Getting the most from work-from-home?
March 29, 2021 6:36 AM   Subscribe

As work from home increasingly looks like a regular part of my life going forward, I'm taking another look on how to get the most out of the flexibility, and mitigate some of the downsides. Any unexpected tips/tricks, etc that have improved WFH for you? Either new benefits on the personal side, or ways to make work more pleasant/efficient?

For me, for example, I've incorporated 5 minute (timer based!) housework sprints every hour or two. It gets me out of the chair for a few minutes to manage restlessness, and by the end of the day, I have 45 minutes of housework done. (Also, FWIW, it helps break up housework I've been avoiding into very very small chunks)

On the other hand, I don't feel like I've gotten a great routine for checking in with the people I supervise that really replicates being in the same office. Calls get rescheduled - maybe we should try chat?

Looking for both tips to make work more useful/functional and also to get more work/life balance with WFH.
posted by mercredi to Work & Money (13 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
I've been WFH since 2012 and it took a while to get adjusted for me (previously all working in-office).

We rely heavily on an IM program for check-ins - easier to ping a coworker than play phone tag. We will sometimes problem solve as a group in this chat program and it works surprisingly well. No talking over each other and the threads can be easier to follow vs. multiple emails back and forth.

I have a standing weekly meeting with my boss for check-ins that is done over the phone. We do zero video chats as a team (and thank goodness for that).

On the personal side, I schedule my lunch as sacred time and incorporate a walk unless the weather is really tragic that day. Getting away from the computer is more important for me now since the work is always there.

I get fully dressed - even if it's a t-shirt and jeans - as working in my pajamas doesn't work for me. Be comfy but there's still a work mentality to maintain.

Since I can be answering emails or working with clients well into my evening, I don't feel guilty taking time during my work day to run an errand.
posted by Twicketface at 6:48 AM on March 29, 2021 [7 favorites]

For me, it's having office space separate from living space. I freelanced for 25 years in a dedicated office room in my house but was forced to downsize to a 1 bedroom about 5 years ago. I tried having a work desk in my livingroom but it was always “there” and piled up with crap behind the monitor. I eventually decided to fit what I absolutely needed into a wall cabinet that I could close up at the end of the work day. It takes up less than half the space and never looks messy.

Since the video meeting craze started, I've found it reassuring that a closed door means there's no danger of having a camera on while I'm walking around in my underwear, picking fluff out of my navel.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:23 AM on March 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

if you are not using MS Teams or similar you absolutely should be. my supervisor and i are chatting constantly, and have a video call one or more times a day as needed. our communication is way better than it ever was when we were in the office.

you should also set up weekly check ins via video call, and be available for urgent ones as needed.

i strongly resisted the video call when this all started, but i have found it is much easier than a phone call and has led me to develop a great relationship with my supervisor.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 7:44 AM on March 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

I both have a manager and am a manager. My relationships both up and down have been very good both before and after working from home. There are a few key aspects:

1:1 meetings at the same time every week, and they are kept sacred. If there's nothing work related to talk about, we chat about our pets or home chores or whatever at least for a few minutes. Usually just talking about anything is enough to trigger remembering something work related to talk about. 1:1s do not get skipped unless someone is on vacation. Think of it like walking a dog. You can't skip taking your dog out for a poop because it's inconvenient or you're tired. Don't want shit on the floor? You spend the time to walk your dog. Don't want shit in your work relationship? You spend the time to 1:1 for at least half an hour every week.

Casual chats and calls at any time. I am always IMing with my boss and my reports. Usually task related, but also just to say hi or share a nice story or to tell someone they did a good job with a thing. I have an important job and report to a C level person, and we talk via video chat at least once a day outside of our weekly 1:1. (But still the 1:1 is maintained! Consistency is so vital!) It has the equivalent of dropping by a desk. Because we talk so often, there's zero pressure to make the video call performative. Even for literally a 2 minute chat, it's easier to do it via a live conversation if there is any aspect of problem solving.

