Working from home (WFH) can be great, especially when it’s a choice or you’re in a role that was designed with that in mind. Unfortunately, a lot of us are in an unusual situation where our previous office/on-prem jobs have been converted to WFH. There are other concerns, too: are you living with family and/or roommates who are housebound with you? Are you living alone and places you relied on for socialization are closed for the foreseeable future? In short, there’s a lot more going on with today’s quarantine WFH efforts than would normally be associated with a WFH role. Here I’ll be talking about a few concerns: isolation and conversely “too much family time,” how to handle home distractions, and how managers can help their teams through all of this.
First Things First: You’re at Home
Depending on your situation, you might find yourself suddenly very isolated or getting a little too much “quality time” with loved ones. For me personally, I am WFH now with a roommate, and my loved ones are now experiencing furloughs and layoffs.
Spending a lot of time under this kind of stress can definitely spike anxiety and depression, especially in those who already have it. So how do you deal with it?
Address the Stress
When you feel constantly stressed, it’s hard to focus on what you need to do in the here and now. A lot of things outside of our individual control need to be handled, and awareness of those issues makes it harder for us to manage what’s in front of us.
A few tips to help with stress management:
- Take your emotional temperature. You might find that things that didn’t bother you as recently as last week Suddenly Matter. A lot. Allow your awareness to do its best to kick in, and allow yourself to handle the intensity of these moments as best as you can.
- Keep as healthy a routine as possible. I’ll deep-dive into this with some WFH-centered advice in the next section but, broadly speaking, try to set your environment and schedule to support you as much as possible.
- Try to avoid information overload. The news cycle around COVID-19 makes our election cycle look slow. There are also a lot of rumors and half-truths spreading (e.g., “My college roommate’s sister’s spouse heard that…”) All of this data is hard to sift through and won’t help you know what to prepare for, or not. Schedule one or two (short!) time windows to update yourself on what’s happening from trusted news sources.
- Find alternative ways to socialize. Depending on your needs and interests, this may require things like free tier web conference software to group-chat with friends or play online party games. There are also ways to play board games (and more) with your physically distant friends and family. Eat dinner/have tea together over a conference call. Or gather remotely to watch a show or movie.
Donate to help your local communities. Many organizations, such as soup kitchens and homeless shelters, rely on unpaid volunteers to function. By donating to these groups, you’ll enable them to meet demand and potentially even help them pay their workers. If it’s within your budget, support local restaurants and food-delivery businesses. Lastly but not least, your employer may offer community or business-focused initiatives. For example, we at AppDynamics, for new qualified customers, have opened up access to our University through May, providing up to 100 free licenses. To learn more, visit our COVID-19 Project Assist Program page. Our parent company, Cisco, has also pledged $225 million to community response, made WebEx for Free more accessible during this time, and expanded its free security offerings. To learn more, visit Cisco’s COVID-19 Pandemic Response page.
When Did Your Home Become So Interesting?
You might be new to WFH, which disrupts your routine and likely divides your focus as well. Laundry? Clean the table? Clean the counters—again—just in case it didn’t take last time? And who left that glass out, anyway? How did these kids get here and why aren’t they in—oh, right.
There are lots of tips for WFH (in a non-crisis situation) that are still very helpful for new WFHers. Especially those of us with Highly Distractible Personalities, which fits a lot of jobs with frequent context switching, including tech jobs. If you’re new to WFH, try these tips to build a new normal:
- Make a daily to-do list: Do this either at the beginning of the day, or the end of the day for the next. This will help you focus on the essential tasks you’ll need to get done.
- Amend your to-do list as needed: Making a to-do list is usually easy, but now you might find yourself attending more (remote) meetings than before, as well as other tasks that fall squarely in the “unplanned work” category. So write down each task and cross it off once it’s done.
- Make a routine: No more commute? You’ll still need a schedule. Know when you’re going to get up and what you’re going to do first. Breakfast? Check email? Determine an order that works for you. As things settle, try to keep that order consistent.
