12 tips for working from home
WFH. Or as the kids at tech companies are saying these days, WFQ.
Working from Quarantine. In light of everything going on right now with the spread of COVID-19, a lot of you guys have already been asked to refrain from heading into your respective jobs and offices and instead, setting up shop at home. As someone who has worked from home for the better part of the past 5 years running my own business, I would say a warm “Welcome to the neighborhood!” if the circumstances were something to joke about, which of course they’re not. Prior to working for myself, as some of you may know, I worked for 5 years at Google, a company whose very operations rely heavily on cross-functional team management, often across not just different cities, but different countries as well (so it’s not my first video conference rodeo). Net-net, WFH, has become a big part of my professional DNA over the years.
Naturally, as many of you are likely finding out now, it takes a bit of adjustment to find your ideal workflow when transitioning from a more social office environment to your apartment or house, and it’s certainly a bit of a curveball if you happen to be in a management position when so much of your job focuses on team morale and momentum. Throw children into the mix, especially if school closures move ahead as planned? It’s a lot to deal with! Today, I wanted to share not just a few of my top tips for transitioning to a solo work environment, but I also gathered a few tips from my old Google coworkers and a lot of you dear readers to help paint a more detailed picture on how to best manage your time effectively, how to run productive video conferences and more.
Before we start, I just want to state for the record, I’m by no means perfect at any of these tips (spoiler alert: I sometimes work from my couch!), so I would highly encourage you all to go easy on yourself during this time. Check in often with yourself and your coworkers to assess how you’re handling everything, and understand that it will never be like flipping a switch. It takes time.
- Designate your workspace — and respect it: Let’s get the biggest elephant in the room out of the way. Running your work day at home productively will hinge largely on setting aside your specific work space and how well you can stick to it. Obviously, this depends a lot on the size of your apartment/house, so keep in mind, it doesn’t need to be perfect either. It just needs to be a space where you feel focused and alert that can be easily delineated between work time and personal/off time — at home desks and kitchen/breakfast/dining tables are perfect. My old Google coworker, Priyanka, goes on to suggest that you should focus on your posture where ever you’re sitting and working — and try mixing up it up throughout the day. Working from your kitchen counter standing up is a great way to stretch your legs and back. Also, it’s probably obvious but it bears repeating at this point: Avoid working from bed or your couch if you can.
- As much as possible, stick to your normal routine with normal hours: Easier said than done, right? Especially with a constant ticker of news updates that seem to get more bleak by the minute. Generally speaking, panic doesn’t serve anyone in times like these, and the best thing you can do is structure and set up your day like any other regular day. And limit the distractions — ahem, Love is Blind has no business being on in the background today. Wake up at your normal time, shower, get dressed (even if it’s just work out clothes) — the whole 9 yards. Set up blocks of time on your calendar, dedicated to your tasks, meetings and brainstorm time — and recognize when you are “off” the clock and actually clock off.
- Exercise during your commute time: Many of us have been asked to avoid group fitness classes for obvious reasons, but this doesn’t mean you can’t move about and exercise. Use the time you would otherwise spend commuting to try out some of the great at-home virtual sessions — Women’s Health has a great list of them here. Plus, as my friend Ann who lives in Hong Kong points out, don’t be afraid to go out for walks to get fresh air. Just be mindful to avoid crowds and large groups of people. If a mask makes you feel more comfortable, bring one. Can’t find a mask because they’re sold out? A bandana tied around your face works too.
- Podcasts and music can help fill the silence: For a lot of us, work chatter and social interaction create productive energy so when you’re home alone, it’s easy to feel like you’re in a vacuum. Podcasts are a great way to recreate water cooler talk and make for informational background noise — my favorite that I always listen to is The Daily from The New York Times. Of course, if listening to a podcast distracts you, I personally find classical music the easiest and most stimulating background music. I love listening to Agnes Obel, Max Richter and the Peaceful Piano playlist on Spotify.
- Don’t tackle your personal to-do list: I get it. Those dishes from last night’s meal are sitting there in the sink. Perhaps your hallway closet is overflowing and needs to be organized. At all costs, try to ignore your personal tasks and chores throughout the day. They’re a time suck and can be done when you clock off.
- Make lunch and avoid mindless snacking: OK, confession time. I’m HORRIBLE at this. But I can attest to the fact when I stick to a normal breakfast and lunch routine, I feel much better, my workouts are much more consistent and I can resist those girl scout cookies in our pantry. Breakfast usually isn’t my thing (I intermittent fast) so come lunch time, I’m craving a big, hearty salad. Once I fill up on that, I’m a lot less likely to reach for filler snacks as the day goes on, which means less time “roaming” the kitchen.
- Send status updates to managers proactively: You all have probably heard to over communicate with your managers, stakeholders and superiors during this time, which is 100% accurate. If you don’t already have one, a weekly 1:1 video call with them will help with this, plus, as my old coworker Priyanka mentioned, frequent proactive status update emails or a running Google Doc that tracks your progress will make it easier for your boss to see that you’re managing your time well (and not indulging in Netflix on the company dime).
