When I started working from home two years ago, it was actually quite rare. All of my friends worked in an office or at least a co-working space, and if I’m honest, it was seen as being a bit lame.
When you’re starting a business, forking out for an office isn’t an overhead you want to carry, so my business partner and I made the decision to work from our homes, him in Brisbane and me in Sydney.
My first day was great! I had so much more time without having to get dressed up for client meetings and commute an hour into the office. I could eat what I wanted, when I wanted, and no one was looking over my shoulder at what I was doing. Heaven.
What I also found myself doing, however, was a hell of a lot of unintentional procrastination and time-wasting. I ran a load of washing every day (sometimes two), played with my dog (who was confused about why I was in his house all day), and lost way too many hours in the vortex of social media scrolling.
It became very apparent, very quickly, that I had to figure out how to work productively from home, while also keeping my sanity and not talking to the pot plants.
After two years of working from home, I can say with supreme confidence that I have never been as focused or productive in my career as I am today.
With the increase in people working from home due to COVID-19, here are my five secrets to nailing this new way of work from day one.
Treat every day like a workday
Would you go to a normal day in the office wearing pyjamas, or watch an episode of Ozark with a tub of ice cream at 10.30am? It’s unlikely.
Get up at the same time every day, have a shower, get dressed, do your hair, make yourself feel fresh and client-ready.
This is absolutely imperative in creating the much needed mental shift between work and home, it’s a physical reminder that you’re not at home, ready to relax, but you’re at work, ready to deliver value.
It’s a small but important step in keeping yourself accountable, and it sets the tone for your team.
This should go without saying, but don’t turn the TV on and don’t check your social media accounts every five minutes. You wouldn’t do that at work (hopefully), so don’t do it at home.
Same goes for laundry, long phone catch-ups with your mates and boozy lunches. Save those for the weekend.
Create a sacred space
When I started working from home, I worked from bed in the morning, the couch in the afternoon, and the dining room table when my back got sore some time after 3pm. This was terrible for my focus (and posture).
After a few weeks of mild depression and a serious lack of productivity, I decided to only work from the dining room table. That was my sacred space, and when I was there, I was there to work. I even sat in the same chair every day for a year!
Now I live in a house where I’ve got my own office, which makes it much easier for me to ‘go to work’, but I still use the same principle of the sacred space.
My kids know when the door is shut, they need to stay out unless it’s an emergency (no, asking ‘what’s for dinner?’ is not an emergency), and my brain immediately switches to work-mode when I cross the threshold.
The reality is, most people who are new to working from home won’t have a dedicated office or study area, so you need to find a space in your house that you can work from every day, no matter what. This is about routine and structure, two elements you’ll find help you with your productivity, focus and overall mental wellbeing.
Prioritise ‘face-to-face’ communication
I run my leadership development business completely online, so I’m very comfortable with working with my team remotely. If you’ve never done it before, it feels really weird at first. The human connection you get by seeing other people in an office every morning asking how you are, being able to walk over to someone’s desk to brainstorm or go and get a coffee together, those are things that you don’t realise you’ll miss!
To keep this connection, I do a few things.
First of all, I recommend doing daily huddles and catch-ups — just a quick Zoom or FaceTime video call where you can get in a short social chat and keep each other in the loop about what’s going on that day. It will also help you keep an eye on those people who are really struggling with working from home, so be alert for signs of distress or reclusion.
Take the time to have these one-on-one conversations with your people, and ensure they’re doing it down the line.
You want to be communicating with those below and beside you clearly, calmly and frequently. That’s going to keep your team feeling the ‘togetherness’ that we all crave.
Ask yourself if a video message could replace an email. I use software called BombBomb, which allows me to record a video on my computer and send it via email. It takes a fraction of the time to record the video as it does to type it all out.
If you can’t make a video, ask yourself, can a phone call replace an email? Just because we’re used to emailing all the time, doesn’t mean we have to. Make the call, then email quick follow up notes if need be.
For ‘all day chat’, I recommend Slack. It’s the easiest way to stay connected via instant messaging, and it’s a really easy-to-use platform. (And free if you’re a small business as well!)
Keep in mind that if you have people in your team who aren’t as tech-savvy as others, you may need to spend some extra time helping them set up these new programs, so I like to use Loom to record my screen and show people (virtually) how to work their way through new tech.
Treasure your time, and track it
Lost time is one of the biggest concerns of organisations who are implementing work-from-home policies, but it should also be a concern for you.
I know how easy it is to lose hours procrastinating, flipping from one thing to another as new notifications come in or just focusing on the wrong activities altogether, so I do a few things to stay on track.
The first thing I do is ‘batch’ my time at the start of the week, but you can do it at the start of each day as well.
This essentially means you are diarising your time into 30-minute, one-hour or two-hour blocks, and working on one thing during that time. Nothing else. Put your computer on ‘do not disturb’ and turn your phone notifications off.
A great tip I got from my social media manager is to ensure you schedule in ‘reaction’ time each day — this is when you respond to unexpected emails, client calls out of the blue, conversations with team members and so on.
I also use time-tracking software. Toggl is my tracker of choice, but there are a few good ones around. I find that tracking what I’m doing in detail helps me to work out exactly what I’m spending time on that I shouldn’t be, and ultimately enables me to delegate more effectively.
It’s also a great way to keep up with what your team is doing.
Finally, having a ranked list of ‘to do’s’ will help you focus like nothing else.
We all know that person who has eight priority #1’s, and that’s just not helpful for staving off overwhelm when you’re feeling very alone.
You need to rank your tasks in order of most important to deliver, and work your way down from there.
Measure outputs, especially the good ones
When you’re working from home, time is a lot less clear cut. It can sometimes feel like you’ve been working for five days straight and you’ve done nothing, even though you have achieved a huge amount.
At the end of each day, write down what you accomplished (you can use your time tracker for this as a reminder). Follow that with what you want to accomplish tomorrow, and have a look at that ranked list. Setting yourself up for success the day before will have you hitting the ground running, instead of wasting an hour at the start of the day trying to work out where you should begin.
If you’re leading a team, get into the habit of doing this and asking your people to do this. Open a Slack channel called ‘daily wins’, and have everyone put something in at the end of the day, you can get really creative around the virtual celebration of goals. This feeds nicely into structured work from home KPIs, and can improve the entire team dynamic.
Working from home takes some getting used to, but you can absolutely start on the right foot from the outset if you build discipline, consistency and structure into your day from the very beginning.
While you may crave that face-to-face office environment in the beginning, I have no doubt that you can turn this short working from home stint into one of the most productive, creative and socially connected chapters of your career.
This piece was first published on Smart Company and is republished with permission.