It’s natural to be a little lost when a familiar context is completely altered, as has happened to millions (!) of people around the world in the past few months as a result of this truly awful pandemic. Three weeks since the WHO’s declaration, there appears to be an abundance of “experts” offering advice on how to “work from home”.
I’m not a WFH expert, merely a practitioner with decades of experience and while this may seem like an opportunity for many people around the world to show just what can be achieved by a WFH workforce, it’s really not.
For one thing, in almost all cases there was no proper planning. A workforce that suddenly has to work from home is not usually on the business continuity radar. Shouldn’t this be part of “building availability” contingency? Yes, but typical answers to this challenge involve moving to another building, preferably nearby and similarly equipped. So unless you have very deep pockets to reserve an emergency hot-office (as some banks might), you’re not going to be able to deal with the case where almost every office building on the planet becomes unavailable.
As the virus spread across the world, many office workers were given mere hours to decamp to their homes as governments announced lockdowns (or variations on that theme). This ad-hoc introduction of WFH had people suddenly facing all kinds of problems, including:
- Everything in the office is not necessarily accessible from home, including all that paperwork in the filing cabinets. (Yes, paper still exists!)
- You’ve been promised but not yet received a laptop replacement for your office desktop computer, so now you have to haul that old lump of metal home. On the bus.
- Your house uses wifi exclusively, but not your lump of metal PC, so now you will have to go buy a length of ethernet cable at the computer store. Which is shut.
- What’s a VPN?
- Your asymmetric home broadband seems fast enough to download the office files, but is taking forever to upload the edited versions.
- Everybody seems to have their own idea of what is the best video conferencing solution.
- Residential networks were not built for this level of traffic.
- Some staff live on the lee side of the mountain away from the mobile phone mast, so to receive emails they have to stand on a bucket at the top of the mountain holding the phone in the sky. In the rain.
- Nobody has ever explained how to do more than a few days working from home, so by day three everyone has gone completely bonkers. Meetings – for those who figure out how to attend – are haphazard at best and nobody knows where anything is located any more.
The list goes on and on. Some of these problems don’t have answers. If you need the paper files in the cabinet, and the cabinet is still in your shut down office, tough. Some problems take some ingenuity. For example, your lump of metal PC with no wifi antenna could connect to your home wifi access point by sharing your mobile phone’s wifi connection via a USB tether.
Consequently, this is not the great “let’s show what WFH can do” experiment that many have dreamed of. This is more the nightmare that goes: “let’s reveal all the WFH problems!”
Nevertheless, thanks to an overwhelming desire for people to share stories of accomplishment in the face of adversity, in time most of the solvable technical problems will be solved.
In the meantime, I offer some practical suggestions based on years of personal experience, though be warned that this might not align with the “expert” advice you see elsewhere. Naturally your mileage may vary.
WFH : A practitioner’s perspective
Mark your territory. This is important. Do it on day one. Say “this table is mine” and defend it night and day. This territory, wherever and whatever it is, will be where you work. When you are not within the boundaries of your territory, you are not working. Make sure people know this. Make especially sure that you know this.
No meals in the work territory. Seriously. Have you looked inside your keyboard recently? Eat elsewhere, and since elsewhere is not the work territory, you do not work while eating.
Dress for work. At least from the waist up. If your attire has no bearing on your work, wear whatever is comfortable. Sometimes attire can be a useful signal to others around you that this is your work time, which hopefully reduces interruptions. For some, changing attire at the end of the day is a signal to everyone (including yourself) that work has ended.
Put in the effort, not the hours. It’s a sad fact that much of our work is measured in time. I prefer to measure in results, so my day tends to start with a rough idea of what I want to achieve and how much effort I expect to put in. Normally that keeps me busy for hours, but when those hours take place can vary considerably. If I hit a mental block, I just pause, leave the work territory, go do some non-work (e.g. walk to the post box), and then resume the work with a clear head. Sometimes, often in fact, my work starts to flow so I go along with it even if it means working longer hours. In such cases I will have stored up extra results so the following day I can take a little easier, maybe an extra long coffee break.
Reserve certain periods. You need some regular clock hours if you are going to work with a team of (remote) people. In that case, let everyone know what periods you will be available, and what periods are off-limits. Your co-workers, clients, suppliers and anyone else you interact with need to understand that in addition to working from home, you also live at home. They cannot assume that because you are at home you are also at work. The French have the right idea. If you are contacted during living time instead of working time, defer until it is appropriate to be working again. (Use your judgement, of course, emergencies happen!)
Remember to move regularly. The typical office scenario has a certain ebb and flow to it, and you can adjust to that rhythm quite quickly. Breaks are an important part of the rhythm so a healthy office environment will encourage you to take breaks regularly. In the WFH scenario that rhythm can be lost, and you could find yourself buried in work for hour after hour without noticing, taking no break, ruining your posture and eyesight. Stand up. Look out the window. Stretch.
Regulate your distractions. I’m a news junkie. Maybe sports results are your thing. Or cats on YouTube. Whatever is your preferred distraction, make time for it. Like the short walk outdoors, this can be a short walk for your mind. Just remember to regulate it, so that you have specific time allotted during which you are not working and you can compensate for these periods elsewhere in your day. It’s one of the few advantages of WFH that you can do whatever you need to recharge your batteries, and it pays back in better efficiency and less stress (unless your news/sports is going pear-shaped).
Separate concerns. Many work activities involve sensitive information. If you are doing that kind of work, keep it completely separate from any of the non-work activities you do. So if you want to look at cat videos, leave the work territory and use another device.
Talk to someone every day. This, my final piece of advice, is important. WFH means you are not in an office with people physically nearby, and your work could be the kind that can be done from daybreak to sunset without ever needing to say a word to anyone. Email, code checking, push notification, IMs etc., are all quite practical and efficient, but we are not robots and without some human contact we can quickly lose our bearings. So at least once a day, make contact by voice. Add video if you can. And for at least a few minutes of that call, talk about trivia like normal people do at the office. It’s good for your mental health.
This period of WFH has been imposed on so many people around the world and it could be this way for many more weeks or months. When it’s all over, and it will be over, most of the new WFH people will go back to the office. Some might discover that WFH works better for them, and continue that way. Others will be just glad to get back to something akin to normal. In the meantime, guard your territory!