Working from home’s popularity has never been higher.
As a game changer for parents, carers and those trying to find greater focus away from a noisy office, it has helped millions find a better balance to their work and personal lives.
And as more of us rely on using our kitchen tables, sofas and spare rooms as a base for work, it has thrown a key challenge into sharp relief – what is the best way to become an effective home worker?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer as everyone has to juggle their own set of circumstances.
Our five tips will help develop a set of rules to suit you.
1. Find a workspace to fit your needs
It can take time to settle on your ideal workspace at home - particularly if you share with family or friends – so be prepared to test plenty of options.
From tried and tested methods such as a table top or makeshift desk for a laptop, to more eccentric options such as resting a laptop on an ironing board or perching on the stairs, find a spot that’s comfortable for you.
If possible, try to avoid working in any space you associate with free time - your bedroom, a favourite beanbag - and instead dedicate a specific table or even chair in your home to work. This might sound frivolous but it could really help you separate work and play, and make it easier to concentrate.
And don’t be afraid to decorate your work space. Fresh or artificial plants and stationery can all help recreate the right atmosphere.
It’s also vital – especially if you’re working from home for a considerable length of time - to avoid sitting awkwardly at your computer. It could well be worth investing in ergonomic equipment, which corrects posture and reduces the chance of injuries such as back pain and migraines. Ask your employer to see if they’re able to help contribute towards the cost.
2. Establish a work routine (but don’t be too rigid…)
Whether you’ve shifts, a nine-to-five or you’re often on the road, chances are you rely on a routine to structure your working day and let you switch off at hometime.
A similar approach will help you make a success of working from home but the key is greater flexibility to help adapt to changing circumstances – especially when it comes to clothing.
While throwing off a duvet just minutes before a video call may suit some, it certainly won’t work for everyone. “If you’re dressed for bed, your brain will think it’s bedtime,” says Hadley Freeman, fashion expert for the Guardian.
Try dressing in your usual work clothes: it can help put you in the right mindset and keep up a professional appearance on any work video calls.
While there’s no need to sit in formal clothes at home all day, you’ll likely be in a more productive mood than if you were to lounge around in your pyjamas.
It’ll also help to bring in a dose of workplace discipline to your meetings.
A quick win is to become adept at using your email calendar. Both Outlook and Google allow you to see your colleagues’ availability and block out time when you’re not free – for example, consider building in a 10-minute buffer between calls if you know one is likely to run over.
Bring routine to your breaks, too. Taking care of your mental and physical health is crucial to being productive. While five minutes for coffee or tea will always work wonders, home working is ideal for introducing a swift workout routine. You can find plenty of choice online involving all manner of kickboxing, dance aerobics or yoga – and you’ve only a short hop to your bathroom to change afterwards.
Another option could be to use your usual commute time to take a walk around your neighbourhood instead, and plan for the day ahead. And if you’ve time, try to prepare some healthy snacks such as air-popped popcorn and granola for your home working desk, to avoid reaching for sugar during any mid-afternoon slumps.
3. Fix your focus and do away with distractions
One of the most effective aspects of any workplace is that your attention isn’t being constantly grabbed by home distractions – children, chores, pets, admin, deliveries to name a few of the biggest culprits. Which all rather makes working from home a unique challenge.
To help overcome this, it’s crucial to try and boost your productivity – and energy – where it matters most.
Try using what’s known as a ‘timeboxing technique’ – this is where you allocate a set amount of time to complete a task in advance, and stick to it.
The most well known is the Pomodoro Technique. Work for 25 minutes on a single task, then take a short breather. Once you’ve got a hand on the technique, you can try “double-pomodoros”, working for double the time and then taking double the breaks. We’ve more on this and other tips to be productive on our LifeSkills Changing Worklife hub.
It’s also vital to do your best to block out digital distractions.
At home, the pull of social media can be particularly potent without a constant stream of colleagues willing to chide you about spending too much time on your smartphone.
To counter this, try out so-called social media blockers which cleverly curb the number of distractions likely to interrupt your workflow.
They include motivational apps that blocks your favourite websites for a certain amount of time, and others that stop you logging on with a motivational quote to give you that extra push to finish your work.
A simple alternative is to pop your smartphone onto ‘airplane’ mode at the start of the day – and try stick to your resolve, extending it by an hour each day, for as long as possible.
4. Be clear about childcare - but acknowledge your kids can cause chaos…
Almost every working parent will tell you how tricky life can be with children – and working from home can make it even more complicated.
Although many use home working to better balance their childcare, it can easily slide from a well-managed commitment into chaotic carnage in the blink of an eye.
Whatever the interruption, it can add huge stress to your workload. The key is to try and prepare as much as possible – and hope for as much good behaviour as possible.
When children are at school, home working comes into its own as you’ll usually enjoy quiet time for much of the day - and have the flexibility to pick them up when needed.
However, in the holidays and other circumstances when you’re trying to work yet all are stuck at home, a clear daily plan can go a long way.
Based on your own set up, it’s worth trying the following:
In each scenario, it’ll help hugely to explain to your employer about your personal situation and be honest with colleagues about your availability. Offer solutions such as being online early in the morning or – where practical - the evening when the kids are asleep.
When possible, a real game changer can be to find a group of families you’re close with, whose children are a similar age to yours - from your neighbourhood or a wider friendship group - and create a shared pool of resources.
Meal plans, games, activity schedules and virtual playdates can all be lifesavers, as can the mental support and relief of another family able to help you.
5. Stay in close contact with colleagues
Working from home for any amount of time can make you feel isolated or disconnected from your colleagues.
However, a few simple steps using technology can help to bring you closer – and foster a similar kind of community spirit.
Sign up for a so-called ‘remote collaboration’ tool which lets you catch up with large numbers of work friends and colleagues either
Depending on your needs, some of the most popular include:
As well as for daily work purposes, these tools are great at helping you celebrate and recognise great work by colleagues – something it’s very easy to overlook when you’re on the end of a laptop at home rather than in a busy workplace.
Even though you’re all staring at a screen full of faces, a joke, work anecdote or praise shared online can work wonders for team morale.
It’ll also pay dividends to make an extra effort with your written communication.
While you may be doing some video calls, most of the time you won’t have the visual and verbal cues that guide a conversation. Take time to convey your message, clearly and concisely.
If you need a little extra help, you could explore digital support services like Grammarly which can do a sentence check on your behalf.
With a little practice, improving both your video calling and email skills will make you more versatile and add extra strings to your bow as a savvy digital communicator.
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