How To Stay Productive While Working From Home
Carolina Campanella, Ph.D. | May 28, 2020
It’s been around 10 weeks since a large part of the workforce has been asked to work from home to reduce the spread of Covid-19. After 70+ days of virtual conference calls, working in pajamas, and improvising less than ideal standing desks from objects like ironing boards and packing crates, it’s time to take stock of the benefits and challenges of working from home. Reflecting on these experiences is particularly timely as companies begin to strategize how and when employees can return to the physical workplace.
The prevailing trend for the foreseeable future is for employees to continue to work from home where possible in order to reduce crowding in physical offices and prevent the continued spread of Covid-19. Big Tech (Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc) and major financial institutions like Barclays, Nationwide, and Goldman Sachs have already announced work-from-home policies that will extend until 2021 and may even become permanent for some employees.
Previously, there has been a certain resistance from many institutions around telecommuting, though the giant “work from home experiment” due to Covid-19 seems to have softened this stance. So what accounts for the change of heart? Productivity! Global Workplace Analytics conducted the largest Covid-19 remote work survey to date, and found that participants actually encountered fewer distractions when working at home compared to when in the office – even when faced with challenges like childcare. Respondents felt more productive when doing solitary focused work and equally as productive doing collaborative work. The option to telecommute has always attracted employees: increased flexibility with work schedules and work locations is all the more important as major cities continuously become more expensive to live in, while remote work reduces commuting costs and even helps some people develop healthier habits.
However, there are some downsides to remote work. Remote workers are less physically active during the day and may also be more uncomfortable if they don’t have the right tools to work, including a comfortable and quiet place to work from. Importantly, remote workers often report feeling more isolated and removed from work culture. Extroverts, in particular, have been found to dislike remote work as they miss the opportunity to spontaneously interact with coworkers. The same survey from Global Workplace Analytics found that while people were equally as productive while doing collaborative work, they were more satisfied when they could do it in person. Remote workers also report increased intrusions of work in their home life and longer work hours compared to their in-office counterparts, which over time can lead to increased feelings of stress and burnout and negatively impact productivity.
If remote work is becoming the new normal for you, it is important to take this time to assess what’s working and what’s not working. Depending on what you’re struggling with, we’ve outlined some evidence-based solutions to help support your productivity and satisfaction as you work from home.
Structure Your Workday
Working from home can blur both the physical and mental boundaries between work and home life. Technology has blurred this distinction further now that all we need is a stable WiFi connection to answer calls and emails and edit work documents, no matter where we are or the time of day. Being “on” all the time can have negative consequences. Over the short term, we can feel more stressed and start to have difficulty sleeping – which can influence our productivity the following day. If the pattern continues, it can lead to feelings of burnout and impact our physical and mental health.
Therefore, it is important to set clear start and end times to the workday. Reinforce these boundaries on a psychological level by building routines to cue your switch in and out of work mode. For example, take a short “commute” around the block to frame your work day, or start your day by making a to-do list and end it with a reflection on what you accomplished; whatever works best for you. If you have the space, create a dedicated work area and only use this area during “work hours” to create a physical boundary. If you do not have space for a dedicated work area, put your work materials away at the end of the day and keep them out of sight to help maintain strong work/life boundaries.
Know Your Energy Peaks
The individual expression of your biological rhythm, known as your chronotype, defines when you are most productive and when you are most tired. Most people tend to fall into 3 different categories – morning people, evening people, and middle-of-the-road types. Morning people are early risers who go to bed early and tend to be most productive in the morning, whereas evening people struggle to get up in the morning and tend to be most energetic in the afternoon and evening. Middle-of-the-road types don’t encounter much difficulty waking up or falling asleep at typical times, but can fall victim to the ‘post lunch dip’ between 2-4 pm.
The beauty of working from home is that it may offer the flexibility to leverage your chronotype for maximum productivity. Take note of your energy levels and schedule work activities accordingly. During the times when you feel most alert, schedule in your most cognitively demanding tasks. In the hours when you feel more tired, complete more mundane tasks like answering emails.
Manage Your Procrastination
While flexibility is a big perk of remote work, one of the biggest dangers can be procrastination. If you have a low tolerance for frustration, or are less conscientious, you may struggle with remote work when encountering a difficult task. If you’re somebody that gets frustrated easily, try taking a few deep breaths to collect yourself before breaking down a difficult task into several smaller parts and tackling each part individually. If you’re somebody who gets easily distracted, set up your work room in an area free of distractions and try using an app to lock your social media access during focus periods.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, we are most productive when we take short regular breaks. The longer we work on a task without any kind of mental respite, the more fatigued we may become and the more likely our performance is to suffer. How you structure your breaks can depend on the task at hand. For example, when you are engaged in focused work, you may opt to space out your breaks (e.g., every 90 minutes) in order to maintain your concentration. During times when you are more fatigued and easily distracted, you may opt to take more frequent breaks (e.g., every 30 minutes). For your break, consider small bursts of physical activity like walking around the room, looking out of a window for a few minutes, or stretching.
For some, the biggest loss we feel from remote work are the social aspects, such as being able to talk to coworkers around the water cooler or collaborate in person. Remote workers also tend to feel more removed from the overall company culture and less like they are part of a team. This can be especially challenging when some of your colleagues are in the office and others are not, and over time these feelings of isolation can negatively impact your work. If you are working from home, try establishing regular and/or frequent check-ins with your manager and colleagues to help feel more engaged.
Move Your Body
Evidence shows that physical activity can improve cognition, thus impacting productivity. Even small actions, like walking around a room during a problem-solving phone call or virtual brainstorming session can help improve creativity. For in depth recommendations on how to be more active while working from home, check out our Immune Health article.
The link between drinking water and physical health is well established. However, proper hydration can have a great impact on your cognitive performance as well. Therefore, to help maintain your productivity during the day, make sure to drink plenty of water.
Catch Some Zzzzz’s
Sleep plays a crucial role in maintaining cognition and performance, which is critical to being productive. Learn about the importance of Sleep to Protect Performance and how to Create Your Sleep Sanctuary in our linked articles.
Practice Makes Perfect
Remember that there is no instant solution to the challenges of remote work. It can take time to develop effective strategies to work productively from home. Don’t get discouraged if you find yourself struggling. The more consistent you are in your habits, the easier it will become!
Edited by Radhika Singh