With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the number of folks working from their homes skyrocketed. For folks fortunate enough to be able to maintain their employment as communities went into a state of lockdown, telecommuting has a significant impact on how many employees think about their long-term career and working situation. In spite of the benefits we associate with working from home, it also has its drawbacks; in particular, it can be hard to focus and stay on task from within the familiar walls of your home.
The PWC's research into the future of remote work in a post-COVID world suggests that as many as 55% of employees in the United States would prefer a hybrid working arrangement that allows them to work from home as many as three days out of the work week each week. The sentiment of the executives making that call isn't far off from employee expectations.
While working from home comes with a bevy of benefits– including more time with family members and pets, the ability to do housework between tasks, and saving time and reducing your carbon footprint by removing the need to commute– it also has several significant drawbacks.
For starters, the same PWC study mentioned above also indicated that newer hires tend to benefit from having more time in the office, where they can collaborate in real-time and receive hands-on mentorship. Additionally, work from home arrangements tend to benefit mid-level and senior-level employees who can afford to designate and furnish specific work from home spaces more than it benefits entry-level employees.
Across the board, working from home also presents unique challenges in terms of the mental and psychological toll that it can have on workers. In my own career, I started working remotely in late 2017 (back in ye olden days where it was relatively safe to be in crowds of people and we just coughed and breathed on each other all willy nilly). For the last three years and some change, I've been doing my day job out of a variety of dimly-lit apartments, straight-backed chairs in cold basements, and a cozy home office frequently too cluttered with scraps of paper and coffee cups.
One of the challenges that I faced early on– especially as I moved into a role where my schedule was self-determined and not assigned a specific schedule– was figuring out how to stay on task and focussed throughout the workday. All too often, I would end the day feeling stressed and as if I had accomplished very little. It not only drained me mentally and emotionally, but I could feel that it took a toll on my long-term career prospects as well to not be operating at my usual capacity.
Having researched and tested the productivity models associated with remote work for the last three years, here are the three biggest takeaways and pieces of advice that I have for empowering yourself to stay focused and do your best work from the comfort of your own home.
Invest in a Comfortable Home Office Space
Any time I use the word "invest," I fear that readers are going to see it and think that it means that they need to drain their savings or put a significant amount of money into renovating and decorating their home. Thankfully, that's not the case. A bigger budget can help, but it isn't necessary.
If you're working from home in a standard full-time, you can anticipate spending at least 40 hours each week in your workspace. In order for that space to be an asset an not a hindrance, it needs, at the very least, to have the following characteristics:
- It needs to be separate from your sleeping space.
- It needs to have a comfortable place to sit; if possible, it is also nice to have options for standing (if that's available to you).
- It should be relatively quiet.
- It should be comfortably lit.
When working from home long-term, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is defining clearer barriers between your work and your personal lives. Work-life balance has been a buzzword for the better part of the last decade for a reason: when it's out of whack, you're going to feel pretty crummy.
As much as possible, differentiate your work space from your sleeping space. I specifically say "sleeping space" instead of "bedroom" because for many individuals living in smaller apartments or who share an apartment with roommates, having a separate room to work from for nine hours each day just isn't an option. If you do have a secondary room, such as a home office or even dining room, that you can use, then use it.
If you need to work from your bedroom, try to create a barrier between your workspace and your bed. Creating a distinction between these two places will help you with the mental shift from work-mode to sleep-mode. The last thing you want to do is train your brain to associate your bed and bedroom with being active and productive. You also don't want to go into work with an "I'm still snoozing" mentality.
Given that you'll be at your computer or work station for much of the day, a comfortable, supportive chair is also incredibly helpful. Speaking as someone who has worked from straight-backed kitchen chairs for far too much of his career, trust me when I say that you don't want to do that. Your hips, back, and neck will become a painful reminder of your posture and seating options.
Depending upon your budget, you may want to invest in a high-end office chair, which can run up to several hundred dollars (or as much as $10,000 if you want to buy this bad boy– personally, I can't imagine putting my butt on something that's worth more than my car). Alternatively, I've also been really happy with cheaper options, such as an exercise ball chair or a standing desk converter that can make it easier to bring some variety to your posture and the way you work.
Limit the Amount of Notifications, Intrusions, and Chatter You Absorb
One of the benefits of working in an office is that you can feed off of the collective energy of those around you. There's also some built in accountability. If you're at your desk all day playing on your phone when you're in the office, someone can see you and call you out on it, or you may be pulled in to a conversation with your manager about your performance.
