Updated: Apr 11, 2020
Home Office is a test for any personal organization system: How to set boundaries between private and professional life? How do I keep in touch with peers and customers? How can you stay focused while so many distractions are right at your fingertips? Combining this with the overall extreme situation of physical distancing and potential quarantine, many of us are thrown into this environment without having the time to get used to the new way of working.
"American Fidelity Assurance (AFA) cited the ability to continue helping customers even during disasters as a key reason they’re sticking with remote work." - Heinemeier Hansson and Fried
I was fortunate enough to start this learning curve two years ago by gradually increasing my home office ratio and eventually go 100% remote by starting a freelancing business.
Here is what I have learned.
Step #1: Separating work and home - Don't overwork.
Without the natural cut between work and private life, we tend to answer just that one more e-mail or squeeze in just that one more report. This point is amplified in times of COVID-19, where the lack of private and social activities reduces the number of obligations outside work. My favorites to counter-act this tendency:
Take a walk around the block before and after work: Oxigen, movement and the physical activity act as a replacement for the usual commute. Mentionable added win: You change from sweat pants to keep that social-acceptance you have been working on for so long.
Set-up a dedicated working space: Separating work geographically can be as simple as using specific furniture in case separate space is not available. I am personally a fan of multipurpose items and therefore was using a foldable wall desk and a chair, which was as well used for having dinner. It was the positioning in the living room corner which was sufficient for me as a geographical separator.
Morning and Evening routines: Indicating the start and end of your working day in your calendar is the easiest way of avoiding extended all-evening sessions. But more on routines below.
If all of those do not cut it for you...
Get an extra set of slippers and switch between your work set and home set as appropriate.
Step #2: Set yourself up for autopilot - Routines
Estimates range from 40-50% of our behavior is habitual without being guided by conscious decision.* An unfamiliar working environment results in less structure and higher uncertainty, which again leads to an increased number of decisions required every day. Things which were habitual before, now need our attention and these conscious decisions lead to decision fatigue, most noticeable through tiredness and indifference. Creating routines is a powerful way to increase the level of habitual behavior and with it reduce the number of conscious decisions, resulting in more energy, increased focus and an elevated ease of mind.
"People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures" - F.M. Alexander, Australian philosopher and actor.
Here are some of my favorite routines, which helped me to increase structure while working from home.
Set up a morning routine: Generally a strong start into the day, a morning routine provides us another cornerstone, to structure our daily life during home office. Possible reflection routines can include questions such as: What my energy level [1-5]? What must happen today so that you can end the day feeling satisfied? Am I expecting to fail? What resources can I use to set me up for success?
If you are up for a challenge try the Miracle Morning, by Hal Elrod. Summarizing the essential components of a morning routine into the catchy acronym S.A.V.E.R.S., he suggests that everyone's morning should include: Silence, affirmations, visualization, exercise, reading, scribing. Are you struggling with following through with a morning routine like the one we talked about before? I like to take some extra time in the evening to set-up everything I need for the morning routine. This makes preparing the routine the actual routine.
Set up an evening review: Reviews are all about preparation, reflection, and learning. Checking tomorrow's calendar, mentally rehearsing critical events, reflecting on your overall effectiveness and noting points for improvement are a great way to recap the current day and ensure ease of mind for the upcoming one.
Step #3: Shutting down distractions - The Pomodoro Technique
A Pomodoro, Italian for tomato, is a recurring cycle of 25 or 45 minutes of focused work, followed by a 5 or 15 minutes break and reflection. Being a widely established productivity method, the Pomodoro technique creates undistracted space and time, to create focus on a single task. If you are familiar with the concept of agile project management, where products are developed in fixed and undistracted iterations, the Pomodoro technique can be seen as the micro version of this approach.
Integrating the principles behind this approach into your personal organization could be tackled e.g. through daily recurring task lists, the integration of the list on your desktop background or as details in your calendar. To get going with the Pomodoro technique I highly recommend scheduling some "getting things done"-calls with a colleague of yours:
Prepare session: Set up the (video) meeting as usual, choose a task you possibly have been putting off for far too long.
Kick-off session (2min): Take 30 seconds each to tell what you are going to work on, post your plan in chat
Get to work (40min): Work quietly and focus on the task.
rap up session (5min): Tell each other about what you got done, celebrate your outcome.
Break (10min): Grab a coffee or alike.
For a full guide and a community of accountability peers, check out: https://www.focusmate.com.
When you are not living in a single-household, Pomodores with over-ear headphones probably won't cut it. Synchronizing daily schedule and making Pomodoro timer highly visible help to make good use of social time and add transparency for mental ease on both sides.
Step #4: Focus on the important - The weekly Review
In project management one commonly distinguishes between three time-horizons: Strategic, tactical and operational. You most likely got the strategic and operational level cover to some extent, strategic being long-term goals and aspirations, and operational being short-term daily to-do list. The tactical part, in its crucial role to link the two, is often neglected. Working remotely very likely results in increased work-independence and accountability for your work, which makes connecting your daily doing to your and your teams' overall goals even more important. Popularized by David Allen's "Getting Things Done" Framework, the weekly review does just that.
The weekly review is all about prioritizing and not getting overrun by the presumably important (but possibly just urgent). It is a prerequisite to not get caught in the daily doing and lose the grasp of what is really important: Delivery, which is as well what enables you to show your work and to enjoy freedom and independence in your craft.
Step #5: Show your work - Being visible in times of distance
Depending on your former relationship with your superior you will initially need to show your work often. Employees working from home will need to compensate for the reduced physical presence through increased visibility of their work. One can use product demos, status rounds or workflow tools to create visibility for peers and superiors alike.
"One of the secret benefits of hiring remote workers is that the work itself becomes the yardstick to judge someone’s performance. When you can’t see someone all day long, the only thing you have to evaluate is the work." - Heinemeier Hansson and Fried
In doubt clarify those points in advance with the people you work with. This is a pitfall, where common preconceptions, such as low effectiveness and efficiency of home office, can be diminished.
Making it sustainable
Adapting and organizing the way we work for the upcoming time is one thing we need to invest in now. If we additionally put effort into thinking about how we can keep the momentum in times after the crisis, I believe this temporary change in work environment can have a lasting and game-changing impact on the way we work. We are now in a historical situation where everyone, from coworkers to superior, experiences the advantages of working from home and with that we can debunk some of the common preconceptions employees had to face in the past when mentioning home office to their superiors.
The important thing is that everyone [...] feels those trade-offs together. Otherwise, it’s too easy just to focus on the negatives. When everyone else is still at the office, how will they appreciate the time you’re not wasting in traffic or the extra hours you’re spending with your children, reading, or whatever you enjoy? They can’t. - Heinemeier Hansson and Fried
The steps above are intended to help you adapt your personal way of working during times of remote working. The learning effect can be multiplied by deliberately taking time in the team to reflect together on the challenges and opportunities of an increased amount of home office. As it is highly applicable to anyone currently working an office job, setting aside time in team meetings and documenting these insights enables cross-company learning and ensures that experiences are remembered in order to learn from them when old organization structures start to come back.
In thirty years’ time, as technology moves forward even further, people are going to look back and wonder why offices ever existed. - Heinemeier Hansson and Fried
This article was largely inspired by the scientifically sound and actionable book: Remote: Office not required - by David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried
Further reads: Digital Nomads: How to Live, Work and Play Around the World by André Gussekloo and Esther Jacobs The 4-Hour Work Week: Escape the 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich by Timothy Ferriss
*1 Atomic Habits - James Clear