Coronavirus: A quick start guide to working from home

Obstacles you are likely to encounter while working remotely, and how to overcome them — coming from a 100% remote team.

Even if you haven’t been affected by the actual Coronavirus (Covid-19), you’ve probably been affected by the spread of the news. Most notably, many companies, including Facebook, Amazon and Twitter, are encouraging their employees to work from home. After years of trying to convince their employers to let them ditch the office, the global workforce has had remote work thrust upon them.

The result is the world’s largest, semi-mandatory experiment in remote work. This is exciting, but the stakes are high. If we want the spread of remote work to continue, we need this global test to go well. For companies who have been particularly resistant to remote work, we need this test to exceed expectations. By a lot. But what would mark the test a success?

If you are an employer, there are really three things you care about when your team works remotely:

Are they at least maintaining productivity?

Are they happier working?

Is the company saving money?

Given the current situation, #3 is a bit irrelevant. Your company might be saving some on electricity and office amenities during all this, but they are still going to be paying full price for office rent and most structural costs. We are also somewhat limited in the level to which #2 can be affected. 
Many people, for example, enjoy working remotely the most from a cafe or coworking space. But that sort of defeats the point of working from home during Coronavirus if you are just going to go be around other people who have an equal chance of having/spreading it.

Still, there’s a lot we can say about staying happy while working from your couch, and even more to say about making that time stay productive. So put on another cup of coffee, your favorite work music, and settle in. The whole world is watching, after all.

Flatten the Remote Learning Curve

What’s the first thing you should do? Give yourself a break. 
Remote work may be deeply sought after, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. In fact, it’s not for everyone. At the same time, it would be peculiar if you didn’t experience some friction when trying to work from home for the first time. There is, unfortunately, a bit of a learning curve. 
The good news is, we’ve all been there.
Here are some obstacles to look out for, and how to avoid some of the most common remote work pitfalls.

1. Communication Problems

This, the most important part of remote work, is also likely to be your first pain point. Communicating in person is tricky. Taking the person-to-person contact out of the equation is no small change. There are two things in particular that can happen as a negative result of taking your communication 100% digital:

Someone’s online tone can be significantly different than their 
in-person tone

Things can get lost in communication without physical socialization

When it comes to problems of tone and conveying emotion over messages, it’s worthwhile to first look at your own manner of communicating digitally vs. how you do in person, or even over video. Are you happy and positive in person, but cold and terse over email? You may think your tone is normal for the given medium, meanwhile setting your team on edge.

It’s worth honestly comparing how you communicate compared to the norm on your team. Even better, simply ask one of them for some honest feedback! Even if you discover something negative, it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to change anything. Just let your team know it’s your style and doesn’t mean anything negative. You should also remind yourself to always assume the best out of others’ tones.

That leads to an absolutely essential cultural pillar of remote work:

Be overgenerous in your interpretations

This is actually great advice for living life happily more broadly outside of remote work. But specifically when communicating over text, conveying emotion is hard. Some people use emojis and gifs. Others don’t, and that’s fine. But if you don’t, make sure that you still show your personality and sense of humor. Even if it’s dry and calm compared to others. Share memes. Photos of your dog. Links to random articles or cool Instagram photos. Share things that you would while being together in an office. Message threads are your new water cooler.

When it comes to communication gaps and errors with regard to information, we need a bit more of a systematic solution. Fortunately, remote work is on it’s way to becoming the norm, COVID-19 or not. That means there are a lot of great tools to help teams function smoothly without an office. The good news is, you are likely to be using a lot of remote-friendly tools already. That doesn’t mean you can’t better optimize them for remote work, however.

It’s the preference of most on the team because of the sheer volume of communication that has to take place remotely. If you try to email everything, you will quickly drive everyone in your company insane. I won’t go on too much about Slack, as it’s unlikely you don’t use it if you are reading this. If not, this is the perfect time to onboard your team! Treat it as a fun remote team building exercise to onboard a new tool together (It’s better than ice-breakers…).

There are a couple of Slack integrations we’d like to call out.
The Slackbot integration is a particularly handy tool when you can’t simply pop into someone’s office and ask for access to a google doc.
Or when you don’t want to keep toggling your email inbox for
document edits and messages.
Teamline lets you request and schedule tasks from your team, and reminds you of what tasks you have due and coming up. We use Notion for the overview of quarterly goals and bigger projects, and Sococo for meetings (and honestly, just to hangout — we even have a virtual water cooler room where anyone who’s up for a chat can join!).

This has been a long section, but communication is critical. So we’ll end this part with a couple of key admin tips:

Clearly communicate your working hours and availability if any issues need to be dealt with.

Oversharing is better than disappearing — tell people what you’re working on, check in with team members you would usually talk to in the office, etc.

Every Monday, our team writes down their goals and tasks for the upcoming week — not only for the sake of transparency and progress but to allow others in the team to align their tasks if needed and sync up their workflow just like they would in a physical office.

Team leaders: set expectations about response times, communication channels working hours, breaks, etc. If your team is uncertain, they might not directly ask for clarity on these things.

Give your team positive reinforcement and encouragement, whether you are their leader or not. It’s a tricky time, make an extra effort to be positive.

