This article is intended as a mini survival guide for modern office workers on how to work from home for a long period of time successfully (e.g. months at a time) and is aimed at you, your colleagues and your employees. We’ve got tips and guidance a basic equipment list to enable people to be comfortable, productive and maintain good emotional wellbeing also.
Please note: This article assumes that you are simply going home to work and NOT that you are going home to work while simultaneously providing home schooling and child care services as that requires superhuman powers and a totally separate article.
A week before the UK government announced the first U.K. lockdown restrictions because of the spread of Covid-19 or Coronavirus, we (everyone at 777 Networks as an IT Support Company) took the decision to experiment and fire test ourselves to find out what it would be really like to work from home on an everyday basis – just in case such an announcement was ever made.
The announcement of course did come and businesses like us where employees could work from home were asked to do exactly that. Eleven months on and in lock down part 3, we’re still operating like this.
For us, working from home has become the new normality. Sure, it has taken some adjustment, fine tuning, minor investments etc. however we have managed it and perhaps not surprisingly in some ways we prefer it.
Last week we had our 9th formal ‘show of hands’ over who wanted to go back to the office or continue working the way we were. Interestingly nobody wanted to go back and it wasn’t 100% due to the fear of becoming infected with Covid-19
Over the period we’ve been in contact with numerous business owners to ask their opinions on the home working situation and also spoken with their staff, colleagues and team members during calls on our helpdesk and asked for their feedback too. Reading between the lines few people have been given any guidance on how to work from home for a long period of time successfully and understandably are just making do as best they can taking each day as it comes.
We have discovered there are two main types of people:
Person Type A: Loves working from home and hopes the change is permanent.
Person Type B: Dislikes working from home and cannot wait to get back to the office as soon as possible.
Digging a little further into this we found that this is down to individual personality and what makes these people ‘tick’.
Some people literally thrive on the team experience, sitting with colleagues, shouting across the room to people they can see, the coffee machine and the general office hum; it’s what makes them productive and without his close interaction their productivity (and general happiness) simply falls off the edge of the cliff.
The other type of person can still be great a team worker but doesn’t require the one to one touchy feely office experience, is able to concentrate better alone and is more productive at home. They seem to thrive with Microsoft Teams on one screen and their work in hand on another, truly valuing the lack of a commute and being get a little bit more work done while also taking more personal time for ‘free’.
Of course, many businesses could not possibly survive if all their staff just went home. Clearly if they did then nothing would get, served, eaten, tried on, manufactured, picked, packed, dispatched or delivered. However, nearly all businesses do have some roles or functions that can be worked outside of the office space.
This article is intended to give tips and guidance on some of the basic steps and golden rules that we’ve discovered over this period that you can take to make remote team working both effective and productive in your business. If you have employees that do struggle with the home working situation then we hope that some of these points should help keep them engaged and happier should you have to send them home or put them into some sort of work bubble rota to keep them safe.
Firstly, the prerequisites for learning how to work from home for a long period of time successfully:
If you’re planning on spending a length of time at home in a fully productive way then there are a few basic ingredients that you’ll need. Employers should be prepared to provide these just like they do coffee in the workspace.
Employer rule #1:
Don’t ask or expect employees to provide any of their the home working kit themselves. Apart from the bad feeling it might generate because they are having to put their hand in their pocket to support you, they’re going to be using their own money and so will generally choose the cheapest option which isn’t always the best. You should provide what is required and DON’T SCRIMP or cut corners on this, the right investment will pay you back many times over.
Basic Kit List:
- A good chair: A spare dining chair simply will not cut it long term. Having over 20 years solid bums on seat experience in the IT world, we have experienced many chairs. Some were cheap, some were expensive. Everyone has their own idea on personal comfort but for us, having spent thousands on inferior chairs only to throw them in the skip later, we now know and can reveal what we think really is ‘the ultimate chair’ a separate review is here. Good chairs don’t have to cost the earth, but it has to be comfortable so take your time in choosing the right one. Basically get the best you can afford for your team. Also bear in mind that people come in different sizes as do chairs and what works for one person may not work for another.
