How to optimize your remote work experience during and after our pandemic in a new normal way of working.
According to the OECD, the unemployment rate is 8.4 percent in OECD countries, 14.7 percent in the U.S., 13.0 percent in Canada and 7.3 percent in the Euro Area. If you’re already working from home or you’re about to start, you are among the fortunate ones who is employed and has a job that allows you to work safely from home during this COVID-19 pandemic. The employment picture is bleak but things are looking up as countries start to reopen their economies. But as Facebook, Groupon and other companies have already announced, remote work is not just something that we do only during a pandemic, but it may be here to stay for many of us so we need to make the best of it.
What can you do to optimize your remote work experience?
Your Work Space
Don’t work from your bed. Yes, there are all sorts of nice, comfy reasons why this might seem like a good idea. You don’t have to change out of your pajamas, it’s the shortest commute to work EVER and on those cold mornings, your bed is so warm and comfortable. But you have to trust me on this one. You need to set up a proper workspace.
Do create a dedicated space in your home to do your work. If you already have a home office, then you’re all set. Just make sure that you can lock the door when you don’t want any interruptions. You’ve probably seen that BBC News interview that was interrupted by his cute kids. If you don’t have your own office, the space that you carve out of your home should have these traits:
- Your working surface is either a desk or a table at about 29" above the floor. If you like to stand while you work like me, you can set up a stand for your monitor and keyboard on top of your desk. If you want a mix of both, you can get one of those stand-up sit-down desks. However you like it, your desk height needs to be ergonomic so that you don’t screw up your back or cause unnecessary strain on your body. OSHA has good guidelines on proper working positions for you to follow.
- Do yourself a big favour and use a proper office chair. Don’t use a folding chair, a dining chair nor even an armchair. Believe me, your body will thank you for it later. It doesn’t have to be very expensive. The most important thing is that it has an adjustable seat height and provides good support for your body weight. Ergonomic office chairs would be the best type, but practically any modern office chair would be better than your lawn chair.
- Have two types of lights over your workspace — a general ambient light that lights up everything evenly and a desktop task lamp for lighting up documents, drawings, your keyboard and spilt coffee on your desk. Good lighting reduces eye strain. And when it comes to good video calls, it’s a must. (More on that later.) Natural indirect daylight is best. Try to avoid direct sunlight. It’s not good for vampires and also not good for your eyesight. If you’re near a window, that’s great. Just get blinds or curtains so that you can control the amount of direct sunlight that lands on your desk and monitor.
- If you live with other people, try to set up your desk in an area that is away from regular traffic. It needs to be an area where you can work in private away from the noise and interruptions of your family, partner or roommates. If that is physically impossible, you may need to visually and acoustically isolate yourself from everyone else. Turn your desk so that you are facing a wall and put on noise-cancelling headphones. A free-standing partition like a shoji screen or even a rolling whiteboard would help create a barrier for you to concentrate on your work with minimal interruptions.
Your Work Tools
If you can do your work at home, then you are a knowledge worker and your tools are your computer and a good internet connection. Back at your regular office workstation, you probably had it set up just right for your needs. You might have a bobblehead of your favourite idol or a family photo. The computer was set up just the way you want or what your company IT wants! You surrounded yourself with what you needed on a regular basis. You also had use of the company printer, photocopier, office supplies and other pieces of equipment that you probably took for granted. Now you’re on your own, so what do you do?
Don’t go cheap and think that you can get by using that old laptop or desktop that hardly gets used because it’s so old. If you need to buy a new computer, don’t go low end. You might save a few hundred bucks, but you’ll be paying for it many times over in lost productivity and agony when it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.
Do splurge on your work computer if you need to get a new one. Or take the old one in to get upgraded. You’ll never regret it. This remote work might only be a few months or it might turn into months over a few years. Buy the most computer that you can afford now because computer technology gets dated very quickly. You need to future-proof it as much as possible. You don’t need to buy a computer that can run the International Space Station unless you actually work for NASA. Buy as much as computing power as you need for the tasks at hand and any future tasks that you want to tackle.
