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Working from home – the two week reset

6 April 2020

Enforced remote working and end-of-tax-year planning will have seen many paraplanners thrown in the deep end and doing what is necessary to ‘get things done’ over the past two weeks. With lock down potentially lasting another two months, now will be a good time to review and reset how you are working, and whether you can achieve a better and healthier working environment.

PP editor Rob Kingsbury has been working from home for over a decade. Here he offers some tips based on his experience and working practices. 

Working remotely when you are used to an office environment can be a challenge. You will have had virtual processes set up by your firms – hopefully – and you’ll have established a temporary working operation that has allowed you to function and focus in the run up to the end of tax year.

But now you may need to reset the way you’ve been working – especially if you are doing so with children on enforced home schooling. I’ve put together 10 tips based on my experience of working from home for the past decade. Also included is some practical advice from Jo Campbell, operations director of outsourced paraplanning firm Para-Sols, as well as some suggestions from Dan Atkinson.

See also, 6 top tips when working from home by Michelle Hoskin, business consultant and MD of Standards International.

My first comment is that despite working from home for the past 10 years, the current situation is unprecedented. This is a time of extreme disruption – and for those with children on enforced home schooling [tick that box], additional pressures will apply.

Putting in place some key practices, procedures and behavioural patterns learned over the years, has helped. Everyone’s circumstances are going to be different and while I’ve tried to make them as universal as possible some may not work for you. Key is to be flexible and adjust to your situation as you go along.

1: Your working space

One of the first and for some, hardest elements when working from home on a (semi) permanent basis is creating the headspace between work and home life.

Creating a designated working space can help – it can be a spare room or the kitchen table, as long as it is somewhere that you define as ‘work’ space as opposed to home.

If you are using the kitchen table, I’d suggest packing up all your work paraphernalia at the end of the day and unpack it again in the morning. This helps define home/work, stops you from ‘just doing a bit more’ when you are on home time, and in the morning creates the mental framework of setting up and ‘going to’ work.

Setting down these distinct boundaries between work and home life, just as you would have if you were working in the office, is the way to stay sane and stop work encroaching into your home and your home time.

It is important also, to ensure you are working in a safe environment. Taking care with regard to hand height in relation to your computer/laptop keyboard, using a chair you can be comfy using for lengthy periods, adjusting the screen brightness to suit your environment, all the things you may take for granted at work now need to be consciously thought about.

Dan Atkinson, who has set up a dedicated home working space in his house, recommends “sensible desk/chair arrangements, as well as situating close to natural light if you can, and using a screen as close in size as possible to the one you use at work”.

2:  Start the day right

Set your alarm and do the things you would normally do if you were going to the office. We are creatures of habit and starting the day as if we were going to work can help us get in the right frame of mind.

Whatever travelling time you are saving, use it constructively, which could be more time with family – for example, helping with home schooling – or putting in more time for work or taking some ‘me’ time.

Jo Campbell says advice given to Para-Sols staff is to try to stick to a routine, getting dressed and not staying in your PJs, “no matter how comfy they are, as research says this can help with concentration and mental attitude”.

3: When to work

We all have our best time of the day when we are at our most productive. Assuming a full working day is not going to be possible, if you know when you work best, arrange your day to maximise that time.

Personal circumstances, such as having children around and the need to home school them, may mean you have to move out of a 9-5, Monday to Friday mindset. That is not an easy thing to do but mapping out your tasks and your days can help you see what needs to be done, when you can do it and what can realistically be achieved in the time available.

4: Focus and refocus

In this unusual environment, you may need to juggle an even greater number of balls over the course of the day, and it can be very easy to become distracted from the task in hand, to flit from one task to another without completing any of them and ultimately be overwhelmed by everything that has to be done.

Do you know exactly what you are expected to do from home? If not, ask your boss for clarification, especially if what you are being asked to do differs from what you would normally do in the office.

Again, writing down the tasks that have to be done – both from a work and home perspective – and then allocating time in your day to each task, can help with feelings of overwhelm.

A great way to tackle tasks, especially where you may have limited uninterrupted time, is the pomodoro technique. Setting yourself 20/25/30 minutes per task and focussing just on that task, without distractions and interruptions, and then giving yourself a five-minute break before either re-approaching the task or undertaking a new one can be an effective means to be productive.

5: Prepare

In my experience, preparation is key to remote working. As you finish work, make a list of what needs doing the following day, so you can start the new day focussed on your priorities and be productive from the off.

