Working from Home in 2021: Nine Lessons since the Pandemic
By Dyana Wing So
The challenge of working from home has evolved. If 2020 was about adapting to the new normal, 2021 is about building on lessons learned to make work more productive, balanced, and enjoyable -- regardless of if and when the next restriction strikes.
According to a McKinsey research last summer, the sudden shift to working from home yielded surprising results in worker’s productivity and happiness levels. Among the Americans polled, 80% enjoyed working from home, with 41% finding themselves more productive than doing work at the office.
“Many employees liberated from long commutes and travel have found more productive ways to spend that time, enjoyed greater flexibility in balancing their personal and professional lives, and decided that they prefer to work from home rather than the office.”
However, as we globally reach our one-year anniversary of working from home, even the most productive homebody can’t help but feel fatigued and overwhelmed by now. Thus, 2021 invites all of us to embrace a more sustainable relationship with working at home, as it continues into the foreseeable future.
Even if you may return to an office some time this year (or already have partially), it is likely you and your colleagues will bring new expectations and approaches with you into the post-pandemic world. As Brian Knopp, Chief of HR Research at Gartner explains to USA Today in January 2021: "Employees now expect to be able to work flexibly. They feel they should be able to decide where and when they work.”
Here are some of the lessons that helped us adapt to the changing dynamics of working from home:
1. Learn Your Productivity Style
When work meets home, the walls between public and private blur. Colleagues get glimpses into the private interiors of our homes, and dressing up can literally mean looking presentable from the waist-up only. Being away from the office also means your work and identity have had a chance to take a break from colleagues (for better or for worse) and develop itself in a decontextualized setting.
Today, we spend more time with ourselves while we work, even for those of us co-working physically with others who are not our colleagues. Such an experience can provide valuable insights into our personal productivity style. It is worth taking time to reflect what that is, and discover how we can each improve upon it this year.
One reference to start your reflection is Adobe 99’s four types of productivity styles. Whether we see ourselves as a prioritizer, planner, arranger, visionary, or a combination of these styles, the awareness sets us up to consider what preferences, motivations, and time management systems fit our style best -- all within a space you now have more control over.
If you are a ‘visualizer’, for example, consider having a notebook handy to capture your spontaneous ideas around the house, and embracing the fact that your mind needs periodic changes of scenery to keep you from getting bored or idle. Focused ‘prioritizers’ could benefit from setting timers to remind them to take breaks they often miss, and timeboxing when they can address emails in batches.
2. Approach Productivity as a Marathon, not a Sprint
Okay, some projects do feel like a 200 meter dash, but the difference between work and productivity is that the latter cannot sprint. After nearly a year of working from home, even the hardworking and self-aware among us are susceptible to burning out and being overwhelmed. Worst, they may feel very trapped in the very place that should be their personal sanctuary.
The Harvard Business Review and Fast Company both started 2021 with articles addressing the issue of maintaining productivity. According to Elizabeth Grace Saunders for The Harvard Business Review, reflecting on the drivers of our motivation is key to reclaiming productivity slumps. Until we take the time to address the negative emotions holding us back, we cannot strategize any new routines or frameworks. For some, addressing these emotions may simply mean taking an overdue break before returning to the marathon.
If taking a long break is impossible and reflecting feels impractical, the nine CEOs interviewed by Fast Company unanimously “advocate for experimenting with small adjustments to your routines to hit your most productive period in the day.” In other words, reserve your most intensive, focused work for your peak productive times of day and let your mind rest after you reach your saturation point. Your mind and body will thank you, both in the long and short run.
3. Cultivate a Go-to Routine to Balance out Work Schedule
Intense work encourages intense escapism as response. This cycle repeats itself until we make an effort to limit this extreme with a go-to routine that gives us regular reprieve. Key to achieving this is to treat this designated time as important as you would a meeting for work. A regular, go-to routine is an important meeting with yourself. In the work-from-home context, such a routine is best as a break from screens.
The value of non-work routines is providing space for our minds to recharge and shut off. Many creative professionals understand that it is often in stepping away from challenges (sometimes literally) where they will find their insights and solutions. This is increasingly important as most of us now lack the ritual of commuting to help us ‘turn off’ from work.
Finally, incorporating non-work routines improves your overall productivity and quality of work. As Joel Flory, CEO of VSCO shares with Fast Company:
“In this virtual world, maintaining some of the habits that helped me think and feel my best when I was going into the office has been really important to me. Getting up early to exercise or building in time for walks between meetings helps me to fully show up on screen for my team and be at my best creatively.”
More likely than not, you know what this routine could be for you to cultivate. Rather than starting your search with a new hobby to try, consider improving a habit you know you appreciate. Seeing as how we are unlikely to return to normal in the next month, now is a great time to pursue this small act of routine self-care to make your productivity more sustainable.
4. Draw Boundaries between Work and Home
Although working from home has the benefits of increasing productivity and improving work life balance generally, it has also blurred conventional boundaries separating work from home. It is easy for extra hours to creep up, and for employees to be contacted after-hours to a point where it becomes a pattern.
Although some overtime and urgent work-related calls are unavoidable, it is knowing how to distinguish what can and cannot wait until tomorrow’s work day that matters. Understandably, employees feel extra pressure to be ‘on’ if it is a manager reaching out, and according to a survey conducted by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the expectation to respond right away depends on the manager and situation. For those learning to draw these new boundaries for the first time, one suggestion is to reply briefly to acknowledge the message and affirm that you will look into it the next day.
