Faced with the unexpected spread of coronavirus, a lot of companies are opting for remote work to keep their businesses going even in a state of quarantine. Working in IT as a project manager has helped me gain a lot of experience with working from home, working with colleagues and clients in different time-zones and actually completing projects without ever meeting stakeholders in person. Since a lot of my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances are going to be working (or even attending classes) from home in the following weeks for the first time ever, I’ll try and give some helpful advice on how to remain efficient and productive in this scenario. This won’t be an IT-specific blog, as I wish to give general tips that can be helpful for a variety of jobs. Let’s dive in.
When you’re working from home for a longer period of time (and the starting point for a lot of companies right now is 2 weeks) it’s hard to maintain a distinction between work activities and home activities. Most of us (hopefully) think of their home as a place to rest, relax and enjoy your free time which translates into distractions. Your favorite hobbies, tv shows, books, games, and household members are going to make resisting procrastination much harder than usual. This is how I battle it:
- If possible, have a room/desk/sofa where you can go to work each day as if you were going to your office. While you’re there, you’re being on the clock and ask your roommates to respect it. Also, if you have a hard time resisting your favorite activities, clear your workspace from any distractions
- Equipment – this will vary depending on the type of work you do, but in my case, I’m more effective with two or more screens than one, I prefer headphones to speakers while working, I’m faster with a mouse and keyboard than with a trackpad, I need a comfortable chair if I’m going to sit for a longer period of time, etc. If you can, ask your superiors to take the equipment home to help you be more efficient. Keep some healthy snacks and water at hand so you don’t have an excuse to leave your home office
- Dress for work – this may seem silly, but besides avoiding pantless conference call disasters, it will help put you in your working mindset
- Keep to your schedule – we’re creatures of habit and if you always go to work at roughly the same time, try keeping that schedule even when working from home. Always be punctual so that your clients and your colleagues can measure time-based on when you arrive at your workplace. I consider being late as a project manager an intergalactic sin, so this point should be mandatory with or without quarantine
- Try to separate your work time and your home time. In my case, if I don’t clearly separate the two, even though I did some work it feels like I didn’t really enjoy my free time nor was I productive as expected. Especially if you’re confined to your home for a longer period of time, having a blend of work-related and home/family related activities will very soon form a very bad routine which will leave you exhausted. This way you never really get “home” from work. Keep to your working hours and ask both sides (household and office) to respect it
Organize your work
Working from home doesn’t mean a free day off. If the predictions are correct, we might be facing an economic crisis in the coming months, so being efficient and effective will be beneficial both for you and your company. I’ll separate this section in two parts:
Organizing my own activities:
- I always have a to-do list of some sorts open while I work. Anything that pops up via email, Slack, call, inspiration, etc. is immediately written down on the list. I’m looking for a couple of features here – it’s super simple and clear design-wise, I can order tasks based on priority, I can check them once they’re done and it’s a plus if I can set up a reminder for later. If you’re not tech-savvy, a simple piece of paper or sticking post-it notes on the wall nearby will be fine. This way you have a clear overview of what you need to do and you can also very easily see how much you’ve already done
- Keep track of your activities – use a timer app (I recommend Toggl) and log all the working hours based on the work-related activities that you did that day. Even if it’s not mandatory in your company to track working hours, it’s a great tool for fighting procrastination
- Plan and prioritize – based on a call with your colleagues, on the tasks in the software you use, on project deadlines; make a set plan of activities you’re going to do today and do your best to finish them by the end of your working hours
- Report – I believe a lack of communication and reporting will be a key issue for new teams that have been thrown into the world of remote work. Communicate with your colleagues, with your supervisors, team members, clients. All of you will benefit if you know that other colleagues are doing their job, that you’re all here, that you’re available as if you were sitting right next to them. In fact, if you do this part correctly it’s possible to get a feeling that you’re all still in the office. If another team member of yours is depending on a task you’re in charge of, don’t go radio-silence and not say a word until it’s done – keep them posted and informed
- Block software distractions – I suggest using a browser plugin (Block Site) to block social media pages, news portals, media services, etc. that will drag you away from the work at hand. I bet you will be surprised how often you subconsciously click on certain bookmarks or letters on your keyboard.
Organizing your team
- Communication is crucial – the most effective type of communication is in person (1 on 1) and you should do your best to keep it that way even when working remotely. This means (in order of importance):
- Video conferencing
- Audio conferencing
- Real-time chat
A couple of quick calls are a number of times more effective than sending a long email and waiting for an answer a couple of hours (or even days). This goes both for communicating with your colleagues and your clients. A lot of software solutions right now offer share-screen options which are immensely helpful if you need to explain or show something to your teammates. I’ll provide a list of software I use at the end of this blog post.
- Schedule meetings – I advise looking into daily standups and weekly planning meetings. Keeping it as brief as possible:
- Daily standup – a short meeting (max 15 min) each day where the team gathers to discuss 3 points: what I did yesterday, what I’m going to do today, is anything blocking me
- Weekly planning – gather your team and discuss what needs to be done this week, set clear milestones (especially for interdependent tasks), define reporting checkpoints (both during day and week)
Always stick to the same schedule once you create it. Insist on video calls with your team members to make sure everyone is well and ready to work. Also check with other team leaders for conflicting schedules.
If you’re working with people in different timezones, always try to schedule your meetings in such a way that after the meeting the team has the most amount of working hours together.
- Managing tasks – quite similar to the way you do your own to-do list, use a software solution that will let both you and your team have a clear overview of all tasks at hand for both today and the rest of the week. Here’s a blog post I wrote on the topic of organizing and writing tasks. Don’t overdo it, even having a board or document with tasks that you’re going to look at each day is great if you haven’t done anything similar before
- Double and triple check – I can’t stress this enough because there are always technical issues of some sort when doing conference calls. It’s either non-compatible software, bad microphone or camera, unexpected updates, lousy internet connection, etc. Make sure that you, your team, your clients and all other stakeholders know which software you’re going to use and how to use it. It is absolutely worth investing time into showing and explaining how to set things up properly to avoid losing time in all future meetings. Try and look for software solutions that need a minimum setup (no logins, no pre-installations, no specific hardware, etc.)
- Define rules – it’s important to make sure all team members are aware that being late and not doing their tasks is going to be treated the same way as if they are in the office
- Deliver – if your type of job allows it, keep the same steady delivery schedule for your clients. Communicating and reporting on time will ensure that your clients/customers feel safe and that even though you’re not in your office right now, everything is going as planned
Finally, we’re all in this together. Working remotely might seem a daunting task for inexperienced teams but it can also be a great future asset if done properly. As promised, for those of you that are new to working from home, I’ll provide you with a list of tools I use on a daily basis for working remotely.
- Management tools – Jira Software, Trello, Microsoft To-Do
- Documents and reports – Google Docs/Sheets/Draw/Slides, Microsoft Office bundle
- Time Tracking – Toggl, Tempo Timesheets (a plugin for Jira)
- Communication – Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, Slack, Gmail
- Remote access – TeamViewer
- Distractions – Block Site
Please share your knowledge and experiences with other teams and companies, it will help ease the transition. If you have some questions or feedback, please leave a comment or hit me up on firstname.lastname@example.org.