- A Desk – The dining table isn’t a long term solution to remote working because it usually means a person is sitting in a room full of distractions like screaming kids, the beeper on the washing machine, the junk mail falling through the letter box and whatever else randomly and generally occurs in the home; then when meal times occur the workspace needs to be cleaned down of IT equipment so food can be served only to be set up again later for working. Undoing and redoing a workspace is tedious and is sure to become a real frustration. Having your partner sat at the dining table working is almost definitely going to lead to some relationship stress at some point. Honestly is the price of the desk is irrelevant what is important is that it’s the right size to house a person comfortably along with their computer screen(s), laptop, keyboard, mouse etc. comfortably. As long as it’s the right size and doesn’t wobble it should be good to go. A good size desk needs to be around 800mm deep so that a person can sit comfortably, be far enough away from the screens and not bang their feet on the wall.
- External Full Size Screen + Keyboard and Mouse Kit – Huddling over a laptop isn’t going to work long term simply because of the comfort issues. The most common complaints are back ache, numbness in the arms, fingers and shoulders or eye fatigue from having to squint at the small laptop screen. All modern laptops come with the ability to plug in an external monitor and all have USB ports that will allow you to plug in either a keyboard and mouse that are wired or a dongle to support a wireless keyboard and mouse kit. Using an external monitor with the laptop as an added bonus which, if you’re not used to working like this, will revolutionise the way that you operate day to day on a computer. The dual screen setup allows you to focus and type on one screen while referencing or reading from another application on the other screen, eliminating the need to cut, minimise a window, pull up the destination application and paste in the copied items; one can simply drag and drop between screens. The basic layout is actually quite important for comfort, so we have a short overview of how to set up your desk for multiple monitors here. This setup can be improved by using Docking Station; fundamentally it’s the same but the docking station is just neater allowing a single wire to connect the laptop while the dock itself has all the wired and USB accessories such as the external screens, keyboard, mouse, monitors, thumb drives, headset etc. attached to it. This makes life really simple for people to just unplug and go if heading out on the road or back to the office then plug back in when they return without all the individual wires needing to be connected back to the laptop directly.
- A decent Headset and Camera – Laptops come with a camera microphone and speakers built into them but the sound quality of the microphone and speaker combination on board is usually not that great and can lead to sound issues like feedback and an overall poor experience when working with applications like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or the company’s VoIP phone system. The onboard cameras on modern laptops are usually perfectly adequate for video meetings, however if the machine being at home is a PC then you’ll need to purchase a camera that fits on top of the screen or has a desk stand. A camera that’s rated at around 720P resolution should be perfect there’s no need to spend any more money here. For sound then wired headsets can be had from around £30 and these offer superb sound quality. We’ve had excellent results with the £30 Plantronics equipment but there are other manufacturers such as Sennheiser, Jabra etc. as well as an absolute heap of super cheap no name brands available on Amazon: Basically you get what you pay for. We’ve recently upgraded to Bluetooth headsets from Sennheiser and these are great. They’re extremely lightweight, have extremely long battery life and allow the freedom of movement to be able to go downstairs and open the door somebody comes to it while staying in a call on hold or with colleagues and avoid the problem of getting tangled up in the headset wire while working.
- Good Internet and Wi-Fi – This may seem obvious, but it actually gets overlooked quite a lot. Certainly, in the UK we’re almost at the point where really poor Internet Service to the home is a thing of the past. Generally most people can get a decent connection and if they can’t get it out of the copper telephone wires or Fibre Optic Internet provided by BT Openreach or Virgin then they can generally be served by one of the 3G, 4G or soon 5G networks from common mobile providers such as EE, Vodafone, O2 etc. here in the UK, If you’re reading this from outside the UK then you will know who your best mobile providers are. However, one challenge is getting the Internet from its entry point and supplier provided Router around the home to where the homeworking in workspace is located without running a load of wires. Thankfully due to developments in Wi-Fi networking technology, if the right equipment choices are made, we can get full speed coverage in and around the most difficult of buildings at low cost. Enterprise grade Wi-Fi equipment now starts at an unbelievably low price of sub £100 pounds per unit.