2. Isolation/loneliness

If you’ve read anything about remote work online, you’ll know this is the most common complaint. Humans are social creatures. Sure, if you work in an office you almost certainly get annoyed by a certain fraction of your co-workers. But you also likely have a few great friends as well. Past that, being around people just makes time move faster. You have more to talk about, further experiences to share. It’s only natural to feel a bit of a loss of comradery.

Unfortunately, if you are confined to your home because of the virus, you can’t experiment with solutions like co-working spaces and working from cafes. Luckily, there are other things you can do! At SafetyWing, we have been able to maintain remarkably close relationships while only seeing each other at most a few times a year briefly. Leaders in particular should keep the mental health of their entire team in mind during the transition period. A single worker at home in a studio apartment might feel different than a parent at home with multiple children (for better and for worse…)

Here are some things you can do to encourage healthy digital socialization:

Have a scheduled “lunchtime” where you all get on video chat together to talk about non-work related things (you don’t have to actually eat lunch on camera).

Try a remote video conference tool, like Sococo mentioned above

Reach out to your co-workers for no reason

Try to insert colloquial interactions into work discussions when appropriate. Working remotely should be fun!

Make an effort to use video to talk, even if it’s not necessary.

Play around mimicking office life. Host a happy hour, play office games on Slack, or have brainstorm sessions on something fun.

3. Distractions/Avoiding distractions

There are distractions in an office, and distractions in the home. 
While you might no longer be distracted by office noise, people stopping by your desk, announcements, drama and other annoyances, there are a lot of distractions in your house as well. Particularly in your first few days, you might find yourself drifting to tasks that you can suddenly do during the day. Clean the kitchen, work on the car in the garage, play with the kids… all of these things are great. Productive, even! But not when you have other responsibilities at your day job… which is now at home.

Worse still are pointless distractions. These you are more accustomed to.
They typically exist on one of the many-sized screens in your life. Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, messaging apps, Amazon… they’re all addicting, so stay vigilant. In an office, you were likely limited somewhat. At least cautious of appearing to be slacking. But now you are your accountability.
If you struggle with getting distracted by your screen, use a time lock. There are a few out there. Motion on Product Hunt a few days ago and seems to like it. Essentially, the tools track how much time you are spending on distracting sites, and lock you out based on your time preferences.

Tools like this are great, but the best thing you can do is build healthy habits from the start. Concretely state what time you will spend working and what time you will spend doing other things. When you are in “work” mode, try to catch yourself getting distracted. When you aren’t, don’t be thinking about work problems. If you allow yourself both sides of the coin, you’ll find that it’s easier to stay focused when you need to.

Another great way to avoid your mind wandering is to pre-empt it by moving your location. Think of it as tricking your mind into switching into work mode. This means it’s probably not the best idea to open your laptop from bed and work from your pajamas. Even if you live in a small space, try designating a certain spot you work from. You might be surprised how well it switches your mindset.

4. Giving your day structure & purpose

This topic could be lumped into productivity, but there is something to be said about building a routine while working remotely from day one. With an in-person job, you are somewhat (or rigidly) forced into the confines of a 9–5 life. You have a list of things that need to be done before you leave the door, you know roughly what your commute will be, and you know where you will be the remainder of the day until you go home once again. If you just started to work remotely, these boundaries have just dissolved.

Don’t worry, this should be celebrated! You can now build your own routine. This is a fully rewarding experience, especially if you are confined to your house. Why? Because without structure, your days won’t have a purpose. Without that, they won’t be productive and without that… it just all becomes mush. By creating your own optimal routine, you can accomplish significantly more in your day than you did before.

Start by structuring your morning. Pick a reasonable and attainable time to wake up. Don’t hit the snooze button (even if you can). If you are having trouble feeling like a real, adult person working from home, do everything you would if you were going to the office. Get dressed, make breakfast, set up a workstation. Just because you are at home doesn’t mean you can’t have an office.

Before you begin working, outline everything you want to accomplish in the day. Be realistic, but ambitious. Highlight those things that must be done. A good trick is to prioritize the things you dread. But the point is to start focusing on the output instead of the input. Focus on what you need to get done so that you can close your laptop and feel good about the day. Then mark off exactly how much time you need to get it done. Setting goals like this is important to avoid becoming reactive. That’s how you get stuck responding to emails all day without accomplishing anything at all. Be proactive, and work where it counts.

Most importantly, mark an end-time to your workday. You need this. 
When you feel like your day goes on indefinitely, it’s easy to get distracted and make excuses. “I’ll just do it later”. “It’s not urgent”. 
These excuses are easy to use when there is no endpoint restriction. Also, make sure you do something enjoyable when your workday closes. Or at least something different. Perhaps you find indoor exercise unpleasant, but it might be a welcome change from looking at a screen all day.

You also need a reason to enjoy your day. 
Perhaps you have kids at home as well, and you get your fulfillment by being able to spend extra time with them. Or maybe it’s just you and your spouse, and you need a distraction to keep from strangling each other. 
If you need to add a little more purpose to your day, it may be time to pursue a new interest or passion. 
Here are some things to explore at home when you’re not working:

Start a new side project to earn extra money

Build a product or service of your own

Learn how to code

Learn a new language

Write just for fun

Take up a new instrument

Participate in an online community

Start cooking!!

Regardless of what you decide, remember this: people who love remote work use it wisely.

Are you a remote worker? Give your advice in the comments!

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