Enhanced containment measures aimed at restricting the spread of the COVID-19 virus have meant millions of people the world over suddenly find themselves working from home. How can you ensure you remain productive while working remotely?
“It is only natural that many people are feeling overwhelmed in the current situation,” says Professor Renata Schoeman, psychiatrist and Head of the MBA in Healthcare Leadership at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.
“We are bombarded with the news about the COVID-19 virus on all fronts, and people are feeling stressed and uncertain about what the future holds. There are just so many uncertain variables in people’s lives right now. People are feeling financially insecure, and could be facing salary cuts or job losses, adding to the pressures. The vast majority of people understand the reasons for short-term confinement to our homes, but being cooped up at home is not easy and could add to people’s stress levels.”
The three-week long escalated containment plan announced on 23 March (to run from 26 March to 16 April) requires South Africans to stay at home, except if they have to perform an essential task. Only certain kinds of employees will continue to go into work as usual. For most people, these stringent national measures – which are also in place in many countries across the world – mean suddenly having to work from home. For some people, this is happening for the first time in their lives.
The challenge of juggling work at home and home life
Prior to announcement of the most recent containment measures, people who were self-isolating as a result of having possibly (or definitely) acquired COVID-19, had begun to work remotely if they felt well enough. Now, remote work applies to the majority of employed people. They are required to create a work space in the home and ensure they are as productive as they would have been in the office.
However, few people have dedicated home offices. And many remote employees are now digesting their new work setting, mastering new technologies to enable remote work and meetings, coping with stress of remote work and also juggling everything else that comes with being at home. That includes family duties such as home schooling or babysitting children, and finding ways to maintain physical and mental health while confined to the home for weeks at a time.
Top tips to make working remotely as effective as possible
- Identify a suitable workplace in the home. Set up a work table away from the central living space in the house, if at all possible. You might have to be creative and move some furniture around, but try and find a space, however small, with a door that closes. It doesn’t have to be smart or pretty, just private and quiet.
- Stay in the loop with work colleagues in a virtual way. Check in daily with teams and co-workers and share tips on how to work effectively from home with each other.
- Become acquainted with the technology required to work remotely. Learn the ins and outs of programs, apps and video-conferencing resources (such as Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business or Zoom Cloud Meetings) that allow online conferencing and other new methods of communication. You’re not alone. Remember that all people’s lives have changed radically in a short space of time and millions of people the world over are adapting to the new work-from-home normal.
- Focus on developing self-sufficiency as successfully working from home requires you to operate in a business-like manner even though you’re suddenly unsupervised. Strive to be responsible and accountable. You are being paid to work as you would have going in to the office so maintain your integrity and ensure you work all the hours you should and complete your work as you would have at the office.
- Have a family meeting and explain your work requirements. If children are old enough to understand the need for national containment measures aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, stress that this is why you working at home too. Explain that you are being paid to work and that they should not disturb you unless there is an emergency. Ensure they have a schedule of activities and, if possible, someone to watch them. Help them to find ways (besides watching TV or playing games) to entertain themselves in ways that help relieve the stress they’re also currently feeling. Take regular breaks and check in on your family.
- Decide on a daily routine and stick to it. “Stick to your regular work hours. Don’t sleep late or work in your pyjamas, just because you can,” says Prof Schoeman. “Though you are to stay at home, ensure that you still get up at a specific time, have a shower, and get dressed as you normally would. Punctuate your day, just as you would have if you were going in to work. There is security in sticking to a routine and this contributes to mental wellbeing and feeling that you are still being productive, even though working from home.”
- Get the right furniture in to support your work. Sitting on an uncomfortable chair isn’t going to help matters. Working on your bed or on your lap is not something you can do for days on end. In any case, your brain associates your bed with resting, not with working.
- Take time out and get some exercise. “Regular breaks are essential,” says Prof Schoeman. “Go outside and if there are children in the home, play with the children for a while. This will also mean you get some exercise, which is essential in order to combat stress and to maintain productivity. Get moving (you don’t need the gym for that), and take regular breaks for mealtimes and refreshments.
- Eat healthily. It’s easy for our healthy routines to be disrupted in times of uncertainty and change, particularly for people who live alone as there are no other family members and family routines to consider. Healthy eating must be maintained as healthy and regular meals, also including a good intake of fresh fruit and vegetables, go far in buffering the effects of stress and maintaining a strong immune system. Resist the temptation to skip meals, or to eat excessive amounts of junk food, because you are feeling stressed.
- Sleep quality and quantity matter. Try to stick to a normal sleeping routine as far as possible as this will support both your mental and physical health in the face of stressful times.
- Make a duty roster. Household chores, cleaning and childcare duties need to be divided evenly. One person cannot manage a household, look after children and work at the same time. If the children are old enough to help, this is their time to shine. If possible, give them a small incentive to encourage them. If your kids are young and need care, accept that there is a limit to what you can do from home.
- Don’t become a workaholic. Some people respond to stressful times by burying themselves in work, especially if they are worried about losing their jobs. There’s a difference between working from home and living in the home office. Define the work-life divide clearly.
- Consider the positives of your situation. Prof Schoeman emphasises that when employees work remotely they avoid the stress of traffic and daily commuting time. They are saving on petrol, money spent on work-related costs and cutting down on their environmental impact. “Having the ability to stay at home – particularly if you have children and considering the current shutdown of schools – makes for a better work-life balance in many ways as there is some enhanced flexibility in how they allocate their time,” she says.
- Limit your digital exposure. If you spend all day in front of a screen and all evening watching the news obsessively, “technology can become a double-edged sword,” says Prof Schoeman. “It is easy to become completely overwhelmed by our access to technology when we are isolated and restricted to our homes.” Other activities, such as cooking, reading, doing some exercise or phoning a friend will distract your attention.
“Regular communication with colleagues, friends and family is essential right now,” says Prof Schoeman. “Right now that probably means using digital channels or telephonic contact. Doing this will not only help you to find solutions for any work-from-home obstacles, but also help to give perspective and emotional support in this time of crisis. At the end of the day, South Africans have an excellent sense of humour and we are a resilient group of people. This is a real asset in unpredictable and stressful times such as these.”
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