’m only working four-hour blocks at a time,” Doshay said.

Journaling can also help remote workers to figure out their purpose. Career goals can get lost in the shuffle of working from home each day, so it’s important to take the time to ask yourself how your work aligns with your company’s mission and writing the answer down, Doshay said. It can be a helpful reminder whenever burnout sets in.

If none of those strategies work, nonprofits like Empower Work offer text-based counseling and a safe space for remote workers, Doshay said.

 

Take a Mental Health Day

One of the toughest things for a remote worker to do is to take a day off.

“For remote workers, it feels different to say, ‘I need a mental health day,’ because you’re already at home,” Williams said.

Still, it’s just as important to take a day off and separate from the work every now and then, even if you work from home, Williams said. To create that separation and truly enjoy the day off, don’t touch that laptop, turn off email notifications and even remove it from the phone, if you can’t help it.

“When you’re ready for those days, that kind of break is going to allow you to come back with a clear mind and a refreshed plate.”

Then spend the day doing whatever makes you happy, she said, whether that’s playing video games all day, going for a run or reading a book.

“When you’re ready for those days, that kind of break is going to allow you to come back with a clear mind and a refreshed plate,” Williams said.

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