“Working from home boosts productivity”, screeches one headline, “Study finds that people who work remotely actually get MORE done”, insists another.
Remote working has been on the rise for decades, thanks to the availability of digital communication and collaboration tools that enable us to connect with colleagues and get our jobs done outside of the physical office.
Before the WFH (working from home) acronym cemented its position in the dictionary of modern three-letter words (alongside WWW and WTF), we knew it as ‘telecommuting’. NASA engineer Jack Nilles coined this rather archaic sounding term in 1973 to describe the practice of using electronics to work remotely and predicted that it would take another 10 or 20 years for it to catch on and become the norm.
As we entered a new millennium, tech companies and telcos were leading the way in adopting flexible work practices. IBM had installed boxy computers in the homes of several employees in the early 1980s and had 40 per cent of its 386,000-strong global employee base working from home, by 2009.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in 2016 that around a third of Australians were regularly working from home. But for many businesses, it took a global pandemic to send their workers home for the day – and every day thereafter.
For some people, the mass exodus from office blocks and business parks has been a welcome opportunity to cut their commute, embrace the sartorial mullet (business up top, leisure down below) and take control of the way they work.
Others have struggled with the transition, juggling conference calls with childcare, missing the face-to-face interaction with their colleagues and battling to strike a balance between work and life when the two coexist within the same four walls.
Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University has long been a staunch advocate for the widespread adoption of remote working but says working from home during the COVID-19 crisis is a completely different ball game.
Managing disruptions from children and housemates and working at home without a dedicated workspace or the option to go into an office for at least part of the week is “a productivity disaster”, he says.
Bloom’s research has revealed employees value choice and flexibility above all else and he recommended businesses adopt a part-time approach to remote working once the immediate health crisis is over.
“Most of us need time in the office to stay motivated and creative. Face-to-face meetings are important for spurring and developing new ideas.”
Like many companies, Hardie Grant Media had flexible work practices in place well before COVID-19 hit, but we’ve certainly learned a lot since transitioning the entire team to remote work back in mid-March.
Most of us agree that collaboration between our two offices in Sydney and Melbourne has improved in the remote environment, and our success communicating through online platforms (such as Microsoft Teams) has left us wondering why we weren’t using them more in the first place.
Some people have also found that virtual meetings run more efficiently because people come better prepared than they otherwise might in a face-to-face setting. Others feel the extra quiet time away from the distractions of an open-plan office has done wonders for their productivity and say they have become more self-sufficient in solving day-to-day problems.
But we’re all still facing a lot of uncertainty about what will happen next, and so our focus has turned to developing skills that will help everyone thrive in the new world of work. These include:
1. An adaptive mindset: Being open to the idea of shifting or adjusting our approach in a continually changing environment.
2. Lateral thinking: Solving problems in unexpected ways by thinking outside the typical framework of what feels comfortable or has worked in the past.
3. Iteration, not perfection: Getting more comfortable with ‘learning on the job’ and testing and refining solutions as we go.
There is certainly no shortage of advice when it comes to succeeding in this new world of work. Type ‘how to improve productivity while working from home’ into Google and there won’t be enough hours in your professional lifetime to read all the advice on the subject, let alone put it into practice.
The trick is to work out what works for you. Here are a couple of strategies from workplace experts that might be worth exploring:
Adam Grant, an organisational psychologist, best-selling author and host of the TED podcast WorkLife, recently wrote for the New York Times that productivity is about attention management, rather than time management.
“There are a limited number of hours in the day and focusing on time management just makes us more aware of how many of those hours we waste,” he says.
“A better option is attention management: prioritize the people and projects that matter, and it won’t matter how long anything takes.”
“If you pay attention to why you’re excited about the project and who will benefit from it, you’ll be naturally pulled into it by intrinsic motivation.”
For those of us prone to procrastination, particularly when working outside the office environment, the advice from Carol Gill, an associate professor of organisational behaviour at Melbourne Business School, is to make like Nike and “Just Do It”.
“Count down from three and just begin,” she says. “Jumping in and working on even the simplest tasks helps to activate the brain’s drive system and gather momentum. And when you’re able to tick that small task off your list, the brain releases a burst of dopamine that feels pleasurable.”
Knowing whether you’re an early bird or a night owl can help you optimise your productivity throughout the day, according to US author Daniel K. Pink, who wrote the 2018 bestseller When: The Science of Perfect Timing.
Pink’s theory is that we all abide by a “hidden pattern of daily life” that affects our moods and therefore our performance at work. Most people experience a mood ‘peak’ in the morning, followed by a ‘trough’ or mood decline in the early to mid-afternoon, and then a ‘recovery’ in the early evening. Others experience their day in reverse: recovery, trough, peak.
Understanding your chronotype, or your personal pattern of circadian rhythms, can help you determine when to take on certain tasks. For instance, early birds should attempt analytical tasks in the morning, administrative or routine tasks in the afternoon, and creative work during the evening recovery. The reverse is recommended for night owls.
Of course, the practical requirements of life in lockdown are such that your kids aren’t going to sit quietly while you’re in a ‘window of creativity’, but if you can reallocate tasks according to what works for your circadian rhythm, you might find that you get more done.
Sydney-based corporate performance coach Kylie Denton says structure and routine is particularly important during times of stress or uncertainty because it gives us a sense of control.
“Many people feel like things are happening to them [at this time], rather than happening with them,” she says.
Denton advises her clients to use the MENS model (Meditation, Exercise, Nutrition and Sleep) to assess their health and wellbeing in four key areas and develop good habits that will form part of their daily routine.
“When we start to focus on these four areas of our life, our motivation and productivity levels will increase, and our outlook will be brighter… you will feel better both mentally and emotionally,” she says.
As the lockdown begins to lift in parts of Australia (and get even tighter in others), a lot of us are beginning to think about taking those first tentative steps back into the office. However, with some major companies such as NAB ‘mothballing’ their office towers and others including Facebook, Slack and Shopify announcing a permanent shift to remote working, it’s clear WFH will have a far greater presence in the new normal. The question is, how will you make it work for you?
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