I’ve always believed that remote working is the future and that we’ll see a gradual shift towards it over the next few years. Now, though, it has become a sudden necessity for numerous companies across the globe… and we’ve had next to no time to prepare for it.
While such an abrupt change comes with many challenges, it also offers several opportunities – both for the individual and the company as a whole.
Change during these unsettling times may seem particularly daunting, so I hope that this article can help both executives and employees with the transition.
Let’s take a look at our tips and see how you can be as productive as possible, allowing you to come out of this crisis as a more flexible and efficient company.
How should you set up your workstation?
First things first, it’s important to set up a proper work station when working from home. I know space can be limited, but where you work can have a huge impact on how you work. Channel your interior designer, rearrange some furniture and have some fun with it!
- If you can, make sure that the only thing you do at your station is work. Don’t eat there, don’t watch Netflix there – just work. It’ll help you to achieve a healthy work-life balance and kick-start your working days.If that’s not possible due to space constraints, a tablecloth or a similar trick may help. While you’re working, use a special tablecloth for your workstation. When you’re done, put it away until the next day and make your office ‘disappear’. Ps. I love this height adjustable work table.
- Keep your workspace clean and organized. It’ll help you to focus on the task at hand. Don’t allow family members to use your tidy work desk as a dumping ground for various things. Explain that this area is your office now.
- Make your workstation resemble your office or work desk. This can help some people get into the “I am at work now” mindset. If you brought home any items from the office, use them. If you can replicate the way that you normally use post-it notes, do it. Every little detail helps!
- Take care of your eyes, wrists and overall posture.Don’t position your workspace right in front of the window. It might seem like a good idea, but your eyes will actually struggle because of the direct light.Set up your screen at eye level. This will help you to avoid slumping.
If you need to elevate your laptop to do this, use an additional keyboard and mouse. Your wrists will thank you for it.
If you have an ergonomic or active chair, great. If you don’t, try to find one that makes it hard for you to slump. Try to sit upright to avoid lower back pain.
- Download and familiarize yourself with basic remote work software, such as Slack, Google Docs, Zoom and Dropbox. Don’t look for too many productivity tools, though. The main ones that your company has agreed upon are usually enough.
Now that you’re happy with your workstation, we’ll now focus on your work process.
How to stay organized, set goals & improve your work process
Focus on writing
When you’re in the office and you have a question, there’s usually someone with an answer just a few desks away.
That’s obviously not the case when you’re working from home, and you don’t really want to be calling and pinging people all day long.
That’s why it’s better to over-communicate, especially at the beginning.
Move communication to public channels if the task involves several people or is relevant to the wider company. Explain things that might seem obvious and ensure that everyone has access to the most important messages.
This is a great exercise in clear and effective writing. You don’t want to be too long-winded. Instead, you should aim to communicate all of the necessary information in a succinct, straightforward way.
Once your employees and executives get the hang of this and learn how much information is needed for people to work efficiently, everything will move along much more smoothly than before.
Break down goals and tasks
Goal setting for remote work is a whole other beast compared to goal setting in the office.
You should set weekly objectives and then break them down into smaller tasks. This is crucial, especially when you’re still figuring out the new work process. Why?
It guarantees that no one makes a huge mistake. If someone messes up a small task, the error can probably be fixed in a day, at most. If someone is working on a larger task for a week and screws up… well, you’ve got a much bigger problem.
It makes super short daily reports very useful. If everyone writes a sentence or two about what they’ll be working on, then another sentence on what they’ve done, a project manager can easily keep track of how the project is moving along. If a person is taking too long to finish a small task, there’s probably something wrong and you can take action. On the other hand, if someone is “designing a landing page” for a week, a manager has no idea how they’re actually progressing.
Dividing tasks into subtasks will also improve your employees’ ability to estimate how long a specific step will take them. This will help them to plan their work accordingly.
Use retrospectives to continuously improve your work process
Encourage your employees and co-workers to record any specific problems that they encounter and write down some ideas for improvement.
