COVID-19: How to work at home and stay sane

Record numbers of employees are working from home during the global COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19: How to work at home and stay sane

Record numbers of employees are working from home during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Once considered a perk, it is now a necessity as strict social distancing measures are enforced wherever possible.

With a house full of distractions — a partner also working from home or who’s been laid off, constant exposure to information, children who need attention and help with schoolwork … or maybe all of the above — it can seem like a daunting task to remain productive and, most importantly, sane.

“What we’ve seen really good reaction to is when we say to organizational leaders, you don’t need to change your policies right now — you need to understand and empathize and relax the policies,” says Adam Hickman, content manager at Gallup and remote working scholar and expert. “We’re not saying don’t hold people accountable or don’t set expectations, just note everyone is going through this.”

Gallup Panel conducted surveys to determine the impact the whirlwind changes are having on full-time workers, 61% of whom report working from home. Two surveys conducted last month — March 13-16 and March 27-29 — showed the percentage of full-time employees who say COVID-19 has disrupted their life "a great deal" or "a fair amount" jumped to 81%, up from 58%.

Heather Sneed, director, professional services at Ceridian, has worked from home for over 16 years. While she’s a pro now, she remembers the transition from office to home office wasn’t always smooth.

“I did find it hard to set myself up where I could be productive all day long without distractions,” Sneed says. “It was a shift from working in an office full time, but once I had some key functions established within my world it got better.”

One of Sneed’s recommendations is setting up a dedicated workspace, and on Zoom video calls she’s noticed many people have “set up shop, if you will, in their bedrooms which totally works."

“I think the key is to have a door, especially if you’re in meetings a lot and there could be distractions from outside — and even just to make it seem like you’re in an office, having a door there really helps.”

Hickman says research on the ideal environment for performance calls for a well-lit, outward-facing spot away from high-traffic areas and distractions. But there’s the science answer and then there’s reality — and “the reality is everybody has to go home and you make do with what you’ve got.”

“If I had to sum it up, find a space that is solely for work and that’s it,” Hickman says. “During work hours, that’s where you spend your time — and then you stay away from it.”

Sneed says a good work/life balance is critical, which is is another good reason to have your office in a room with a door or in a more secluded area. If you’re seeing your laptop sitting on the kitchen table, for example, you might be tempted to go back to it, versus closing the door — literally or metaphorically — after work.

The Gallup Panel survey asked respondents to reflect on their feelings during the past day, and parents with minor children had significantly higher stress levels, with 68% reporting feeling stressed while those with no children under 18 were at 58%. Worry for parents of younger children was also higher than their childless or non-minor child counterparts (64% vs. 56%).

“Throw in the pandemic of COVID-19 and how you deal with that, and then you’ve got to be at the same time parent, teacher, chef, negotiator and everything else,” says Hickman, noting with kids at home especially, productivity is maximized through flexible hours.

He encourages a conversation about the demands of the job — does it have to be done between 8 and 5? Relaxing traditional hours and “coaching people to say it’s OK if you start at 8:07 — no one’s standing outside your house, I hope, and looking at a watch” is a good start, as is switching from asking “Can you get this to me by the end of the day?” to “Can you get this to me by morning?” which insinuates it’s OK to work off-hours.

“If you need to put the kids to bed and do what you need to do, open of business is when I’m going to get to it anyway realistically,” Hickman says. “Let’s just stop the close of business stuff for now.”

Empathy is important as everyone works to navigate a new and unprecedented reality. Sneed says one thing she’s learned during this time is to simply check in with people.

“At the beginning of a call, just say ‘Hey, how’s everyone doing today?’ It doesn’t have to consume the whole call but just keeping it real — recognizing we still have work to do but it’s impacting everybody personally too.”

Working from home may mean you don’t get those office-specific water cooler chats, but “there’s no reason why you can’t grab your cup of coffee in the morning and video conference with one of your colleagues just to catch up — it’s OK to do that,” Sneed says.

“Even have lunch with someone on a Zoom meeting — it’s OK to do that. Take advantage of that video functionality and still have those conversations with your colleagues.”

Wellbeing is important as well, including making sure there’s movement in your day. Just under half (48%) of the adults polled by Gallup say the amount of exercise they’re getting is unchanged so far during the COVID-19 crisis, and 38% report they’re getting less.

“You can be sitting at your desk for a very long time, just like you could in an office,” Sneed says. “I go for a walk every day at some point to get myself out of the house and away from my family as well — it kind of helps keep that sanity there.”

Hickman’s practice is to get moving every hour. Some people find it helpful to set a timer for 10-20 minutes, or view chores as physical activity — turn off that Roomba and sweep the floor yourself.

With access to unlimited information, consumption of the news and other media is another facet of wellbeing to keep an eye on. Try limiting your scope and time — spend ten minutes going over the most recent COVID-19 numbers “and leave, that’s my limitation to it,” Hickman says — and give yourself parameters for when you’ll indulge. For example, “I’m not going to read about Tiger King until later at night,” he says with a laugh.

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