The 6 biggest challenges of working from home (and how to fix them)
These are unprecedented times. All around the world, as more and more countries start the process of responding to COVID-19, companies and employees are trying to make the shift to remote work so they can keep work going. For many people, this means working remotely for the first time — and getting used to the challenges of working from home is going to be a bit of an adjustment. But even people who are used to working remotely are finding it hard right now. Because this is different. The usual advice for remote workers — things like getting out to meet a friend for coffee or joining a co-working space in your community — doesn’t exactly fly right now. Instead, we’re tasked with finding new ways to stay connected, remain productive, and keep things moving. So whether you’re new to remote working or have been WFH for years, here are 6 of the biggest challenges of working from home during these uncertain times — and a few simple ideas on how to combat them over the next few weeks and months.
Challenge #1: Getting distracted by everything
Adjusting to a new workspace can be challenging — especially when that workspace involves kids, pets, TV, couches, snacks, or any combination of the above. Without the structured office environment to help you to feel like you’re in “work mode”, it can be challenging to get in the zone and resist the siren song of, for example, watching a quick episode of your favorite series, or getting into bed and thinking you can work from there. (Remember: just because you can doesn’t mean you should.) And let’s be completely real here: we’re not just talking about the usual distractions like Netflix and Facebook. Right now, many of us are distracted by ongoing developments in the news, anxiety about the situation, and concern for loved ones. So it’s pretty unsurprising that it’s hard to be productive and focus on work right now.
Here’s what you can do:
Do what you can
It’s natural to be distracted right now, and no matter what Twitter keeps telling you, you do not need to be Shakespeare-level productive. Instead, focus on what you can do: maybe that means pivoting from more intensive things like strategic long-term planning to simple-but-still-fundamental admin tasks that require less brain-power. Set up a dedicated workspace (if you can)
The ideal situation for working from home is a room where you can go solely to do your work. This helps you to associate that space with working, and it means you can keep the rest of your living space for unwinding in the evening (without your work laptop glaring at you from the corner). Needless to say, however, that kind of space is not something that’s available to everyone — but even dedicating a desk or a specific area to be your “office” can help you to get in the zone and start to develop a good routine.
Block out the noise
Noisy neighbors? Kids watching cartoons? If you’re finding it hard to focus because of background noise constantly pulling your attention, don’t underestimate the soothing potential of a set of headphones and some white noise. (Try Rainy Mood or a playlist of instrumental music.)
Work in bursts
If sitting down to focus for a whole day feels impossible, start small. Try the Pomodoro technique: set a timer for 25 minutes and work solidly and without interruption for the full time. (25 minutes is nothing! You can do it!) Then, take a 5 minute break. Repeat. Instead of sitting down to your desk and wondering how you’re going to make it through 8 full hours, you can remind yourself that you only need to keep your focus for 25 minutes — and knowing that there’s an end to your current “sprint” will help to make it feel more manageable.
(Trying to avoid procrastination? These tips might help too.) If at all possible, detach from your phone
This one is more general life advice, but it goes for work as well: try to limit checking the news to once or twice a day, at scheduled times. Set a timer for how long you’re going to spend catching up on any new headlines. Don’t refresh your newsfeed in between your scheduled times, and once your timer goes off, put your phone away and try to focus on something else. While obviously keeping up to date with developments is important, it’s just as important to safeguard your own mental health from anxiety overload. (On the other hand, some good uses of your phone include: calling a loved one to check in; using Google AR to place animals all around your room and then sending screenshots to your friends.)
Challenge #2: Communicating with your quaranteam
One of the biggest challenges of working remotely is getting the team communication right. Communication can be complicated at the best of times, but when you’re not in the same physical space, you have to consciously communicate things you probably never even considered before. Here’s what you can do:
Start the day with a standup
Setting a recurring daily meeting for your team is a good way to quickly check in every morning and set goals for the day. Ask each team member to give a quick update on what they were working on yesterday and what they’ll be working on today, to keep everyone informed about priorities and projects across the team. Having a scheduled daily meeting also gives team members a chance to raise any issues they’re having, and lets you keep a bit of human contact.
Over-communicate at the start
When you’re getting started, err on the side of over-communication, not under-communication. Keep in touch throughout the day using an instant messaging platform like Teamwork Chat or Slack. Use it to let your team know when you’re going offline, breaking for lunch, or finishing up for the day, so they know when you’re available. Statuses in Teamwork Chat are great for this — you can even add a little emoji to brighten up your “AFK for lunch” message. You can also make use of Reactions to quickly let people know you’ve read their message without needing to craft a reply.
Keep things “face-to-face”
Virtually, that is. Using video calls for meetings is the closest you can get to being in the same room, and allows you to have a full conversation (complete with tone, facial expressions, and gestures) instead of hashing things out over text. Video calls are great whenever possible, but they’re an absolute must if you feel like there’s any tension brewing or issues arising that need to be addressed. Being able to see each other is a good reminder that there’s another real human on the other side of that screen.
