Most companies in the U.S. have provided opportunity for their employees to work remotely in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. With this unprecedented situation, many employees will have to adjust to a work-from-home life for the first time. For single adults living alone, social distancing requires a new level of isolation. For families with children, it’s going to be a significant adjustment. Schools and daycares have shut down, and many workers must home-school on top of their own work commitments. For couples unused to sharing a home office or common desk, home-work-life is bound to get a lot more interesting indeed!
My family and I have been in self-isolation for over two weeks now, and I have been juggling parenting, home- schooling, work from home, and housework. I must admit that all this is a lot more challenging than I could have imagined. However, having one of the best remote work tools, Microsoft Teams, has lightened the load. Technology might be the thing that gets us through this with a smile on our faces!
Recently, Microsoft shared the story of Lily Zheng, who used Teams to stay afloat during the COVID-19 lockdown in China. Inspired by Lily’s story, Microsoft also committed to making Teams available for everyone during this challenging time.
As part of their work in supporting Teams, Microsoft has also shared some useful tips for making work from home productive and healthy. Inspired by Microsoft’s suggestions, I would like to share some of my own experiences of working from home using Teams and other Microsoft tools.
Carve Your Workspace Out of the Chaos
People romanticize the idea of working from home, but it can also be chaotic when you must switch roles (sometimes several times a day) between being a parent, a spouse, a homemaker, and a worker. I confess, it was challenging for me at first; I was easily distracted from work tasks by many home tasks.
Some distractions easily lead to procrastination, and guilt over unfinished assignments can mean pulling out laptops and hopping on phones at all hours of the day and night—making the distinction between home and work a blur at best. However, over time, I learned how to carve out a quiet workspace at home. How did I maintain clear boundaries, with permitted/planned exceptions? I put my faith in my tech tools and found maintaining productivity was about setting my intention to control the chaos.
Keep Chaos at Bay Meant Changing My Routine in the Morning
Step one of my work-at-home routine requires an organized space. Whether I choose my home dining table or my home office desk, I organize piles, swab down the deck, and strategically place a few artifacts reminiscent of my office cubicle, like a stapler or a comforting paper weight. Once chaos is ordered, I must make my first cup of coffee.
Caffeine-infused and chaos-reduced, my routine requires I carefully plan out my day. I use the Outlook calendar to see the meetings scheduled for the day ahead of time, and then I use Microsoft planner to set my daily tasks. I set up a schedule, budgeting my time around those meetings and tasks. Practicing these rituals sets my mind space for a full workday at home.
Part of planning my efficient workday is also giving myself permission to make time for other activities that I know keep me focused, productive, and balanced. I plan time to connect with my 6-year-old, to cook a simple lunch with family, or run an errand. Those aren’t distractions, because they are part of the plan.
I find that when I plan my day carefully, I can also set expectations around the level of interference I should expect. Allow for some interruptions and unexpected connections with others in the house. One can also set aside blocks of time for zero-distraction. Usually for important meetings and deep work, I strive for complete focus. Whether or not my wife, kid, or cats comply with that is another matter, of course. You can always use the background blur option on Teams, if someone accidentally walks into the room during that crucial meeting!
Take Full Advantage of Teams to Make Up for the Disconnect
Some people may love working from home, but what do we miss most when we’re not at work? That sense of reassurance you get by walking up to someone’s desk to clarify that confusing tidbit in an email. The warmth you feel walking across the office to a meeting with your colleagues. The energizing effect of those brainstorming sessions with your favorite team, in your preferred meeting room. Or the serendipity of a funny pop-up watercooler conversation? These moments help us maintain a sense of connection with our co-workers.
Not surprisingly, you feel a sense of loss when you cannot experience these small moments with others. And some of those in-person communications, verbal and non, can’t easily be replaced; the complimentary nod when you share a good idea, the sympathetic shrug with a fellow worker in the trenches, a comical eye roll, a flash grin, or a gesture of approval. But we can take advantage of the tools we have to reach beyond our screens when we work from home—we can sustain a level of connection that keeps us feeling human.
Chat: I use the chat in Teams to check in with my “Teams mates” and keep them informed about updates in the Microsoft world. This may look like overcommunicating, but this is what helps me make up for that in-person stop at someone’s desk to say “hi” in passing.
Channel Conversation: Using channel conversations to solve a problem together reinforces a sense of community in your organization.
Quick Calls: When chat is not enough to make sure that your Teams mates understand you, you could use the calling function within chat the individual chat boxes and give a quick call.
Sync Meetings: Daily/weekly sync with your Team or with individuals in one-on-one casual meetings keeps us feeling connected, even when some of us are farther away. Plan these and make them part of your routine.
With the seamless integration of chat, meeting, and call options in Microsoft Teams, I spend less time setting up meetings, dealing with call quality issues, and switching between apps. For me, Teams has enabled a digital workspace that feels authentic and connected.
Maintain a Healthy Work-life Balance
The strangest thing about working from home, for me, is that it is actually harder to unplug from work when my home is also my office. This is, apparently, a common challenge for many home-based employees. I am still struggling with this. Maybe because mixing home and work stuff throughout the day keeps me productive. Balancing both is important or else I find myself tempted to pretty much work all day and night. It is sometimes hard to shut-off work. Of course, this is truer if you love what you do.
To break this pattern, you may have to set strict rules around how long you should work and when to disconnect. Also, I recommend you try to build healthy habits into the routine methodically—try to eat proper meals rather than snacking all day. Try to drink water, regularly. We all know hydration is essential, of course, as is stretching those muscles! Make time for exercise—a work-out or a run, yoga, or a walk in the trails near your house. Use physical movement throughout the day to keep those discrete blocks of time discrete. Use self-care and self-awareness to reward yourself for task completed, and to help you keep that equilibrium between work and everything else.If you happen to be one of those employees that has had to adjust to a remote work-from-home life for the first time, please let me know about the challenges you are facing during this transition. And remember, though you may feel alone, you aren’t. There are many of us building resilience to this new normal and seeking ways to support one another. We are all connected. If nothing else, this moment proves it. Be well and stay in touch (figuratively)!