These are unprecedented times. The restrictions we face today are challenging, and when combined with having to deal with work commitments, family at home, and the continual drip-fed news from beyond our four walls, being in lockdown can become extremely stressful.
For employees who have never worked from home before, this new way of operating are especially difficult. The sudden lack of social interaction with other work colleagues, finding a dedicated workspace at home, and dealing with different work schedules and times takes its toll.
This guide is designed to help you get the most from this unique situation, from working at home to making ensuring your workspace is properly setup, through to maintaining a healthy balance, and staying mentally fit.
Setting up your work area
Setting up the ideal workspace is an essential part of working at home efficiently. However, in the current crisis many people will be working from home in less-than-ideal situations. But whether you are working from a home office or the dining room table, there are several ways that you can create a productive work area at home.
One of the most important factors when creating your home-office workspace is to aim to have a dedicated area to work from every day. Preferably, this should be an enclosed space (such as a study or spare room). However, for many people, this is not an option, so try to aim to set up your workspace in a quiet area of your home.
In an ideal situation, everyone should have an ergonomic chair and desk, as well as an adjustable monitor, and other equipment that has been set up by an expert to ensure it has been configured correctly. But this is unlikely to be an achievable reality at present for the many workers who now must work from home.
If you are working from a laptop, try and make it as much like a desktop computer setup as possible. Use an external mouse and keyboard, and use a screen lift (or, although a bit Heath Robinson, a pile of books,) to raise your screen so that your eyebrows are level with the top of the screen. This ensures good posture, straightening your back and stopping you from scrunching over – which over time will lead to back pain.
Consider buying a desk and a chair with ergonomic support, adjusting it so that your feet rest comfortably on the floor and the backrest gives you good support. It may be possible to borrow some equipment from your workplace to use during this period. If that’s no possible, then get a couple of good, plump cushions and use one to sit on, and the other as a backrest. This will help with your posture and allow you sit better for longer periods.
If you are going to be spending a lot of time on calls, consider using headphones to avoid overusing or straining your arm or neck muscles. Also, try and put your phone on speaker, and place it upright and in front of you, so you’re as clear as possible when talking.
Try to work in a room that gets lots of natural light and, depending on how you normally like to work, you may want to add some background noise to recreate the general buzz of an office environment. It’s an odd setup, using background noise, but it has been proven to help lessen the impact of a quieter home environment.
Creating a routine
Most of us have a regular daily work routine. We get in, put the kettle on, check our emails, grab a cup of coffee, then settle down to catch up. We also take regular breaks – even at times when we don’t realise it. Consider the amount of times you may need to get up to fetch a printout, put the kettle on, nip to the loo, go and see someone in another office… These are all routines that get us away from our screens. When working at home, we tend to ignore breaks, working through the hours in front of the screen without ever leaving our seats.
The importance of having breaks can’t be stressed enough. As a general rule of thumb, take a five-minute break for every hour that you work in front of the screen. If you’re able to, take a little more time.
The daily commute is something that’s weirdly missing from a work at home routine. While it may feel a chore when you’re doing it, when it’s not there anymore it can be sorely missed. That brief exchange of other people, the short walk to and from the bus stop/train station, climbing the stairs of your workplace to the floor you work on, and so on. At present, we’re allowed one instance of outdoor exercise. If you can, take the opportunity in the morning to ‘walk’ to work – even if it’s just around the block and back home again. Remember social distancing, though.
Get dressed. Preparing for work is both mentally and physically part of daily life. We get up, get dressed, have breakfast, wash and brush our teeth, then out of the door to head to work. When at home, try and keep to the same routine. Working in your PJs at home may sound like fun, but psychologically speaking, it’s not doing you any favours. You don’t need to get into a suit – or maybe you do if you’re on a video call – but getting dressed will help you immerse yourself into a good work pattern quicker and easier.
Finally, make sure that you power off your work equipment at the end of the day. If you can, pack it all away – especially on a Friday after work – at the end of the working day, so it’s not always visible and tempting to use outside of work hours.
The Work-Life Balance
Working from home is a major change to our lives, so it’s essential to make sure you’re doing it right from the off.
In such circumstances, it’s always best to chat to your manager to talk about the realities of working from home. Chat about what’s required from you, your role could now be drastically different. Keep an open communication with your manager and team, so you all know what’s needed and that you’re all still working together.
Many people will have caring responsibilities when working from home, which makes things more complicated. You will need to work out with your manager which meetings are essential to you and your work. This will give you time to balance childcare, for example, with work. If possible, try and fit your work schedule around the children, such as nap time, or time they can be watching something on the TV. Also, set up your work area so that they are able to work next to you (colouring in and such) while you’re working.