Remember also, to put the most important items at the top of your list – avoid doing smaller/easier tasks at the expense of the important ones, because busy is not necessarily productive and there is only so much time in the day.

6: Stay in touch

If your firm hasn’t already established formal contact times, then set up informal time(s) in the day to talk to your boss and your colleagues. For people already working with access to systems such as Slack, this is going to be easier but I’ve used conference calls through free to use services such as WhyPay as well as one-to-one Facetime, Microsoft Teams and Skype.

Let your boss know how you are getting on and where there may be stresses and strains because of the new situation. That way he or she will be fully aware of what’s working and what isn’t and can adjust practices accordingly.

7: Stay healthy

As far as possible, keep to the same routine as you would at work, which should include breaks from work. Don’t sit at your desk for hours, get up and walk around. Do some stretching or gentle exercise. Take time to talk to someone about non-work matters.

I make a point of taking a daily constitutional – getting out into the fresh air (rain or shine) for two reasons – it keeps me active and I can plug into a favourite podcast or music or just take time to think about things other than work. Dan Atkinson also swears by a daily lunchtime walk. Taking a break can work wonders on your concentration and productivity.

Take a lunch break. When I first started working from home, I would make a quick sandwich and plough back into the job. Now, I take time out, making a decent sized salad or cooking an omelette, for example, which helps reset and energise me for the afternoon. But set yourself a time for this – and ensure others in the house know they can’t monopolise that time – to ensure you get back to work when you need to.

Expect that there will be stresses and strains related to work, home life and relationships that you may not have experienced before.

Most importantly, be aware of the potential mental health effects of working remotely from your usual environment. Make sure you are socialising in some way – albeit in the current crisis via technology.

Finally, keep off the unhealthy snacks. It’s all too easy to pile on the pounds if the snack cupboard is in easy reach. If you know you’ll get the munchies mid-morning or in the afternoon, prepare (that word again) a healthy substitute – it does work. This assumes, of course, you’ve been able to successfully shop for veg at the moment.

8: Procedures and processes

Most of these will be dictated by the firm you work for but you are responsible for your working environment now, which may require that you put in place small things that can help you better achieve and get less stressed during the day.

This will vary from downloading the software and tools you need, to the way you organise your folders and desktop on your computer. I have distinct working document folders, archiving anything I am not working on at the moment, so they cannot distract from the task at hand.

A note here on security. Cybercrime in the form of ‘phishing’ and ‘smishing’ (SMS phishing) has increased substantially since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic as criminals play on people’s fears and curiosity, as well as the remote working situation, where they know individuals will be expecting work-related emails. Be vigilant as there are some very clever fake emails out there.

9: Stay motivated

One of the greatest challenges when home/remote working for an extended period of time is staying motivated. In an office environment we will often pick up on the energy of those around us, their body language and tone of voice etc. A good leader leads through positive energy, for example.

But when we are at home and isolated from our team and leadership, when the tone is set by us and us alone, keeping up our energy levels and staying focussed can become tougher.

I readily admit there are times when my motivation has taken a dive. It’s then that taking a step back and approaching things using elements from points 1-8 can help get me back on track.

Establishing formal and informal contact times is going to be essential for everyone but especially for anyone who thrives on the office environment. Team leaders need to assess their staff in this respect and ensure they are checking in with everyone on a regular basis.

A great way to maintain your mojo is to keep track of the work you have done and what you have achieved. It can be easy to look at a ‘to-do’ list and see what have left to tackle rather than the successes of the day. At the end of a working day I make appoint of reviewing what I’ve done and achieved. This both acts as a motivator as well as focussing me on what I need to pick up on tomorrow.

10: Remember to connect in a fun way too

I’m going to quote Jo Campbell and Para-Sols on this one: ‘Having your team working from home will inevitably feel strange and maybe a bit isolating so keep checking in with your team,  ask where you can help one another – hell the pubs may be closed but that doesn’t stop you having a virtual beer o’clock at 4pm on Friday to keep morale up!’

There will be things I’ve mentioned that you’ve probably thought about when first setting up from home but hopefully, there are some new pointers in there as well. Take the time to review what you are doing and how you are approaching this unusual time, to see if everything is working for you or whether you could improve the way you are doing things.

Take care, look after you and yours, stay calm and keep on paraplanning.

Professional Paraplanner