- A Cloud Based Phone System – For sure, in the short term, the lack of a cloud based phone system (or remotely accessible PBX) can be worked around temporarily by diverting calls to mobiles or issuing out mobile phone numbers. Long term this is a bit messy and can lead to a poor customer experience. If people are having to use the personal mobiles for company business that causes an issue with clients or suppliers calling them directly, when the call should be really directed to the team and that is before we get in the realm of HR or GDPR concerns. Similarly, if they are using company mobiles it causes a problem for call queuing, distribution, logging and reporting and meaning that some people will end up being bombarded with calls while others may sit idle. The reality is that the traditional phone system is actually dead as far as the future is concerned and VoIP And cloud hosted systems not only full featured And mature they are also available at a fraction of the cost of the traditional phone system that was in use by the majority of businesses for the two decades. Add an example we’ve recently quoted a full blown professional phone system with all the bells and whistles such as call queuing, reporting, routing, menu options, on hold music, call recording, video calling, instant messaging, voicemail pretty much any other Phone System feature you can think of with four dedicated inbound lines and unlimited number of extensions with all call charges to Land lines and mobiles for less than £100 per month with unlimited calls support.
The above 6 items will allow for a potentially very productive home working experience that is sustainable long term, if the person working at home knows how to use them and perhaps more importantly, wants to use them and this is what we’ll focus on the next part of this article:
How do we structure our day and self-motivate so that working from home is both fruitful and enjoyable experience?
Below are our golden rules and top tips keep motivated and happy while remote working, apply these and you and your colleagues should feel engaged and motived while working from home:
- Get up.
Get up at the same time you would have pre lockdown or pre home working. At the absolute most give yourself an extra 15 to 30 minutes sleeping as a treat. Use the extra time that you won’t be spending in the car driving to work on the commute to spend on yourself or your family by reading the paper, walking the dog, an exercise session or basically anything that is a nice for YOU. Give yourself something personal that you didn’t have before. Whatever you choose spend the extra time on, DON’T make the mistake of staying in bed till just before work time then dragging yourself to your desk hoping nobody will notice you are only just awake. Conversely, DON’T do the opposite becoming a better workaholic by simply starting work earlier and working longer hours overall without any more personal time.
- Get dressed.
Dressing for the day makes you feel good about yourself as well as projecting the correct image. Clean up and dress up just like you would if you were heading into the office. When you’re on video hook-ups over Teams, Zoom or whichever platform your business is using for Remote Working and Collaboration your colleagues will see that you mean business and (other than the fact It is being conducted over a video hook up) everything is business as usual
Working at home doesn’t mean you’re not at work so dress accordingly and make sure it feels right. Don’t imagine for one minute that pair of joggers and a hoodie will do; they belong to your personal life so when you have finished for the day change back into them to mark the switch back to your time.
- Meet the Team (EVERY DAY)- Have a daily video hook-up with your team 15 minutes prior to your normal work start time.
Two the main psychological issues to overcome when working from home are isolation and motivation. The value of a daily video meeting prior to work starting should not be underestimated, moreover, we would argue it’s absolutely fundamental.
In small organisations everybody can be in this meeting however in larger organisations it should be better to keep it to smaller Workgroups or Teams so that everybody can be involved and the meeting can be closed promptly with everybody having had some in form of input.
Whilst no formal agenda needs to be set in advance for this meeting, it’s actually really good to find a natural chair for it. This should be someone that can drive it through its various stages below and make it an engaging and worthwhile experience for everyone that joins and something everybody looks forward to in the morning. Time Keeping is important. If anyone is late for the morning hook up be sure they understand the importance of being on time and that the lateness isn’t repeated/doesn’t become a regular occurrence as it ruins the flow. The Team is about people and it is vitally important everybody is present and in it together.
Here are the fundamental stages in a successful morning hook up as we see them:
1.Meeting Start/Intro – The meeting start is for ‘Good Mornings’ and general group free for all chit chat about the evening before, news and life in general. Team Leaders and chairpersons should pay particular attention in this section. Make sure everyone is engaged, look for signs of unhappiness, low energy or sadness and invite everyone to speak by simply asking them how they are for example. It might be necessary to circle back and have a private one on one with somebody outside of the team meeting So make sure you make a note and do it as soon as possible.
2. Daily Tasks/Missions/Goals – Have a quick run through of the outstand tasks for the day ahead. If necessary ask everybody to call out their to-do’s in turn this will often lead to people joining in on each other’s lists and offering to help or providing solutions. If you have ever come across any formal project management methodology such as Scrum then this section of the meeting operates a little bit like the bit before Sprint where items blocking progress are called out and people work together to come up with solutions. If this section works well it engages everyone end sets the general direction of the team for the day giving everybody a little organisation and purpose where they may not have had complete clarity prior.
