Will improving how we work remotely see us through the next few weeks or the rest of our working lives?

Over the past weeks all of our lives have undergone a seismic shift.  All the amenities we’ve taken for granted for so long – our schools, pubs, restaurants and even our high streets – are closed.

Access to supermarkets is limited.  Even the time we can exercise outdoors has now been rationed as we’re urged to maintain a social distance of at least 2 metres to help curb the spread of this shocking virus.

One of the other dramatic changes almost all of us have had to adapt to is working from home.

Initially this may have looked like the easiest request to meet.  We can get up when we want (within reason!), we can wear what we want (unless we’re needed for a video conference) and we can finally side-line the irritations of our daily commutes.

The reality has been very different proposition though.

When I’ve spoken to clients and colleagues, they’ve told me that they’ve had to negotiate a number of unexpected hurdles just to stay on top of things.  Systems haven’t worked properly, internal communications and access to information have been tricky to maintain, a new set of distractions has affected our focus and a feeling of isolation has had a real impact on both motivation and productivity.

However these conversations have also unearthed a lot of very practical suggestions, tips we can all use to make our homeworking lives that little bit more industrious:

  1. Set goals: The secret to working remotely is getting organised.  Create a ‘to do’ list (or better still 2 ‘to do’ lists – priority and secondary) and make sure you jot down the deadlines next to each line to keep you on track.
  2.  Have a set work space: Don’t move around the house, set up a desk with all your gadgets, chargers, files and reference material in easy reach so that you know that once you’re there, you’re working.
  3. Plan out your day: Know what you need to achieve before lunch and after lunch and know when you can call it a day.  Having these short targets to work to is proven to make you more productive.
  4. Learn a few new IT skills: As you’ll be doing pretty much all of your work on a computer, you could use the extra time you’ll have in the day to learn new IT skills. You could get more familiar with new platforms like Zoom or Teams.  You could find out which of the other apps in Microsoft 365 could help you become efficient.  Or, it could be something more practical like learning how to fix any connectivity issues or what you need to do to speed up your PC.
  5. Minimise distractions: Pets, TV and family members are just a few of the distractions we’ve all found in the ‘new normal’ so first off, if possible, you need to set your desk up in a room with no TV.  Then make sure your family know when you’re working so they can fit in around you (and you around them if you’re sharing childcare duties). Most of all, learn to shut the door.  A physical barrier is the simplest barrier.
  6. Limit the number of times you check e-mail: While staying connected is important, so is finishing the task/s at hand.  Set time slots to read and answer emails and stick to them. If you’re worried about slipping out the loop, remember the working world is a little slower at the moment and if people need to speak to you now, they will ring you.
  7. Take breaks: Getting up and moving around (or even getting out the house within the government’s regulations) will help you mentally and physically and, as you’ll return to your desk refreshed, it is also likely to increase both the quality of your work and your productivity. You can also use breaks as a reward to keep you motivated.  Tell yourself that once you tick off the next 2 items on your ‘to do’ list you can have a half an hour for a cup of tea and a biscuit or even a bit of TV.
  8. Keep your work time and personal time separate: You wouldn’t drop your work to see to personal tasks if you were in the office so don’t do it while you’re working at home!  If you do give yourself set breaks, that will give you the time you need to look after non-work things.
  9. Stay in touch: This is by far the most important thing to do.  Working alone at home is by definition a very solitary existence so make sure you are regularly talking to your colleagues, clients and contacts. While this can be done by phone it’s better to adopt a mix of communications.  Try some of the free video conferencing apps available so you’re actually seeing who you’re talking to from time to time and use text messages and WhatsApp for more direct questions.

These are all useful tips but how much of an impact could they make to your working lives long-term?  The easy answer would be that they’ll keep us going for now but things will soon be back to normal.  Experts, however, are starting to take a different view.

There are more and more indications in the press that the changes we’ve had to make to combat Covid-19 could lead to a permanent shift in the way we work.  As we become more adept at and more used to working at home what’s’ been dubbed the ‘new normal’ could very well end up just becoming normal.  It could be that our offices could become places you visit once or twice a week for meetings.

While the fear that there will be residual pockets of Covid-19 in some heavily populated areas may mean we have to minimise our trips into the cities we used to work in, it could be that employees simply don’t want to go back to the traditional daily grind.  Moreover, if it can be proven there’s been no lasting effects to productivity, employers may see this as the perfect opportunity to make savings on rent by downsizing or fill the holes in their revenue caused by the crisis by selling the property they own.

And it’s not as though there isn’t a precedent for businesses to perform successfully with a home-based workforce.

Many technology firms including Amazon, LinkedIn and Microsoft made the switch to remote working some time ago.  As they had the tech knowhow in-house they were able to build on their existing infrastructure so their employees could communicate, access the tools information and documents they needed and manage the progress of projects they were working on without ever having to see a colleague.

Twitter went one step further and offered to pay for any furniture or hardware their employees needed to buy to set up their home offices.

While we can’t really see more traditional UK businesses making a similar investment, the argument that this could well be the opportunity for businesses to finally make the move to a more flexible working model definitely holds water.

Evidence suggests that working from home not only maintains productivity but increases it as there are fewer internal meetings, less off the cuff demands from colleagues.  This proposition can still raise an eye brow in some quarters but by the time we are given the green light to return to work, we’ll have empirical evidence either way and that evidence could be all a business needs to make their final call.

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