Over the past several weeks, the world has experienced an unprecedented rise in employees Working From Home (WFH) -- many of whom are new to the experience. While working from home can be beneficial in many ways, navigating your first few days (or weeks) can be surprisingly challenging.
That’s why we built this resource, where we’ll cover key areas like:
- Establishing a comfortable, constructive WFH environment
- Staying productive no matter where you are
- Collaborating and communicating effectively
- Maintaining a strong culture
Why we built this guide
We’ve been a distributed team since day one, and many of our team members worked remotely for years before joining Polly. We crowdsourced learnings from their experiences and added tips from other friends across the globe to bring you the most useful, comprehensive WFH guide we could.
So let’s begin!
It’s important to start by stressing that there’s no one right or wrong way to establish your work from home practices and environment. What works for some people may not work for others. Some people like utter silence, while others thrive in a buzzing atmosphere.
It’s also worth noting that it can take some time to fall into a groove with working from home. If it feels unnatural or awkward at first, don’t be surprised - this is the stage where many prematurely decide working from home isn’t for them.
Small changes can make a significant difference in the quality of your experience though, and any effort you put toward improving that experience is well spent.
A special note to employers:
It's equally important for employers to grant employees who are new to remote work a little extra slack as they learn the ropes. As you embark together on this WFH journey, please remember to show some extra patience for technical difficulties, kids or pets in the background, and a little general disarray at first.
It will get better.
With that in mind, we’re going to cover a broad range of strategies, tips, and techniques for getting your best work done at home. Feel free to pick and choose the strategies that fit you best, and leave the ones that don’t.
If you find you're struggling to lead your newly remote team through this journey (and everyone is if we're being honest), we have a comprehensive remote team leadership guide to help you navigate this unprecedented challenge.
Need a guide for both working and leading from home? We've got you covered there, too. Check out our latest eBook, A Practical Guide to Working and Leading from Home.
Section I: Your WFH Habitat
There are a lot of things you can do to improve your Work From Home environment, from furniture to peripherals and decorations. At first glance, it may seem as though the design and outfitting of your habitat is more about creature comfort, but your habitat does affect your work output - both its quality and its quantity.
So what does it take to put together a WFH habitat conducive to success?
Tools of the Trade
Any tasks you’d traditionally do in the context of “work” should be possible to do from your home office without any undue hardship.
That means your office or hardware setup at home should be similar (ideally, equal) to the sort of setup you’d have in any other dedicated office setting. For some, that might mean external monitors, a headset, a standing desk, a prized fidget spinner, or anything else you’d normally expect to have at your desk.
Creating a home office that reflects your dedicated office helps to avoid the context switch you experience when moving from one physical location to another. You have the same screen, same keyboard, same mouse pad, same notebook -- all the things that make getting your work done easier and more pleasant. If you can keep these things arranged in the same order, all the better.
If your WFH workspace is poorly established in comparison to a dedicated office, you’re going to be fighting an uphill battle just to meet your normal benchmark of productivity.
Need some more ideas? Our friends at Toptal shared some additional outfitting tips for your remote office here.
Wi-fi and Internet Connection
Internet connection speed and reliability are crucial to a good work-from-home experience. WFH means you’ll likely be spending a good amount of time using SaaS tools and attending video calls -- both of which require a good amount of internet bandwidth.
There are few things more frustrating than audio cutting out sporadically and having to repeat yourself again and again, or worse, video calls dropping entirely.
Getting your wi-fi nicely dialed in and performing at its best can be a bit of a journey, but it’s worth the effort to have a stable, reliable internet connection.
Comfort and ergonomics
A good number of first-time or short-term WFH’ers will put up with a less than ideal setup, thinking that they can “tough it out” until they’re back in the office.
That’s a mistake.
If your WFH setting is physically uncomfortable, it’s going to be difficult to get any work done, let alone your best work. That’s when frustration sets in, and you decide working from home doesn’t work for you. Even worse, “toughing it out” with poor ergonomics can lead to a host of repetitive stress injuries (RSIs).
