Editor’s note: We are re-running the top stories of 2020 as part of our year-end countdown.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a surge in the number of individuals working remotely.
According to a Gallup survey, the percentage of U.S. employees working from home jumped from 33% to 61% in the two weeks between March 13 and April, 2, 2020. Some of this increase in remote work is likely to endure over time, as organizations and employees have expanded their capacity for remote work.
Remote work offers obvious advantages. Employees gain flexibility and reduce their commuting time and costs; organizations save on travel costs, shrink office space, and get access to experts around the globe. In the past weeks, remote work has kept many organizations functioning. Yet, remote work can be tricky. Employees may have difficulty managing their workloads, using technology, connecting with managers and co-workers, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Here are four steps remote workers can take to minimize these difficulties and master remote work.
1. Manage your workload.
Your workload may have increased as a result of the sudden shift to remote work and ever-changing organizational goals in the midst of the crisis. You must take time to set priorities and structure your work. Concentrate on the most important or most time-sensitive tasks. Recognize that you are likely to overestimate what you can accomplish; be realistic in setting goals.
It is also crucial to check in regularly with your manager because priorities may change rapidly. Consider making a work schedule and sticking to it. This schedule should take into account when you need to be available to respond to managers, co-workers or customers, and when you need to be available to meet personal obligations.
2. Use technology effectively.
Remote workers face the challenge of mastering new technology. You should devote time to learning to use virtual tools such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams. There will be a learning curve, and frustration is normal. Take advantage of the resources your organization offers, as well as the wealth of resources on the web. Reach out to colleagues who are already using the technology.
Tech expertise is only half the battle; you must be able to match the technology to the task. Technologies such as video chats and phone calls are “richer” and convey more information (e.g., tone of voice, facial expressions) than email and posts on internal platforms. Richer technologies are best if you need to influence others or resolve a sensitive issue. If you want to simply convey information, you can use email or post to a team or organizational platform. Richer technologies do have a downside; they require everyone to be present at the same time, which may not be convenient for employees in different time zones.
3. Maintain social connections.
Remote work robs us of the social connection and sense of belonging we all need. It also reduces our access to the information and support we need to do our jobs. You must be strategic in maintaining connections with managers and colleagues. Stay connected through synchronous (real-time) video and phone chats, which are best for establishing trust and maintaining relationships. Those chats, whether one-on-one or in groups, should not only include on work discussions but also informal conversations. Informal conversations allow us to show our support and concern for others.
4. Create a healthy work-life balance.
A “culture of overwork” exists in many U.S. organizations today. Remote workers are especially likely to experience overwork because of the lack of a physical boundary between work and home. To manage the constant “pull” of work, create your own “boundary” between work and nonwork. Consider setting a firm schedule that delineates work and personal time; communicate with colleagues about this schedule. You may also want to initiate a discussion with your colleagues about the work group’s norms regarding after-hours availability. Establishing a dedicated area in your home that is only for work can also be helpful. Having separate phones for work and personal use is also helpful because it allows you to check personal messages without being tempted to respond to work messages.
It’s also important to take time to recover from the work day. Research on job stress suggests that this is essential. Exercise, mindfulness and meditation practices are effective recovery techniques. Another good strategy: Engage in activities that are important, enjoyable or interesting to you. Don’t mindlessly stream online content if this isn’t what fuels or fulfills you.
Setting boundaries between work and family is helpful, but ensure that you do not become overburdened with family responsibilities. Negotiate with family members about household responsibilities. Have a family conversation to divide up chores, such as grocery shopping, childcare, supervising schoolwork and housecleaning, as equitably as possible. Think about how everyone can contribute to tasks to ease the burden.
Working from home presents many challenges; taking a proactive approach at the outset can help you succeed.
Laura M. Graves, Ph.D. is professor of management at the School of Management at Clark University. Her teaching and research focuses on issues related to leadership, motivation, work-life integration, and diversity. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.