This kick ass guide on how to work from home and stay sane will help you be productive whether you are self-isolating or working from home by choice.
The guide came out of my own experience of being told to self-isolate and work from home during the Covid-19 pandemic, because I am immuno-compromised.
Although I have worked from home in the past here in Dubai, it was usually only for a day or half a day to get urgent documents checked and signed without distraction or interruption. It’s been more than twenty years since my home ceased to be my main place of work, and the first time that I was completely alone. It has been a learning curve trying to do my current job completely remotely and without any physical contact with my team or associated departments.
My cousin Zaahida shared a beautiful poem by an Irish writer, Kathleen O’Meara. Though written in 1869 it captures the spirit of why staying home for the next few weeks or months is about so much more than self-isolation and self-quarantine, in an attempt to flatten the curve of the rapid spread of the Corona virus.
Self-isolation / self-quarantine burnout
There are so many side effects of isolation, many of which I have experienced over the past few weeks and these were brought into focus when I listened to a favorite self-development and motivational speaker on Facebook the other day.
- Lack of motivation / difficult to get motivated
- Being unproductive
- Low level anxiety
- Losing track of time / working longer hours
During this process I have come up with my top tips to make your work from home productive as well as a way to revitalize your approach to work and social interaction.
Create a dedicated work space at home
I have a desk that was languishing in my guest bedroom since I moved in nearly 2 years ago. The first thing I did was to move the desk into a nook in my living room that had sufficient space as well as power points. I had never realised how small that desk actually is for my large monitor and brought the smaller desk in my office to form a larger L-shaped work space.
Work from home tools
- Computer – I brought my work laptop, large free standing monitor, keyboard and mouse from the office. I also set-up my personal laptop and monitor on the smaller desk.
- Comfortable chair with straight back – I bought a proper office chair when I decided to have a home office a few years ago, and it has been a godsend.
- Fast internet connection – there is nothing worse than sluggish connectivity.
- Video-conferencing apps – know how to use it effectively. My team and I received training from our IT department on effective use of Microsoft Teams before the work from home order applied to all of us.
- Earphones (or headset) – my earphones have been invaluable since my Teams software stopped working on my laptop and I can only use the Iphone app.
- Reliable IT Support. In this digital age where everything is accessible by a swipe up or down, left or right, we tend to overlook the people who keep everything running smoothly in the background. Two laptops later, and I could not be more grateful for our IT Service Desk team. From Shishir (IT Service Manager), Hunain (IT Engineer), Daisy and Bing (IT Helpdesk Administrators) to Bob (ICT Manager) I could not be more thankful for the help throughout my laptop malfunctions and software updates (that seemed to make things worse). I owe them a party when we resume normal office hours some day.
Create a Schedule and stick to a routine
I kept my alarm set at the usual time that I wake up to get ready to go to the office. After a shower, I get dressed for work and then get started with my work day, in my living room.
- Rise at the same time that you would normally get up for work. Take a shower, have breakfast then go to work at home.
- I would like to stick to office hours 8 am – 5:30 pm, because there is some flexibility either way. However, during the six weeks that I have been working from home, I often find myself still at my desk at 7pm or later.
- One morning I sat down at my desk at 7 am and worked and took calls until I realised I hadn’t yet brushed my teeth, taken a shower or had breakfast and it was nearly time for my first Teams meeting.
- Aside from the scheduled daily Teams meetings with my head office team and the HR girls I also set aside time for the issues encountered by the site teams.
- The most important characteristics that make working from home a success are Self discipline and a productive mindset. Try not to spend all day scrolling through your social media feeds because that is just a time suck that will have no useful output.
- If you have relatives at home, make sure that they know your working schedule and don’t interrupt unless necessary.
- At the end of your work day, turn off your computer and get back to your life; whether it’s having dinner with your family or reading a book or binge watching your favorite series on Netflix.
One of the biggest mindset changes was trying to find ways to make workflows and processes paperless for myself and my team.
- Think about what you need to change about how you work and find a more effective and efficient way to do it.
- Many of our workflows and processes rely on printed documents that have to be checked and signed by someone. I suspect I saved a tree a day by not having access to a printer and using only PDF files or converting Excel sheets into PDF files.
- Instead of moving paper documents between departments we now share only electronic files since everyone is in a different location.
- Digital signatures – although I had used these in previous jobs, I have never had to use it in my current role. The basic version is to use the functionality offered in Adobe Acrobat Pro, although in a workflow scenario this is a bit time consuming and tedious. An alternative is a cloud based program like Docusign that has already been vetted and is approved for by many local authorities. I am hanging my hopes on it and that the built-in workflow and authorisation process will reduce the time it takes to authorised bulk workflows at month end.
Communicate with your colleagues while you work from home
I had always considered myself rather insular and a bit anti-social in my current role. It irked me that ‘friends’ assumed I would divulge confidential company information at the click of their fingers, and then get annoyed or irritated when I gave them the brush off. For the longest time I kept all colleagues at arms length and did not encourage any meaningful friendships.
