The COVID-19 pandemic has propelled millions of workers into remote status. But just because employees can do jobs from home doesn’t mean they automatically feel comfortable working from their kitchen table or sofa. Whether the work is done solo or involves family members meandering nearby, remote isn’t always easy. Yet remote employees and freelancers don’t have to navigate working from home (WFH) blindly; instead, they can be proactive about making remote work comfortable and productive for the long haul.
Nearly two-thirds of hiring managers expect an increase in the use of remote work after COVID, according to a survey by freelance platform Upwork. To help remote workers stay sane and reap the benefits of WFH—since many offices remain closed, or at least flexible—we’ve compiled a few tips for overcoming the typical challenges of prolonged remote work.
Challenge #1: Actually Getting Work Done
In an ideal world, WFH would yield heaps more productivity than an office setting, since it eliminates distractions like break-room birthday celebrations or colleagues talking next to your desk. Remote work also gives workers the flexibility to design their own schedules. But for almost one-third of newly remote workers, productivity does indeed dip, according to Slack, perhaps because you’re initially distracted by laundry that needs to be folded, or by the lure of your TV.
The good news? Only 13 percent of experienced remote workers experience productivity loss, and plenty of studies show an overall increase in productivity for the majority of remote workers.
How to Get Cracking
While productivity boosts can differ for each person, try a few best practices to see what you need to continue making your remote work productive.
Start with your workspace. In an April 2020 episode of FreshBooks’ I Make a Living podcast, Dr. Sahar Yousef, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, highlights the importance of choosing a good workspace.
While working from the couch, versus a desk, might seem like a superficial difference, the connections your brain makes with different spaces can affect your productivity, Yousef explains. Your brain likely associates the couch with relaxation, which can prohibit getting into a good work flow. Instead, she recommends, designate rest spaces for rest and work spaces for work.
WFH can be a productivity killer if you don’t set boundaries. If you see dirty dishes piling up, or if your dog looks really cute and deserves a treat (they always do), you might be tempted to interrupt your own work.
Ideally, you can move these distractions literally out of your sight based on your chosen work space. But if that’s not physically possible, you need to remind yourself that certain times are for work and others are for personal stuff. Keep a schedule, for example, allotting two hours in the morning to tackle your most important work tasks, and then take a half-hour break to give that good dog snuggles and treats. The dishes can wait.
Challenge #2: In This Corner… (Your Work and Your Personal Life Duke It Out)
The lines between your work and personal lives can blur when you’re WFH. The pandemic has exacerbated the issue, especially if you have kids, other family members, or roommates sharing your space. Your attention to work and to your personal life splits to the point that neither gets a sufficient amount.
While it’s nice to skip rush-hour commutes, the absence of this ritual that signals the start and end of a workday can contribute to the feeling of nonstop working. When a project sits a few feet away from you at all times, disconnecting becomes more difficult. In fact, “not being able to unplug” is one of the top three struggles among remote workers, according to a 2020 Buffer/AngelList survey.
How to Draw the Line
Boundaries not only help you increase productivity but also help you overcome this feeling of always being “on.” Try setting clear expectations with colleagues, clients, and others who might assume you’re always available since you’re home. If you’re taking a personal day, for example, communicate that in advance, through a shared calendar or via email to important contacts.
Similarly, express to your family that you need a certain amount of undisturbed time to concentrate on work, and then you can give them your full attention during downtime.
You can help maintain your boundaries by putting work devices away in the evening or by turning off alerts on your phone. The harder you make it to respond quickly (as in, reflexively), the less likely you’ll be to cross that line. Odds are that you self-inflict a lot of this pressure, so when you set boundaries for yourself, you might be pleasantly surprised how others will respect them.
Challenge #3: Feeling Like You’re Part of Something
Making the leap to remote work might feel isolating. Even if you’re not the most extroverted office party magnet, you still might miss those little interactions with coworkers that make the day a bit more pleasant. Turns out Stan from Accounting’s jokes are much better than the ones your succulent cracks.
Plus, WFH can make you feel like you’re missing out on important in-person communication or team-building activities that might help advance your career. A March 2020 Slack survey finds that 45 percent of newly remote workers say their sense of belonging decreases while WFH, but, fortunately, just 25 percent of experienced remote workers feel the same.
How to Stop Talking to Yourself
Although you can’t perfectly replicate in-person interactions with office colleagues at home, you can still stay in the loop by using the plethora of collaboration tools available to you. Do what you can to connect in a way that feels right, whether that’s increasing your use of videoconferencing, joining LinkedIn groups to swap advice with other remote workers, or texting a work buddy to catch up on a little juicy virtual office gossip.
Gallup finds that “frequent conversations yield the biggest improvements in engagement,” so don’t let regular contact slide when you’re WFH. If it’s applicable, specifically let your manager know you want to stay in close contact—maybe set up a regular Zoom coffee chat. Gallup notes that “remote workers are three times more likely to be engaged if they receive feedback from their manager at least a few times per month.”
Sticking With Remote Work
Remember, now that working remotely is the new norm, you can’t consider your day complete after responding to a few emails. You also have to figure out when to step away so that work doesn’t become life.
Remote work can be isolating and difficult at first, but improved satisfaction often comes in time. The initial challenges might continue to raise their heads every now and then, but through practice, you’ll gain the knowledge and confidence to overcome them quickly and effectively. That could be why remote workers tend to want to stick with this arrangement: 97 percent of remote workers would recommend this setup to others, finds Buffer/AngelList.
Be honest with yourself and others about what you need to make WFH viable for the long haul. In doing so, you’ll gain the flexibility to improve your overall well-being.