Mar 25, 2020
By Joe Grasso, PhD
Just a few weeks ago, working from home was widely viewed as little more than a flexible, tech-enabled arrangement that allowed employees to log into work from the comfort of their couch. Today, millions of people worldwide are working from home not by choice, but as a critical precaution against the further spread of the highly contagious novel coronavirus.
While working from home has its advantages–and those of us who can do so during this public health crisis are lucky to have the option–the current circumstances are far from ideal. Sharing a workplace with family members, partners, or roommates poses numerous challenges. And maintaining a separation between work and personal life becomes much harder when the place you call “home” and “work” are one and the same.
This is a tough transition for everyone, and it’s important to remind ourselves that we’re all doing the best we can. Despite the challenges that are inherent to the current circumstances, there are some effective strategies we can all use to promote productivity and mental wellness while working from home.
You may worry that you’ll get less done or have trouble focusing while working from home. The good news: Research suggests that people can be just as productive, if not more so, when working from home. The key is to have the right setup in terms of workspace and communication.
First, you can literally set yourself up for a successful workday at home by working in a designated space with minimal distractions. Of course, this is easier said than done, especially considering that many of us are sharing limited space with spouses, partners, children, or roommates. But having a consistent space that you designate for work will help you mentally associate that space with productivity versus leisure. For that reason, it’s important to not work from bed and to instead, work from a space that includes an upright chair and table or desk. Additional steps we can all take to create a productive workspace include not working with the TV on in the background and taking your meetings from different spaces if you’re in a work-from-home situation with others.
Equally important is establishing clear performance and communication expectations with your manager and team. Make sure you’re aligned on priority projects, plus milestones and corresponding timelines for those projects. You’ll also want to determine your team’s communication preferences: Will you opt for instant messaging services like Slack or Gchat for quick updates, and use email or video calls for longer meetings, for example? Resolving these questions early on will help lay the groundwork for successful team collaboration, regardless of your location.
Now more than ever, it’s essential to keep up as much of your normal routine as possible. Doing this will help you stay oriented to time and place, and prevents work from bleeding into all aspects of your life, which can lead to burnout. First, it’s best to keep typical business hours and follow the daily activities that signal to your brain when it’s time to work, and when to take a break. That means keeping the same morning routine you usually would: waking up at the same time, showering, and eating breakfast, for example.
Maintaining these daily rituals helps you transition into a work-ready mindset despite not setting foot in the office. Similarly, you’ll want to make sure to stop working at a reasonable hour rather than working until late in the evening just because you can. As Fiona, a marketing professional now working from home notes, “It’s tempting to stay glued to the laptop and ‘finish that one last email’ when you don’t have a train timetable to follow.”
The loss of in-person connection can weaken team cohesion, so it’s a good idea to meet via video when possible. The face-to-face interaction allows us to better read people’s reactions and avoid having to interpret someone’s tone via email or instant message. And remember to check in with colleagues casually and regularly to maintain a sense of normality and connection.
Lydia, a Bay Area resident who works in internal communications, says she worries about the impact of losing face time with colleagues now that they’re all working remotely. To keep in touch, she says, she and her team schedule regular check-ins. “We also created a group chat with the intention of creating more connections–we post pictures of our dogs getting our attention, memes, etc.”
These types of virtual check-ins can help maintain a sense of connection and normalcy now that you can no longer ask your co-workers how they’re doing in the hallway or office kitchen.
Regular work breaks benefit your mental well-being and productivity, giving your attention span and cognitive ability a boost. When possible, consider taking your breaks outside to help prevent cabin fever and give yourself a needed change of scenery. This might include a five to 10-minute walk (while keeping the CDC-recommended distance of at least 6 feet between other people not from your household). For those with a yard or patio, you can get some fresh air and sunlight without leaving the premises.
It’s also a good idea to have a designated lunch time to avoid working nonstop. Just as forgoing a lunch break wouldn’t be advisable when working from an office, it’s not recommended when you work from home.
Working from home will likely present some unanticipated challenges. For example, maybe you have trouble limiting background noise during a meeting. Or your colleague may have difficulty connecting during a video chat due to a slow internet connection. Remember that we’re all dealing with extraordinary circumstances, and to extend the same consideration to others that you’d want them to show you.
In your normal, everyday life, you likely interact with friends, family, and co-workers who are able to detect whether you’re struggling. Without that regular, face-to-face contact, you’ll need to be proactive about letting people know when you need support, whether in your personal life or work.
If working from home is taking a toll on you, talk to your manager or a colleague about what you’re experiencing. Give them some visibility into the struggles you may be having so you can recruit help. Or if you’re feeling worried, stressed, or anxious, reach out to loved ones by phone–or even better, video chat–who can commiserate and provide support.
If you notice that your worries or strong emotions are making it hard to function well, are getting in the way of completing work tasks, maintaining good relationships, or prioritizing self-care, consider reaching out for professional support. That means finding a therapist through your health plan or your employee assistance program (EAP). Fortunately, there are a number of virtual options that can help. Many therapists are offering their services via video right now, and additional services like meditation apps can serve as a supplemental tool to help you cope with stress and anxiety.
Download the Lyra WFH checklist for a full list of tips for staying productive and mentally well while working from home.
If you want help connecting with a therapist, Lyra can assist you. You can get started today if Lyra is offered by your employer. Sign up now.
DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joe Grasso, PhD is the Manager for Clinical Quality at Lyra Health and a licensed clinical psychologist. He specializes in mixed-methods research and evaluation, health care quality improvement and implementation science, and program development. Dr. Grasso also provides evidence-based psychotherapy for adults in San Francisco.