Over the last week we have all begun to change our habits and practices for work. You may be working from home (WFH) for the first time. Even if you’re an old hand at WFH, things may be a bit different now. You may have your spouse sharing your office. Or, your children may be playing in the background. It’s a lot of change.
There’s plenty of information on how to work from home. If you are still lost, here’s one I wrote a few years back. I’m not going to repeat those tips because they’re easily accessible with a Google search or the link I just gave you.
That’s you and your work.
There may be a bigger question though of how you manage your team. They may find working from home more challenging than you do. For example, one of my clients told me that several of his less senior reports have roommates or live in very small apartments in New York. They are going to need help to stay productive and to deal with distractions that can make it hard to focus.
One of the things that it’s most important you provide is a great deal of structure. Think of it this way. From the time we are 5 or 6 years old, we develop a habit that becomes ingrained in our brains. This starts young: You wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast –and then, you go to a specific building or location and once there, you focus on a specific set of activities.
Every weekday Routine
We do it throughout school, and then when we go to work, for most of us that pattern persists.
The neural pathway you have when you walk into your house, or wake up on Sunday morning, is quite different.
Then, perhaps you rise, lull about in bed with a spouse, your phone or your schnauzer. You may hang out in your dressing gown and make a big breakfast, and so forth. The day unwinds differently than on working days.
Equally, you have habits associated with coming home from work. No need to try to conjure up what those are. You know.
What’s noteworthy about this is that each of these neural pathways is distinct. The work pathway is distinct from the weekend pathway and from the after-work pathway. And common to the work pathway is a single, distinct association: office = work.
Our primitive brains aren’t very different than those of other mammals. Have you ever noticed how every time you reach for the leash you dog starts wagging his tail and getting ready for a walk? He has well-trod neural pathways making that association. Leash=walk.
Every time we enter our offices, our brain wags its work tail and gets ready to focus on work.
While sheltering in place, those discrete habits and associations are all overlapping with each other. Weekday, weekend, after work, and work must coexist in the same brain and the same building.
The neural pathways now weave in and over each other like a DNA molecule!
Imagine if you suddenly started grabbing the dog leash right before going to bed for the night. Poor Bascom would be lost.
When I first started to work from home it would take everything I had just to get myself to walk into the office and begin working. I was fortunate enough to live alone and have a designated room in which to work. Nonetheless, I would get distracted by cleaning, doing laundry or going for a run. I wasn’t lazy, but my brain truly had no idea how to get down to work at home. So, other activities, some equally demanding as my work, pulled me toward them.
You may have the discipline and experience to work from home productively. But what of your less experienced team? Or those who have roommates, live in tiny apartments or with their parents, spouses or children who are also now home? Unless you have scheduled meetings every hour, they will struggle. Understandably. How can you support them be productive during this stressful time.
They will need help to succeed in separating all their own overlapping neural pathways to get work done.
Here is how you can help:
- Provide clear structure. Have everyone craft a plan in the morning. What will you be working on? What output will you generate? Everyone shares their game plan.
- Consider creating a co-working environment. Have everyone log on to a Zoom or Google Hangouts meeting in the morning, say hello, and share the day’s plans. Then work. Everyone mutes their audio leaving video running. People can have side bar texts with each other along with the sense of accountability that comes from seeing others working while you work. (Remind them that video is on and they should tell their house mates to remain clothed).
- Don’t avoid commenting on the background view. One of the interesting things about virtual teams is that you learn about your peers “non-work” life. So, ask about the painting, bookshelf or trophy in the background. It’s great fodder to sustain connectivity and deepen cohesion.
- Have your team share how they’re feeling, especially if they are anxious or in an area where the virus is spreading. Until these conversations take place and people get an opportunity to voice their concerns, they will be too overwhelmed to focus on work.
- Check in at prescribed times throughout the day. For example, every 2 hours or so, unmute yourself, say hello, and see how everyone is doing, ask if anyone needs anything and suggest they take a stretch or water break. Schedule meal breaks and suggest everyone either leave their desk to eat or have a social Zoom session over lunch.
- End the day formally. Do another check-in and follow up on how they did with the goals they set at the beginning of the day. Instruct everyone to log out. The day is over.
This should help your team get down to work.