As millions transition from the office to working from home, certain practices can boost productivity, reduce distractions, and establish a separation of work and home life under the same roof.

Associate Professor Craig Caldwell

Craig Caldwell, Associate Professor of Management and Associate Dean of Graduate and Professional Programs for the Lacy School of Business, says working from home effectively takes dedication to not only the physical space, but also to the worker’s mental space—especially during a time of uncertainty as the world shifts to telecommuting and social distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak.

As people scramble to keep up with the pace of new information about COVID-19, practicing mindfulness in the home is a good first step. Practitioners of mindfulness concentrate on the present moment while acknowledging their feelings, thoughts, and surroundings.

“Mindfulness can help you self-identify the main issues you are struggling with,” Caldwell says. “This entire field of mindfulness is something I find increasingly helpful for working at home. For example, folks inclined to procrastinate will tend to procrastinate even more without a boss or peer pressure. Mindfulness can help you explore why you procrastinate and offer solutions to overcome it.”

Many industries have been disrupted, but limiting the disruption from affecting job performance at home can be achieved with thoughtful efforts to understand the nature of the work, the emotions of the employee, and the work space requirements.

‘Latitude’ adjustment

Caldwell says current circumstances require patience from supervisors and workers alike. Deadlines may be more difficult to meet. Suppliers may be unavailable. Productivity could wane, at least at first. Supervisors must give latitude to their workers, and the workers must give themselves the same as they get used to a new work routine.

Workers may not have the same administrative, IT, or peer support that they had at the office, but the work will get done if people utilize more patience and commitment on projects. Now is not the time to eliminate workers who are struggling with productivity. Developing existing employees is cheaper and faster than hiring new ones, Caldwell says.

Save the home environment

For many, working from home isn’t foreign. Caldwell says Fortune 500 companies and small start-ups have effectively worked outside of the traditional office for years. Small companies with fewer than 10 full-time employees often utilize coworking spaces for their rare, face-to-face meetings, but working from home is most common.

But even these workers must make adjustments as family members that used to go to an office or school are now working from home. The house is getting crowded with telecommuters and online students. Caldwell says setting parameters early on is key.

“You may need to have substantive conversations with your family,” he adds. “‘Here is what is happening: When I’m at this particular desk, when my headphones are on, when the pink Post-it Note is on the door, it means I’m not available.’ What was once a person working from home, now it’s four people all working at home on their projects and school work.”

And working from home doesn’t mean sweatpants 24/7. Grooming and dressing as if you were heading into a professional setting helps with home productivity and mood, Caldwell says.

Extended hours

The 9-to-5 concept didn’t apply to many workers before COVID-19, but working from home now should come with the mindset of being available and online for a wider range of times, according to Caldwell. Factoring in breaks to prepare kids’ lunches, walking the dog, or being online late to handle that teleconference with Japan will spread out the work day more.

Caldwell recommends relying heavily on keeping that Outlook calendar full with work-related tasks and projects. Don’t just log your meetings: Log the independent tasks, too. A busy calendar will maximize productivity and reduce distraction.

“Any device, tool, and app that keeps track of what you’re doing as opposed to allowing a black hole of a day is good,” Caldwell says. “Literally schedule your day so you have a full day of work at the office. The mentality of being productive in that particular space is really important. Set hours for when you are going to to be ‘in the office.’”

New tools, new skills

Working from home should still include the development of new skills, as well as the exploration of new programs and applications.

“Maximize downtime,” Caldwell says. “Self-development can be highly motivating. Skill up with a new certification of some kind. Pursue continuing education online for that skill you always wanted to acquire. Why not dig into it now?”

Caldwell recommends working in Trello, an online management tool, to keep track of projects with your remote team. Slack is an app that allows for smoother communication between colleagues, particularly for more casual interactions.

The norm, for now

Already, “crisis management” should be added to resumes worldwide. Work has continued for many industries, and workers being nimble in this transition are keeping businesses afloat. The dramatic shift to work life at home will continue for months.

“If there’s a silver lining at all, it’s this: You’re developing a new skill in how to effectively work remotely with a high level of productivity,” Caldwell says. “Since we can’t control it, get comfortable. Be in tune to how you are feeling and how others may be reading you. There’s still a lot of connecting taking place, and that should continue.

“We need to be extraordinarily charitable right now, and I think we’re going to get through this and be a stronger society for it. This will be one of those things that pulls us together and unifies us.”

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Katie Grieze
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