- If you’re managing people: check in with your direct reports not just on their projects, but also how they’re doing personally. Not all of your employees will adjust at the same rate and some may take it harder than others. Make sure you’re taking a regular pulse of everyone’s wellbeing during this transition so you can address issues early on.
- How to run video conferences: Let’s get to the nitty gritty here — video meetings, how to run them and more importantly, when to have them! When I worked at Google, we struggled with meeting bloat, big time. What’s meeting bloat? The influx of scheduled meetings across an organization (usually involving people who are unnecessary to the core of the meeting) addressing projects/topics that could easily be handled in an email. During this WFH time, I would evaluate the meetings on your docket, prioritizing the ones that NEED to be held and with WHOM, postponing the ones that are less time sensitive and starting email threads/progress documents to track their movements instead. Don’t just throw video conferences on the calendar because you miss everyone’s face. Instead, I have a lunch suggestion for that later in the list. IF you are moving ahead with video conferences, here are some really great tips from both Priyanka (who’ve I mentioned before) and my other former Google coworker, Vickee:
- Setting an agenda beforehand early on (at least a day before) in calendar, along with a designated notetaker who will share the meeting document and action items afterward. Be mindful if you have a large group of people, that you’ll need to keep everyone focused and on task. Generally speaking, there should be a designated leader of the meeting (usually the person who called it) who should keep everyone on course so it’s an effective use of everyone’s time.
- Have one person present their screen to everyone to keep the conversation on track.
- Brief introductions for everyone on camera if anyone is new.
- Set aside 5 min at the start for small talk. So much of relationship building at the office happens in the kitchen or stopping by their desk- so make sure to spend time at the start of a call asking how their day is going.
People convey a lot of meaning and emotion in-person, so you have compensate for it over video chat. Bringing a little extra energy, making your voice a bit more upbeat, can help build human connection.
Play around with propping up your laptop on a stack of books to get the camera angle right.
- Technical difficulties will happen and inevitably someone will have a hard time dialing in or perhaps their connection is bad. Try not to spend too much time fixing these issues — it’ll suck up the meeting time. Instead, that person can always weigh in via email once the notes have been sent.
Change the resolution of your video setting to help alleviate streaming issues.
If it’s a large group of people, everyone should default to mute, except for those addressing the group. This will help cut down on background noise and feedback. Devise a system to allow for microphone rotation so you’re not speaking over each other — perhaps a running group chat with the meeting leader to note when you want to say something.
- Allow for some personality to shine through too! Vickee mentioned how fun appearances from family members, nannies, babies/kids in the background have helped lighten the mood. Her team is also using stuffed animal friends as a goofy theme for the week of working from home. Plus, it’s also a great time to remind each other to drink water, eat healthy and keep up with vitamins.
- Try to limit the amount of back to back meetings, especially since you’re sitting and not moving for a lot of it. On that note though, don’t be afraid to get up and stretch if you need to during the meeting. If you can, mix it up from time to time and dial into the meeting from your phone to walk around outside in a non-crowded area.
- Create a social element when you can: Working at home — and working solo at home for that matter — can be quite lonely, especially if you’re not used to the flow of it. On top of that, so much of team camaraderie is responsible for great ideas coming about! I loved my former coworker Paulette’s tip here, as she’s starting to organize video conference lunches — where everyone can enjoy their meals at home while also catching up virtually. Group chat threads are also great to maintain throughout the day and I highly recommend finding at least one WFH buddy, ideally someone who lives nearby who you could easily meet up with for a quick walk and chat.
- Open a window! My friend Celine suggested this one as well as quite a few of you dear readers! Seems small, but getting some fresh air while at your desk throughout the day can make a big difference!
- What about kids? This one is tough as I think all my parent friends are coming to terms with this as it develops in their respective cities. My mentor Irene, lives in San Francisco where schools are now closing until April 3. Her big goal at the moment is trying to explain to her young kids (5 and 3), exactly what Coronavirus is and how important it is to wash their hands. She passed along this comic from NPR intended for children that breaks COVID-19 down so succinctly that I think adults would benefit from it, too honestly. She mentioned having her “mommy work space” has been vital in setting boundaries. But she’s literally taking it day by day at the moment, as I imagine a lot of parents are at this time.
Of course, this doesn’t address the fact there are a lot of parents out there because of the nature of their jobs, can’t physically work from home (and in effect, cannot watch their kids either), or moreover, the children whose home environments aren’t healthy/safe for them to stay in. There’s a lot of unknowns we’re chartering here, which is why I implore you all to check in regularly with your friends, neighbors, especially those with children to see if they need help. And make a donation to a local food bank, because at the end of the day, a lot of these children who would otherwise be getting a meal at school, are now left with little to no options.
And that’s all I have! If you’re made it thus far through my post — first of all, thank you! And secondly, is there anything you’d like to add? Please let me know in the comments below!
Photos by Lydia Hudgens, snapped in my old studio apartment