- Save your workspace for work: Your mileage may vary with this one, especially if you’re in a high-cost-of-living area and splitting a two-bedroom apartment with four people. That said, separate work space from non-work space. Don’t work from bed. Don’t eat where you work, even if you’re just walking 5 feet to the couch to avoid sitting at the kitchen table that’s now the communal office.
- Speaking of that packed apartment, consider noise cancelling headphones, especially if your employer is willing to help with unplanned WFH expenses. Popular options include the Sony WX1000M3, Bose QuietComfort 35 II, and Bose 700. Videos of stress tests are available on YouTube (for example, this one in airports and this one with speaking and music).
- If you’re in a small space, dressing partitions can help you mentally separate your personal workspace from non-work space, and give your fellow housebound cohabitants a little breathing room as well.
- Walk to/from as many things as you can: If possible, walk around the block for 10 to 15 minutes to go “to/from work” at the beginning and end of day—maintaining the recommended social distance, of course. Maybe even squeeze in a lunchtime walk. If you can’t go outside, try walking inside your home. If you have stairs, that’s a bonus. And if walking isn’t possible and/or you have a mobility impairment, look for exercise and stretching options for your situation.
- Get up and stretch, and remember to hydrate: You’ll find a lot of advice about how much to drink, but to keep it simple, try ~2.5 L (~90 oz) throughout the day. Again, set alarms to take a few sips every hour and stretch as needed.
- If you can’t mentally disconnect at the end of the day, change your mental mode to a different task. For example, change into your “home” clothes and/or take a shower.
Managers: you’re in a whole new game and have a lot to think about. If you weren’t managing a remote team before and are now, you’re up for some challenges. Even pre-existing remote teams are going to encounter new pressures. These tips may help you transition to a new workflow.
- Make sure you have a list of “what I expect them to do” and “how I expect them to do it.” That last part is key, because some essential pieces of office equipment may not be available to your newly remote workforce. A few examples:
- Working from home requires a computer, but computers are expensive and your employee(s) may not have one at home they can repurpose for work, or there might be one computer in a household of several people.
- WFH also requires internet access, which depending on where you live might not be readily available, is too slow or unreliable for demanding tasks (e.g., video meetings), or is prohibitively expensive.
- Your employees might need to access secure information that was previously “on-prem only” via a VPN. Make sure you have enough bandwidth and licenses for them to do their work.
- You might need several video conferences to make up for the now-discontinued In Person Meetings, and your employees will need the required software. Remember that your employees might not have great internet speeds, so be patient.
- Overcommunicate! Limited in-person interaction eliminates our ability to read body language (for those of us who can). One of the big ways to counter this is to communicate the right things effectively, sync early and often, and don’t wait until the last minute to deliver news—good or bad.
- You might need to work around alternative schedules. Employees may ask to work a split day, say from 6-10 a.m. and 4-8 p.m. (e.g., they’re solo- or co-parenting and need flexible hours). People with invisible disabilities who were relying on services that may be disrupted, diminished, or delayed may require more time to do tasks, too. Create a safe space for them to discuss this with you, and be as accommodating as possible.
- Coach for what you expect on web calls and in general. On web calls, people might not notice their own background noise because they stopped being aware of, say, every time their dog barks. You could remind them to mute or use software to reduce background noise (like Krisp.ai).
- Be prepared for productivity to wax and wane. Laura Hogan wrote an excellent piece in 2017 called Managering in Terrible Times. Although focused on politics, the article’s advice is applicable to our current situation.
- What even is “work”? You might be restructuring your team’s workflow or job descriptions right now. Make sure you track and acknowledge your team’s work, even if it ends up being unneeded. (Did you write a talk for an event that’s no longer happening? Study for a sit-in exam that’s now indefinitely TBD? I feel ya, friends.)
It’s really hard to focus on work when you might be feeling existential about life in general. Finding ways to self-care and manage work might not be enough to soothe your synapses. A lot of changes may happen as a result of the pandemic—not the least of which is how to work together while apart. It’s important to do what we can. When the opportunity arises for us to live in our new normal, we should try to include more people who were previously excluded.