3. Recap and wrap up – once the task lists, issues and solutions have been discussed the in formal leader or chair should carry out brief recap of top items who’s working with who etc and bring the meeting to a close to let people go and get on with things. This recap is a chance for people to digest again and run the work flow, task lists etc. through their heads again and throw out any additional blockers that may not have cropped up in round one. It may be the two or more people need to break out after the full team meet and have a separate hook up together to discuss a particular item in more detail.
Once the day begins it doesn’t mean that everybody simply goes back into isolation working alone.
We’re using the chat feature within Teams loaded onto laptop monitors off to the side of our main work space and this provides a constant textual live feed of what’s occurring throughout the day. Typical examples of things in our feed are asking if someone has called somebody back or asking if anyone has dealt with X or Y, who wants to take which lunch slot when so that the phones remain covered and people asking for or offering help to others along with the occasional funny comment or hilarious animated GIF.
Throughout the day people tend have one on ones with each other as well as mini group calls just like they would chitter chatter in the office. You might start a call to discuss something with one person and during the conversation decided to add another person into a call on the fly and Microsoft Teams lends itself very well to this.
Having the ability to carry out screen sharing during a call is super helpful as it allows colleagues to able to see the same thing and also allows you the ability to give control to a person you’re talking with so they can click things to just like they would if they were sitting next to you.
4. End of day or close of play hook up.
Agree on a time at the end of day to have a short video call again. This gives everyone the opportunity to call out anything ‘before they forget’ Ready for tomorrow, add footnotes to earlier topics or discussion or bring anything new to the table that may have cropped up in the afternoon and hasn’t yet been mentioned. more importantly it allows everybody to exhale and sit back and relax for a few minutes and let off a little steam from the day with colleagues. In our end of day may quite often it’s comical reflection on the days events. We find that in this section people will also discuss what they of cooking this evening all what odd jobs or DIY they might be doing around the house. Most importantly it marks the end of a good day’s work and then the work you do after this point is on your own time working late or overtime depending on how you look at it.
Running with this daily structure has allowed us to survive very well while working at home for the last 10 months, we’ve learned how to work from home for a long period of time successfully. Structuring our days like this has allowed us to remain productive and prevented our team from being distracted, feeling isolated or feeling low during this time. Depression is a real risk and its potential damage cannot be underestimated, especially for those who live alone at home generally and no one is immune. It’s vital that everyone tries to help each other to prevent it.
Coming together regularly as we’ve outlined here boosts productivity, positivity and wellbeing. It doesn’t cost anything, or at worst the cost is negligible… some electricity and a little time nothing more.
This article (or survival guide) has taken month or two to write on and off but we had another show of hands three days ago and the result was the same: everybody is still happy working from home. It isn’t perfect and as we’ve touched on Previously some work simply cannot be done from home.
We still head on the road for essential work entering client offices and warehouses to install and maintain equipment and all if that is done as safely as is possible. As for heading back to our 400 plus person shared office facility for now we are saying no would rather keep safe at home.
We hope that by sharing this article on how to work from home for a long period of time successfully we can help others keep sane while working in ‘isolation’ at home and therefore keep their jobs and businesses running safely through what is going to be a very bumpy ride for the next year or so.
Footnotes and the positive unexpected: Teams Meeting Guests and External Users
Meetings with people outside your organisation such as customers and suppliers were a little weird at first. At a local level people were used to having a telephone call and asking somebody to pop in for a coffee at some point In the next few weeks traditionally. Doing a video call next to the washing pile at home took a little getting used to. It seems that everyone now agrees that having a quick Video hook-up is way more efficient and In many cases it is now actually the preferred option to booking diary time and hitting the road.
An unexpected but very valuable by product of the video call is that It also allows meetings to involve people that live in different geographical regions. Quite regularly we have people in our meetings that are actually working in the United States, Europe or in Asia. Historically we’d have never met these people face to face. We may have seen them in an email thread or if we were really lucky maybe we’d have seen them on their annual visit (if we happened to be in the office on that day they visited). Because we see each others faces, expressions and workspaces we feel better about dealing with these people and in this way Microsoft Teams has allowed us to build trust and create better business relationships in new and improved ways.