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Work-from-home productivity tips for the long haul

When the pandemic forced Kenny Trinh’s company to lay off employees, he found himself managing multiple roles—remotely. “One of those jobs was customer support and I was really bad at it at first,” he confessed.

As the editor of NetBookNews, a gadget review publication, Trinh says one of the biggest hurdles was simply trying to behave professionally at home. “I didn’t need to meet with the customer face to face anymore which meant that I didn’t need to wear formal attire. This was a boon for me since the job was more relaxing, but it was also a bane because it was too relaxing to the point that it made me lazy.”

He ultimately learned that getting dressed professionally every morning was helpful to get him in the customer service mindset. And if he lost the motivation, he’d give himself a physical task like running a few laps inside the house or hitting the ground to do a set of push-ups. “These tactics not only made me a better professional customer service rep, but it helped keep my body in shape,” he reported.

In April, 62 percent of Americans were working from home due to COVID-19. Restrictions may be beginning to ease in some areas, but there are still many organizations that are sticking to remote work for the foreseeable future. Facebook and Twitter have even announced that they will allow staff to work from home permanently.

That makes for a lot of people like Kenny who are trying to figure out how to do their jobs well in an environment that was not set up for work—not just temporarily, but for the long haul. Productivity may not look like it once did—but it is possible. Here’s some advice to help you stay focused as you soldier on in the “new normal”.

[Related read: How to work and homeschool—advice from someone who’s done it]

Accept that things are different—and find ways to adapt

Things are different now. And a new reality calls for a new approach to work. It’s up to us to make our own weather, first by accepting that things aren’t always what we wish they were; and second by figuring out a new paradigm that works for us. Trinh’s self-disciplinary measures worked for him, but are certainly not the solution for everyone.

That makes for a lot of people...who are trying to figure out how to do their jobs well in an environment that was not set up for work—not just temporarily, but for the long haul.

As a way of figuring out a new work paradigm for yourself, think about the conditions that were in place during your most productive office work. Did the meeting with the team first thing galvanize you for the day? Did you do your best thinking after a watercooler chat with a colleague or a 2 p.m. chai latte and a brisk walk around the block? Map out your ideal workday based on your previous experiences and try to find similar stimuli at home that can help get you going.

[Related read: Holding onto the rituals we’ve learned to love as we shelter in place]

Create routines, plans, and systems

Waiting for the mood to strike us to work, clean up, or exercise doesn’t work for many people. Even people who resist order are more productive with some sort of structure to their day. Otherwise, how can we tell when the workday begins and ends? Some antidotes to uncertainty are routines, plans, and systems.

Routines
If you’re someone who hates structure, I have good news: you get to decide what that routine is. (New paradigm, remember?) Think about when you’re at your most productive and schedule executive tasks during that period. Does a walk or a workout in the middle of the day energize you? Make that part of your routine. Giving yourself a sense of what’s to come allows your mind to subconsciously prepare for the next step of the day.

Plans
Working from home can be especially overwhelming when work and life feel integrated. You might be doing laundry in between writing a sales report, making a PB&J for your five-year-old and preparing for the Zoom call with your team. Without an office environment to funnel you through your day, it’s easy to get lost. You can maintain order by making a plan for each day and sticking to it.

Systems
A surprisingly simple and effective way to cut mental clutter is to create systems so you can work on autopilot as much as possible. Areas to consider include:

  • Weekly meal planning: No more pulling dinner out of a hat every day—simply consult the plan when it’s time to cook.
  • Specific tasks for days of the week: Split ongoing domestic chores and work tasks into chunks, i.e., laundry on Sundays; sales calls on Wednesdays; financials on Fridays.
  • Email templates: If you find yourself writing the same kind of responses to colleagues or customers, create a template so you can whip off an answer in a few clicks.
  • AI: Look for apps that can simplify the work you do, i.e., automate scheduling meetings with Calendly; manage your lists and keep notes in Wunderlist; manage your passwords with LastPass; and stay focused with Focus Keeper.

[Related read: From dating apps to customer relationships: we’re closer online than ever before]

Make yourself less distractible

You may not be in control of some of the factors that pull focus (we’re looking at you, kiddos), so it’s important to maintain an iron grip on what you can. Think about:

  • Disabling social media on your phone
  • Turning off email and the Internet when focused on a task for a specific time frame
  • Putting your phone on silent for an hour at a time
  • Removing items in your line of vision that take you out of the work you’re doing
  • Training yourself to avoid multitasking—do one thing at a time

You can maintain order by making a plan for each day and sticking to it. If the list gets unruly and intimidating, identify just three things that need to absolutely be finished that day—and move the rest to tomorrow’s list.