Instead, invest in making your space healthy, inviting, and comfortable.
Make sure you have a suitable desk, and if you plan to sit for extended periods, a quality chair that won’t leave your body strained after an hour.
If you find yourself squinting in a dark and chilly room, get a lamp and a cozy blanket. If you live in a place that gets hot and humid in the summer, get an air conditioner, or at least a box of popsicles.
The more comfortable you are in your WFH habitat, the easier it will be to focus on the work at hand.
While we’re on the topic of comfort, it’s important to look after your aesthetic comfort as well, otherwise you’ll feel more trapped than inspired by your WFH office.
Make sure you’re not sitting in a spartan, white-walled room unless that’s really what you like. The key here is to ride the fine line between visual interest and distraction. Get some textured surfaces going and a pop or two of your favorite color.
Unless you thrive in chaos (some of us do), make sure your WFH environment is clean and neat before you start your workday. It’s easy to see something out of place, a dusty floor, or last night’s teacup sitting out and convince yourself that fixing it is important enough to drag you away from your work.
Pets and plants
Multiple studies have shown the benefits of pets in the workplace. Some folks find pets distracting, and they absolutely can be, but it depends on whether or not you find that beneficial.
Pets have an uncanny ability to know when you need a little break.
A 5-minute laser dot scramble with your cat or a 15-minute dog walk can be an exceptional tool for smashing through a nasty creative block -- much better than staring at the wall or taking a third or fourth trip to the snack machine, anyway.
Plants are another thing to consider adding to your environment, not just because they look nice, but because they’ve proven to enhance productivity and job satisfaction.
WFH -- Away from Home
Is it still WFH if you’re not ‘Working from Home?'
In some cases, WFH can simply mean you’re not working from your dedicated office. Your alternate workplace could be a cafe, a coffee shop, a park -- anywhere you feel productive. Many people benefit from a mixed mode of working, as it provides some separation and a little relief from cabin fever.
Some of us don’t feel comfortable without a physical separation between work and home, and that’s ok.
Shifting your perspective
It can take a while to truly adapt to a WFH environment. Remember, this is your home - the same place you binge Netflix and clip your toenails.
To the extent that it’s possible, make sure you’re establishing a separation between “work” and “home.” This is particularly helpful for folks who spend their time split between working from an office and from home.
It’s easy to work up a pretty strong case of cabin fever if you spend all day working from home.
If possible, try to do your work in a different place than you spend your leisure time. For example, trying to be productive in your bedroom can make it difficult to associate that place wholly with sleep or work.
It’s already quite easy to get caught up thinking about (or doing) work during off hours, and that’s particularly true for those of us that work from home.
Rituals can make it easier to establish a healthy separation between work and home, even if those two things coexist in the same physical space.
For example: Taking a shower and dressing as though you’re going to work in public every morning can have a measurable impact on your mood, and even your output. It’s a cue for your brain that says “it’s not leisure time anymore, it’s time to make things happen!”
A remote colleague of mine has a ritual of closing his computer, then tidying up his desk, a visual and tactile signal that he’s signed off for the day.
Section II: Personal Productivity Tips
Without anyone to check in or hold you accountable in a physical workspace, it’s up to you to embrace accountability and build productive habits.
When building positive productivity habits, there are a few categories of things you can do to make the process much easier on yourself. James Clear has an excellent in-depth section that expands on this topic in his book Atomic Habits.
Reinforce helpful actions by making them easier to do.
Examples of this could be things like laying tomorrow’s outfit out the night before so you don’t have to stare bleary-eyed at your wardrobe while you’re half asleep in the morning.
Make unhelpful actions inconvenient to perform.
An example of this might be leaving your phone in a different room from your office (if you struggle with screen time distractions).
Make helpful actions rewarding.
An example of this might be giving some of the time you’ve saved through productivity back to yourself as free time.