Do get all the software that you’ll need. This is when it gets very complicated if you’re not tech-savvy. There’s no IT person that you can ask to help you set up your home office computer. If this sounds like you, perhaps you should pay the computer store techs who built your computer to also install all the software for you too?
If you work for a company that provides you with a work computer to take home, then you’re all set! It should have all the software and company protocols already set up and ready to go.
Do get the basic peripherals like a printer or anything else that is indispensable in your line of work. One of those multifunction inkjet printers that also photocopies and scans are a good bet. If you deal with lots of paper documents, a good document feeder will be a lifesaver. If you don’t, your smartphone scanner app will be enough to scan the occasional document.
Do go to your local office supply store to get all the office supplies that you took for granted in your regular office. Bring a list so that you don’t overbuy. Try to anticipate everything that you’ll need on a week to week basis. Unless you’re extremely organized, you will forget something. The office supply store clerks will know you by name soon enough.
Do get a UPS (unlimited power supply) and some form of backup system to save a copy of all your important files. Believe me, you don’t want to regret not getting these items when your house or apartment gets a power outage or surge and you haven’t backed up your work for the last 6 hours!
Don’t forget to ask your employer if they have a compensation program for the extra expenses that you will incur by working at home. By not providing office space and office workstations to its employees, your company is saving a lot of money. It’s only fair that they pass on some of those savings to you.
Do make a comprehensive list of all your home office expenses that may be eligible for compensation.
- Computer workstation including all necessary software.
- Office furniture.
- Office supplies and peripherals.
- Internet data and telephone/cellphone costs that are over what you normally pay before you started working from home.
- Home office floor area used. If you’re a contractor, you would normally factor this into your fee. It would be difficult to justify charging rent for only a portion of your home. You wouldn’t expect your mechanic to charge you for his garage lease on top of what he’s charging you do to an oil change, right? However, if you’re an employee, your company may have a formula for compensating you.
- Small home improvements that you need to make a functional home office. Many governments are providing financial incentives to help small businesses in the form of low-interest loans or subsidies. Your employer may also be able to help with this.
- The premium for any rider insurance that you might need on top of your home insurance for using your home as a place of work.
A good fast reliable internet connection is a must. If you live in a building or area that is not serviced by high-speed internet, then you are in a competitive disadvantage and remote work will be difficult but not necessarily impossible. If you cannot connect with your other coworkers on a consistent basis, then you need to make other arrangements to stay in the loop. You might need to prearrange a set schedule where you will be available at a reliable internet connection. And you will need to make more trips back to the office to attend meetings and get regular info.
But since you have permission from your employer to work remotely, let’s go on the basis that you’re connected and ready. What do you need to stay in productive seamless communications with work?
Don’t just use your cellphone or a regular landline telephone for work. Prolonged exposure to the electromagnetic waves generated by your powerful cellphone is not good for your health. Use wireless earbuds or headphones with excellent microphones if you must use your cellphone. Or pair it with a wireless speaker that also has a built-in microphone.
If you prefer to use your landline telephone, make sure that it has a good speakerphone option. This means that when you make a call, you can hear the caller clearly and they can hear you clearly. Not all consumer grade telephones are able to do this well.
Do test your hardware first! Whether you’re using a hands-free cellphone or telephone, make sure that you test the speaker and microphone capabilities before using it for work.
Do try to adopt other more advanced options for seamless digital communications that offer more control, capabilities and tracking than plain old email. But the trick with these apps is that everyone in your office needs to be using the same app in order for it to work. It’s like learning a new language. Everyone needs to be speaking Japanese in order for it to work so that no one is left out of the conversation. I suggest that you choose one of the options below and have everyone in your workgroup use it consistently for 2–3 weeks. Try your best to avoid going back to email during this trial period. If you stick with it, everyone will be speaking Japanese soon enough!
