Remember when you were a kid and you saw others riding their bikes up and down the street? Like most kids, you probably thought, “That doesn’t look so hard. I can do that!” And what followed were likely some hard lessons about perseverance and training wheels and maybe even a skinned knee or elbow.
Hundreds of thousands of workers now are being asked to hop on a bike and get moving. “Social distancing” is an important part of slowing the spread of the COVID-19 virus, but there’s a lot more involved in working from home that just taking a laptop from the office and plugging it in at your kitchen table. Just like riding a bike, workers need to learn balance and other skills in order to move ahead.
Let’s face the hard truth; companies are going to take a productivity hit with a dispersed workforce, even if those employees are at their most effective. If they are not proficient with remote work skills, that hit could be a major blow. Here are some of the areas where workers may need help in adjusting.
When working with others, communications is key. When working remotely, you can’t just stick your head in the next cube and ask for clarification. As a result, you need to communicate effectively yet efficiently using the appropriate channel.
For example, be sure that you’re answering the right question. If you get a long question by email, chances are that “Yes” is not a sufficient answer. Why is the person asking the question?
He or she likely wants to understand the reasons behind your answer. A one-word response is certain to result in another round of emails, asking for a more thorough answer. Save time and frustration by trying to answer the question behind the question the first time.
On the other hand, avoid asking more than one question in an email, especially if there are multiple recipients. You run the risk of someone just answering the first question and ignoring the others.
And even if you do get answers to all the questions, it then becomes complex to follow the different threads of the discussion. (If you receive an email with multiple questions, consider answering each one in a separate email to help keep things straightforward and organized.)
Have reasonable expectations for how quickly you expect a response. Texts, emails, and other messages are interruptions, and it can detract from the recipient’s productivity to have the daily workflow constantly broken up.
If you can indicate how soon you need an answer, that will be helpful all around. This is just the tip of the iceberg. You will likely use a combination of text, email, phone, video chat and conference calls, and workgroup services such as Slack.
Each has its own etiquette that varies from one company culture to another, and you need to know what sort of message or discussion is appropriate for each channel. You also need to know when you should shift from one channel to another.
You need to have the right tools to work from home. The people in charge of IT for your company should plan how you are supposed to access the information you need in order to get your work done. If you are dealing with sensitive information, you will need security measures such as a virtual private network (VPN) that will encode your transmissions with the mother ship.
You will need adequate Internet access. Just accessing the company customer relationship management (CRM) system probably won’t be particularly demanding but participating in video conferences is a nightmare if your service is too slow or unreliable.
Always use a wired connection to your network whenever possible; lots of other people in your neighborhood will be using their WiFi networks which can cause interference that will degrade your system’s performance.
Get a decent microphone and webcam. Nothing tires out conference participants more than straining to decipher poor audio or video. Your laptop may have a camera that works well enough, but make sure that the camera is at least at your eye level or higher.
This means that you will need a stand or other device to raise your computer up off your desk. If you use a separate webcam, make sure to mount it as close to the screen where you will be looking as possible. It is important to make virtual eye contact in order to engage with the other participants.
And pay attention to what is in the background when you’re on camera. Empty beer cans and dirty laundry are not recommended. You don’t have to go overboard with a green screen backdrop for a chromakey virtual background (like I have) but be mindful of what your visitors will see when they come calling over the Internet.
One important aspect of working from home that is rarely discussed is the commute. Some people joke that they have to cross from the kitchen to their desk in the living room, but there’s an issue behind this.
The average commute time for adult workers in the U.S. was almost 30 minutes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For many, this is an important time to make the transition of thinking about home issues and start getting in a mind-frame to tackle challenges at work.
People who stroll from the kitchen to heir workspace in their pajamas don’t get the benefits of this transition, which can mean that it takes longer for them to focus and start being productive.
When I started working from home nearly 30 years ago, I would always put on a dress shirt. After breakfast, I would put on a coat and tie and start my “commute” down a flight of stairs to the family room that I had taken over for my office. This would give me the signal that I was at work. At the end of the day, I would take off the coat and tie and then I’d be home.
Some people have difficulty dealing with “always being at work” when they work at home.
The temptation is great to check email just once more, or to put in an hour or two after dinner to catch up on things.
Now, this can certainly be valuable when you’re being flexible in your work hours and have used some of “business hours” to take care of personal items. It can be a problem, however, if you don’t have a clear balance between work and home life.
I once helped someone who had this problem; his workspace was in a corner of the living room in his small apartment and he couldn’t stay away. I had him take a piece of yarn and string it between two pieces of furniture so that it blocked the path to his desk. This “virtual door” would make him think twice about entering or leaving “work” and helped him keep it under control.
You also need to maintain connections with other people, both inside and outside of work.
I am fortunate in that I have been a part of virtual communities for more than 30 years; I have many good friends that I know well but whom I have never seen IRL (“in real life”).
This means that you must leave space for conversation outside of work topics. Sharing projects and interests with others inside and outside of your work community is an important part of creating the bonds that people need in order to feel that they belong. People must connect in order to remain engaged with their work and their shared goals for their company.
When working from home, you must find ways to connect and remain in touch with others to avoid the emotional isolation that can come with physical isolation. Join online groups on Facebook, LinkedIn, Nextdoor, and other sites.
It is helpful to exchange with your professional peers, but also look for areas of interest outside your work. If you haven’t already experienced this, you may find these outlets to be an excellent source of engagement, support, and friendship.
Learning to Ride
Nobody expects a child to ride a bike on the first try. If you’re new to working from home, don’t be surprised if you have new skills to learn. The good news is that you can pick this up quickly if you remain open to improving. You can both seek and provide support with your colleagues, and together you can make this work from home thing work.
Alfred Poor is an International full-time technology speaker and author with more than 35 years’ experience with working from home (#WFH). In addition to his presentations on health tech topics, he also provides virtual presentations to help individuals and companies build the work-from-home skills needed to have workers be most productive. Book Alfred Poor today! https://bit.ly/3esRNQ1