It’s work communicating boundaries with others you live with (family or flatmates). Respecting these boundaries can make working from home better, and more productive. Start by making sure that work calls and meetings are held in another room, without someone disturbing you – or you disturbing them. Getting a schedule of everyone’s work hours is helpful, so you can avoid clashes. If possible, also try and keep your work and social spaces separate, and remember to tidy away after yourself so others can use the space for work if they need to.
Social media is something that always crops up when looking into a healthy work-life balance. While the likes of Twitter and Facebook are fine for keeping in touch with your friends, or even global events, they’re more than likely to take more than they give. These platforms are full of fake news, useless distractions, and other un-referenced and un-scientific bile. If you need to go on social media, it’s best to question everything you read, and follow some of the more reputable accounts that will keep you informed correctly. Use the likes of WHO, CDC, and the NHS for medical and scientific advice. News outlets are more difficult to judge, since they are at the mercy of the media outlets, however, the BBC, The Associated Press, Reuters and The Wall Street Journal are considered some of the more accurate and unbiased news sources.
Spending a lot of time in one space for both work and leisure may affect your quality of sleep, which will then affect your work. Creating a calming night-time routine can aid good-quality sleep, and mindfulness apps can support you to detach from work and move into a more relaxed state of mind. Try to wake at normal times, and don’t look at your phone or social media for an hour before bedtime: the blue light from electronic devices will supress your brain’s production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates your sleeping cycle.
Getting away from the screen at time will work wonders for your mental wellbeing. Try and spend time reading, doing a jigsaw, knitting… anything that will focus your concentration away from the screen for a time.
With your kitchen within easy reach, it can be tempting to graze throughout the day rather than make proper meals. However, taking a full lunch break and making yourself a balanced meal will help not only ensure that you are eating right, but also help break up the day. If you are not getting outside as much as you are used to due to the current restrictions, make sure you are getting enough vitamin D. The main source of vitamin D is normally from the action of sunlight on the skin, but it is also found naturally in oily fish, red meat, liver and egg yolks or available in vitamin supplements. Public Health England recommend that people consider taking a 10 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin D every day. Lack of time outside makes this piece of advice significantly important.
The social constrictions in place mean we’re not going to be in touch as much as we normally are when at the workplace. Take the time to hook up using the likes of WhatsApp, Skype, Facetime or other such apps. Even if the time spent with others is limited, it can help you overcome the difficulties of working alone. Human beings are inherently social creatures, so stay in touch.
Look After Your Mental Health
We’ve already touched on some elements of mental health in the above, but it’s so important, especially now, that it’s worth looking at in more detail and to reiterate a few points.
While it is important to stay up to date with the latest news regarding COVID-19, only get information from trusted sources, such as the aforementioned sources. Seeking information once or twice a day maximum can help minimise anxiety and distress in regard to the current situation. Don’t focus on having the news updates permanently on in the background. This can lead to more stress.
While social media is an important tool for staying connected with colleagues, friends, and family, avoid using it as a source for news or updates, as gossip, rumours, and misinformation are frequently spread on these sites. Misinformation can be very dangerous and damaging to your mental health.
Avoid alcohol, if possible. It’s okay to enjoy a drink in the evening, but don’t be tempted to overdo it because you don’t need to travel to work. Alcohol is a depressant, and causes more problems than it appears to solve.
Use your scheduled lunch break to get outside, if possible, as sunshine can have a positive impact on your mood. However, please ensure you stick to up-to-date Government guidance, and avoid public areas where you cannot maintain the social distancing requirements – currently, this is to stay at least 2m from other people. Sit in your garden or on a balcony, if you have one.
Helping others can be a key part of maintaining our own mental health. Contact local charities to see how you can help those who have been particularly affected by the virus or get in contact with neighbours to see if you can help. Whatever you do to help, make sure that you avoid physical contact with other people – especially the elderly or more vulnerable.
It’s difficult to exercise while the gyms, swimming pools and so on are all closed, and we’re limited to the outdoors. Staying healthy will help you maintain a better mental wellbeing, as well as help you work and deal with what’s going on better. It’ll also keep you healthy so should you fall ill, your body can deal with the virus more effectively.
The current popular choice for exercise is Joe Wicks’ PE workouts, available from his YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/thebodycoach1/videos. There are countless other great workout YouTube channels to consider to, such as Athlean-X, Jeff Nippard, and TeamRICHEY – search for them via the YouTube search function.