Do Not Disturb (DND)
Notifications, by design, are difficult to ignore. It costs willpower to ignore them -- and wouldn’t you rather save that precious resource for things you care more about? Luckily most operating systems, and even communication tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams have a DND feature. This can help you avoid answering notifications while spending less willpower.
Pomodoro units can be a great tool for productivity. In essence, you recognize that it’s nearly impossible to stay hyperfocused for several hours at a time. Instead, you break your productive time into either 1 hour or half hour increments, followed by breaks that last one fifth the amount of focus time.
50 minutes of focus, 10 minutes of break
30 minutes of focus, 5 minutes of break.
There are apps dedicated to timing these productivity blocks for you, or you can use a mechanical timer - the key is actually taking that break when the timer goes off. You might be surprised how much more focus you gain by knowing the time to focus is limited.
This may sound trivially simple, but having stated goals for each day can make a meaningful impact on what you get done. Whether you write them out on paper or use an app to track them, stating those primary, secondary, and tertiary goals for the day helps cement their importance and relative priority in your mind.
Some (but definitely not all) folks prefer to ride the waves of their productivity, putting in focus work at odd hours. This is definitely what you might call an “advanced move” in the world of WFH because it can make collaboration more complicated, but it can and does work well for the right person and situation.
Section III: Collaboration and team productivity tips
Sharing your status
Whether you use Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, or signal flags to communicate, sharing your status becomes even more important when you’re working from home. This communicates context to your colleagues as to what you’re up to, and in some cases, why you haven’t responded yet.
Collaborating across time zones
Adding multiple time zones does complicate collaboration, but with some planning and a few key tools, you can keep a solid pace of productivity.
Asynchronous standups and check-ins
There are a number of great tools available to help distributed teams stay connected and in stride. From Github to Creative Cloud, Trello, Asana and JIRA, each has its own benefits and uses, and that’s just to name a few.
Standups and check-ins, while they’re normally completed face-to-face, can also be completed asynchronously, though it’s still valuable to have everyone together occasionally for some high-fidelity communication, whether that’s in person or on video. That might mean some members of the team calling in early or late in their day, so it can be good to rotate which timezone the standup is held in occasionally.
In addition to that exercise, Polly has tools to make running asynchronous standups in Slack and Microsoft Teams simple, with a running record of who did what and when, who’s blocked, and how. Feel free to give it a try with your team!
Section IV: Culture and Camaraderie
Taking time to reinforce organizational culture and the bonds of camaraderie you share with your team is always important - but in the context of working from home, that effort is especially crucial.
It’s easy for remote employees to feel left out of the group, but community is not a one-way street. Working from home means accepting a bit more cultural and interpersonal overhead to compensate for the lack of daily interaction that happens as a result of sharing a physical space with others.
Aristotle posited that “distance does not break a friendship but impedes its exercise.”
We have an advantage in modern communication tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts Chat and Zoom that people in Aristotle’s time didn’t have. While long distances may historically have made building strong, lasting relationships a challenge, that impedance is much smaller today, so take advantage of it.
Try to fit in a few lines of chat with each of your closest colleagues daily. It doesn’t have to be related to any project you’re working on together. Even taking a moment to say hello or share an interesting article or tidbit helps to strengthen the camaraderie you’ve built with others on your team and bridge that gap of physical distance.
If your team uses Slack, we have a suite of games and experiences to bring your team together.
Recognize great work
Make sure to call out and celebrate the contributions your colleagues make on a regular basis. Doing this builds camaraderie, helps everyone understand the value in their work, and reinforces organizational values.
It may seem difficult or awkward at first. You may feel as though you’re less productive, but looking back on the day or week, you’ll likely find that you were just as productive, if not more so.
Working from home is sometimes a necessity, and sometimes a choice. Even if you’re not required to WFH right now, it’s certainly not a bad idea to practice in case you need to in the future. It’s our hope that this guide will not only make that easy for you, but enjoyable too.
Written by George Dickson
Lives to learn and build cool things with good people.