Tips for Working from Home

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Many of us may be familiar with working from home, but no-one has ever had to work from home during a global health crisis and in such numbers. All of us have had to adapt to new ways of doing our jobs; for some that adaptation has been fairly straight forward, for others it has been more of a challenge. We have been asked by several of our clients to put together some tips for working from home in support of their many employees and we’re delighted to also offer it here to you.

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Our ‘Tips for Working at Home’ guide is for everyone, whether or not you are a regular home worker, and is divided into four sections.

1. Key Principles

Followed by three sections covering areas which have been raised most frequently in our recent conversations. Importantly, it includes steps for people who may have to manage sensitive, or emotionally challenging, material from home; material, which normally, would be dealt with at work.

2. Practical tips

3. Managing distressing calls and/or material at home

4. Managing the range of emotions evoked by the current situation

Key principles (aka think about these over and above anything else)

Even if you are a regular home worker, under the current circumstances you are not working from home. You are at home trying to work, possibly with children, partners and other family occupying the same space, or, completely by yourself when you have been used to the company of colleagues. Here are some key things to remember:

  • Above all your own wellbeing is the top priority, and actually always should be. You can only perform well when you are physically, emotionally and mentally well.
  • Comparisons are worthless! Try not to compare yourself to how anyone else is managing – your situation is unique.
  • Manage your emotions about your performance – you are very unlikely to be at your best and that’s OK.
  • No organisation, including yours, will be able to measure outcomes the way they previously have, so don’t judge your current performance based on past performance.
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Our practical tips for being at home and trying to work – see what works for you…

  • Keep up work routines at the beginning and end of the day. They help punctuate your day and make a clear emotional and cognitive distinction between work and home when there are no physical ones.  What do you normally do before you leave for work?  Do that!
  • Dress for work, or at least change out of your PJ’s. Changing clothes marks a change in gear and creates a cognitive shift in our thinking. At the end of your working day, get changed again to mark a clear end to your working day.  What do you normally do when you get home?  Do that!
  • Create a unique and protected work-space, even if it feels like you don’t have any. If the only place you can work is on your sofa, where you usually sit a watch TV, sit the other end.  If it’s an armchair, move it to another space in the room while you work.  Hopefully most people will be able to find or create a dedicated space.
  • Break your day into manageable chunks – 90 minutes maximum. If you use 1 ½ hours, you will have four of them in a day.  Take 15 minutes breaks morning and afternoon and an hour mid-working day.  Working for 90 minutes four times can feel much more achievable that thinking you have to keep going for eight hours, and you will probably be more productive because of the breaks.  If that feels overwhelming right now, have another look at ‘our principles’ secion.
  • If you find it had to get started, just start with a sentence, or a phone call, or an email, or the first paragraph of that paper you have to read. Start small!
  • If you really can’t get started, write “do nothing” on your list then do that, but set an alarm to remind when that chunk of time has passed.
  • At the end of each day, clear your work away as you would at the office (a cupboard, a box, a drawer, under the bed). Leaving it on full view just messes with your head!

Managing distressing material and calls

For some of you, your work will involve reading distressing material, or taking calls from emotionally charged complainants, doctors or witnesses, or managing team members/staff who are struggling.  You will probably be well used to doing this in the workplace, but it can feel very different when this happens in your own home.

People describe the sense of not being able to escape the distress, a feeling that home has been “contaminated” by work, a lack of distance from work  (that can usually be gained by physically leaving the workplace),  and often a strong visual imprint of where you were when you managed the situation which isn’t just in your mind, but there – in your house!  On top of this is a sense of isolation or lack of opportunity to debrief and get support.  Importantly, that support might happen naturally in the work place, without an explicit expression of need, simply because in the work place you are immersed in a social setting.  Now you are working at home, you may need to make a conscious, overt effort to process the situation.