After-hour calls and overtime aside, weekends and days off should be respected in your private abode, and you have to stick actively to those boundaries to not imply that you can be made available. Just because we have to bring work home, doesn’t mean we lose our homes in the process.
5. Adjust your Notification Settings
Most of us go about life with notification settings on default. With more online tools and social networking platforms anticipated this year (from Salesforce’s acquisition of Slack, to the beta launch of ClubHouse), expect more invitations to join them for work and socializing.
Now is a great time to adjust notification settings to those that really add value to your productivity and personal enrichment. Even if you have already done so in the past, consider the other ways that you have an excess of unnecessary updates and digital accounts to manage. For example, if you own multiple devices, decide which apps really need to exist on all of them. Should you need them again, you can always add them later.
Finally, who said you needed to be on ‘Airplane mode’ while flying? If you aren’t already doing so, make sure your phone cannot disturb your sleep.
6. Declutter (Physically & Digitally)
During times of stress and uncertainty, humans naturally hoard. Add a busy schedule on top of it, files and inboxes pile up into haphazardly organized folders and unopened inboxes. The sight can be draining and demotivating, especially at the start of a long work day.
While we are not asking you to ‘Konmari’ your surroundings, we recommend scheduling routine breaks for light tidying to clear your space and your mind. The gesture is more than a chore, but a powerful signal to pause your brainwork and let your hand work. Not only will you give yourself a fresh start (or end) each day or week, it will also make you more mindful of what past files and work no longer serves you.
Digital decluttering applies to more than just deleting spam and old documents, but also minimizing the triggers to reach out for apps and devices. Consider organizing your apps into folders so the first thing you see is not a wall of brightly colored apps. This is one example of a subtle and quick change to make your personal devices less tempting when our minds idle.
7. Design an Ergonomic Work Environment
Don’t worry, we’re not asking you to hire an interior designer. Rather, we invite you to consider how changing up your space can make a big difference to your productivity and comfort.
For many veteran teleworkers, the basics of an ideal workstation should include a full-size keyboard, wireless mouse, and external monitor. Today, the new home office essentials include noise-cancelling headphones; better-quality webcams and/or microphones; adjustable work tables to improve posture; as well as blue-light blocking glasses to reduce eyestrain. CNET even recommends a better coffee machine for the coffee fans out there. After all, it is your home and your office -- comfort should be a bare minimum.
Finally, whether you like the minimalist aesthetic or not, limiting distractions is key to creating a more productive work environment. The more concentrated you need to be, the more distractions to put away. Our phones are a common source of distraction. Put it in a place where you cannot see it. Better yet -- put it somewhere that requires you to walk over to check on it if and when you have to.
We will delve deeper into this topic in another article, so stay tuned for more insights.
8. Discover What Can be Automated
If there was any time to wrap our heads around AI, now is the time. “A recent McKinsey & Co. global survey shows a corporate push towards automation; the shift to remote work or hybrid remote workforces; an increase in the use of freelancers, and growing reliance on artificial intelligence and machine learning tools to manage the workforce and other key functions,” summarized CNBC in October 2020.
But this trend towards automation is not coming only from the top-down. For those seeking to be more productive, AI technology can offer you a new perspective on your work patterns and routine, as well as make you more efficient by taking over certain tasks. This does not necessarily mean adding Alexa as your new work-from-home colleague (if she isn’t already), though she has a surprising repertoire of rap lyrics if you venture to ask her.
From finishing and improving your email sentences on Google, to scheduling your appointments with Zoom.ai or Calendler.com, AI technology is increasingly being used by remote workers to automate the most mundane tasks so they can do less of it.
Automation can also extend to other realms of life that can feel like a lot of work for some. For example, for those interested and open-minded to network serendipitously, LunchClub takes care of scheduling and matching based on an algorithm of mutual interests and the compatibility of your past matches using the platform.
9. Pace your Days with Regular Gratitudes & Reflection
It is easy to lose track of time when one is working from home. This phenomenon will only increase as isolation extends. Social media updates, breaking news, and appointments remind us what day of the week it is, rather than the office agenda.
Functional planners for jotting notes and scheduling appointments increasingly have an important role of pacing our days. Taking some time at the beginning or end of each day or week to write down three things you are grateful for, for example, prevents work from feeling like a never ending experience.
Whereas gratitude humbles us to take stock of the meaningful highlights of our days, reflection raises our self-awareness, helps us retain what we learn, and much more. As Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang summarizes in her research for The Association of Psychological Sciences:
“While some might be inclined to view rest as a wasted opportunity for productivity...constructive internal reflection is critical for learning from past experiences and appreciating their value for future choices, allowing us to understand and manage ourselves in the social world.”
If working from home is teaching us new insights about our productivity style, pain points, and preferences, we cannot expect to evolve these discoveries if we do not reflect on them. A habit tracker (digital or analog) could
The past year taught us how adaptable we can be to working from home when we have to. But now that more workers are preferring to continue work from home or embrace a hybrid model of home and office work, the new challenge is adapting to these trends on an increasingly personal level that is also sustainable. This means playing a more active role in separating work from home-based experiences, scheduling time for non-work activities (aka make time for fun and relaxation), and making your work environment more ergonomic.
After nearly a year of having work enter our personal space, the least we can do is make it more enjoyable, not the least of which for productivity’s sake. After all, as American author Annie Dillard poetically reminds us: “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”