This blog was written by Rob Legge. Rob is an independent leadership coach, trainer and consultant in the charity sector.
With most of us working from home during the lockdown, I wanted to share over the coming weeks a few tips I have learnt from my own and my clients’ experiences.
Today I want to provide some basic ideas to ensure you can make the most of working from home. In my coaching sessions, a lot of managers complain that they struggle to get things done at work and they are much more productive when they can work from home.
Perhaps, then we should experience a fantastic explosion of productivity! It would be good to see that, but the duration of the lockdown and the context, with children having to be homeschooled, concern about family and friends and the enforced restrictions all chip away at our ability to focus.
Tip one: Create a working environment
If you are lucky you might have a separate room (spare bedroom/study) that can be the place that you “go to work”. Others must make do with the kitchen or dining room table. I know someone who goes to his car with his laptop to work. The important thing is to step into work mode. Others will dress for work; some will even use their daily exercise allowance to create an artificial commute. All these actions are to help you get into a work zone, where you will be your professional best.
Tip two: Create boundaries
One of the benefits of working from home is that you can be flexible and prepare the main meal, sort emails, mind children and take client calls all in the same day. However, for your peace of mind and quality of work I recommend that wherever you can create boundaries for your work and your non-work time.
I currently get to my desk at 8 am, read articles and work-related books until 8.45 am. I then start my work and finish at 1.00 pm to have lunch. We have my youngest daughter, her husband and their two-year-old staying with us during lockdown. It is a joy! And we have established that I will take little Joshua for a walk to see the sheep around 10 am. I mix and match but this I find increases my focus between 9 am and 10 am and 11 am to 1 pm.
After lunch, I am usually with the family or in the garden unless I have a client call and I then do a couple of hours writing or planning work from 7 pm to 9 pm.
So that works for me and currently and I can work hard and play well with the family. This routine has changed significantly from BL time (before lockdown) when I used to be up at 6 am, play racquetball at 7 am and typically, three times per week, commute into Birmingham to provide training sessions or individual face to face coaching sessions.
The takeaway message I want to give you is work when you work and don’t work when you don’t! Your schedule can be flexible, but I recommend that if you are committing to, for example, six hours of work per day you schedule it and have the discipline to do it.
Tip three: Focus
To expand on the above suggestions to get the most out of your time “at work” you need to focus. One of the problems of working in an office is distractions. Clients complain about how others interrupt through face to face, email and phone to prevent them from getting on with important work. On further exploration, my client will conclude they often collude with this problem. They will look for distractions and can be the problem to colleagues by disrupting their workflow.
Working from home many of the distractions of the office have disappeared. But they are often replaced by new stronger distractions. The kids, your partner, TV, Amazon delivery, the fridge(!) come to mind!
One of the best and simplest ways I use to get quality work progressed is called the Pomodoro Technique. It was developed by an Italian student who wanted to find an effective way to revise.
This is the technique.
- Get all the things you need to do the work you plan to do ie. laptop, background information etc ready so that you are not wasting time searching for them (and then being distracted in the process).
- Minimise and if possible, eliminate distractions. That means phone off or on silent, emails and social media off or on silent. Children off or on silent! (well, we can hope).
- Focus your work on one topic for 25 minutes and then stop. There is some science behind the length of time in terms of your ability to work at peak flow. In practice, I find I can go for 35 minutes. The important thing is to focus on one topic with no distractions for a defined period.
- Take a five-minute break. Physically move (get a cup of tea or whatever) and then return to work.
- If you have time, do another Pomodoro session.
This technique needs no special equipment. The originator used his mother’s kitchen timer (a plastic tomato – hence the name, Pomodoro is Italian for tomato). And yes, there are several apps that you can use. It gives you great satisfaction to make progress and I find once I have completed one session I want to do another as my work is gaining momentum.
Tip four: Priorities
So often we can be busy fools! When working from home with blurred boundaries it is so easy for us to have had a busy day and achieved very little. We need to prioritise. How you do that is up to you. But doing it gives you a chance to achieve and get a sense of satisfaction at work.
In my first 15 minutes at work (usually before 9 am) I will review my to-do list, written the night before and ‘star’ three as the most important to achieve or progress. The decision to select them is driven by a mixture of importance (i.e. will make a big impact) and time urgency i.e. is the deadline looming?
Then, subject to any planned virtual meetings, I will take the first topic and do a Pomodoro session to make progress and so on.
I think the start of the day is important and I try to make sure I make progress on one of my priorities first. So many of us do the opposite and start the day catching up on emails or social media. This might be vital for your role. However, emails are often other people’s priorities and the real danger is that from the start of the day your work focus can be highjacked and this time is not recovered. If this is you, I recommend that for the first 15 minutes of your work-day you concentrate on your todo list and only after this decide if you are ready to open your inbox.
Remember that emails do not require urgent immediate response. If they do the author should call you to bring it to your attention. Your task is to prioritise them with your own list, not to let it overtake your list.
Tip five: Regular conversation
When working during lockdown we miss the social interaction of the office. At one level this is a blessing and gives you the opportunity to concentrate way more than you could in the open-plan office. At another, it can create some challenges of professional loneliness which can impact on your mental health. While working from home you can find days pass with no conversation with work colleagues. Emails are efficient and, in most cases, effective but for me, I miss the verbal interaction with another person.
During lockdown be more purposeful about your communications. Use technology to best effect. Many have set up WhatsApp groups with their teams for quick social chat and information dialogue. Zoom has suddenly become our goto app for virtual meetings. And I don’t think you can beat picking up the phone and reaching out to colleagues and customers, particularly at this time, to ask how they are doing. We are social animals and we need to connect.
I hope these five ideas are of use to you and help you reflect, adapt and add to so that you can make the most of the current situation. In the next few weeks, I will add other tips to help you manage the lock down.