There are a two potential scenarios where this can happen including:

  1. Knowing you are making or receiving a difficult call/accessing difficult material
  2. Unexpected challenging calls/material or run of the mill calls/situations that turn challenging
Scenario A
Knowing you are making or receiving a difficult call:
  • Make sure you are thoroughly prepared and briefed as you would in the workplace but with more emphasis.
  • Alert a manager or colleague to the situation and discuss it with them beforehand.
  • Arrange a time to debrief with a colleague/manager after the call.
  • Avoid trying to predict or anticipate what someone will do or say – just listen and respond in the moment.
  • Don’t forget all the skills you already have!
  • Limit the number of challenging calls you make in a day (probably to no more than two).
Knowing you are making or receiving difficult material:
  • Find a place in your house that you do not associate with relaxing (try very hard NOT to review distressing material in your bedroom or living room).  The kitchen or garden may be useful alternatives.
  • Have a discrete place where you store the materials safely – perhaps under the stairs or a kitchen cupboard or filing cabinet if you have one (not under your bed as suggested with other material).
  • Only work with difficult materials for short periods of time (no more than an hour at a time before you take a break).
  • Intersperse work with distressing materials with lighter tasks or things you enjoy or don’t require brain power i.e. don’t work with the material for more than a total of half a day.
  • Make sure you have a colleague or manager to debrief with when necessary.
Scenario B
Unexpected challenging calls or run of the mill calls that turn:
  • Listen to your body. As pressure mounts (as it will when presented with a challenge), our bodies usually let us know before our minds (butterflies, tense muscles, forgetting to breathe).
  • When your body alerts you to a threat, let that be your reminder to focus your full attention on the individual on the end of the phone. Listen, take notes, try and slow the process down, and remember to breathe (sounds nuts be we often hold our breath when under pressure).
  • Use your skills to manage the call.
  • After the call, try to find a colleague or manager to debrief with.
  • If no one is available, or if it feels right anyway, write a record (for your eyes only) of your experience. You can later dispose of it.
  • Understand that these situations take energy and you may need to think about the rest of your daily schedule and reorganise it a bit.
  • Give yourself a bit of time to get your balance back (walk, exercise, wash-up, read or sit quietly – whatever works for you).
  • If you live with others, let them know you’ve had a bit of a challenging time so they are not left second guessing why you might seem a bit ‘different’.
Unexpected challenging material or run of the mill situations that turn:

 Once you recognise that the material you are working with is likely to be challenging for you, follow the tips for Scenario A

Handling our emotions

Since the lockdown started, people have reported feeling all sorts of things from delight to dread.  We tend not to need support managing the feelings we label positive, but we often to want to shift negative feelings quickly and when we can’t, that adds to the burden.  Below are some general pointers about negative emotions and how to manage them when you’re working from home:

  • Consider all your emotions as a signal about what’s going on for you. In other words, your emotion is useful piece of information – that is all.
  • Label the emotion if you can – anger, fear, anxiety, irritability, unsettled. Labeling the feeling does two things…
  1. It distracts you, which can help stop the emotion overwhelming you.
  2. It can help reduce the physical effects of the emotion – in other words it can help you regulate the feeling.  Sometimes it can be hard to describe the feeling, so perhaps instead you can label what it is not!
  • Be curious about it. Where did it come from? What triggered it?  How does it feel physically?  Where do you feel it most?  Or any other question you can think of. One of the reasons for doing this is that you are practicing “seeing” the emotion, not “being” it.  You are practising detachment.  When we become our feeling (angry, anxious etc) we usually feel worse and it is a very inefficient use of our time and energy!
  • If you can identify what’s triggered the feeling, try work out if you can do anything about it. For example, if you feel irritable because the radio/TV is too loud you can probably negotiate a compromise.  If you are feeling generally anxious about things you can’t change, acknowledge to feeling and redirect your attention to something you can influence.
  • Remind yourself that all feelings pass (even the good ones!). Whatever you’re feeling now, it will feel different with hindsight.
  • If the emotion feels overwhelming, write about it. When we write about the thoughts and feelings we find distressing, we know, through comprehensive research, that it helps us feel psychologically and physically better.