How to keep your focus when working from home

How to keep your focus when working from home
REMOTE ACCESS: Working from home is much easier if you stick to a routine like your normal working day. Picture: iStock

An office environment helps us to stay on task throughout the day — so how to you stay focused if you are asked to work from home? Helen O’Callaghan gets expert advice

IT’S the subject of many a water cooler conversation in workplaces countrywide right now. What if — at some stage of the Covid-19 scenario — I’m told to self-isolate and work from home?

There are plenty of jobs where working remotely isn’t feasible — if you work in retail or in the restaurant trade or are a medical professional, for example. But equally, there are myriad jobs that could lend themselves quite easily to working from home.

And so it is that people on coffee breaks around Ireland — used to the structure and professionalism of workplace offices and boardrooms — are wondering: how in the world would I stay motivated and focused if I had to work from home? Home is where I rest, relax and recuperate. It’s where I immerse myself in family life, where I entertain and unwind. It’s where I get on with the business of living when I’m not at work.

How then would I not lose myself in all the distractions of home — oh, I’ll just make myself another cup of tea (I know I’ve had four already), take five minutes to talk to my partner, put on a load of laundry, and then I’ll start, I really will. How does this ‘working from home’ actually work?


How to keep your focus when working from home

Kathleen Halligan, chartered work and organisational psychologist with the Psychological Society of Ireland suggests the first proactive question to ask: is my home set up for this? Do I have a space that’s quiet, private, where I won’t be disturbed? Have I got a laptop? Do I have wifi? Halligan works with global and indigenous companies and says global companies, in particular, are often no stranger to remote working. “They’ll have technology that’ll allow remote workers to do web/video conferencing and instant messaging. These tools make it feasible to work in a remote context.”

Many smaller companies may not be as well set up — maybe IT systems aren’t set up for remote accessing of confidential files, for example — however, there’s a lot of very useful free technology available such as Skype and Google Hangouts. “If an employer wants this to work, they need to supply remote workers with the tools to do the job,” says Halligan.

Working in the family home poses another challenge — family. Maybe your partner’s home too and it’s so tempting to have a leisurely breakfast. Or your child’s home because their school’s closed — for this scenario, you definitely need another supervising adult, says Halligan. And then you need to put a sign on the door of the room you’ve designated your office — no matter if it’s the kitchen or the bedroom — clearly describing it as ‘home office’ during working hours.

“The whole family, whoever you share the house with, is going to have to cooperate and be accommodating,” says Halligan.

And then there’ll be that hard-to-shake-off guilt — ‘I bet everybody out there, who’s working, thinks I’m dossing’. To combat this, Halligan recommends replicating your normal routine: get up at the time you normally do, be at your desk at your usual time. Communicate to work that you’ll keep office hours. Your new work circumstance might lead friends to think you’re available at the drop of a hat — put them right from the start: don’t answer the door. Take your breaks when you normally would.

Halligan finds remote workers can often be treated differently. “Workplace colleagues can forget you’re there, can forget to update you on issues, snippets of news, the water cooler conversation.” So it’s important, she says, for remote workers to imagine themselves on a par with office-based colleagues and to be willing to make that happen. “You have to literally make yourself visible. Turn on your camera when you’re chatting to someone. Let people in the office know you’re there — ‘good morning, I’m online, give me a shout if you need anything’.”

Staying connected with colleagues is the biggest challenge for those working from home, says Halligan. “You have to make a deliberate effort to get connected with the team. Use instant messaging. Send a quick message: ‘Good morning, how are you?’ Try to replicate the normal chat you’d have’.”


How to keep your focus when working from home

Employers need to be proactive too about checking in with their remote workers. “Use instant messaging to ask: ‘How’s everything going?’ Simple things can be hugely impactful — the employee working at home feels ‘my manager’s thinking of me’.”

Knowing which technology’s appropriate in a given moment can also be tricky for people working from home, Halligan finds. She says it’s important to identify when it’s right to put down the keyboard and pick up the phone, lest something gets lost in translation. “People often use email when they want to deliver a challenging message, yet email lacks the non-verbal, it lacks tone. The receiver, depending on how they’re feeling in that moment, could read a set of words you’ve written to convey a certain message and interpret them in a way you never intended.”