You should then hold a bi-weekly retrospective in order to improve and streamline your remote working process. Encourage everyone to contribute and create an employee’s playbook once you’ve got a solid system in place. That way, everyone will be on the same page, files will be organized in the same way, every team member will go through the same motions when completing a task, etc.
Continue to update the playbook and keep it as an invaluable resource for onboarding new employees. Once you’ve got a process that works well, you can move to monthly retrospectives.
Trust your employees!
If you’re a manager, please trust your employees. Don’t monitor them, don’t expect them to be online for 8 hours straight from 9 to 5, and don’t force them to track their hours.
Instead, set the goals and let them deliver. If they do a good job and complete all of their tasks on time, does it matter how many hours they’ve worked? In my experience, people reward this kind of trust and tend to pleasantly surprise you.
Another great thing is that you’ll see how much information different employees need in order to do their job. This will make you a better manager and give you a clearer idea about who’s best suited to a specific task.
“Sure, but what if they slack?!”
I hear you. I can assure you that if they decide to slack remotely, then they slacked in the office too. The difference is that now, they won’t be able to hide. If someone doesn’t hit their weekly goals, talk to them, see if they had any problems and ask them why they didn’t manage to finish their tasks. If they fail to deliver again, it’s time to act.
You can also plan some 1-on-1s with your employees and set KPIs that work for both of you. If this results in their work schedule being flexible and goal-oriented, it’s definitely worth doing.
Embrace asynchronous work
Not everyone will be online at the same time and that’s perfectly fine. It actually helps workers to be more productive. You don’t need to constantly check live chat messages and attend short meetings. Instead, define tasks upfront and enjoy working without interruptions.
To enable that, minimize the number of tasks that require synchronous work. You’ll see that most of them really don’t need it anyway. If there are juniors in your company who need a bit more guidance, pair them with mentors whose online working hours overlap with their own.
If there is a blocker, message the person you need and move on to another task for the time being. It’ll never cause a significant delay and if something is truly urgent, someone with an answer will probably be online anyway.
How to stay focused and overcome distractions
A common challenge when working from home is staying disciplined and minimizing distractions. If you succeed, you can actually be much more productive than you were at the office and finish your tasks more quickly. If you fail, you can find yourself working inching along for the whole day, which is a nightmare.
Here are some tips that’ll help you to avoid that grim scenario:
Establish a routine that kick-starts your work. This routine can be anything – drinking tea, stretching, working out, taking a shower – whatever takes your fancy. The important thing is that once you have finished, you sit down and work. Your mind will recognize the signal and it’ll be easier to get started.
Find out when you’re the most productive. Your remote work schedule should be flexible. If you notice that you work much faster in the afternoon or in the evening, plan around this and work on your most important task then.
Dedicate chunks of time to ‘deep’ work and avoid distractions at all costs. Decide when you really want to focus and ‘vanish’ for 2 hours when this time comes. Turn off your notifications, put your phone on silent and leave it in another room. Tell people at home that they shouldn’t disturb you unless it’s a real emergency. If they don’t take it seriously, ignore them and they’ll soon get used to it.
You have a rare opportunity here – two hours of nothing but focused work. That’s next to impossible when you’re working in the office. Take advantage of it and you’ll see how productive you can be. If you can have two such time blocks per day, then you’ll really be winning. 😉
Answer emails in batches. Don’t check your inbox too often and decide when you’re going to answer your emails. Twice a day should be enough. If you answer every email as it arrives, you’ll seem really busy but won’t actually achieve that much.
Take active breaks. Listen to your favourite song, stretch, dance, act silly and step away from the computer for a few minutes. It’ll boost your dopamine levels, improve your mood and leave you feeling energized.
If you have absolutely no motivation or inspiration, let it be. Don’t force it. Take a day off and catch up on things tomorrow. This should never be used as an excuse to procrastinate, but sometimes you’re really not feeling it and that’s okay.
How can you stay productive with kids at home?
It’s a question that most parents are facing at the moment. I’m not going to lie, it’s not easy, especially if you have a toddler who can’t do anything independently yet. Still, there are things you can do to make life a bit easier.
