23rd Mar 2020
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by Eoghan Tomás McDermott – originally published in The Business Post on Sunday 22nd March 2020

The switch may have been forced upon many of us, but a study found employees benefited from the flexibility and became more productive

Covid-19 has accelerated what had, until this month, been a gradual shift in the way we work.

Thousands of employees have suddenly found themselves working from home for the first time, while hundreds of companies come to grips with how to maintain productivity, possibly for weeks on end.

The good news is that it can be done – and in a way that ensures that objectives are still met, and progress made.

Nicholas Bloom, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business in the US, proved this in 2017. He ran an intensive test on 500 people working for China’s largest travel agent.

The group was split in two. Half continued to work at the company’s headquarters and half were sent home to work. Bloom monitored their output over the course of two years.

The results? The rate of productivity among the group working from home increased by 13 per cent.

They took fewer sick days and employee attrition fell by 50 per cent. It turned out that, because they no longer had to travel in and out of the office, and could work more flexibly at home, these employees were better able to perform.

So, it can be done – and done well – if approached the right way. So, what steps should individuals, getting to grips with working from home for the first time, take?

The right environment

The first step is to set yourself up for success by replicating your normal office environment.

Recent reports have suggested that more people are buying desks and chairs to create a home office. Doing so makes sense, if you can. A designated professional workspace will help you in the weeks ahead.

Working with the laptop in bed for the morning, or in front of the TV over a few episodes of Game of Thrones, might sound appealing, but you won’t get anything done. You need a spare room, or even a portion of the kitchen table, that is clearly defined as your de facto office.

Dressing for work

In the same vein, while it might be tempting to work in your pyjamas, it’s better to stick to your work day routine and to dress as you would for the office.

Researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois found that what we wear affects how we think and feel, as well as our performance levels.

It’s a concept called “enclothed cognition”. Dressing as you would for work means you’ll perform better. If you dress for bed, by contrast, you’ll feel less motivated.

Measuring productivity

John Schnatter, the founder of Papa John’s Pizza, the US food chain, has this motto: “What gets measured gets done.”

When you’re working from home, it’s really important to set clear goals for yourself. Do so every week, or even daily. Without them, you can’t measure your success.

Decide every morning what “success” will mean that day for you. At the end of your working day, check in on that success. If you didn’t achieve what you had planned to, ask yourself “why not?”

Staying focused

Once you’ve started your working day, you need to guard against “attention grabbers”. Humans crave distraction. Our brains are wired to focus on the new and novel over the familiar and, often, more important.

Our biggest enemies in the work sense are often social media and emails. These tools have been designed to be “habit-forming”, That’s Silicon Valley speak for “addictive”.

Studies show that we check our inbox for new emails up to 40 times an hour and we all know how often we have a quick scroll through Instagram or Twitter in the middle of a task.

Every time you do this, however, you are resetting your attention and slowing down your progress.

Instead, you should handle emails as a focused task rather than a constant activity. Set aside periods of the day to check and respond to them.

In the meantime, turn off your notifications and log out of all social media channels.

Juggling responsibilities

Working from home can have its advantages. For example, while setting a clear working day is essential, the day doesn’t have to be nine-to-five.

You can work earlier in the morning or later into the night if that’s what suits you.

That said, if you have children, you need to accept the reality that they will distract you, make demands, and probably annoy you.

Locking them out in the back garden with the dog isn’t a runner, so first acknowledge that they will probably use up all of your distraction quota each day.

If you need to work eight hours, accept that the hours during which you will also be minding a child will be off limits.

Focus on work in the early morning and late evening, rather than in the middle of the day. If you have a partner who is also working from home, work out a timetable to keep everyone happy.

No one knows how long the Covid-19 crisis will last. It will pass, but not quickly, and neither your career nor your company can afford a month of low productivity.

That’s why it’s so important to adapt to your new environment now. Who knows? You and your boss may even discover that this “working from home thing” actually delivers.

Eoghan Tomás McDermott is managing director of The Communications Clinic