She recommends using email to synopsise and summarise what you did/agreed to do — but if you want to have an exploratory conversation and sift through ideas, pick up the phone or use Skype.

For managers of remote workers, the big challenge is: how do I know they’re doing what they should be doing? After setting reasonable expectations — taking into account equipment available to the remote worker — and discussing what flexibility, if any, there is around when in the day work will be done, managers should watch outputs. “Outputs are important. They tell whether the remote worker has done or produced what was asked for,” says Halligan.

For the person working from home, self-care is crucial. Take your breaks. And let yourself know you’re doing it. Halligan recommends telling yourself: ‘I’m working.’ ‘Now, I’m stepping away.’ ‘I’m coming back now’. And move — get up from your desk and walk around. “When you’re in an office, you probably don’t realise how much and how often you walk.”

And instead of focusing only on the challenges of working from home, Halligan urges looking for the positives presented by this unexpected situation. “If you’re someone who’d been angling to work from home a couple of days a week — particularly if you have a long commute — here’s a golden opportunity to show: this can work.”

Tips for working from home: Getting the job done while not feeling cut off and isolated

    Michelle O’Connor, curriculum director at Social Talent and executive career coach, has worked remotely from a home office for the past three years. She advises:

  • Assess your environment. Where at home will you work? Whether it’s the kitchen/dining table or an actual office, ensure it’s clear, de-cluttered, bright and quiet.
  • Treat day like a working day. Get up at your usual time. Dress as if going to work — you’ll feel different in shirt and trousers than in tracksuit or hoodie. Eat breakfast at your normal time and get to your desk at the usual time — maybe even earlier because you won’t have had your commute, so a good opportunity to be productive.
  • Plan your day. Asking what needs to get done eliminates that ‘what am I meant to do’ feeling. Prioritise three tasks that absolutely must be done and schedule them in. Then, what five things would you like to get done — schedule these in. Take note of where the gaps in the schedule are.
  • Ensure you have human connection in your day. Plan phone calls with colleagues. Check in with your manager.
  • Get out for a brisk walk. Working from home for eight hours a day can be quite claustrophobic and reinforce isolation.
  • Keep hydrated — and don’t keep drinking tea or coffee. Drink water.
  • A day working at home can feel very different to the structured day in an office environment. To help you focus in chunks of time, use the ‘pomodoro technique’ — set timer for 40/50 minutes (less than an hour), focus and do your work. When the timer goes off, stop, get up, have some water. Then re-set timer for another chunk of time and continue your task or set a new one.
  • CT Ireland ( director Kevin Moore says working remotely is common for many. “Mobile phones, tablets and laptops provide connectivity to the organisation’s central IT systems, and [also increasingly] via cloud services and applications like Microsoft Teams or Google Hangouts.”

    But if your organisation doesn’t have such systems in place, what do you need to be able to work at home? Moore recommends:

  • Decent laptop, computer or tablet — and of course broadband connectivity. These tools need to have the relevant applications to facilitate remote working.
  • tools like email, spreadsheets, and word processors are straightforward – most people will have these installed already.
  • For collaborative working, there’s an array of applications, including free apps like Skype and FaceTime.
  • For more secure, managed service, many organisations will have enterprise-grade systems, for example, Starleaf, BlueJeans, Zoom, allowing multiple participants in a call.
    • Useful information
    • The HSE have developed an information pack on how to protect yourself and others from coronavirus. Read it here
    • Anyone with symptoms of coronavirus who has been in close contact with a confirmed case in the last 14 days should isolate themselves from other people - this means going into a different, well-ventilated room alone, with a phone; phone their GP, or emergency department;
    • GPs Out of Hours services are not in a position to order testing for patients with normal cold and flu-like symptoms. HSELive is an information line and similarly not in a position to order testing for members of the public. The public is asked to reserve 112/999 for medical emergencies at all times.
    • ALONE has launched a national support line and additional supports for older people who have concerns or are facing difficulties relating to the outbreak of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) in Ireland. The support line will be open seven days a week, 8am-8pm, by calling 0818 222 024

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