The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed millions of employees to work from home, including many who never had before. A number of these remote-work arrangements were implemented suddenly, leaving employees and managers alike to navigate a new work reality alongside personal anxieties and concerns about the public health crisis.
Without intentional efforts from both workers and management, remote work—especially during this tense, uncertain situation—can leave staff feeling distracted, isolated, unmotivated and stressed.
“This isn’t typical remote working,” said Mari Anne Snow, a remote-work expert and CEO of Sophaya and Remote Nation, companies specializing in dispersed teams and remote workers. “This is a crisis work-from-home scenario that we’re all dealing with. Work and life are colliding in ways that we have never seen before.”
Distractions abound for those new to remote work and without an organized workstation, said Bryan Robinson, an author and expert on workaholism. “After all, you’re in your personal space, not your usual professional environment,” he said. “If you’re not used to working at home, it can take some getting used to.”
According to research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 71 percent of organizations are struggling to adapt to remote work, especially in the areas of productivity and communication, and 65 percent cited maintaining employee morale as a top challenge.
“COVID-19-related stress is having a dramatic impact on employee productivity,” said Ashley Miller, SHRM-SCP, workplace innovation manager at SHRM. “Meanwhile, feelings of burnout and unproductivity have increased. Communication, support, trust and recognition must be priorities in this new normal to maintain high engagement and morale.”
Here are five areas to think about for successful remote work.
1. Set Priorities
Because of all the competing demands for workers’ attention right now, it’s become more important that leaders step in and help prioritize what needs to get done, said Mark Royal, senior director for Korn Ferry, based in Chicago. “Reduce clutter by removing things from the to-do list that aren’t essential and let people focus on what is.”
Snow said both managers and workers need to be very clear about what’s expected. “Because things are changing rapidly for reasons that are out of people’s control, the more that systems are set up that encourage daily check-ins about expectations and priorities, [the more it] will save everybody a lot of frustration and will set the direction for the workday,” she said.
Workers must be realistic about what they can and can’t accomplish based on their home situation and should let their managers know this, she added. “They must be honest with managers and co-workers and not overcommit. Depending on their living circumstances, trying to achieve productivity standards that are unrealistic can be harmful.”
Robinson said creating and sticking to a defined schedule will help.
Normally, remote workers “have peace and quiet, and large blocks of time to concentrate without interruptions,” said Chris Dyer, a remote-work advocate and workplace performance and engagement consultant based in Brea, Calif. But these aren’t normal times, with spouses, partners and kids in the house.
Dyer recommends splitting family and work duties with partners when possible. “You can’t be taking care of the kids and trying to work at the same time,” he said. “For example, block out work from 9-11 in the morning while the spouse handles the kids. Then trade and take over until 1, and so on.”
In some cases, employees are choosing to get the bulk of their work done in what were traditionally off hours, Dyer said. Allowing flexibility to work whenever—and not necessarily during traditional daytime work hours—could enable parents to focus on work after the kids have gone to bed, he said.
In terms of workflow, he advocates “going hard” and focusing on work for 45 minutes, then getting up and taking a 15-minute break each hour. “It’s too easy to sit there for four hours and never get up. Walk the dog, have a snack, take a mental break.”
2. Define Boundaries
Robinson said remote workers should designate a certain area of their home as a workspace in order to concentrate better and minimize disruptions.
“Find a stress-free zone where you can concentrate,” he said. “If you don’t have a separate room, find an area with minimum traffic flow or a corner of a room off from the main area. Set tight physical boundaries around your designated workspace that is off-limits for housemates. If possible, only go to your designated space when you need to work.”
He said it’s important to prevent intrusions into your workspace by informing others that during at-home work hours, you’re unavailable and shouldn’t be interrupted.
Snow said effective remote workers traditionally build a distraction-free strategy into their workplan such as locating a workspace that accommodates their needs and making arrangements with family members to limit personal distractions. “But you can’t ignore the realities of your current living situation,” she said. “First, it’s disrespectful to everyone else in your household. The best you can do is to negotiate with your household about how to manage kids and make concessions so everyone can be successful.”
Robinson said psychological boundaries also need to be established and strengthened so at-home workers are not constantly reminded of temptations around them or unfinished personal tasks that could compromise productivity.
The reverse is true as well. “After a reasonable day’s work, put away your electronic devices and work tools,” he added. “Keeping work reminders out of sight keeps them out of mind and helps you relax and recharge.”
3. Use Meeting Time Wisely
The more time that’s spent on formal meetings, the less time there is for employees’ other responsibilities or for more-beneficial informal interactions with managers and colleagues, Royal said. “If it isn’t critical to the business or the well-being of your employees, cancel it.”
Dyer noted that companies have been doing a lot of one-on-one meetings and companywide Zoom meetings since workers have been sent home. “Both are ineffective for collaboration,” he said. “There are times when you have to have a one-on-one, but many times people will call one person about a project instead of inviting the team working on the project to quickly have a group conversation.”
Both Dyer and Royal recommend scheduling micro-meetings of 15 minutes to pass along information quickly and make decisions expediently.
“Communication is critical and should be frequent, candid, consistent and tailored to be personal,” Royal said. “Everyone’s candor radar is on high alert right now.”
Practice as much transparency as possible, Dyer said. “If people don’t have information, they are left to make their own inaccurate conclusions. Managers need to overcommunicate to make sure people have all the information they can possibly have in order to stop worrying about things and be more productive.”
Royal said the crisis provides opportunities for companies to celebrate stories of organizational resilience and successes in overcoming challenges. He added that managers need to encourage their teams to assert themselves as well. “Give people a voice to express what they are experiencing,” he said. “That can be done through formal mechanisms like pulse surveys or through direct and personal engagement with employees. Move from asking ‘Are you safe and well?’ to ‘How are you working?’ ‘How are you connecting?’ ‘How are we responding?’ and make sure that the feedback is incorporated effectively.”
Royal said that managers should also be clear in communicating about how the organization will deal with performance goals and rewards. “This will help to keep people from being distracted with worry about how compensation and performance reviews will be handled during this time.”
5. Practice Self-Care
People need to be conscious of their mental state, Snow said. “Productivity happens when people can reduce their stress levels. Build self-care into your daily routine, whether that is a walk in the sunshine, contact with loved ones or spending virtual social time with colleagues.”
Get outside as much as possible, Robinson agreed, to avoid cabin fever. “Mounting research shows that spending time in nature lowers stress, helps you relax and clears your mind. After work hours, watch a good movie, read a book or cook a fun meal. And lead as much of a full social life as possible. Use Facetime, Facebook or Skype with friends and family members so you feel connected to the people in your life that you care about.”
Don’t forget to keep your attitude in check, he said. “Your greatest power is your perspective. It can victimize you or empower you. When you look for the upside in a downside situation and figure out what you can control and what you can’t, it’s easier to accept whatever is beyond your control.”