If you really want to be the master of your own time, check out the advice of Nir Eyal, author of Indistractible, on clearing your computer of focus-draining distraction. “Extra distractions act as triggers coaxing us to do unimportant tasks — costing us wasted time and focus. Every errant icon, open tab, or unnecessary bookmark serves as a nagging reminder of things left undone or unexplored. With so many triggers, it’s easy to mindlessly click away from the task at hand,” he writes.

Whether you have roommates, parents, a spouse, and/or offspring, they all have a singular way of derailing your workday.

Ideally, you’ve found a nook where you have a modicum of privacy. Still working from bed or the kitchen table? Take another look around and see if you can co-opt a room that doesn’t get a lot of traffic in the day. Some people have even ingeniously cleared out closets to create a mini-office. If the weather is co-operative, consider creating an outdoor space for yourself to hunker down.

If you find yourself being barged in on at all times of the day, it’s time to agree on “office hours”. Thinking back to the value of creating a plan, it might be helpful to plot out your day, hour by hour, and post it where others can see. Make note of when you are available for questions or concerns and when you must absolutely not be disturbed.

[Related read: Quick tips for releasing tension and anxiety at work]

Stay on top of your physical and mental health

In these challenging and restrictive times, managing our wellness can feel like a cruel joke. But there are a few things that are within our control that can make a massive difference in the way we feel.

  • Sleep. Regular, consistent, high-quality sleep can do everything from improving our memory and brain function, reducing our risk of disease to preventing depression. Aim for eight hours by keeping screens out of a quiet, darkened bedroom, creating a bedtime ritual (e.g., tea, bath, bed), and going to sleep/waking up at around the same time every day.
  • Diet. Studies show that what you see is what you eat, i.e., you’re more likely to snack on an apple if there’s a bowl on the counter. (Same goes for potato chips or sugary cereals.) Keep the good stuff front and center in your pantry and refrigerator and plan meals so you’re not making bad choices just because you’re starving.

It might be helpful to plot out your day, hour by hour, and post it where others can see. Make note of when you are available for questions or concerns and when you must absolutely not be disturbed.

  • Hydration. Missing your daily walks to the watercooler? Dehydration can cause headaches, fatigue, and brain fuzziness. Invest in a water pitcher and set reminders to top up your glass every hour or so. Or download an app that’ll provide friendly motivation.
  • Exercise. There are lots of inventive ways to be active at home, from basic walking in your neighborhood to virtual workouts to climbing the stairs to playing with your kids. And Instagram is positively alive with free virtual workouts to get your blood pumping.
  • Movement. While that one workout a day is great, it’s not enough if you’re sedentary for the 17 remaining hours of the day. The Mayo Clinic advises standing up once every 30 minutes. Trot to the bathroom, do a couple of stretches, or hop up and down before getting back at it. Here’s an app that’ll help you remember.
  • Stress. It’s hard to manage stress in a year like 2020, but it’s a critical step in maintaining good health. Getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising are key to keeping stress levels down, but if you’re feeling overwhelmed it can be helpful to talk to a friend or professional therapist. If you’re not comfortable voicing your feelings, consider writing them down in a journal to ease the tension you’re feeling. Pay attention to the things you’re grateful for right now and be sure to take note of them, too.

[Related read: Therapy, like everything else, has moved online. And that’s a good thing]

  • Ergonomics. Sitting slumped over a laptop in bed or on the couch is a one-way ticket to an aching back and neck. At this point, if you’re at home, you need to have a proper workstation. Movesafe has tips on setting up an ergonomically healthy setup.
  • Meditation. Everyone from the Dalai Lama to Jerry Seinfeld claim a healthier, more resilient and patient personality thanks to meditation. There are countless apps, books and online resources to help you get started. Even two minutes a day can work wonders.
  • Breaks and boundaries. Bloomberg reports that many Americans are working three extra hours a day at home since the Covid outbreak. This kind of work/life integration will no doubt result in a lot of burnout in the months to come. While it’s on leadership to help employees observe boundaries, it’s also up to individuals to attend to their wellbeing by taking breaks and creating reasonable work schedules.

Bloomberg reports that many Americans are working three extra hours a day at home since the Covid outbreak. This kind of work/life integration will no doubt result in a lot of burnout in the months to come.

  • Connection. It’s so important to connect with other people in a meaningful way during a stressful time. If you’re Zoomed out, make old-fashioned phone calls to your friends and family members, and make a point of chatting with neighbors.

Working remotely may not feel natural for everyone, but the “new normal” in many organizations is giving leaders and employees alike the opportunity to reimagine what productivity means to them. Individuals now have more insight and even control into how they work best. If we can learn from our processes, workplaces may never be the same again. And that could be a good thing.