Kiwi clinical psychologist Dr Sarb Johal shares tips on how to better work remotely

Two years into the pandemic, many may have fallen into bad habits when it comes to their remote working life. Kiwi clinical psychologist Dr Sarb Johal shares his tips.

If you’re fortunate enough to be in a location-flexible job with ongoing work, then chances are you’ve worked from home at least sometimes. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or a complete newbie to this work-from-home thing, it’s likely to be part of your life for some time.

For many of us, working from home was previously considered a temporary situation. Perhaps you didn’t have any face-to-face meetings booked, so you avoided the office for the day. Maybe you needed a block of time without constant interruptions from co-workers, so you brought your laptop home for the day and set it up on the kitchen table.

In ordinary times, working from home represents a significant change from your normal routine and pace of work. This can be very effective once in a while, precisely because it’s different from normal.

You still have your usual daily structure transferred to a different setting, collaborating with your colleagues who can adjust their work accounting for your absence.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded, many organisations have people working outside their offices all the time. We call this remote working, and it requires a very different set of abilities, resources and skills.

Assuming you have the space, the office perks can be incredible at home; but they can be incredibly distracting too, especially with other people or young children around.
Working remotely day after day needs a self-starting attitude and ninja-level time management skills. To get it right, you need structure, plus a shared understanding of expectations and what’s going to function well for both the organisation and the person working at home. Here are some tips.

1. Do something that isn’t work, first

If you were working out, you’d probably stretch and warm up first. Okay, I know you don’t, but you should, because otherwise you will not perform at your best, and you might get hurt and you’ll be sore for days. The same is true for work. Start your day by warming up your brain with a non-work task. Go for a walk, listen to a podcast, or exercise. And no, checking your email doesn’t count, because this flips your mind into work mode (even if they are non-work emails). It’s best to stay off any interface that signals to your brain that work is about to begin.

2. Chunk your time

One of the great things about remote work is that you don’t have to show up at 8am and stay till 5pm. One of the worst things about remote work is that you don’t have to show up at 8am and stay until 5pm, and there are so many distractions competing for your time. If you’re not careful, time can slip away and you end up staying up late just to get your regular tasks done. Block your time, and give each block of time a purpose: email, writing, research or meetings. This makes it easier to control your flow of work, handle interruptions when they come, and get back on task when you engage again. Try breaking your time up into 25-minute blocks of focused work, each followed by a five-minute break.

Here’s how to do it. Set a timer, get rid of all distractions (such as limiting your access to social media and closing all unnecessary browsers and applications on your computer), and focus completely on just one task for 25 minutes.

Then, take a five-minute break doing something completely different, like going for a walk around your living space, taking a good look out of the window, or listening to a favourite song. Many people find this a helpful way of concentrating their work activity into highly productive blocks, followed by a quick break when they can move around, do some stretches, make a cuppa or pop the washing machine on.

You’ll be amazed by how much you can get done in 25 minutes when you are focused. It can even be a way of tackling a task that you’ve avoided doing for a long time, because often we fear that it will take forever and we can’t afford to get trapped in that mire. Once you set yourself a time limit of 25 minutes to at least make a start, it doesn’t seem so overwhelming. I use this technique to manage how I write, all the time.

3. Turn off notifications

Nothing kills productivity like incoming notifications. Turn them off, and then set a reminder to check your emails three times a day: at the start of the day, just before lunch, and once more just before you finish your scheduled working day. Don’t get sucked into the email vortex that kills many hours for even the most productive of remote workers. It helps to let your colleagues know that this is how you will work — tell them that if something requires urgent attention, they will need to pick up the phone.

4. Create your place

Create a workspace where you can focus with minimum distractions. Even if you like to mix it up and work in different places around the house, it’s important that you have somewhere you can go to concentrate and get things done, even if it’s a corner of your bedroom. It also helps you define the boundary between work and home.

5. Get out in the world when you can

If you’re spending too long staring at a screen or reading sheets of paper, then change your focus by looking out the window every now and again. Get up and move around in between your chunks of allocated work time, or go for a walk around the block. All this will help you be more productive, and feel more balanced. Even at times when you’re self-isolating or in lockdown, it’s important for your own state of mind to recognise that in most situations you can get outside to take some fresh air.

6. Shut the door

One of the hardest things about remote working is that sometimes I have to say “no” to the people I love, because I have to get work done. Create the expectation that when you’re working, you’re not going to be available for piggyback rides, or gaming sessions with your kids.My family know that when the door is shut, it’s work time. Ask your partner, housemates, other adults or older kids for help with this too.
Treat it as if you’ve left the house and gone to work elsewhere, knowing you’ll be home at the end of the day and there will be plenty of time for piggybacks then.

7. Dress for work

Yes, you could work in your pyjamas. But if you change and put work clothes on, you’re much more likely to make the mental shift into work mode, and then stick to a work-mode structure. Staying in your slouching-around clothes makes it all too easy to blur the lines, and suddenly you’re cleaning parts of the house you never knew needed cleaning, or making that cold-brew coffee you’ve always thought would be amazing. Get dressed at the start of the day, and get out of your work clothes when you’ve finished working. Your attitude goes with the clothes.

8. Know when your day is going to end

It’s tempting to let your structure slip and end up working far longer into the day than you intended.
If this continues, it’s not likely to be good for you, or those around you. You’re far more likely to be more productive when you know your time is limited, so set a time to finish working and stick to it.

9. Tell someone about your day — what you’re working on and what you got done

Remote working can be really lonely. You’re more likely to be productive when you know you’re going to be accountable to someone else.

10. Share the load with your partner

This is great if you have a partner around, and they live with you, or may form a bubble with you in pandemic times. If you have children, you can divide the day into shifts of three hours long and take turns working and being with the kids.

But what if you don’t have a partner? Well, the advice offered by parents in this situation includes radical honesty with your workplace — if you have a job that offers that kind of flexibility — and with your kids too.

Let your work know in advance if you’re going to do the school run or have to start the routine of getting your kids to bed at 4.30pm (yes, it can take that long — at least, in my home with three young girls). But keeping your child or children informed of the situation is important too. If they’re used to having a lot of your attention when you’re home, then your working and not being able to give them that kind of attention will take some getting used to. And that’s why you’ll also probably need a super-sized helping of structure too.

If your kids can still attend school, set yourself essential tasks to get done between drop-off and pick-up times, and save less mission-critical activities like email and admin for when they’ve gone to sleep. If your children can’t go to school, set up a routine that works for everyone. That could start with an hour of study or solo play for them, and an hour of work for you. Follow that with snack time together, and perhaps a movie for the kids while you can get on with something else in the background.

Routines help kids feel safe, and they’ll help you with some predictability in your day too.

In case you didn’t know, kids can be noisy. And not just the small ones. So, if you’re a boss and you see or hear kids in the background of Zoom calls, then have a heart. Often the best plans go awry, and parents really are trying to manage what feels like, and sometimes is, impossible situations on a day-to-day basis. Hopefully, it’s not like that all the time. But it will happen.

Bonus tip: Write yourself an email at the end of the day listing everything you got done, from completed tasks to phone calls and any positive feedback you received. Send it to yourself and store these in a folder in your email service.
Writing the email will capture your progress and help you focus your thoughts at the end of the day. Reading it back later will help to motivate you, as you can see what you’ve achieved.

Wellington-based clinical psychologist Dr Sarb Johal is an expert in emergency management and disaster psychology.

Book extract from Finding Calm by Dr Sarb Johal. (Penguin, $37)

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