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How to Work From Home Like a Boss

7 tips for getting the most out of your workday.

By Kate Rockwood | April 1, 2020 | Rally Health

Working from home was already a growing trend in the workplace, as technology capabilities expanded and flexibility became the norm. And with good reason: Working from home eliminates the dreaded commute, and under the right circumstances may even boost productivity.  But the spread of COVID-19 has sent many of us home to work for what may be weeks or months — and for many, it’s the first time. 

Adjusting to a new workspace can be challenging under any circumstances, but the unprecedented COVID-19 situation means many people are forced to make the adjustment overnight. 

“First of all, recognize that this is unusual,” says Cathleen Swody, PhD, organizational psychologist and founding partner at Thrive Leadership. “As humans, jumping into a different workspace all of a sudden, when it’s not necessarily by choice, is distracting itself. So recognize that there are going to be challenges, and that’s OK. A lot of people are dealing with this.”

When it comes to thriving while working remotely, a little preparation goes a long way. Whether this is your norm or you’re trying it for the first time, these tips can help you make your home office work for you during the COVID-19 outbreakand beyond — and help you take care of your mental health and productivity, and connect with your coworkers.

1. Set Up a Home Office

“Establish a dedicated space,” says Lea McLeod, a career consultant and executive coach at enigmaFIT. “A dedicated space will get you into the mental framework of working at home, especially if this is something you’re not used to. You’ll still feel like you’re going to the office.”

If you don’t have a home office, fear not: A table set up in a corner of the living room can do the trick. Take care when crafting your space, though: An uncomfortable setup may be bearable for a day or two, but over time you can risk injury (not worth it!). At home, you’re the ergonomics officer — this checklist can help you set up a  comfortable workspace. 

McLeod recommends setting up an easy filing system, so all work-related papers, books, and technology are at your fingertips. If you have to do frequent video calls, McLeod also suggests setting up in a space with a neutral background and decent lighting. 

Ideally, you’d be able to close the door on work at the end of the day, so you have a mental separation from it, she says. But if that’s not possible, make it a point to shut down your computer once it’s quitting time, “so you don’t feel like you’re always at the office.”

2. Create a Schedule And Stick to It

“This isn’t a snow day, where we have to make do for a day or two,” Swody says. Without a regular cadence to your day, you risk slipping into ‘weekend mode,’ which can make it hard to focus, stay productive, and unplug at the end of your shift. Over time, that can increase your stress, she says.

“Keeping a flow to the workday will help people regulate. A lot of us are going to be saving time on the commute, and we don’t have to get dressed up in the morning, but keeping some semblance of a routine is important. We’re creatures of habit; a little structure can go a long way toward our mental health.”

That means changing into a fresh set of clothes every morning (even if you do opt for the super comfy sweatpants — no judgments!), sitting down to work at certain hours each day, and taking regular breaks. 

“A lot of teleworkers wind up putting in more hours than people in an office,” Swody points out, since it can be difficult to unplug if you have no train to catch or traffic to beat. “But especially with everything going on in our world, we need to disengage at a certain point.”

3. Prioritize Tasks

Without the pressure of your boss popping into your cube or meetings to attend, it’s easy to lose your sense of priority, Swody says. Fight back by proactively ranking your tasks for the day. 

“Don’t just wake up, turn on the computer and start answering emails,” she says. “Ask yourself, ‘What do I absolutely, positively have to do today so that I can go to sleep tonight?’” Yes, you’ll have to answer emails and co-worker questions throughout the day. But setting your priorities means those small tasks won’t erode your focus too much.

Writing down your high-priority tasks can help on two fronts, she says: Building momentum can keep your productivity going, and seeing a list of completed tasks can give you a sense of accomplishment and calm. That’s a great feeling to have, at the end of the day. 

4. Zap Distractions

From kids clamoring for attention to a pet that would love an extra-long walk to that closet that you’ve been meaning to organize for months, your home can be a minefield of possible distractors, all vying to eat into your workday. Of course, working like a boss means actually getting things done — and that requires you to be disciplined about keeping distractions at bay.

“If there are others in the space with you, like kids or roommates, let them know when you are available to them and when you are not to be disturbed,” McLeod says. It can minimize frustration on both sides if you’re clear and transparent from the start. Of course, for babies and little kids, she says, the more realistic tactic is to coordinate with another family member (either a spouse or older child) so you have some  uninterrupted stretches to get work done.

Limit household tasks to regular breaks, for instance throwing in a load of laundry while you wait for lunch to warm. And if it’s the news cycle that’s putting a drain on your focus, find ways to curb that as well. This might mean using a browser plug-in to block social media sites during certain hours, or keeping your cellphone in a different room when you’re not using it for calls.

“Be really deliberate” around when you check the news, suggests Swody. Because there’s so much information available, and it seems to be changing so rapidly, it’s easy for a “quick peek” at the headlines to derail your entire afternoon with anxiety. 

5. Take Breaks

You may not notice it, but at the office you’re likely taking several breaks a day to grab some coffee, use the bathroom, or pop into a colleague’s office. These breaks are important: A study from Draugiem Group found that the ideal recipe for productivity is 52 minutes of focused work, followed by a 17 minute break. But when you’re working from the confines of your own home, breaks can be easy to overlook.

“Work in chunks,” Swody recommends. “Set a timer for 25 minutes and don’t check social media or the news during that time. Often people will get into a state of flow, and when the alarm goes off they find they can keep working for longer.”

It might also help to keep a list handy of short break ideas that leave you feeling recharged and energized — say, walking outside for five minutes or grabbing another mug of coffee and the crossword. That way, you’re not tempted to spend your break scrolling social media and risk returning to work more agitated.

6. Stay Connected

“When you work from home, there’s no natural water cooler” to chat with co-workers, Swody says. “But working remotely can be a great excuse to get creative and have a little bit of fun.” She recommends setting up a specific chat to check in with coworkers about things that aren’t work related, sharing pictures of pets or other mood boosters, or even convening for a virtual happy hour.

And when it comes to the work itself, try to add a human touch whenever possible. McLeod is a big fan of using messaging or phone calls for virtual coworkers, rather than email, which can feel more formal. Consider setting up a video chat, even for smaller meetings that might be quick. “We get more context and cues out of seeing somebody smile or seeing when they’re worried,” says Swody. “That’s not possible through the phone.”

7. Stay Mindful

A disrupted work routine and alarming headlines might have your stress soaring. Don’t try to bulldoze past those big emotions, says Swody. Instead, practice some TLC with yourself by incorporating little stress relievers throughout the day. 

“It takes just a few seconds before a meeting to take five deep breaths and close your eyes to get centered,” she says. Likewise, mindfulness exercises can help you feel more connected to the moment at hand, when you feel your mind spiraling into the “what ifs.” 

If you’re new to mindfulness, Swody recommends using an app or book for a bit of guidance (she’s a big fan of Calm). But even if mindfulness isn’t your jam, you have options. Consider increasing your physical activity or rolling out your yoga mat. Moving more has been shown to decrease stress, so you can get down to work — like a boss.

Kate Rockwood
Rally Health