Many companies have never embraced the idea of employees working from home. Regardless of the reasons, these companies have been caught flat-footed by COVID-19. With employees now working from home for the first time, some may still be struggling to adapt.
If you’re working from home, whether or not it’s because of the global pandemic, then you have discovered the inherent barriers to productivity that come from being out of the office and physically separated from your coworkers. Overcoming these challenges requires action from ALL levels of the organization. Let's look at what you, your team and your company can do to increase productivity in our new environment.
Advice for the individual
Assess your ergonomics
The first thing you need to do is assess the ergonomics of your workspace. At the office, you have a desk, an office chair, a multi-monitor setup, a full-size keyboard, and a mouse. The company provides these things so you can work for long periods of time without undue physical strain on your body. Ideally, your office setup should give you the same benefits. See this guide to office ergonomics from the Mayo Clinic for the key elements of an ergonomic workspace.
Adapt your workspace
When I started working from home in early March, I already had a home office with a nice desk and a great chair. My desk had a keyboard, mouse, and monitor, all connected to my home PC. Unfortunately, my monitor lacked a compatible port to use with my laptop. I tried using my keyboard and mouse with my laptop, but this positioned the screen too far away. Eventually, I just pushed the keyboard and mouse aside and spent the first few days hunched over my laptop. It was killing my neck and shoulders. I decided to invest in the necessary gear so I could work as I do in the office.
Sharing a keyboard and mouse between two computers
I needed to share the keyboard and mouse between the two computers. With a little research, I learned this can be done with either hardware or software. I opted for the hardware solution and used this USB switch. The USB keyboard and mouse plug into the front. Each computer plugs into the back. To switch the keyboard and mouse between computers, just push the button.
Sharing a monitor between two computers
Next, I bought a new monitor that accepts Display Port from my home PC and USB C from my laptop. A button on the monitor lets me select which port to use as the input. With steps 1 and 2 complete, I am now able to work ergonomically.
The next best thing to multi-monitor
If you’re using a single monitor at home, you probably miss your multi-monitor setup at the office. Did you know there’s a handy keyboard shortcut that’s the next best thing? You can make a window take up exactly half of the screen by holding down the Windows key, then pressing either the left or right arrow key. The application window with focus docks to the left or right side of the screen, depending on which key you pressed. Try it!
Get a headset
On conference calls, there are two common sound quality issues that are easily avoided. The first is feedback, which is when a person hears their own words about 1 second after they speak. The second is when a speaker sounds muffled or garbled, like they are calling from a tunnel. Both issues are avoided by using a headset.
I recommend a Bluetooth headset with earbuds instead of headphones. Earbuds tend to block out external noise better, and headphones can hurt your ears after about an hour of being clamped onto your noggin.
Manage your time
There are plenty of resources available about time management and staying productive under normal circumstances. Back in the good ole days (i.e. 2019) I would have recommended a very different approach to manage your time to maximize your productivity. Things like having a schedule and prioritizing your work. But working from home during a pandemic brings very different challenges. Here’s my advice.
Be ready to step it up for your company
In the short term, your job may start earlier and/or end later. You may have to put in time on the weekends. If your company needs you, step up.
However, you’re not a machine. You need to take breaks in order to recharge and stay productive. If you need a long lunch or an unscheduled 30-minute break in the afternoon, take it. Be honest with yourself about your productivity. Don’t burn the candle at both ends by getting wired on caffeine and crashing at the end of the day. It’s not sustainable.
Are you suddenly faced with a shortage of things to do while your coworkers remain overwhelmed? If so, reach out to help. Look for work. It doesn’t matter if it’s your job or not. Pitch in! Trust me, your coworkers will thank you.
If your coworkers don’t have work for you to do, there’s always something to learn. Use your free time to learn a skill that makes you more productive and/or valuable to the company. If your company has been resistant to working from home in the past, now is the time to step up and prove their fears have been unjustified. Most people can be as productive working from home as in the office. Some can be much more productive.
Advice for the team
Teamwork is all about effectively dividing work and coordinating effort among team members. Communication is key. When in-person meetings and hallway discussions aren’t possible, you need to replace these with new methods of communication.
Choose standard channels of communication as a team
As a team, decide on your standard channels of communication. I work on several different teams in my job. Most use Microsoft Teams for chatting and talking. One of my coworkers prefers Zoom chat and calls, so that’s the channel I use when I talk to him. In prior jobs, I used Skype for Business, but at Veritas Total Solutions this is not a popular option.
Use channels other than email
In addition to “closed conversations” like chatting and talking, there are also “open conversations.” Instead of lengthy email threads with multiple people, opt for using Teams to talk to all team members at once via posts to a channel. When new members are added to a Team, they can read these past conversations. Email messages are only available to people who were part of the original discussion.
Share files vs. emailing them
Sharing files is a common need. Stop emailing them. You can use SharePoint by itself for file storage, but the preferred option here would be to create a team in Microsoft Teams and then use its integration with SharePoint to stay organized. Accessing the SharePoint site directly from Teams is much easier than remembering where the site is on SharePoint.
Pick up the phone: there’s no substitute for talking
Most of the above advice is focused on asynchronous communication. But remember, there’s no substitute for talking. Conversations are necessary and often efficient. Talking is high bandwidth communication. It’s fast, and it allows for immediate verification of understanding. Meetings can be as short or long as necessary. Don’t be afraid to have a quick call instead of crafting a lengthy email.
Turn on the webcam
When you have a call or meeting, consider using your webcams. It’s nice to see your teammates occasionally. It helps you remember the voice in your ear is connected to a real person.
Advice for the company
Leaders, there are two things you must do: communicate and connect. These are important under normal circumstances, and vital right now.
Communicate with your employees
They want to know what’s happening, how the company is doing financially, and what the future looks like. No news is not good news; it’s a breeding ground for fear. At VTS, the executive leadership team meets with the entire company every two weeks to provide these briefings.
Connect with your employees
Bring them together, either to rally for a cause or simply to share experiences with each other. After our last company-wide meeting, we had a virtual happy hour (BYOB, of course). Everyone turned on their webcams and we shared news with each other over drinks. It was fun! We’re also engaged in a 30-day fitness challenge. This has brought out the uber-competitive nature of a few people and kept us all in good spirits. We’re also working on some ideas to give back to the community. The details are still being worked out, so stay tuned!
The current lockdown from COVID-19 won’t last much longer. Many will be able to return to the office in a few weeks. What will your company do when this happens? Will you go back to business as usual, requiring employees to come to the office every day?
This isn’t over. The CDC expects a resurgence of coronavirus in the fall, coinciding with the flu season. Predictions are that it will be much deadlier because fighting two viruses simultaneously puts an enormous strain on the body.
Working from home, once viewed as a luxury, must now be considered a key part of a company’s operational readiness. My advice is to make it part of your normal operations by requiring employees to work from home on a regular basis.
At Veritas, we pride ourselves on our ability to be agile and adapt to new situations, including unexpected situations like COVID-19. We are committed to our clients and have adapted quickly to continue work despite the circumstances, we are committed to our employees by keeping them informed on the health of our company and checking in on the health of each other and most importantly, we are committed to our community and have been doing our part by encouraging employees to work from home (#stayhomeworksafe). If you are interested in knowing more about how we are responding to COVID-19 or need help or advice, we are here for you. Connect with us or subscribe to our blog to get monthly updates.