Work when your kids are sleeping. Yes, that might mean you’ll have to get up earlier than usual or work in the evening, but these are the times when the house will be at its quietest. You should also take advantage of nap time and get some work done then.
Tag team with your partner. As we’ve already said, you should try to schedule at least one block (around 2 hours) of deep work per day. That’s when your partner should take care of everything with the kids. You should do the same for him or her. One such block and working while the kids are sleeping might actually get the job done in a lot of cases.
Be flexible and adjust expectations. Simply be transparent – it’s a tough situation right now and having kids at home is bound to affect your work. Talk to your co-workers or executives about it and find the best way to work around it.
Accept that distractions will happen. Try not to stress too much when you are disrupted and don’t let it get you down. Enjoy having more time with your kids. As all moms and dads will tell you, they grow up too fast. 🙂
How to unplug?
Another common challenge for some remote workers is knowing how to unplug and separate your work and private life. Some people have a real problem when it comes to not thinking about work and doing small (or big) tasks even when they really shouldn’t be. That’s a one-way ticket to Burnout Town.
Work only at your workstation. Once you’re done for the day, don’t sit there again. Your office is closed until tomorrow.
Create a separate user account. If you only have one computer, create a user account for your work and one for your free time. If you only have one account, you’ll quickly find yourself checking up on work-related stuff.
Tell your co-workers that you’re signing off. Make sure that they know you’re done for the day. Turn off all work-related notifications and sign out of your work email. You won’t be doing any more tasks today, so there’s no need to check anything until tomorrow.
Decide what time you’ll stop working. It can help to continue with an office schedule, so when 5 PM strikes, you’re done for the day. Plan something right after so that you can’t work overtime even if you want to.
Start doing something else immediately after you’ve finished work. This is a good tip even if you don’t have a set time to finish for the day! Take your mind off work immediately. Take a nap, cook dinner, go for a walk, do something with your kids, watch a show and try not to talk about work-related things too much.
How to battle loneliness
Loneliness is one of the main challenges faced by remote workers. If you enjoy the company of your colleagues, it can be tough when you suddenly can’t see them anymore. But don’t despair – there are still ways to keep your company spirit strong!
Organize activities for those who want them.
You can still have a morning yoga session, do a push-up challenge or come up with something else that’ll keep you engaged and connected. Zoom is not only for meetings – it can also be an awesome tool for holding group activities.
Have a non-business communication channel.
Create a cyber breakroom. Share some daily photos, talk about any difficulties you’re dealing with and you’ll soon see that you’re all in this together!
Send out a weekly newsletter. Make it more relaxed and informal than usual and encourage willing people to contribute.
Hang out! Online, of course. Do you usually go for a beer every Friday? Well, turn on your webcam, pop open a can, lean back and hang out with your friends. Don’t let a damn virus stop you!
Remote work is the future
I believe that a lot of companies will realize the value of remote working once things return to normal. If you discover that you’re actually more productive while working from home, this situation might change your career path. Who knows, maybe you’ll be working less hours and have more time for your hobbies. So, try to overcome the challenges that come with remote working and embrace it for the time being. It’s not all doom and gloom, after all. 🙂
Stay safe and stay productive.
PS: Here are some tools I recommend for all of you remote workers and designers out there. 🙂
Meetings & chat
Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, Discord
User Testing & Usability
UsabilityHub, Lookback, TrymyUI, Usertesting
Documents & Sharing
Google Documents, Dropbox Paper, Notion, Loom
Trello, Jira, Asana
Google Drive, Dropbox
About the author
Oh hey, I’m Romina Kavcic, Design strategist
I am a Design Strategist who holds a Master of Business Administration. I have 14+ years of career experience in design work and consulting across both tech startups and several marquee tech unicorns such as Stellar.org, Outfit7, Databox, Xamarin, Chipolo, Singularity.NET, etc. I currently advise, coach and consult with companies on design strategy & management, visual design and user experience. My work has been published on Forbes, Hackernoon, Blockgeeks, Newsbtc, Bizjournals, and featured on Apple iTunes Store.