As most of us stay in isolation now, working from home becomes a common challenge. For some who find themselves in this situation for the first time it may be a struggle, so here are some tips on how to manage work from home from a psychologist who has been working from home for years:
We are made of two dimensions: private and public. It was not so hard to separate the two working in the office, but now you may realise that it is an issue. It is important to arrange space and time designated for work and private life. It applies to three aspects: space, tools and cloths. It is good to have separate space, even if it means one chair at the kitchen table. It is even better to keep work tools in this space. We obviously may use laptops both for work and leisure, so I am not talking about that, but even a work coffee mug that is different from a mug you use while drinking tea before bed is helpful. Our brain works through patterns of associations, so it is a good idea to have certain objects associated with work and other things reminding you it is leisure time. For the same reason it is a terrible idea to stay dressed in a pyjamas during work. Our brain needs to know when we work and when we rest, so if you keep sending mixed signals (for example while in pyjamas: work or sleep?), you will end up tired on one hand, and not very productive on the other. So no pyjamas pants! You get up, make your bed, dress up and go to your work space. When you finish, you change and wind down.
The same applies to time: you should set yourself a clear schedule and while working you should focus on work, while resting you should not check your work e-mails. It is not such a big problem when you work from the office, but at home if you don’t respect this division, you will end up feeling like at work all the time! It is a bad idea to make your work time longer so you can procrastinate on social media or get your household chores done during work. It gets nothing done, but it gets you tired. For some people who used to work in traditional arrangements and who are now using online tools out of a necessity, it may be discovering that you don’t have to answer online messages day and night. The fact you work online doesn’t mean you work 24/7. I am so strict about separation of work and private life that I use two mobile phones and I never use both of them at the same time! So I don’t let my clients text me in my private time and my friends text me when I am with clients. Remember: separation of work and leisure is the key.
Employ little helpers
Working from home with children is tricky. Children are used to see you at home as mum and dad and it may be hard — especially for younger children — to understand why you suddenly act in a different way. It is important to have a conversation with them and explain what is happening and why you need to work from home. It may be also helpful to make them participate in a changing situation by assigning them some special tasks so they could feel helpful and needed. Many people miss the fact that children are great at helping or disturbing. They are simply bad at doing nothing, so if you can come up with an idea how you can make your kids busy with a task that will seem significant to them, you should enjoy at least some degree of freedom to work. Still working from home while taking care of kids seem like a mission impossible. I hope that if that is your reality, you have employers that are understanding.
Picture your mind as a fuel tank
Many people who work in the office used to perceive work from home as a type of privilege. When I told someone I worked from home he would give me this envious look. Some even said: “Lucky you! You don’t need to commute and you can work in your own time!” or “Good for you! Not having a boss looking over your shoulder!” or “That’s so great! You can travel and work from wherever you want!” They were somehow right. I didn’t have to commute. I could schedule clients at 8 am and 8 pm. I didn’t have a boss and could work in my own time. I had five weeks off in eight years. I could travel and work, so I travelled and worked. I never just travelled. Now when everybody has a luxury of working from home they discover how hard it is and that it may not be such a great privilege after all. It is hard to organise on your own and it is hard to manage your energy. That is why I came up with the fuel tank image: your mind is a fuel tank, so you should check every day how much fuel you have and do something to fill it up. To overcome burning out that I have experienced at some point I have become orthodox about my sport routine and time for meditation. I listen to music or watch films during breaks. What do you do to keep your energy at the right level? Make time to do something nice for yourself. Set the most important goal for each day and reward yourself after you complete it. Taking care of our mental health is a task not less important than any other part of work.
While in general people differ in their ability to read social cues face-to-face, we may risk a statement that online everybody is a little autistic. It is very easy to be misunderstood and even easier to miss something important. I recommend here a little scheme that can be useful in online communication:
did you say what you needed to say? → no? say it! → yes → did you stress what you needed to say → no? say that again! → yes → did you repeat what you needed to say? → no → say that again!
The reality of online meeting is tricky. People get distracted, technology crashes, kids ask you for a snack in the middle of a meeting. There are so many things that may overlap with your message, so there is never enough of repetition and double-checking. It is better to repeat a known fact than to miss telling a fact that should be known. It is good practice to have a morning stand-up with your team. It is even better practice to finish a day with a second stand-up. It is crucial to designate space with all the most important updates (for example a slack channel with all members must know info) so nobody misses important things in case they are not present during a particular conversation. Good communication is a foundation of online work as communication is all we have there. If you need more training in communication, contact INSTHEA!
Make your days memorable
Working from home may exacerbate mental problems. Sitting in the same environment and performing similar type of tasks in a longer run will make you feel like you were closed in a cage. All days will look the same and it will be difficult to tell them apart. In order to avoid this feeling each day you should do something different. For me it is taking one, mindful picture a day and taking a note with day’s conclusions in the evening. For you it may be something else: cooking a different meal or calling each day a different person from your network. (Current isolation may be a threat to our social connectivity as well as it may be an opportunity to express care and kindness to people we usually “mean to call”.) The important thing is to make days differ, purposefully make memories. The fact we must stay at home, doesn’t mean we should not try to make our life beautiful.