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Employees asked to work flexibly — now, they’re getting their way in the wake of coronavirus

The CIPD’s Working Lives survey, found: “Among employees who have no access to flexible working, 78% would like it. [And] more than half the workforce (55%) would like to work flexibly in at least one form that is not currently available to them.”

Now, government-mandated lockdowns and self-isolation have forced formerly-wary operations to embrace remote working at a breakneck pace. With that, the highly-sought remote working setup is being put to the test across industries and scales never before explored.

Employees are being put to the test, too…

How so?

Despite statistics showing remote workers outperform their office-based counterparts time and time again — not everyone thrives in a remote setting.

Employers have a responsibility to enable employees to be successful, yet there are still habits of mind and behaviour employees can cultivate in order to help themselves.

Employees working remotely for the first time through coronavirus crisis: avoid these major mistakes and set yourself up to thrive in a remote setting!

Mistake #1: Immediately thinking you can work from ‘anywhere’ — and in your pyjamas to boot!

You need a level of control over your workspace as a remote employee.

From noise levels to temperature, to desk setup, you’ve got a huge opportunity to limit unwanted distractions, pains, and productivity killers when working remotely…you’ve also got a huge opportunity to invite them in.

And that’s why the popularised image of ‘digital nomads’ floating around Instagram is so paradoxical. Because being able to choose where you work doesn’t automatically mean you’ll pick a space that supports your productivity.

Putting aside the practical elements of setting up a traveling ergonomic office, studies abound in scientific journals on the way environment impacts our focus, motivation, mental alertness, and energy levels.

If you’re the type of person who can actually buckle down and do a full workday’s focussed labour while sipping piña coladas on a beach somewhere — power to you; there can’t be many.

What to do instead:

Cultivate productivity and focus by working in a dedicated space — a psychology professor at my alma mater once advised students to study course material in the same space each day, and to mentally visualise that space before taking exams.

This is because the brain builds associations between places and information; and when you learn information in one physical space, it is easier to recall that information in that same physical space.

The same principle applies to remote working; it can help or hurt your focus, concentration, memory, and productivity to work from ‘everywhere.’

But having a dedicated workspace can build cognitive and physical associations that will make it easier to hone focus during the workday and to switch off at the workday’s end.

Substitute healthy practices for your former commute — perhaps, you’re keen on podcasts? Or into the art of meditation?

Try to remember some of the activities that you always felt your commute deprived you of the time for. Whatever healthy pastimes you’re into, create a plan to start the day with one or two and then stick to it.

It’s easy to commit to reading a book if you’re sitting on the tube without WiFi access. At home, there’s a lot more choice available to you which can make it harder to self-discipline in choosing something that’s good for you and restorative.

Get dressed from head to toe — what you wear influences how you work! Based on the psychological meaning you attach to certain clothes, you can make it easier — or harder — to sustain focus simply by getting dressed in the morning.

So, don’t wear pyjamas; and do put on shoes.

You’re also more likely to take walking breaks or exercise if you’re dressed for the occasion (or at least, in a way that you’d be happy to leave the house).

Mistake #2: Overworking yourself to demonstrate ‘productivity’

Remote employees are more willing to work overtime — and regularly do. Why, though? When so many tout flexibility and work-life balance among the chief benefits of remote working, something just doesn’t add up.

Being remote, it can feel freeing or fear-inducing to have so little visibility. Since nobody can physically see you working, you may feel added pressure to be online at all times.

You may struggle to know what a reasonable workload looks like, and therefore overwork yourself just to show that you are, in fact, working.

But putting yourself at greater risk of burnout is neither beneficial to you nor your employer.

Employee health and wellbeing tops the agenda here at Impala, which we express through company policies, a robust wellness scheme, diverse employee engagement initiatives, and office-hour socials!

But let’s say you’re on a newly-remote team that doesn’t share that focus — and, perhaps, even frowns upon socialising during the workday.

What can you do to avoid slipping into overworking and setting yourself up for burnout?

What to do instead:

Remove the temptation to ‘dip into’ emails and work outside of office hours — it’s far harder to work after hours if you actually power down your computer and put it away at the end of the day.

Working outside of office hours is expected and necessary at times, but it should not become a part of your ordinary routine. That’s a surefire recipe for burnout. And not something a reasonable employer expects of their people.

Manage notification settings in a way that reinforces a healthy work-life balance. And commit to not working beyond a certain hour.

Schedule breaks to make sure they happen — bouts of deep work can easily make us forget to take breaks and move throughout the day.

Set reminders to take breaks in a way that guarantees you’ll actually take them — whether that’s through calendar blocks, timer apps, or the like.

Pro-tip: taking breaks with a buddy helps to keep you accountable, and it carries the added benefit of supporting your buddy’s wellbeing alongside your own! Win-win.