Respecting the work relationship with hard lines. My boss has texted me to my personal phone maybe 3 times a year. To wish me a happy birthday on a weekend, to thank me on a work anniversary, and for a genuine pants shitting emergency which he apologized profusely for because it was 6:30pm. Once when I was very ill to wish me feeling better and tell me he rescheduled my next day's call so I could take off more time if needed. I do the same with my reports. The relationship does not extend past work hours. You can be friends with other coworkers, but imo it's not ok to foster a personal relationship with anyone who might feel coerced into performing that for job reward. That line is SOLID.
posted by phunniemee at 8:53 AM on March 29, 2021 [12 favorites]

I always thought that commuting was one of the worst parts of working in an office, so I was surprised to find that I missed it. I have a separate office at home, but I still needed some part of my routine to include a sense of traveling to a place of work, and then one of leaving it behind. Without the commute, I felt like there was no real boundary between work and home. To replicate the commute itself, I go for a run or a walk while listening to music or a podcast at the beginning of my work day, and do a bit of yoga at the end of the day.
posted by rhythm and booze at 9:10 AM on March 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

One of the best things about WFH is that you don't have a commute. For me, I had a one-hour-plus drive each way before, so even if I work a ten-hour day at home (which I don't), my work-life balance is still improved, because I would still have a half hour more to myself than I would if I were commuting. YMMV of course, but regardless, you're still almost certainly getting free time as a result of WFH.

The key to work-life balance, then, is to keep work from intruding on that new free time. That's a question of company culture and personal habit, but for me, I just turn off notifications. I'm unusual in that, by "turn off notifications", I don't just mean pause them until you're back on the clock. I actually turn off my notifications. I started doing this years ago when I worked in an office, because the little Outlook popup when you get an email drives me absolutely insane. At my old job, the building landlord used to send mass emails about parking violations, so I'd be trying to concentrate on something and an Outlook window would pop up with like "silver Oldsmobile parked in reserved spot 3A" in the subject line. Great, that's not my car, but thanks for derailing my train of thought. So I just turned it off. If I wanted to know whether I had an unread email, I'd have to alt-tab into Outlook itself, which I did as needed. That stuck, and now it's the first thing I do when I open Outlook on a new computer. I do have Slack notifications on, but only on the computer, not on my phone. (Side note: I don't have my work email on my phone at all, which is great if you can manage it.) Then, I just close my laptop at 5pm, and voila, work-life balance. Obviously highly dependent on company culture, but if you can swing it, it's great.

One thing I didn't realize I missed until literally yesterday was an actual desktop workstation, in the non-computer sense. That is, having something other than just a laptop and power cable. I started my current job after lockdown, so that's all I've ever worked off of. They finally approved an equipment request for me to get two monitors, a docking station, a headset, etc. last week, and I set them up over the weekend. This morning has been pretty mind-blowing in terms of how much more I can do now that I have three screens. The downside is that I have almost no flat surface left on my desk to put a notepad, lunch, or whatever else would sit on my desk before. I never really thought about it before, but it was kind of nice having a big, long workspace where I could get a little disorganized and still have space. So now I'm buying a new, bigger desk. Already with the new monitors I feel more "worky".

As far as checking in, I think there are ways to foster a culture of chattiness without scheduled meetings, but I'm a little concerned why your check-ins are getting cancelled. Are your employees cancelling them because they've got other things going on? Or are you cancelling them? Because if it's the latter, that's a problem, and not just for WFH. As a manager, you're sending your employees the message that you've got other priorities that are more important than they are. One-on-ones are one of the only chances you have to let your employees feel heard.

Aside from that, yeah, leverage chat/messaging. My company has a pretty chatty Slack culture, but I asked for a team-specific channel because, as someone who has only ever WFHed with this company, that's the only way I get to interact with my teammates. So we did that, and it's pretty great. There are the usual announcements and work-related questions, of course, but today one of my co-workers asked for recommendations for standing desks. Last week my boss told a story about his kids demanding a certain breakfast. There are rarely more than two threads a day, though. It's nice because it kind of replicates water cooler chatter without being overwhelming. At an old job, before Slack was a thing, we just had a standing group chat with everyone in the department, even though we were all in the same room. I'm a big proponent of having a dedicated team chat even for non-WFH.

If your company culture is informal enough, you can do fun stuff for video calls. A couple people have started playing with their virtual backgrounds. Others have pets, or, in my boss's case, kids who pop in and out of the frame. It's my contention that the reason everyone hates video calls is because the default setting is just staring at a screenful of people staring back at you. Think about it: if you had a non-WFH meeting like that where you walked into a conference room and everyone just started at you for an hour, it would be unsettling. So switch it up and make it fun. Allow people to do fun things instead of just sitting and staring. And if something unexpectedly fun does happen, like if someone's dog starts jumping on their bed in the background, don't ignore it. Point it out and celebrate it. That kind of thing is fun. Ultimately, that's my best advice for work in general: the funner you can make it, the better.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:33 AM on March 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

I agree with the sacred 1:1s if at all possible. And if your team has interdependencies (they aren't just independent direct reports), have a team meeting even if it's just a quick 20-30m so everyone has a chance to touch base on blockers or useful info. My work environment has a big Slack culture, email is really only for customer-facing communication, and my sub team and umbrella team both have locked channels for our own discussions plus all the companywide channels for work and off-topic, and then ample direct messages for quick communications.