Do try asynchronous communications if that suits your work. This is the power of remote work where people can be working at their own schedules or time zones that is not in sync with everyone else. There are obvious advantages where people in other time zones can be working while you’re sleeping so there is no downtime. Parents can attend their children’s events during office hours. I am not a fan of asynchronous anything. I prefer that all of my coworkers are accessible during office hours so that I can speak with them live and not leave each other messages. You need to find the best balance for your work.
This app is the most popular for a holistic communication platform for any remote workgroup. It scales up easily to fit any company size. It organizes conversations in channels so that any user can see every detail of a conversation in real-time from start to finish. It allows superior tracking of information than a regular email chain which as you know can get very messy with buried information and missing attachments. Upgrades allow users to integrate Stack with email and other applications to increase productivity and data management.
Microsoft wouldn’t be outdone by Stack, so this app also has a channels communication platform similar to Slack. MS Teams also has a video chat and document sharing ecosystem when you combine it with Microsoft 365.
This is a more graphic version of Slack. It organizes conversation threads in a similar way and tries to be less in-your-face with notifications than its competitors.
Even though you may be able to accomplish most of your work remotely, sooner or later, you will have to join a meeting with your manager, coworkers, clients or work colleagues in order to move a project forward. Some meetings might need participants to be physically together so everyone can gather around a physical object like a one of a kind prototype or at a job site. But for all those other meetings where you don’t need to be physically present, there are many apps that can let conduct productive meetings safely in your home office.
Don’t use a video call when a simple phone call would do. Due to the easy availability of video chat apps and our smartphone cameras, we often do video meetings out of habit. If what you need to discuss doesn’t need face-to-face communication, just pick up the phone. It’s faster and very effective. And you don’t need to worry about how you look either!
Do use video calls if you are meeting with someone new, you haven’t seen your coworkers in a long time, and everyone in the meeting needs to look at the same screen while you meet. If you’re meeting a new client, you need to get as much information as possible from their visible nuances and facial expressions that a phone call won’t provide. It can be reassuring to see your coworkers again if you have been working remotely by yourself for days or weeks. If you need to share your screen so that you can point to things or mark up a drawing, you need to do a video call.
Do invest in a good HD webcam that has a good built-in microphone. You want to look your best and not a pixelated version of yourself. If you’re in a group video call and everyone else’s video is clear and sharp, but yours is dark and fuzzy, you’re at a disadvantage even if you have the best input in the meeting.
This video meeting app is by far the best. There are certainly others that I’ve listed below, but Zoom is the easiest to use, the most reliable and has the most features. It has four basic pricing plans plus a convenient Zoom Room video conference solution that uses their own hardware. There are some basic tips that you need to know in order to have a successful video call.
- Front light your face. (Wipe your face if needed to remove excess oil to avoid glare or hotspots.)
- Adjust your camera level so that it matches your eye level.
- Lean a bit forward so that your shoulders are square to the camera. Pull down the back of your jacket, shirt or top to give your shoulders a clean line.
- When you’re talking, look into the camera and not at the screen.
- Unclutter the background. Avoid anything too distracting like your clown head collection. You can also replace your real background with a virtual one with Zoom.
- Wear colours that do not blend into your background.
- Turn on the Zoom Touch Up My Appearance feature because we can all use a bit of help.
- Upload a good profile picture of yourself that will be seen by everyone when your video is turned off.
- Mute your microphone when you’re not speaking to avoid background noise for everyone else on the call.
Video call with Google.
This was the go-to video call app before Zoom. It does have a handy live subtitle feature that translates languages on the fly. You can probably imagine how well that would work.
Video call with Microsoft that is built into the Microsoft Teams platform.
If you’re a manager or a team leader, it’s hard to keep tabs on what everyone is doing if you can’t visit them at their desk to see how they are doing. With everyone working remotely, it’s more important than ever to have a management system to keep everyone on track on any given project.
