The silent office: tips on how to survive isolated home-based work

The fast-spreading COVID-19 makes some of us feel like we’re in a zombie apocalypse: limiting human contact, avoiding large crowds, and remaining behind closed doors to escape contamination. Almost straight out of a science-fiction movie or a dystopian novel, right? Not quite.

The coronavirus is affecting each and every part of the way we organise the world, from international travel to availability of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. It’s also fundamentally changing the way we work. Many businesses were forced to close down completely and companies had to send their employees home to work in the hope of slowing the rise of the contamination curve. Countries came to a full stop, or almost.

The thing is, never before have workers done remote working in such large numbers. While many might be familiar with the arrangement, millions of people are forced into doing this for the first time or are kindly invited to (the kind of invitation with only one possible answer: “yes”). The shift between office work to home-based work might be a bit stressful for some people, between being “forced” into working from home, not having a dedicated work space, sharing the living space with noisy flatmates or having children in the house. The list of stressful factors goes on and on. 

These are trying times for some more than others. Which is why it’s important that organisations keep a clear communication going with their employees, supporting the ones who feel at ease so they can achieve similar results as when they are in the office, as well as the people who are struggling with the nuances of this way of operating. Flexibility and transparency are two crucial milestones to make this novel way of contactless working actually work.

So, let’s get down to business and picture your working days, in the morning (this is a guess). You probably sit up straight, eat some breakfast, prepare a cup of warm coffee and put on some pants before turning on your computer. How else can you stay focused on the job and mentally healthy while working remotely? 

In this article, we gathered 10 tips and tricks to be efficient and stay focused when working remotely, all the while keeping your sanity in this phase of social isolation.

Think of it as a checklist for a zombie apocalypse, you can never be too careful! 

The 10 tips and tricks
Put your big boy/girl pants on!
     1. Put your big boy/girl pants on!

First things first. Get dressed. While working in your pajamas might be comfortable, it’s important that you draw the line between personal and professional. 

Yes, even in the comfort of your own home. By keeping part of your usual routine, shower and dress everyday as if you’re going to the office, you’re already halfway into your professional mindset.

Redesign your morning routine. Don’t forget breakfast and your usual caffeine.
     2. Redesign your morning routine. Don’t forget breakfast and your usual caffeine.

Although it has more and more challengers, breakfast is, to a vast majority, the most important meal of the day and so is that first cup of coffee or any other beverage you take to boost your morale in the morning. 

One of the good things about working from home is that you can adapt your starting hour to your convenience. Start early, finish early; start a bit later and finish later. It really depends on your personal rhythm and your job. 

See, this is a key step. Once you come up with your most suitable working schedule, stick to it as much as possible.  You’re the artisan of your routine.

Location, Location, Location

     3. Location, Location, Location

Location is everything, especially when you’re conquering the uncharted territory of working from home for the first time. Find a permanent place to work, a spot where you feel both comfortable and free of distractions. A spot that you can associate with work and leave when you’re off the clock. 

That means, the couch and the bed are definitely off limits! Go for a nice naturally-illuminated place, empty of (almost) everything that might distract you from your work. By doing so, your focus will go up a few notches.

And become an interior designer (or at least try to!) to make it personal, to make it feel like yours. A small plant, a comfortable pillow, a nice coaster for your morning coffee, a teddy bear that accompanies you, the picture of your beloved ones, your preferred markers, you name it – all this adds up to having a nice home-based work experience!

Know thyself and thy weaknesses
     4. Know thyself and thy weaknesses

Staying focused on your work while at home might be a challenge. It’s important to draw a sharp distinction between them. 

Collect and organise your space with everything you usually use during your day at the office, from your computer, its charger to your notebook and post-its. Take regular breaks to breathe. Walk around the house, go for a walk or go drink a coffee. While external distractions are beyond your control, planned-out breaks can help you recharge your creative energies and regain your focus.

Keep a loving relationship with your to-do list
     5. Keep a loving relationship with your to-do list

Much like at the office, define what are the daily tasks you need to check out of your to-do list. 

Identify what needs to be done every day and make sure you go through with it. Having a plan helps you stay on track and give something to focus on during the day, no matter how many times you get interrupted.

Nothing beats the satisfaction of crossing things off your list throughout the day. And doing so when working from home takes the feeling of accomplishment to another level.

Find a buddy and use your phone for more than social media.
     6. Find a buddy and use your phone for more than social media.

Do you know that (usually) chatty colleague you have in your office? You might find that it’s easier to be productive in the quietness of your home without that talkative colleague buzzing near your ear all the time. But, let’s face it. You will likely find out that you miss those annoying interactions in the fight against isolation and loneliness. 

With the coronavirus threat looming over our heads, this silent villain will push us to our limits. The extended period of social-distancing rules and isolation might heighten these negative feelings. So, how do we redesign loneliness without falling into a gloomy state of mind?