I've been WFH on and off for a couple decades and I still meal-prep so that most breakfasts and lunches are heat-and-eat, and frankly I dislike cooking dinner entirely from scratch too so I also bulk-cook as I can for that as well. Sometimes that means I take part of my "lunch hour" to throw stuff into the crock pot or Instant Pot (sometimes this happens before work too, so I'll have something for lunch and more).

I try to go outside and get actual exposure to sunlight at some point every day. I have two elderly dogs, one of them a good bit more raggedy than the other (I just realized with a jolt this morning that she's 16), and she finds my garden-n-stuff backyard a little jarring and loves a nice unimpeded wander around the front yard (before then going out back to do any business, she's a creature of habit). I'm never going to be sorry I took a few minutes to let Roxy have some sniffs.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:38 AM on March 29, 2021

As someone who's been working from home for almost a decade, mostly freelance, I had actually gotten very used to being left more or less alone by my supervisors and teams once schedules/deadlines were set. Now that EVERYONE works from home and I'm technically an employee, it feels like nobody ever shuts up. So you might find that your staff actually appreciates having fewer check-ins--depending on the kind of work you do. (In our case the actual work is deep-focus stuff requiring long blocks of time, a thing I literally NEVER have anymore between all the effing Zooms.)

It's probably worth doing a little surveying about the amount and type of contact everyone finds helpful and then work on making that contact as efficient and useful as you can.

Everyone's ideas about boundaries and walks and lunch hours are probably good, but I've never found that I could maintain that for very long. Ultimately if I step away from my computer, and I'm in my home, wild horses cannot drag me back to work. So it is better that I just glue myself to the laptop until I can reasonably quit for the day, and then quit so hard I don't even remember I HAVE a job until the next morning when my alarm goes off like a dickhead.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:48 AM on March 29, 2021 [7 favorites]

nobody ever shuts up.
Yes. Zoom and teams meetings and the stepped-up schedule of webinars by all and sundry were cute for about a week but now it's like hanging out in a cloud of gnats for 8 hours.
posted by Don Pepino at 11:12 AM on March 29, 2021 [6 favorites]

small but useful for me. inviolable rule: when i am not in, I AM NOT IN. my breaks are mine. i have a dedicated lamp that's a 'on-air' light. light switched on, work. light switched off, my time. even if it just a tiny break. no emails, chat, work calls...
posted by j_curiouser at 1:48 PM on March 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm an odd case since I went to planned Part Time in semi-retirement April 2020 (i.e., after everyone was sent home, but I didn't know that would happen). So that solved my work/life balance since I'm only permitted to work a max number of hours.

As for work effectiveness, on the one hand I find it's improved since people are not holding meetings and passing around hand-outs. It's being put in various electronic doc or tracking systems. If someone needs to demonstrate or troubleshoot something, there's Zoom screen share. Pretty much we all just use our employee photo in meetings. I don't get the whole video thing (maybe because I don't interact directly with clients).

On the other hand, it's easier for silos to develop and become hardened. It used to be if someone wasn't responding with promised info or deliverable I could just walk over to their desk. They might still stonewall me but at least I was sure that's what was going on. In other words "crickets" is easier now.

Some things that would make my WFH more effective aren't technically possible. E.g., my assigned laptop is it, I've only got display adapters for 2 monitors even though when I logoff work I use 3 with my home PC (e.g., one sits w/o signal all day). Even though we're in the 21st Century I don't see Tony Stark type technology becoming available for WFH soon.

The longer we go in WFH the greater % of my notes are in txt files in folders on my work laptop, and I've learned when I take notes to include Web links, dates/times of emails and snippets of chat discussions and screen captures that were pivotal for a project (e.g., design decisions made, phases and dates agreed upon, etc.) So if I'm in a Zoom meeting I can refer to (or screen share) the details. As doctors say, if you don't write it down it didn't happen.

And although I thought I was pretty good before, I have memorized tons of Windows 10 short-cuts for multi-desktop, window management, remote desktop, WinSCP, etc.
posted by forthright at 4:41 PM on March 29, 2021

I saw this article about reverse meetings and wonder if it might be a way for your direct reports to check in with you as needed.
posted by bluedaisy at 4:55 PM on March 29, 2021

Eat lunch outside whenever possible

Choose two blocks of the day when you leave your phone in another room, so you're totally unreachable by voice (for me this is when my kid naps! I really need some dedicated silent time to recharge)

Keep a huge amount of water at your desk (extra glass, pitcher, whatever it takes)
posted by nouvelle-personne at 9:17 PM on March 30, 2021

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