Don’t just use Post-It notes on a big calendar. Post-It notes are very handy, but they can’t send you notifications, hold documents, images or video, allow people to communicate with each other and many other useful management tools. There are many much more sophisticated and feature-rich apps that you can use for project management.
Do give one or two of these project management apps a try. It’s difficult to assess which one is right for you until you actually put it into use in your work ecosystem. Try it with a small number of coworkers first before including everyone if that is possible. All of these apps have different pricing plans which offer more features as the price goes up. You will know which plan will work for you after a couple of weeks as you will encounter situations where you’d wish you had that particular feature. Be prepared to pivot if the app isn’t working as you want. It’s difficult to switch the longer you stay with a particular app as your team gets more entrenched into it.
This app organizes tasks using a Kanban board system. It is very graphic and intuitive. The free version has enough features for most small workgroups, but you’ll need to upgrade to a subscription version if you have a larger enterprise in order to incorporate a variety of powerful add-ons to this useful app.
This is an all-in-one project management solution that allows everyone in the company to communicate, coordinate, track tasks and share resources. There is only a paid subscription version, although you can try it for free. It is highly scalable and very powerful despite having a very simple user interface.
This app has a variety of templates to suit your needs. It helps you organize people and tasks as a calendar, timeline, Kanban board or a list. It has many powerful useful features that go beyond just project management. You can use it for communication, set goals, set up automation in your workflow, manage people’s workload and many other features. There is a free version as well as subscription versions.
Similar to Basecamp, this app is also an all-in-one company integration solution that has many useful task management, communication, collaboration and resource management tools. It is subscription only, but you can try it for free. It has a core set of templates to get you started quickly.
This is a database management that allows you to organize just about anything in a very graphic way. It is highly customizable that allows you to build the exact database system that suits your needs to keep your tasks organized. It also comes with a large variety of templates. It is available as a free version as well as more feature-rich subscription versions.
One of the downsides of remote work is the isolation from your fellow coworkers. Gone are the impromptu chats in the coffee room, chance meetings in the hallways, birthday or newborn celebrations, having lunch with a coworker or even team-building social/work events like company outings or parties. With many of the online tools introduced above, we can certainly stay in the loop and even see and hear each other. But that’s not the same as being there to enjoy the social aspect of work.
Don’t work in your own silo.
Do reach out to your coworkers to share a lunch or coffee break over a video call.
Do set up a permanent video call set up at the company where anyone can casually pop in to say “Hi” to whoever is online at the other end. This is your virtual water cooler.
Slack did a work-study in 2019 called The State of Work based on 17,000 knowledge workers across ten countries. They found that workers who felt they were aligned with their company’s vision and strategy were more engaged in their work and felt more satisfied.
Aligned workers feel connected to their companies and inspired to do their best work. Unaligned workers feel disconnected, unempowered and pessimistic about their company’s future.
Don’t treat remote workers as independent dispensible contractors.
Do engage every remote worker as an integral part of a team. Use project management tools that share the progress of projects as they fit into a company’s stated goals. This empowers workers to feel that their contributions are valued and important.
Although there are many benefits to working remotely such as flexibility to set your own schedule, no commuting to work, being available to your family or those close to you, increased productivity, and better work/life balance. There are of course many downsides that you need to be aware of to keep your remote experience a positive one on the whole.
Even with all the video conferencing, telephone calls and electronic communication, you are still essentially alone. Over time this can take a toll on your mental health.
Do make time to be social and get regular physical exercise. This is very important in maintaining your well-being. If you ask a friend to join you on a walk, you can achieve both at the same time! How’s that for being efficient?
Don’t run into the danger of never stopping to work because work is always with you. When we leave our homes to work, we got a physical break. When we’re always home, it is too tempting to just get that task out of the way so that you’ll have a lighter load tomorrow. Or to answer that email that came in at 11 pm just before you were getting ready for bed.