Go for a coffee with your colleagues
You might not be able to all go out for a coffee — but what you can do is schedule in some short video calls or Google Hangouts to serve as coffee breaks or lunch breaks, where you can all bring your own coffees and just chat. Not only does this give you a chance to show off your latest baking projects or that 6-hour ramen you made for lunch, but it can also help to make things feel a bit more normal, keep up the personal connection with your team members, and give everyone time to talk about things other than work.
Challenge #3: Dealing with housemates (some of whom may be babies or small children)
Whether you live with family or roommates, one of the biggest challenges of working from home is peacefully co-existing with the other people in your shared space. It can be hard for others — especially kids, but also grownups who aren’t familiar with remote working — to understand that just because you’re at home all day doesn’t mean you’re available. And like we mentioned above, not everyone has the option to set up a home office and close the door to get some space, so you might need to compromise in order to find a way of working that works for you all. Here’s what you can do:
Be clear about when you’re working and when you’re free. Most of the time, your housemates probably don’t even realize they’re interrupting and messing up your flow. In addition to telling them your working hours upfront, you could also agree on a visual cue, like “headphones on means I’m in deep focus”. (Alternatively, stick a Post-It on your forehead that simply says “Please come back later”.)
If your housemates are working from home too, you could try taking a “co-working” approach. Or, if you’d prefer to consciously un-co-work, designate different “spots” in the house to be your assigned desks.
Make time for them, too
Maybe you make a point of sharing lunch together every day, or maybe you just promise to switch off from work fully at 5pm and do something together in the evening instead. Whoever you live with, take care of each other.
Challenge #4: Staying motivated
Staying motivated is more than just not getting distracted. Distraction is short-term. It’s the loss of concentration that prevents you from focusing on what you need to focus on, and can prevent you from making progress with your tasks. On the other hand, staying motivated is more of a long-term, ongoing thing. It’s keeping the faith that the work you’re doing is worthwhile. It’s important to feel like your work is meaningful. But truthfully, it’s hard to focus on work right now. It can be difficult to zoom out and look at long-term company or career goals when things are stressful and uncertain in the moment. We get it! We feel it too. But work can also help you to keep busy, return a sense of normalcy and control, and (hopefully) give you a fulfilling project to dedicate your attention to. Here’s what you can do:
Take it one day at a time
Set yourself tasks and milestones so you can remind yourself of what you’ve achieved each day, as well as what you’re working towards in the long-term. Breaking things down into discrete units of work is helpful in making things feel more manageable, and marking each task as completed will give you a boost and a sense of accomplishment.
See how your work contributes to the bigger picture
Understanding how the things you’re doing are helping your team — and ultimately your company — to hit its targets is a good way to feel connected and stay on track.
Challenge #5: Overworking
People often think that remote working is all about sitting at home eating snacks, watching TV, and not actually doing much work. But we’ve found that rather than underworking, one of the major challenges of working remotely is not overworking. When you’re working from home, there’s a tendency to throw yourself into it — especially now, when work can provide some much-needed distraction. Whether it’s putting in a few extra hours to get something over the line, or checking your email before bed and accidentally spending 30 minutes writing a response that definitely could have waited until the morning, before you know it, you’ve spent most of your day on work, and haven’t properly managed to switch off and unwind. And while getting lost in an absorbing task every now and then is great, this is a marathon, not a sprint. So if you’re finding yourself consistently overworking, it’s time to pace yourself so you can avoid burnout down the line. Here’s what you can do:
Stick to a routine
Set times for the beginning and end of your workday and stick to them. It can be hard to push back on a task that comes in at 4:59pm when you all know that you have nowhere else to be, but it’s good practice to draw a line under each day and fully switch off from work once it’s time to clock out. Tomorrow is another day.
Start tracking your time
If you haven’t already been tracking your time, now is a great time to start. Logging time on tasks is a really useful way to see the breakdown of where your time is actually being spent every day — and it can help to remind you of all the things you’ve actually been working on and accomplishing if your days working from home all start to blend into one.
Take your breaks
Breaks are there for a reason: they help you to stay focused and productive. So make sure you still take your lunch break — and any other breaks you would have had if you were in the office — throughout the day. If you can, get up and walk away from your (makeshift) desk and do something completely different.
Schedule an evening activity
Having a scheduled activity for the end of each work day can be really helpful in ensuring you finish up on time, and signalling that it’s time to switch off “work mode”. Whatever it is — a 6pm run, an important daily meeting with your cat that you simply cannot miss — you can even put it as an actual event in your calendar so your team knows you’ll be unavailable.
Challenge #6: Feeling isolated
A lot of us are feeling isolated right now because, well, we are. But while we may not be able to meet people face to face, there are still ways to stay connected. If you’re feeling isolated, at work or in your personal life, reach out to the people around you. And likewise, go the extra mile to look out for others where you can: check in with your teammates and see how they’re doing, touch base with family and friends, and take care of the people around you. We might be alone, but we’re in this together.
Over to you
What are some of the biggest challenges of working from home for you right now? Any remote working tips to share with other Teamworkers? Let us know in the comments or use #keepworkgoing on social (distancing) media to share your advice.