COVID-19 - Working from home: what's changing?

COVID-19 means working from home full-time for many people. How is it different compared to regular WFH? What are typical pitfalls? How to make it work?

March 16, 2020
productivity consultancy life corona

Over the past weeks, a large part of the world was affected by COVID-19, also known as ‘the Coronavirus’. In many of the affected countries containment measures have been taken, often requiring people to work from home. In some countries there is now a state of emergency and people are confined to their homes. In the Netherlands there’s no state of emergency (yet), but people are urged to work from home as much as possible. Being an asthmatic myself, I’ve been practicing ‘voluntary social distancing’ for a few weeks now. I’ve been avoiding gatherings of people in general, and obviously also worked from home. It’s not unusual for people in my line of work to work from home from time to time, and ‘WFH days’ have been part of my life for years. The WFH days have proven to be great days to really get my head down and get things done with little to no distractions. Spending 4 hours per day in public transit also will take its toll on a person, so regular WFH days also count as a bit of self-care.

But working from home full time is a bit of a different animal. And as a result of the COVID-19 situation, we get to find out just how different. In this first ‘COVID-19 blog’ I’ll share my experiences from the past few weeks; the first week being fully remote in a non-remote team, then gradually moving towards a fully remote team.

So what did I learn?

Team Communication

Being the only remote person in a non-remote team meant I started to miss out on a lot of the team’s interactions. It also didn’t come natural to move discussions or decision-making to online platforms, since most of the team was still co-located. So it was my responsibility to stay involved, by actively reaching out via Slack, Zoom, email, or phone.

As our team moved to a majority-remote setup over the past few weeks, this situation has improved. Gradually, interactions have been moving to Slack and Zoom. However, this comes with its own set of challenges. Text-based communication lacks the nuance of in-person communication, and distributed teams by nature have a much more asynchronous way of communicating, which takes a bit of getting used to. Some tips:

  • Have a daily call with the entire team. Think of it as a standup, but feel free to make it a bit longer. If most of your team’s communication is going to be text-based, these video/audio calls are more important than ever, even if it’s just as a daily reminder that your co-workers are, in fact, people.
  • If something is relevant to your entire team, don’t discuss it in a DM.
  • Your team still needs a ‘safe place’. A public Slack channel may be too public, so it may be a good idea to have a closed team channel for discussions ‘without an audience’.
  • Use Emoji. It’s not childish. It’s a good way to communicate your intentions. “Okay.” may come across as a neutral acknowledgement, or as passive-aggressive. “Okay. :-)” already has a different tone to it. But don’t go overboard with them.
  • Plan on how you’re going to structure your decision-making process. Discussions on Slack are fine, but how are you going to make and track the actual decisions? Email may be the better alternative here. Due to its async nature it gives everyone in your team the time to really think about the matter and respond. It also means that generally your important decisions don’t go missing in the never-ending stream of cat pictures and Giphys.

Taking your work home with you

I normally work at the office, which means that when I leave the office, work is done for today. If you work from home all the time, your home becomes your office. You’ve literally taken your work home with you. For me, this meant that my home office was now used full time for work, and then some additional hours for non-work. So how to balance this?

  • Make sure you have a comfortable setting you can work. I’m not going to tell you what your workplace should look like. Some people need ergonomic chairs, standing desks, sound-proofing and whatnot. Other people just get comfy on the couch with a blanket and their laptop, and they are just as productive. You decide what works for you. But in general, it helps to work in a place where you can focus and take (video) calls without distractions.
  • Use different computers (or different user accounts) for work and non-work. Aside from security benefits, it also creates a clear boundary. If necessary (and possible) you can go even further. Dedicated rooms may not be possible, but maybe dedicated separate desks are.
  • Set clear working hours for yourself, and stick to them.
  • Set recurring meetings in your calendar for lunch, and end-of-day. You don’t have the social cues you may have in the office, so it’s easy to skip lunch, or work late.
  • Put work-related items (note books, devices) away after work hours.

Stay healthy

Working from home can easily turn into ‘statically sitting in front of a screen all day’, since there’s not much that requires you to move. I mentioned that one of the things I like about working from home is not having to commute for 4 hours a day. However, not having this commute also means skipping (brisk) walks that are part of my commute. In fact, I could work from home and barely walk 1000 steps a day. Working from home full time means you have to plan time away from that screen. Take a proper coffee break. Go for a walk after lunch. Ride your bike (indoors if authorities don’t allow you to train outside). Exercise. Eat healthy. It will help you think clearer, and keep you feeling fresh.