My office door is often closed with a DO NOT DISTURB sign when I’m busy at month end or with work that requires discretion. Out of habit my staff close the door behind themselves when they leave, even if I had left it open. One of my team (usually Kamran) will come in if anyone has been in my office for more than 15-20 minutes to ask for something or other that they need to have completed and it gives me a reasonable excuse to get back to work . 🙂
Somehow I had never realised how much time I actually spend talking to people despite all of that. Whether it’s my own team or the HR team, every now and then someone will drop by with a query or for a work related chat.
On the first Sunday after my work from home schedule kicked in, I was climbing the walls. We had an MS Teams meeting scheduled for 10 am because a few of my team were in the head office and others relocated to a site office. Right there and then we agreed to have a Teams meeting every day to catch up and discuss any issues we were facing with work or due to being separated.
- Working from home is very isolating especially for people who work in a team. Sometimes the feeling of being together in the same space makes you feel more productive. However, when self-isolation is mandatory an alternative is to host the get together using Microsoft Teams or similar.
- Schedule regular meetings using Teams or other apps like Zoom or Skype – we have video meetings scheduled at 10 am every day to catch up and support each other. This allows us to remain engaged and still feel like a team.
- Individual team members organise their own ad-hoc meetings to resolve issues as they occur.
- Keep the meetings short (30 minutes) so that it is an effective use of time.
- Stay in contact via email, Teams or mobile phone when anything urgent needs attention.
- I created a Whatsapp group for my head office team to share common messages or information with them.
- Remember birthdays and special occasions even though you are unable to be in the same space. One of my team had his birthday and because we couldn’t have a party, I will bake the cake myself and we will all have lunch together the next time we are back in the office, God willing.
- Our company has created a Whatsapp group to disseminate any relevant messages to all employees while we work from home or self-isolate.
Social interaction with friends and family
For those who are at home all day the challenge is probably to not kill each other during a particularly intense bout of cabin fever. It seems like when we are in enforced isolation, even with our nearest and dearest, too much of a good thing becomes really irritating and nerve wracking very quickly. Remember, this too shall pass. And then you can’t take back the words uttered during those periods of irritation and exasperation.
My family is not with me but we still keep in contact with each other. Even my young nephews insisted on sharing their phone numbers with me so I can call them whenever I feel bored or miss them too much.
With many countries under severe restrictions or lock-downs the social interaction may be limited to regular phone calls or video calls.
- Whatsapp appears to be the most frequently used platform for sharing memes, inspirational messages or social updates about the Coronavirus.
- I tend to share more useful information on Facebook, although I also have predilection for hunkering down bread recipes or funny videos to keep the spirits up.
- Don’t risk your health or that of your family by going to parties or places where you cannot maintain adequate social distancing. Schedule Facebook watch parties instead so that relatives and friends can join in on a social event without leaving their homes.
Regular breaks while you work from home
- I have bad habit of getting so caught up in my spreadsheets that I forget to look up and take a break. Now I make a point to sit back and flex my fingers and hands and stretch my legs every 30 minutes or so.
- I take rest breaks for lunch and / or prayers and go right back to work when I’m done.
- Sometimes I just need to stretch or get something to drink and take a walk to the kitchen or bathroom or go out onto the balcony and take a few deep healing breaths of fresh air.
- I find that when I need more than a fifteen minute break, turning on the television is the last thing to do. I prefer to lie down with my eyes closed to try and relax or read a chapter of an ebook.
Regular exercise while you work from home
This has probably been the hardest one of all because I lose track of time and then realise I’ve been sitting on my behind for hours. The sanitisation drive that was supposed to be held over one weekend in March was extended through April. People are not allowed to be on the streets without a valid Move Permit, available online.
- I use an app called Fabulous that includes a Morning, Afternoon and Evening routine as well as a Healthy eating challenge and meditation guide.
- The app also gives reminders for regular breaks, to keep hydrated and to get up move.
- I take 15-30 minutes for deep breathing and meditation. This clears my mind and brings deep relaxation to my body.
Maintain healthy eating habits while you work from home
The consensus appears to be that work from home also leads to decidedly unhealthy eating habits. I suspect that this is because we have access to all the stuff we don’t have when we are at work. I seem to have morphed into a Cookie Monster… with a penchant for All Butter Stem Ginger cookies (preferably M&S store brand).
- If you have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, eat a piece of fruit before snacking on a chocolate bar or bag of potato crisps.
- Eat regular meals instead of grazing and snacking throughout the day. This will help you stick to a routine but also limit your intake of junk food or excessive calories.
- If your favorite restaurants and cafes are closed for regular trading see if they can deliver, taking into consideration any lock down in place. This will help keep neighborhood businesses afloat especially if they are not able to trade normally and can only do delivery services. Ensure that the delivery service has contact less delivery and that their valets maintain social distancing as well as personal hygiene.
- Ramadhan has been a solitary affair for the most part of the past 13 years in Dubai, so the self-isolation has not affected me as much as it has people with a big social circle. The first week coincided with my work month end and I was too busy to cook more than toast or omelettes. I hope to maintain my Zero Waste Ramadhan in shaa Allah.
My biggest lessons during my isolation have been to acknowledge my need for a real and tangible connection with my colleagues, and a greater appreciation of the people and tools that make my working life running smoothly, whether I am sitting alone at my desk in my living room or in an office building surrounded by people.
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