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Remote working – the challenges and ways to overcome them

By Sarah Lewis, C.Psychol, Principal Psychologist - Appreciating Change
man in gray dress shirt sitting on chair in front of computer monitor

Remote working undoubtedly presents challenges. So, how can we, as senior executives or employees help ourselves and our teams make the most of remote working in a way that suits not just the business, but the individual too?

Lack of boundaries between work-life and home-life

For people new to working from home one of the challenges can be the sudden dissolutions of role boundaries. One minute the division between work and home is clear, the next it’s all happening in the same place.

Usually the expectation when we are at work in the office is that we act ‘as if’ we have no other roles in life. In return, when we’re at home we can forget about work. This boundary has been steadily eroded since the advent of the mobile phone. But the idea of two different domains held and most people had a transition zone from one the other; the commute. In the main it was clear that different rules applied in the two different domains.

Now, for the first time for many people, the two domains of at-work and not-at-work are happening in the same physical space with not even a transition zone between them. While trying to be ‘at work’, people are surrounded by cues that nudge towards not being at work: doorbells, hungry cats, laundry waiting to be hung, tables that need clearing, grass that needs cutting or a thirsty looking garden. It’s easy to end up feeling that you are neither working as conscientiously as you would like, nor are you keeping your home as you like it. How can we manage work-life balance in this new situation?

How to deal with this

There are different ways of dealing with this. You can pretend there is still a boundary: put on the suit, enter the office with your packed lunch, and not emerge until you’ve ‘finished work’. For most people this is impossible, for a minority the structure and routine will be essential.

For true night owls this is a chance to redesign the working day to suit them. Potter about all day, get cracking after supper and power on until the wee hours.

A better strategy for most of us is to go for balance rather than boundaries. It’s a good policy to take a break from your computer every 40 minutes or so. This is both on mental effectiveness grounds, it’s hard to concentrate fully for much longer, and on physical health grounds, it’s not good to stay sitting still for long stretches. So take a break and do something active for 10 minutes, such as watering the plants,, hanging up the laundry, or, playing with the dog.

Whatever strategy you choose, it’s a good idea to have a clear marker between predominantly work time, and predominantly home time. So take a run, have a shower, walk the dog, or mix a cocktail to mark the transition for yourself and those around you.

The challenge of staying motivated

For some people the challenge becomes one of motivation. Without the regular blips of pleasure they experience joshing with colleagues or chatting inconsequentially about nothing much, the day begins to seem all work and no pleasure. In this situation mood can quickly drop and then it can be hard to motivate ourselves to get on with things, especially things we aren’t looking forward to, don’t enjoy, or find hard to do.

How to motivate yourself

There are a number of ways of managing this. Some are general techniques from regular work management advice. Break big projects down into small tasks. Set clear targets for the next hour, day, week. Make a list, prioritise it, and tick things off as you achieve them. Take breaks. Decide at the end of the previous day what the first task is for tomorrow.

Then there are more psychological tips. For example use a task that you are looking forward to as a reward to yourself for doing the less pleasant one first. Do hard tasks in small bursts, followed by a reward of some kind such as having a sweet treat with your cup of tea, or taking five minutes exercise going to post that letter.

In addition, you can focus on how you can use your strengths to help you achieve your goals. Strengths are the things we can do naturally, easily. Using our strengths tends to be motivating and confidence building and enjoyable. Think about how you can recraft your job so that you spend more time using your strengths while you are working.

Proactively manage your mood. Notice when you are starting to flag, becoming lethargic,  or cutting corners you wouldn’t normally. Many people are astonished at how much more productive they are away from the distractions of an office, the interruptions, the endless meetings and all the social chat. This means you are likely to  be working harder or concentrating for longer periods, both of which are tiring. Think not about the hours you are putting in, but about the mental energy you are expending. Pay attention to the signs that you are becoming fatigued and take a break.

You can boost your mood by doing something physical, by ringing someone for a chat, or by watching something funny, for example. Think about what gives you a little blip of pleasure and be sure to include many of them in your day.

The effect on relationships

Finally I want to think about the effect of working from home on relationships. For many people their main relationship network is their work colleagues. Quite often the people they work with are also the people they socialise with. Working from home, especially under C-19 conditions, can cause a real change in the pattern of the relationships. Sustained for years by daily incidental contact, fuelled by interest in the ongoing mini-sagas, or latest leisure passions, they tootle along without anyone needing to give them much thought. When those opportunities for lots of micro-moments of connection are suddenly lost, the friendship, which seemed so solid, can whither on the vine.

What to do

The most important thing is to notice what is happening. Those of an extrovert nature are most likely to quickly miss the camaraderie of work and to start picking up the phone to call colleagues or to set up a zoom meeting the moment they are bored or need a distraction. The less naturally social need to make a much more conscious effort to stay in touch and may prefer to do it through texts and emails, sending things they think will interest their colleagues. Even so, it’s a good idea to make sure you speak to someone in a social downtime way, rather than a purposeful work-oriented way at least once a day. Easy if you are living with others, much harder if you live on your own, but very important to your health and wellbeing. These tips will help staff at all level to overcome the three key challenges of remote working, which is good for individuals and the business as a whole.

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