Do set your time and physical boundaries for work and try to stick with them. Office hours are office hours, even if a client is living in a different time zone. You need both your physical and mental rest. Guard it as your life depends on it because it does.
RBC Economics studied the effect of the pandemic on women workers in Canada and found that women’s participation in the workforce is at the lowest point in 30 years. This is mainly due to the fact some of the hardest-hit industries like retail, food services, accommodation and child education are dominated by women. Moreover, as the economies of the world reopen, women are usually the ones who will stay at home to look after their children as the fathers return to work. Even the remote working mothers will be expected to somehow manage to work and look after young children because daycares and schools are not open. All of this puts enormous strain and pressure on women workers.
Don’t burn out! Seek help if you feel overwhelmed by it all. There are many resources available in your area and definitely many more online who can help you.
Just because you’re working on your own, that doesn’t free you from predators and abusive coworkers. The same rules of conduct apply for remote communications as they do when you’re physically in your office. If you feel that you have been harassed due to your race, gender, disability, religion, age or socioeconomic status, you need to report it to your HR department if you have one or at least to someone in management.
If you’re a woman or someone in a vulnerable position, you need to be careful about who you allow into your home office space when you’re alone.
Do organize delivery drop-offs outside of your home.
Don’t do physical meetings at your home office when you’re alone. Schedule these meetings at a public place like a coffee shop or back at your company headquarters.
Your Wage and Job Security
When you’re working in a city with a high cost of living like London or San Francisco, companies pay more to attract workers to work there. Many workers live in the suburbs and commute into work to save money on housing costs, to live in more spacious surroundings or have a better quality of life for them and their families. But if you’re a remote worker, you could be 50 km away from the company office or 500 km away in another town with a lower cost of living. You could even be 10,000 km away in another country!
Companies take advantage of the remote hire situation by hiring from a huge pool of potential candidates and paying workers less if they live and work in a city or country with a lower cost of living than where the company headquarters is located. For a remote worker, this could make their job less secure because they could be replaced by a cheaper worker from practically anywhere. But hasn’t competition always been there? Remote workers are highly skilled knowledge workers with unique skillsets and valuable experience to bring to the company. Employers want to keep their best workers and will compensate them so they will stay.
Do negotiate your wage based on your skills, experience and value that you bring to the company. It should not be based on where you live. If your potential employer is hiring based on getting the most qualified for the cheapest salary, is that really a company that you want to work for? This is a race to the bottom where no one benefits in the end. Cheap skilled workers are exploited and constantly replaced by even cheaper workers. The company suffers from a lack of innovation and investment by their cheap remote workforce because they are not aligned with the company’s goals. No one wins.
Do work in industries and jurisdictions where your labour rights are protected. Being a single remote worker does put you at a disadvantage when it comes to worker benefits and compensation if you are not working under a professional body, guild, union or another form of organized labour. But many developed countries do have labour laws that provide basic protection for workers. Learn what your rights are to protect yourself.
Remote work or telecommuting as it used to be called has been with us for decades. Who was Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman if not a remote worker who worked remotely selling whatever he had in those heavy suitcases? But due to COVID-19, remote work has become so widely practised that many companies will make it a permanent part of their workforce. We are experiencing a paradigm shift in how we work. The effects of this shift are still unknown as we are still in the thick of this pandemic. It’s not likely that things will ever return to normal after the pandemic. No one really knows for certain.
But we do know how to make our remote work experience as good as possible and we are learning more to improve this experience every day. Developers are improving their online tools constantly and are inventing new ones to make remote work even more productive and enjoyable. You owe it to yourself to keep up with what’s available to you. Work safely and enjoy your freedom to be a productive happy remote worker and have a good balance of work and life.
Thank you for taking the time to read my article. If you have remote work experience or information that you would like to share, please write in the responses. We can all learn from each other.