I’m an extrovert at heart (ENFP, apparently). I like working in an office. I’ve never really minded my commute (growing up in the suburbs of London often meant at least 45-minute commutes to see friends) and I love the human interaction we get when outside on our way to work, like daily chats with the barista who works the morning shift on my train platform and always remembers my order.
But in 2019, I started working from home more frequently as a method to deal with my physical and mental ill health. Working from home gave me flexibility, better meals, more sleep, and much needed “me” time – without the social interactions which often exacerbated my anxiety at the time. Much of these perks still apply today (but luckily this time without the ill health). I’ve saved my travel-card (and uninspired Pret lunch) money, I have more time to do house tasks, exercise, (virtually) socialise with friends and family – all while feeling less tired.
However, working remotely indefinitely can pose many challenges, especially when, unlike me in 2019, you haven’t chosen to be at home.
In March 2020, just after the UK Government announced a national lockdown, I posted a thread of wellbeing tips on Twitter for those newly transitioning to working from home. Little did I know at the time remote working would become the norm for those of us usually sitting behind desks in offices across the world, and my tips would lead to talks across my former company to over 150 people on managing your wellbeing while at home six months later.
As I sit in my foldable bedroom desk writing this, I am struck by how I’m in my first month of a new job where I’ve not met the team in person and everything is going great. I talked to four people over the interview process, caught up with my new manager multiple times over summer, talk to my colleagues frequently throughout the day, and organised a team Never Mind the Buzzcocks style social but I haven’t met any of them face-to-face.
How have I done it? Certainly not alone (shout-out to the Dream Team for an amazing welcome and my support network for always picking up the phone). But by keeping in mind the tips I set out at the beginning of March and reminding myself of them as months went on, I’ve managed to work remotely, move jobs, and feel largely OK.
I recognise I am incredibly privileged to have done this at a time when many in my country are facing job insecurity. I hope that while these ‘Top 10’ tips are geared towards those moving from office work to work at home, they can also help you, whatever your circumstance, deal with the challenges of this year:
1. Stick to a routine
The most boring wellbeing tip I’ve been given, but the one I give the most. People like routine. This doesn’t mean planning out your day to detailed 15 minute intervals with no room for change (I’ve learned this year that people do not like the word ‘routine’). But, if you usually wake up at 7.30am everyday, still try to get up around this time. Shower, get ready and changed into a new set of clothes even if comfy ones (who’s wearing jeans anymore…), eat your breakfast and drink your coffee as normal. A morning routine also helps your body set a natural rhythm which over a couple of weeks will also improve your sleep (more on this in future posts). Some of my colleagues have found mimicking a morning/evening commute also helps give their days structure – and neatly leads onto my next tip…
2. Exercise (outside) everyday
I noticed the importance of getting my body moving outside in the first lockdown. Some days I wouldn’t leave the house at all, barely moving from my kitchen to my bedroom and found the next day so much harder. Now, I set a reminder in my diary around lunchtime to go for a walk. I started running again and getting out on my bike. If you can’t go outside, there are some great free online workouts – including yoga and stretching – which are essential for our overall health. Without movement we get restless, our minds race and we can’t sleep. I’ll write more on exercise and mental health in future posts – but trust me when I say this is probably the most important tip on this list.
3. Work in another space to your rest space
As I’ve mentioned, I work in my bedroom. Not all of us can work in shared living spaces or have homes big enough to dedicate a room or wall to home office supplies. However, I did invest in a foldable desk over summer and use a second monitor (ask your employer for this). It takes me under five minutes to set up in the morning and take down at night, and means I have a space conducive to working that also doesn’t remind me of work when I’m trying to sleep. Our minds need boundaries – literally don’t bring work to bed with you.
4. Call your colleagues
Yes, we’ve all had more video-chats than ever this year, but working from home can feel like miscommunication-central. You think: if I log off for an hour have others too, why someone hasn’t responded, that tone was weird, are they mad at me, do they understand my instruction, was I clear, do they even like me? PICK UP THE PHONE (or G-Meet or Zoom…). Humans are social beings and we do better when we communicate directly.
5. Take regular breaks away from your workspace
I work in sprints. I am highly focussed for an hour or two and then need to change activity. Many of my colleagues are the same, but others could sit at their desk for hours if unprompted. If either of these are you – make sure to take regular breaks away from your workspace. Set a timer if you feel you need to or schedule lunch calls with friends to catch up. Mimicking the work coffee break, I take an afternoon coffee break in a different room, or if I can I go for a walk around the block. We should do this anyway but when you’re at home 24/7 it’s more important as we don’t have the commute or people leaving their desks around us as a reminder. Often people will tell me this is the hardest step to enact at home – with busy schedules and multiple, often competing, commitments. For the “I’m too busy to stop” people reading: taking breaks improves productivity. Don’t trust me this time, trust science.
6. Limit your intake of news and social media
2020 has really tested this one. Managing your intake of (mostly negative) news is not only important for overall mental health but *buzz word* productivity. I tend check mine once every hour at the moment, but if it gets “too much” I limit it to breakfast, lunch and dinner – or on challenging days, such as the US election, I opened a results tracker on my phone and avoided the social media streams. Do what you need to do for you, but notice how news and different forms of media is making you feel and listen to it.
7. Turn off notifications
I’ve been known to work into late hours more so when I’m at home as I don’t have the hunger-induced prompt to leave the office. But, your home is still your home, we all need rest and to be with family and friends. This year, I took this step further and turned off all notifications. I felt a pressure to “be available” and found myself picking up my phone every time it buzzed. But it was causing my anxiety to resurface, I wasn’t separating my work and home and – most importantly – I wasn’t giving myself the space I needed to reset each day. Now, after work hours, I still use my phone, my laptop, but with intention – I know I’m picking up my phone to read and reply to messages, to browse Pinterest or scroll through Twitter – and my screen time overall has significantly reduced. Try it. I bet you’ll love it.
8. Listen to music, the radio, podcasts
If, like me, you often prefer noise to silence – opt for audio over video. Video has not killed the radio star (sorry, I had to). When working, it can be tempting to “have the TV on in the background” (especially with sports events restarting and eventful news cycles) but you’ll be distracted and end up working overtime to make up these hours. It also adds to the ever-increasing screen time we have all had this year which we know leads to complications with our sleep, productivity and eye health.
9. Check in on your loved ones
I am fortunate to live with people I get along with, but I miss my family, my friends I haven’t seen, some of whom are alone. I schedule FaceTime dinners with my best friends, I make sure to call my grandparents more frequently than before, drop a text to my neighbours to make sure they’re alright. Luckily we have this tech – so use it to stay connected.
10. Reach out – get the help you need
When I first wrote these tips in March, I didn’t think I’d be the one reaching out for help a few months later. In May, I decided to access therapy to help manage new feelings of anxiety I’d noticed creeping in in April. I was lucky enough to afford private help this time, but there are many options out there for you, your colleagues and loved ones should you need. Many workplaces now offer Employee Assistance Programmes, charities like Mind or Mental Health UK offer free support and advice on peer groups, counselling and talking to loved ones, and please do contact your GP.
And if you can’t cope, please call Samaritans on 116 123.
We are all in this together!