Seek clarity from your manager on what a healthy workload looks like — asking for clearly-defined expectations and deliverables is a good start. I use a simple list in Google sheets; one column for ‘deliverables’ and one column for ‘development.’

In each, I list projects, tasks, readings, or webinars I’d like to complete — ticking them off as I go and indicating roughly the amount of time each took to complete. Besides giving my manager clear visibility of what I’m working on in any given week, this helps me to become more aware of my actual weekly capacity. That way, I eliminate anxiety and stress over whether I’m doing ‘enough’ and avoid taking on too much. You can do the same!

Mistake #3: Focusing on work, and work alone — emphasis on ‘alone’

Physical offices are full of coffee breaks, conversations, and bursts of impromptu collaboration. There’s no reason working remotely should deprive you of these!

Research published in LinkedIn’s Relationships @ Work Report found that nearly 50% of working professionals feel having friends at work is essential to overall happiness. And a survey of more than 2,000 employees revealed the vast majority of employees also report that having friends at work boosts motivation and productivity.

But there can be higher barriers to entry for socialising in a remote context. It can feel less natural to open a video call than to turn around and tap your desk neighbor on the shoulder.

Making time in the workday for your colleagues to become your friends has significant power to enhance professional collaboration, camaraderie, and feelings of belonging.

What to do instead:

Be proactive about connecting with colleagues. Be brave if you experience social anxiety — in a world already fraught with worry, working remotely can exacerbate feelings of isolation and social anxiety. You can spend entire workdays in silence as a remote worker without even realising it. And while the quiet may feel comforting to some (especially introverts), loneliness is a slow burn.

That’s why, when working remotely, it pays to be proactive. Don’t wait for an invitation if you’re feeling isolated; be the first person to reach out!

Since isolation is felt by such a high percentage of remote workers — remember it’s highly likely someone else on your team is feeling the same way you are feeling.

Try reframing what it means to be the first person to reach out if you experience social anxiety. You’re not a bother; you’re a social advocate!

Connect with your community outside of work — connecting with colleagues during the workday is enormously beneficial to remote teams. But balancing those interactions with social activities that don’t involve being sat in front of the computer is important.

Be more intentional about finding local groups, organisations, and meetups. As we continue navigating the coronavirus outbreak, sites like Meetup and Reddit can be invaluable to this end.

More and more organisations, studios, and rec centers are moving their classes online, which is a great way to build new connections from afar.

Join some! You’ll combat cabin fever and give yourself a physical meetup to look forward to when the pandemic passes.

Enjoy the benefits that made you seek out remote work in the first place — resist the urge to work straight through the day. In an office, not every second of the day is spent working, but it can feel inappropriate as a remote employee to not be working.

Recognise that there is a difference between procrastinating and taking a break. Recognise also that taking breaks is not merely ‘appropriate’ but deeply important to sustaining overall productivity and wellbeing.

Go on. Take that coffee break. Phone that friend or family member. Exercise in your living room. Get in the habit of taking regular breaks because it will actually help you to get your work done and be well!

Working From Home After Coronavirus: Will You Survive Or Thrive?

Coronavirus has turbocharged the rolling out of remote work that was already on a sharp upward curve. Although nearly anyone whose work happens online can work remotely in theory, the hard truth is: remote work isn’t for everyone.

It takes a certain mindset to develop good remote working habits, banish distractions, and ultimately — to thrive — as a remote employee.

For the mass percentage of employees hoping to make a permanent shift to remote work in the future, it’s worth remembering: thriving as a remote employee requires conscious effort.

If you’re not prepared to self-motivate and hone focus in a setting that’s just begging you to procrastinate, a permanent switch to remote working for you may be ill-timed.

That doesn’t mean it’s forever out of reach. As we’re living through ‘the World’s Largest Working From Home Experiment,’ the time has never been better to develop the skills that make an exceptional remote employee.

Start here:

Don’t overstretch the flexibility that comes with working remotely

  • Work in a dedicated space to limit distractions and cultivate focus.
  • Substitute healthy practices for your former commute.
  • Get dressed in the morning as you normally would.

Don’t overwork yourself as a matter of routine

  • Remove the temptation to ‘dip into’ emails/work; power down work devices at the end of the day.
  • Schedule breaks to make sure they happen; spend them wisely.
  • Work with your manager to define and understand what a healthy workload looks like.

Don’t ignore your social needs — remember, you’re human!

  • Be proactive; be the first person to reach out if you’re feeling isolated!
  • Connect with your community outside of work; be more intentional about joining community clubs, organisations, online groups, and meetups.
  • Enjoy the benefits that made you seek out remote work in the first place.
  • Know the difference between break-taking and procrastinating; be self-aware and take breaks when needed.

If you’re new to working from home, what challenges have surprised you? What solutions have you found to overcome these challenges?

Comment below to join the conversation and share your insights with others during these strange times.