We’ll never be able to replace closeness and face-to-face cooperation. However, to help fill the socialising gap while working remotely, don’t be afraid to hit up a colleague or a team member when you feel the need to get chatty. Remember, interaction is a two-way street, you might be helping the other person too as he/she is probably going through the same ordeal.

Arrange for video meetings with your team during working hours, and virtual afterworks with them to stay close when you’re apart. The same applies to your social connections, as current social isolation requirements make physical gatherings unlawful.

Like Don Corleone says in the classic book The Godfather:

Friendship is everything. Friendship is more than talent. It is more than the government. It is almost the equal of family.

Stay out of the kitchen!
    7. Stay out of the kitchen!

Being in the comfort of one’s own home, with a kitchen stocked with everything we enjoy eating, is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a constant inner battle, one that most remote workers are familiar with: the urge of almost perpetual snacking. 

You need discipline both to get the tasks on your daily to-do list done and to stay away from delightful-but-fattening midday and mid-afternoon snacks. If hunger comes creeping in, go for some dry fruits, yogurt or a piece of fruit. 

Don’t forget to keep yourself hydrated too by drinking water or a nice (sugar-free) cup of tea. It helps you stay focused and it keeps the Covid-19 at bay.  

Home alone… with my children.
     8. Home alone… with my children.

While the COVID-19 changes our routines and way of life, it also tests and changes the dynamics at home with all the schools and daycares closed. Parents are faced with even bigger challenges than simply finding focus. Sometimes they have to work while keeping an eye on their children and entertaining them.

Like a seasoned general convinced he is marching towards victory, you just need a fool-proof strategy to win this war.

First, make a plan for education and entertainment. Much like it’s important to keep some sort of routine while working at home, it’s crucial that children retain some sort of similarity to their time in daycare or at school. Prepare activities in advance and establish a few hours of learning time. Not only does it keep them busy, but they continue developing abilities such as reading, writing, improving vocabulary, developing better psychomotricity or visual skills, to name a few. Stock up on colouring books, reading books and puzzles. You’re also free to use streaming services and put on the recommended kid-appropriate content. That will be the moment parents will be able to take a breather.

If you’re two at home with the children, divide to conquer! Take shifts. One occupying and keeping an eye on the children in the morning, and the other in the afternoon. By sharing the tasks between two people, both parents have time to dedicate to their work and take a break to renew their energies and patience. While the house is never going to be completely silent, you’ll be able to focus at least for a few hours without worrying about anything else. Parents will probably love the distraction.

This puts a whole new meaning to “work-life balance”, doesn’t it?

Work from home, but don’t stay home!
     9. Work from home, but don’t stay home!

The idea of working from home is that you’re more flexible and can adapt your routine. While in the office you have coffee breaks with your team and just step outside to get some fresh air, at home, you have more freedom. Don’t be afraid to leave the house, there aren’t any zombies around as of yet. Get out at some point during the working day. Breaking off work will boost your focus on the rest of your to-do list, through the rest of the day. Why not go for a walk or a run at lunch time? Or, take a coffee in the garden or in a nearby park? In case you have to respect the government requirements on social distancinglike in the case of the coronavirus outbreakyou can still enjoy the soft spring breeze and the warm afternoon sun and all they have to offer (usually, some peace of mind). 

Let’s recall the Godfather once more. Al Pacino said “your home is your turf”. You’re free to make your own rules free from the restrictions of the office.

The work train is departing. Don’t run to catch it.
     10. The work train is departing. Don’t run to catch it.

The other challenge when working from home is usually the fact we tend to work a bit more than we do at the office. Yes, it’s recommendable to stick to the starting hour that we’ve chosen when going to the office, but it’s also crucial to stop at the usual timing we are used to. Remember: you’re in control. In control of your surroundings, your environment and your schedule. You have the freedom to cook your own lunch and save money, to go for a walk near the forest or park near your house. Enjoy these moments, they’re some of the benefits that come with remote work. 

As people all over the world adjust to the new circumstances brought by the coronavirus pandemic (including most of you, dear readers), the best we can do is to find order in chaos (virtually) together with the people that matter most to us. 

We don’t want to convince you that screens will fully replace interactions with your colleagues and will successfully fight loneliness, but they definitely help. 

Stay strong and stay sane.

What we think
Lieven Lambrecht, Head of HR and Managing Director at PwC Luxembourg

The most important facet of successfully working from home is to stay connected with your team, colleagues and clients. The sense of purpose and belonging which is vital for a happy professional life doesn’t originate from being co-located but from belonging to a team and organisation that is committed to all its stakeholders. So reach out to your team members, colleagues, managers and clients on a daily basis. Another tip would be to use 50% of the daily travel time you gain to do something fun. Like organising a virtual Happy Hour on Friday evenings.

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