Working from home best practices – for a pandemic that just won’t end
A pandemic-fueled 2020 may not be the year we wanted, but it’s the year we got, so it’s time to strap in and get comfortable. Slip on your favorite reading mask, and take a look at these remote working practices that I suggest you embrace for the long(ish) haul.
I get it. You’re tired of the coronavirus. Tired of this whole quarantine-living social-distancing hand-washing Uber-eating mask-wearing home-schooling video-meeting existence. Living in 2020 feels like being stuck in a mashup of the movies Ground Hog Day and A Quiet Place: disorienting, scary and every day feels the same. I don’t blame you, I’m highly over it, too. In fact, the undeniable wretchedness of the COVID-19 pandemic is arguably the first thing in the history of Earth that seven billion humans have collectively agreed on.
As the ever-present pandemic creeps up on its seventh month of existence, many of us seem to be biding our time, waiting for things to return to “normal”. Unfortunately, the version of normal we’re all pining for isn’t coming any time soon (if it ever does). As bad as it has been, 2020 is the year that we get and there won’t be a remake. That means we need to stop thinking about the current world order as a “for now” thing and consider it more of a “for the foreseeable future” affair.
For many of us, that probably means making some changes to how we’ve been going about our day-to-day. Depending on your location and situation, maybe that means taking the time to finally find a mask configuration strategy that doesn’t fog up your glasses. Or, maybe it means going ahead with some important in-person medical appointments you have been putting off. Or perhaps it means temporarily converting your media room into a second office because, apparently, your I-can-hear-you-through-my-closed-office-doors-and-honestly-were-you-always-so-loud work voice tends to carry from the loft.
With schools starting back up in North America and many companies (Ericsson included) extending their work from home plans through to at least the end of the year, it’s a good time to take a fresh look at your company’s remote working practices through a “foreseeable future” lens. I recently had the opportunity to work with several of my Ericsson colleagues to do just that. Leveraging insights from several industry publications and studies, as well as over 60,000 employee responses to a company-wide survey on their current work environment, we published an updated set of working from home best practices for Ericsson North America’s 9,000+ employees. Below I’ve shared a few of the key practices we updated and added to help address some of the biggest challenges people are facing today.
Working from home best practices for all employees
Aggressively prioritize. A common theme of this pandemic has been that working hours are up and boundaries between work and personal time haven’t just blurred, they’ve been Thanos-snapped out of existence. One way to help mitigate that is to get ruthless about prioritizing your commitments. Be ready to delay or cancel initiatives that are not your current priority. Block time out in your calendar for focused work away from emails and meetings and (this is the important bit) honor those time commitments to yourself. Finally, normalize the act of declining meetings that are outside the working times you have set except for when they’re truly urgent.
Be deliberate about meetings. In a recent study, Microsoft found that weekly meeting time for their employees was up 10 percent as opportunities for informal, proximity-based communication disappeared. Some of this increase is to be expected, but we should still be both considerate and deliberate about the meetings we set up and attend. Before booking a meeting, consider if it is really needed and who really needs to be there. Maybe a short call or email would be as effective. Book only the time you need, do not automatically take 60 minutes when 30 will do, or 30 minutes if it can be done in 15. An increasingly popular option is to set meetings of 25 and 55 minutes to leave slack between calls (it can even be set as a default in Microsoft Outlook). And again, normalize the act of declining meetings requests if you are booked (especially if it’s time you have blocked off for productive work) or if you do not think you can add value. Finally, strenuously avoid setting or attending after hours or weekend meetings.
Schedule and take vacation. For many of us, “waiting for normal” has meant not taking vacation. Again, I get it. When my family had to cancel a trip to Disney World that we’d been planning for three years to see the new Star Wars Land, the idea of replacing it with a week of staycation didn’t have a lot of appeal. But even if you can’t go to the places you had planned, time off with friends and loved ones to relax and recharge is an essential component of self-care. Take vacation time, and when you do, do not work or take meetings, even if you don’t go anywhere.
Speak up. In a study conducted in late March and early April, Mind Share Partners found that the mental health of almost 42 percent of respondents had declined since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. With April feeling like it was approximately 3.7 stress-filled years ago, that ratio is unlikely to have decreased. It’s normal and okay if you find yourself struggling. The only thing that’s not okay is keeping it to yourself. Ask for help if you need it. Tell your manager or colleagues if you need accommodations with your schedule or workload. And do not hesitate to seek out mental health support resources, including checking to see if your employer has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or other mental wellness resources.
Best practices for leaders
Way back in March, I wrote a blog with nine tips for managing a remote team that remains very relevant today. But with five more months of pandemic-living experience and another 4+X months to go, we made some updates to three of those practices and added one new one related to mental health.
Be flexible. We all had to embrace our inner contortionist to accommodate a tectonic-level merge of our work and home lives when this all started. But virtual classrooms, one of the biggest disruptors for remote-working parents, only lasted a few weeks for most, so many got by on will power and adrenaline. Now, many parents are living through virtual classrooms part 2, which brings all the same schedule and logistical challenges as part 1, but with no hard end date and a higher level of participation and work quality expected from students. Ironically, employees may need more schedule flexibility now than they did when we were all first dropped Fortnite-style into these remote working/homeschooling arrangements.
Set boundaries. It’s still important for leaders to help employees set boundaries on home and work time. Encourage them to block time on their calendars for personal commitments and focused work. You should also help your employees avoid unnecessary evening and weekend work, but be aware of each person’s situation. For some, weekends and evenings are crucial for catching up on hours that childcare and homeschooling now take during the day. Instead of micromanaging their schedules, monitor your people’s overall hours worked and help them manage their workloads accordingly. That said, you should avoid emailing or contacting your folks on weekends or after hours yourself unless it’s urgent, and if you do contact them make it clear if immediate action is needed.
Meet more frequently. This one is more reinforcement than rewrite. Meeting more frequently with team members is maybe the most commonly repeated advice for managing remote teams during the pandemic. But now we’re starting to see data showing just how valuable that is. Microsoft observed in their early pandemic study that while all employees experienced an increase in working hours, those who had a high amount of 1-1 meeting time with their managers had less than half the increase in working hours than their counterparts.
Support employee’s mental health. Unprecedented levels of pandemic-driven anxiety, uncertainty, and stress are understandably taking a toll on people’s mental wellbeing. An important way for leaders to support their employee’s mental health is by discussing their own mental health challenges and how they are coping. When I wrote about my struggle with alcoholism, I made a point of sharing the fact that I had used Ericsson’s EAP as part of my recovery to help remove the stigma associated with utilizing mental health benefits. If your company has an EAP, discuss it openly and make sure your employees know how to access it. Also, share any other wellness resources the company has available. For example, Ericsson just made Headspace, a popular mindfulness app, available for free to its employees in North America and their spouses.
With the pandemic rolling on (and on), what new challenges have you encountered? What adjustments have you or your company made that have helped? Find me on LinkedIn or Twitter and share your experiences – I’d love to hear from you.