“Help. I’m working from home.” Tips for a productive new groove

building a better employee experience
April 01, 2020


You are now working from home — and either wondering why you haven’t asked to do this more often; you’re rocking along and loving it… OR it is more likely you are in one, two or even all four of the following buckets:


  • Trying to figure out how to simply log on to the overly swamped corporate network/VPN and getting frustrated
  • Simply adjusting to a new way of working, a new schedule, and lack of face-to-face interactions but doing okay given the challenges thrown at you
  • Constantly managing the blurring of work and life during the crisis, juggling the “Daddy, I need help RIGHT NOW!” with a client deadline or team conference call
  • Cannot wait to get back into the regular office or work setting

It is okay. Orientation to your new job begins right now. The following are some hints and hacks collected from seasoned remote workers on how to be productive, leverage opportunities, and learn new adaptations from this work from home experience.


Loved ones first.

Be assured that in this pandemic crisis, caring for your family is going to interrupt your day. It is going to happen: from calling to check on your parents in London while you are in NYC, to ordering dish detergent from Amazon Prime for your 80-year-old mother-in-law who lives alone in Nebraska (because you don’t want her going to the store), to holding your child on your lap during team conference calls, or setting up clay or Lego projects on the shared office/dining room table, or caring for aging parents or a sick loved one in your home — it can ALL happen, and it can happen to ALL of us — and it is okay!


In the last week and for the next month or more, the lines of life and work will blur for many, as we have not seen since the turn of the last century. Due to the pandemic, the means of production are now, for millions, back in the home and the distinct demarcations between work and family are now even more re-intertwined.


Do yourself a favor and surrender to a bit of normal chaos in your own home while you are working. Try to focus on managing your professional tasks with your personal needs with patience and grace. Your leaders and family members are adjusting too. Everyone understands. And, yes it is okay to have dogs and kids making noise in the background. That is what the Zoom mute button is for.


Design a space for work.

As best you can, try to carve out a private dedicated space for work that helps you stay comfortable and focused. If a separate space (extra bedroom or room) is not available in your home, carve out a workspace dedicated to work on the family table, but make sure that all family members are aware that this is your workspace and should not be disturbed by anyone but you. Also let others know — in both the house as well as friends, family and neighbors — that even though you are home, you are working and would like (as much as possible) quiet time and space to focus on work.


If you use the dining table for your workstation, make sure no food, drink or children’s paint can be spilled on the equipment. Either remove equipment before mealtime or make sure there is at least six feet distance between food or drink and the equipment — never eat at your workstation.


Replicate ergonomics.

As much as possible, replicate the ergonomics of your workstation in the office. Make sure you have fresh air and enough lighting. Do not work in bed or slouch on the couch — not only will your neck hurt but working in bed can disturb your circadian rhythms.


Create rituals.

Decide on a ritual that will help you sharpen your focus at the beginning of the day. For some it is getting ready for work in business casual attire, for others it is a coffee, or a walk or quick jog. For those with young children — special breakfast time with your child(ren) before the workday can be helpful to establish a more regular routine. Young children (pre-school and school age) respond best to established routines, schedules and clear expectations; you can ask them to help you by discussing and shaping the new routines and rituals with them. Getting your children onboard with the new normal will help the whole family adjust to these new circumstances.


Sitting is the new smoking.

In the office, you get up and go to the breakroom, the shared copier, the restroom. You visit conference rooms, go out for lunch, walk over to see a friend or supervisor in their workstation or office — multiple times during the day. When you work from home, those moments do not exist.


Anybody who works from home full-time can tell you that getting up and doing something besides visiting the refrigerator or pantry is hard to do. Often, people who work from home gain weight because of lack of physical activity and snacking. It is not unheard of to sit at your at-home workstation for four to six hours straight. Try not to do that.  


In addition, try to drink 80 ounces (approx. 2.4 liters) of water a day — not only is it good for your kidneys and skin but will force you to get up from the desk. Use a 32-ounce (800 ml) water bottle and make it a goal to empty it three times a day.


Expect to go stir crazy.

Working from home has its advantages but one downside is the constancy of the environment. With COVID-19 orders to “shelter in place,” curfews, and other social distancing recommendations in many locations, staying at home all day every day will be the norm for many across the globe. Getting used to being in the same environment for an eight-hour workday, plus the other 16 hours is hard. Going for a walk and taking a break — yoga, or other exercise will help with the adjustment. Do planks, stretching, line dancing, jumping jacks, walk around the block with your dog or weed the flower garden.


Replicate your normal work schedule.

Keeping the same schedule you had at the office will help mitigate task creep. For example, if you worked 8:30 am to 5:30 pm in the office — keep those same hours. Most virtual workers work more hours than those who work in an office because the demarcation between work and home are blurred. Setting up a separate office in a room with a door that closes helps create a mental line between work and home. Finally, turn your computer and smart phone off at the end of your workday — especially if you do not want to be pinged or feel guilty about not responding to an after-hours email.


