Homework (Part One): Tips for setting up a successful remote working environment

By Malibongwe Tyilo 20 March 2020

The coronavirus pandemic means that many workers will have to set up office in their homes. Here are some tips to make remoting as effective as possible.

See Part Two (Communication for teams working remotely) here

While many industries and companies have been proponents of telecommuting, also known as remote working, be it from home or coffee shops, the reality of the coronavirus pandemic is such that many more who are not used to working remotely will have to. Understandably, not all jobs can be done remotely, especially in South Africa. And for many freelancers, as events are cancelled and business slows down, this will present challenges that will result in potential loss of income.

Additionally, there is the very real issue of space, especially in smaller dwellings; a quiet room, desk, wi-fi, and a telephone line might not be an option.

For those who are in the relatively privileged position of being able to work from home, with the space and connection to do so, there is the lesser challenge of adapting to a new routine. It may be a simple matter of incorporating a new discipline, and avoiding distractions and structuring one’s time for greatest productivity, which might be a challenge, especially for those with children at home.

For all its faults, the office environment does at least enforce a structure that we can simply fit into. Employees know what time to come in, to have lunch, and to clock off and head home. So, how best to maintain structure, or possibly create an even more efficient one?

According to a study supported by the IZA Institute of Labour Economics, a non-profit research institute and international network in labour economics, actual productive hours during the typical eight-hour workday averaged 4.6 hours. It is worth noting that this particular study was conducted among call centre employees. However, the finding is replicated in studies across various industries. A survey by Vouchercloud, done across a pool of 1989 UK office workers, found that on average they spent just two hours and 53 minutes doing actual work during office hours.

Proponents of working from home, in industries where this is possible, say that it could improve productivity. According to one 2015 study conducted in a business with 16,000 employees and published by Stanford Graduate School of Business’s Professor Nicholas Bloom, remote working resulted in a 13% improvement in productivity.

Before you panic at the idea of being away from the office structure, take heed of his and the many other studies on the negative correlation between working hours and productivity, and consider the possibility of using this as an opportunity to find ways to use your time much more efficiently.

However, getting the most out of telecommuting does require some strategies, especially if you are transitioning into remote working for the first time.

Discipline. Getting up and getting on with it

There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Some, like this writer – a veteran of the home office, having dabbled in remote working at different times over the past few years – can roll out of bed, throw on an ugly fleece gown, grab a coffee and get started. But some of us function better with a sense of structure. Google’s Think with Google website advises: “When you work in an office, the daily routine of getting ready and commuting helps your brain get ready for the day. When you’re working remotely, you can create ‘start the day’ triggers that get your head ready for work in a similar way, like exercising, reading the news, or making coffee.”

Indeed, there’s no need to change your regular morning routine. Go ahead, take a shower, brush your teeth, and if you normally go to the gym, get online and find an exercise routine that you can do at home. Calisthenics could be a great option to look at as it primarily uses your own weight, and reduces dependence on equipment. It also doesn’t require much space.

Location, location

As tempting as it might be to lie in bed or a couch and work on one’s laptop, sitting in a space designated for work, be it a desk in a separate room, or a dining room table if it is in a space with minimal or no distraction, helps to get your head into the game. If you’re anxious about how you will create the space, have a look at this tongue in cheek article by CNN on the rather “extreme” lengths some are going to in order to create workspaces in the home.

To-do lists

If the ubiquity of task-managing apps, books and articles on the importance of writing or typing daily as well as long-term goals and plans seems overwhelming, then perhaps this study from the Department of Psychology at the US’s Florida State University might do the trick. The researchers found that:

“By planning for their goals, people can better manage their multiple pursuits. It has been well documented that specific plans increase success (Gollwitzer, 1999), doing so in part by making goal pursuit more automatic. Once a detailed plan has been made, one no longer has to think about the goal to execute it (Brandstatter et al., 2001). Apparently, a plan reduces the amount of thoughts and attention that are typically recruited in service of an unfulfilled goal. Thoughts of an incomplete goal will not interfere with current concerns so long as a plan has been made to see the goal through later on.”

All this might sound obvious to those who regularly make to-do lists, but even if you typically don’t, starting to do so now is likely to be crucial in helping you become an effective telecommuter, as well as introduce a discipline that could benefit you throughout your working life.

Let’s meet, online

Although an important part of any organisation, meetings and meetings about meetings can also be great time-wasters in the office environment. In July 2019, Microsoft Japan announced plans to test a four-day work week without a reduction in salary. As part of the experiment, meetings were capped at between 30 and 60 minutes and only a maximum of five employees could be part of any meeting. By November 2019, the company announced that the trial had resulted in a 40% productivity boost, and lower electricity costs, which fell by 23%.

Working from home will undoubtedly require some meetings, and thanks to the many options for group video calls, necessary meetings can still be held online. Beyond email, co-working tools like Slack provide an effective way for teams to communicate and share documents by setting up different channels. Google’s co-working systems like Google Sheets and Docs also allow real-time work. And when it comes to video meetings, there’s no shortage of options, be it WhatsApp, Skype, Google Hangouts, or Zoom, which is particularly effective for larger meetings.

However, this does not necessarily mean they will be more effective. So this is also an opportunity to lay down some ground rules in order to make them more efficient, especially considering slower wi-fi connections and data usage for those without connections. Make sure to check out part two of the Homework series here for tips on how to structure an effective culture of digital communication for remote teams.

Beware the digital distractions

The 21st century phenomenon of social media distraction via the smartphone is one many of us are susceptible to. Have an honest look at your own habits. How much time do you spend on social media? How much time do you spend on reading random articles? Are you able to reduce that time if it affects your productivity negatively? If not, there are also several apps, such as Google’s Post Box app, that will either lock you out of your phone for a predetermined amount of time, or switch off notifications so that you receive them at the same time at a predetermined hour.

Relax. Take a break

One of the advantages of working from home is that you can define what your lunch break looks like, be that a nap, a chance to watch something online, play video games, or perhaps catch up with errands that don’t require you to leave the home. In situations where you don’t need to be in constant communication with or collaborate with team members in order to complete daily tasks, test out your most productive hours. Perhaps you’re great in the morning, not so great in the afternoon, and brilliant in the evenings. Work the hours that suit you best in order to achieve your deadlines timeously.

Most importantly for the novice telecommuter, keep in mind that all of this might take some transition, and with time, you will settle into this reality, and in some industries, possibly thrive. ML

If you would like to share your ideas or suggestions with us, please leave a comment below or email us at [email protected] and [email protected].

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