(Home) working it!

Gabrielle Lis

Accentuate the positives and eliminate the negatives of remote work, with this strategic guide to making the most of working from home.

We know that some of our readers work from home (full time, or during er special occasions like pandemics); we also know that many of you will at some point deal with injured workers who are working from home during the recovery period.

Remote work brings challenges as well as benefits. Here are ten strategies for promoting the positive and managing the negative. 

1. Be realistic about personality.

A few people are just naturally really good at working from home. They're self-motiovated, good at maintaining work / life boundaries, and capable of keeping social bonds with colleagues even at a distance.

And then there are the rest of us, who will struggle with one or more of these areas. This isn't to say that some people shouldn't work from home. (Although, honestly, some people probably shouldn't work from home.) But it's important to know the strengths and weaknesses of remote workers, so that you can tailor support appropriately - or, if you're the one doing the remote work, identify and ask for the support you need.  

2. Be realistic about organisational fit.

Sometimes remote work causes operational problems. One example is if the person is part of a highly interdependent work team, where informal workplace conversations are important to keep things running smoothly. If remote work won't be possible full time, suggest compromises The key is to be proactive about identifying and surmounting organisational challenges. Virtual teams can be cohesive and function well, but this is unlikely to happen without effort on the part of supervisors and managers.

3. Get in early with information and support.

Many remote workers would benefit from information about the pitfalls that they might encounter when working from home, as well as advice to help avoid or manage these from the get-go. This approach helps people understand that it's normal to struggle with aspects of working from home, it's not a reflection of their work ethic or capacity. It also helps them take control of the situation in productivity-enhancing ways. Whether it's a fact sheet, a workplace policy document or a quick, non-judgemental chat over the phone, opening the lines of communication about challenges is a good start. 

4. Understand the value of rituals.

At the start and finish of each working day we participate in many low-key rituals. Making a cuppa, clearing a desk, donning and removing office clothes or uniforms: these tasks are practical necessities but they also signify something about what zone we're in, what role we're currently playing. They help us switch on at the start of the working day, and switch off at the end. In remote work, there are far fewer rituals built-in. Creating your own can help build stronger work / life boundaries. A person might choose to start the day with a phone call and end it with a walk, for example, creating a clear demarcation between work hours and free time.

5. Prioritise e-resilience and downtime.

Once someone's been set up to work from home, they may find that colleagues expect them to be online and accessible at all times, and that work notifications interfere with family time and downtime. This can have negative consequences including insomnia, burnout and stress. Some people will need to be supported to develop e-resilience, including the capacity to switch off when the working day is done. Everyone needs time off, and people who are recovering from injury need it more than most. 

6. Don't forget ergonomics.

Workplace injuries can occur, and be exacerbated, at home. If someone has set up a home work space / office, it might be worthwhile conducting a formal ergonomic assessment, or at the very least talking them through the principles of safe and healthy workstations. If applicable, you might also provide remote workers with a hazard identification checklist so that they can assess the home working environment for red flags.

7. Manage productivity.

One of the joys of working from home is organising your day in a way that's both productive and efficient. In some situations, doing the hours really matters; in others, doing the work is what counts. If a remote worker is struggling with productivity, encourage them to experiment. There are so many productivity enhancing techniques out there, from Pomodoro to the power hour. Another tactic involves creating a stronger sense of accountability, for example by scheduling regular progress reports with a manager. None of this needs to be viewed as discipline; it's all about finding what works for the individual worker.

8. Strive to maintain the social positives of work.

Working from home can be lonely. Remote workers might end up feeling socially isolated and disconnected from colleagues.This is not an insurmountable problem. Shared freelancing spaces are a good option for some remote workers. Others could be encouraged to get out and about during the day, for example by spending an hour working in a local cafe. And always, always, it's important for supervisors and managers to stay in touch with remote workers, using phone, email and occasionally in-person meets ups if possible.

9. Have a dedicated workspace. 

If possible, remote workers should be encouraged to set aside a dedicated workspace in the home, closed off from children, partners, housemates etc. People (even toddlers!) tend to respect clear boundaries. “If the door to my office is shut, please act as if I’m not at home,” is a good example of a clear boundary that most people will come to respect over time.

10. Don't fall into the trap of out of sight, out of mind.

Remote workers are not a breed apart: they struggle with things like job satisfaction, workload, bullying, stress, isolation, mental and physical health. Injured workers are already vulnerable. Maintaining regular, supportive contact is so important. As remember: listening is even more important than talking if the aim is showing support.