At home, you don't have that social pressure to perform. It's incredibly tempting (and easy) to get into a mentality of convincing yourself to do the bare minimum and then wasting the rest of your time on less mentally taxing activities. While I support self-care in the form of not wearing yourself too thin, it's also important to ensure that you're setting yourself up for a successful, stable, long-term career.
Within our own homes, we have to rely upon our own willpower and abilities to focus in order to stay on task. Since we don't have the positive peer pressure of coworkers around us, when new notifications come in through email, Slack, social media, or our cell phones, we have a tendency to drop what we're doing and look at them immediately. Non-digital intrusions, such as pets, children, spouses, and neighbors, can be even more disruptive since they may not have a concept of the degree to which you need to focus on your work and present an embodied element of interaction.
For our digital ecosystems, apps like Self-Control, Serene, and others give us a little bit more control over how easily notifications and alerts are able to break our attention. You can also do wonders by just editing your device and browser settings to turn off notifications for most of the platforms that you use. Preventing pop-ups and dings from injecting themselves into our work flow is very effective at maintaining an "out of sight, out of mind" relationship with the apps and websites that distract you most.
Setting boundaries with those around you– whether in the form of a shut door, "do not disturb" sign, or a healthy conversation about expectations during the work day with those with whom you live– is also a necessary step. If you bake blocks of time into your day to specifically give attention to your pets, children, and those around you, then it's easier to negotiate also having designated time in which you aren't giving them your attention.
Finally, if your surroundings are particularly noisy with traffic, construction, neighbors, or kids just being kids, buy a comfortable set of over-ear headphones and use a tool like Brain.fm (my personal favorite), spa and yoga music playlists, or a free binaural beats track on YouTube (though be careful going to YouTube... that's a slippery slope) to block out excess noise without flooding your thoughts with lyrics, audiobooks, podcasts, or other auditory distraction. Remember: your brain can only process so much information at a time. If you're allotting a portion of your attention to processing lyrics or spoken words, you're inherently taking that energy away from where it needs to be.
Schedule Time with Your Coworkers for Non-Work Discussions
Zoom, Slack, email, and a myriad other tools have made it incredibly easy to stay in touch with coworkers and continue collaborating with them throughout the work day. However, as we don't have the face-time and in-person discussion opportunities with our coworkers while working remotely that we would have in the office, we tend to limit our interactions to need-based and work-based ones. We ping coworkers with "a quick question," but we aren't joining each other at the communal coffee pot, exchanging pleasantries about each others' lives and interests.
As an introvert who loved Finland's "no small talk" culture, I concede that in-office niceties can be tiring after a while, especially when you're engaging with people with whom you don't particularly have great chemistry.
But, everybody has their work besties– those people who they admire and respect, and with whom you maintain a genuine friendship along with being their coworker.
When you aren't having friendship-based interactions with your colleagues, you run into a few distinct challenges. For starters, the longer it goes on, the more you feel like you're not part of a team. It can make you start to feel siloed and isolated because you lack that element of camaraderie that makes work so rewarding.
If you do start to feel a void of camaraderie amongst your team, you're going to start to also feel more stressed about work, adopt a "grass is greener elsewhere" mentality about your workplace, and potentially even subconsciously shift to viewing your coworkers as a means to an end rather than as the whole, complex individuals that they are.
Move Your Body More Than You Usually Do
Before wrapping things up, I wanted to throw in a fourth and final tip: make movement more of a priority than you usually do.
If it's available to you and your climate cooperates, try to spend some of your moving time outdoors to get fresh air.
Moving, especially activities like walking, stretching, and exercising, needs to be a core component of your work routine when you're working from home. The work from home dynamic is dominated by screen time and sedentary activity, which is a recipe for increased stress levels, stiff joints, aching muscles, and potentially long-term changes to your posture.
Breaking a sweat and getting fresh air at regular intervals minimizes the health risks associated with being sedentary and constantly hooked up to your devices. It also helps prevent cabin fever. After working in your own home day after day, week after week, month after month, it can start to feel more like a prison than a home. Getting outside and breathing in fresh air when you can does wonders for preventing that feeling from developing. It also helps reduce your stress levels so that when you show up for work, you're fully showing up.
Put the Work in Working from Home
Remote work is not easy. It can be great when it allows you to strike a better work-life balance and give more attention to the things you value most, but it can also be stressful and make it difficult to create healthy boundaries.
Over the last 3+ years, these four strategies have been the ones to stand out to me most and which have had the biggest payoff for me in my professional career. As you learn to tinker with your daily routine and find the approach that works best for you, you'll set yourself up for success whether you're at home or in the office. In the end, that's what we should all be aiming to do.