How to stay productive when you're working from home (again)

As Covid cases rise and it feels like everyone and their nan has Omicron, it makes sense that the government has advised us to work from home once again.

While for some this will be cause for rejoicing (no more commuting with people who refuse to wear face masks! No need for anything with a non-elasticated waistband! Endless trips to the fridge!), others may feel a touch more trepidation about the return to the home office.

Working-from-home burnout is a very real thing, as is the realisation that your makeshift sofa desk is wrecking your back, or discovering that there’s loads of opportunity for distraction when you’re not in your usual working environment.

You might be facing the unease of knowing that you struggle to be as productive when you’re WFH, which can lead to stress, frustration, and hours of working late into the night to try to catch up.

So, how can we sort ourselves out, slip more easily into the routine of working from home again, and keep productivity levels up in a healthy way?

Paula Allen, the senior VP for the world’s largest wellbeing consultancy, Lifeworks, exclusively shares her tips.

Get to know your WFH productivity obstacles

Look back at the last time you worked remotely, and note down the specific things that you found challenging.

Once you have a better handle of what your obstacles are, you can get to work on tackling them.

Paula says a common issue is ‘separating the workspace from the leisure space’.

‘If working in a bedroom, or on a sofa, psychologically speaking productivity levels may suffer in that we associate these spaces with rest and therefore they are not conducive to completing work tasks,’ she tells ‘And over time, we may start to associate these spaces with work, which it less conducive to rest.

‘On top of this, lack of boundaries in terms of time can contribute to lower productivity levels.

Top procrastination tasks when working from home

According to a study by IvoryResearch, these are the most popular ways we skive off work when we’re WFH.

‘It may be tempting to use the time we once used for commuting to start and finish work outside of working hours.

‘The main issue is that this can ultimately create more mental fatigue, which then diminishes the productive value of the extra time, and increases your mental tension by decreasing your recovery time.

‘Many people now live and work with others who are also trying to establish a work-from-home space, as well as their children or pets. Through no fault of their own, being surrounded by these distractions can also lead to reduced productivity levels as attention is constantly split between work and home life.’

Set boundaries with your time

So, to answer that common struggle of separating work from rest when your office is your home: boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.

‘Although often easier said than done, avoid starting early, finishing late and not taking a reasonable break for lunch,’ advises Paula. ‘Carve out a lunch break at the start of your day, and make sure you organise the remainder of your work around it – rather than trying to shoehorn in 20 mins for a quick break between meetings or tasks.

‘In addition, work on not checking work emails after a set time, setting an email signature setting out your working hours and/or shutting off all work devices after these hours are over to avoid receiving notifications.

‘If colleagues aren’t respecting these boundaries, lead by example, but also make a point of checking in with them to establish the urgency of a set task – as more often than not, it can wait until the next day.’

Set up a dedicated workspace

Once you’ve set boundaries with your time, it’s time to make a more physical separation between work and rest.

Paula says: ‘Set up a dedicated workspace – preferably away from an area where you would typically relax.

‘This also means a proper desk set-up, that allows you to sit comfortably, supports your posture, is clear of clutter, and has a good amount of natural light.

‘Adding oxygen-boosting plants and other aesthetically pleasing touches can help improve mood and make your workspace an appealing place to spend time – helping with productivity levels.’

And actually leave the workspace when you’re done for the day

Even if you’re just moving from the ‘work’ side of the sofa to the ‘rest’ side, make sure you go through the ‘leaving the office’ motion at the end of each day.

‘Being able to walk away from the workspace to relax and enjoy your evening also creates a boundary, which is vital for mental health and continuing your work refreshed and ready for the next morning,’ notes Paula.

Get outside

‘Being cooped up indoors and looking at the same computer screen for hours on end can have adverse effects on your energy levels and mental wellbeing,’ says Paula. ‘Aim to get outside to stretch your legs at least once a day – whether that’s walking to the shop, walking your dog, or pottering in the garden.

‘Fresh air can also help regulate mood and your sleep cycle, which in turn, will improve your focus and attention span when working, improving productivity.’

Take breaks

Nonstop working isn’t just bad for your mental wellbeing, it’s also really not conducive to producing good work.

Learn about productive pausing and prioritise regular breaks when working from home.

Communicate with your co-workers

You might physically be far away from your colleagues, but that doesn’t mean you should retreat into a lone wolf style of working.

Try not to let working relationships deteriorate. Make sure you’re chatting regularly, in mediums that aren’t just slightly terse emails. Have a Zoom meeting or discuss issues over a phone call.

Paula tells us: ‘It’s vital, when managing a team, to encourage collaborative working as much as possible – to reduce feelings of isolation and strengthen support networks.

‘Transparency and positive communication are essential in maintaining and improving mental wellbeing and productivity.

‘As well, remember that the time you spend communicating virtually, can and should have the same variety as in-person communication.

‘Just talking yields many work and personal benefits over and above talking about a task.’

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