Take the time you need or deserve.

Unless it is a work emergency, try to keep weekends and evenings sacred. If you do work extra hours — work late or put in four hours on Sunday, block off your calendar the next morning and take some time — sleep in a bit, do some knitting or enjoy an extra-long and delicious breakfast with the family. Balance it out as much as possible. Take your full lunch-hour break and other expected breaks during the day. If you find yourself distracted by the news or generally unfocused, it is okay to take a break and not be too hard on yourself. Just adjust your time as equitably as possible. Furthermore, if you are sick, take a sick day or a few hours for a nap, if you need to. Take care of your health so you can come back to your desk and be productive.


Initiate work.

Working remotely requires self-motivation and discipline. Be ready to self-start projects and pivot quickly. Generally, remote work moves faster than work in the office and given the extraordinary situation of COVID-19 — being adaptive to change and disruption is a required trait right now.


There is no one supervising you all the time — so to be successful, you must ask yourself, “What needs to be done next?” or “What is the problem?” Being proactive, letting your supervisor know what needs to be accomplished next and that you are handling priorities is the reality of distributed work. Being trustworthy and curious will help you formulate your own successful path and demonstrate reliability, acumen, and leadership.   


Be extra communicative and positive.

Humans take social cues from body language and facial expressions; when face-to-face communication is missing, it is advantageous to be extra careful in your language and email “tone”. Remember that language, especially very direct language can be misinterpreted when communication is virtual. Follow-up promptly (within one business day) and write emails succinctly but transparently providing a comprehensive overview of what is required or requested.


In addition, being extra positive in your messaging while working remotely is not Polly-Anna or immature — it actually helps build positivity, social bonding, and empathy. Use “I appreciate that,”or “Thank you so much,” :), and other emoji to share thanks, positive vibes and encouragement with your teammates. 


Being heard is being seen.

In addition, when you are remote it is easier for people to forget your presence. Always try to speak up in conference calls. Again, let your supervisor know what you are working on and when you complete tasks. Participate on social networking platforms and “exude presence” virtually as much as possible. Finally, if your company already uses social recognition platforms — now is the time to participate and provide positive feedback to help build confidence and connectedness among your colleagues.


Schedule please.

Keep your calendar up to date and log into IM apps to keep everyone apprised of your schedule and when you are available to chat, conference, etc. If you need to take time for a personal task — like helping your daughter with a school assignment — block off your calendar and set IM to “do not disturb” so others know you are not available.  


In addition, conference calls can often take over your schedule. If you are feeling overwhelmed with being asked to join calls and need quiet concentration time — it is not a bad idea to block off two consecutive hours each day in your shared calendar for undisturbed time.


Tips for video conferencing.

Schedule weekly team conference calls and turn on the video during these calls, if possible. Resist the urge to be embarrassed about your office background or physical appearance. No one really cares if your hair is a bit messy or your dog barks to the sound of the mail coming through the mail slot. Bandwidth can be impacted by so many people logging in from home, so video can be slow or sub-optimal, but if possible, seeing each other live has many benefits as it helps mitigate social isolation, builds camaraderie and brings normalcy back into the equation.


If you have direct reports, try to schedule half hour weekly video check-ins with each direct report to check in on them personally, build trust, delineate performance tasks and provide support. Ask team members to check in on their fellow teammates too — to build cohesion and care. Learning how to leverage the extra features and tools can also help encourage participation and presence among all team members. In some situations polling, non-verbal feedback, white-boarding, breakout rooms, co-hosting, annotation and attention tracking can help the team visualize scenarios, co-create, check the team pulse, and gauge understanding and commitment.


Top five video conferencing etiquette tips:

  1. Try to sign in three minutes early. If you are running late — send an email or IM to the organizer letting them know.
  2. Lighting (especially daylight) is best if shining on your face as opposed to being backlit. Look straight into the camera or top of the screen as much as possible.
  3. Mute your line if you are not talking.
  4. Do not multi-task or check your phone while on video conference calls. Give the team your undivided attention.
  5. If you are the main presenter of a client or large group presentation, turn off your IM and email while you are sharing your screen. You do not want participants to see your personal IMs and company information.


In sum, we are living in unprecedented times to be sure. You are likely balancing personal and professional demands in unanticipated ways. Learning from the good and the bad during this distributed work experiment will transform you into a more resilient and adaptable human. Whether you return to the office full-time or not after the crisis has passed — the skills learned will be embedded in your refined capabilities repertoire — and that is a good thing.

Karen Shellenback
by Karen Shellenback

Global Products Leader, Analytics and Research, Mercer