Dr Amantha Imber on how to make working from home work for you

This article was originally published by The Daily Telegraph
By Amantha Imber

April 1, 2020

Working from home is the new norm for many Australians, but productivity and mental health can both take a hit when we’re operating in isolation.

Dr Amantha Imber, organisational psychologist and founder of innovation consultants Inventium, has been fielding your questions about coping with this new world of work.

She says it’s important not only to have a comfortable workspace, but also to keep to a strict routine and set clear boundaries for both your family and your colleagues.

Here’s her advice:

Q. Since my whole company started working from home I’ve been feeling overwhelmed. There are constant emails and phone calls as everyone tries to keep in touch but it is relentless and I feel there’s no space to actually do my job. Things that would easily be resolved with a quick conversation at someone’s desk take up so much more time.

A. Try to carve out time during the day where you are off email and phone. Set an out-of-office auto responder so people know that you are trying to reduce distractions so you can actually get work done. For me, I typically stay off email until mid-morning and for many months, I actually had an auto-responder that told people I don’t check email until lunch. This worked well as it set clear expectations with my team and clients as to when they could expect a response.

Q. I will have to start working from home for the first time on Monday. Can you give me some tips on setting up a home office. I don’t have a spare room so I’ll probably work from the dining table.

A. First, think about making the space as comfortable and quiet as possible. This might involve finding an ergonomic chair and setting up your computer screen so it’s at eye level. Second, if you have other people in the house, communicate clearly with them about when you are working, and when it’s OK to be interrupted. And if you can, set up a plant or two on the table – having some greenery around has been shown to make us more productive and creative!

Q. I’m a teacher who needs to work from home. Have two kids under 4 in a nine square house. Can’t find anywhere to work in isolation where I cannot be disturbed. By the time the kids are in bed, I’m too exhausted to work. Any suggestions?

A. Wow – that sounds really tough. First, ease up on your expectations of yourself. Second, try to think about structuring your day into short “sprints”. For example, you might set the kids up with an activity for 30 minutes and use that time to try to get work done. And in case you are not already doing this, ease up on any screen time restrictions – I know I have!

Q. What can staff at home expect from their managers?

A. Every manager is different, so it’s hard to say. Ideally, you should expect your manager to communicate regularly with you (more regularly than usual) and you should make sure you are clear on your manager’s expectations on what you should be working on and what you need to achieve.

Q. Do you have any view on how long it is sustainable to work from home? I can carry on for a few weeks OK but the idea of working in isolation like this for six months or more freaks me out. I hate the lack of face-to-face contact.

A. I think that the lack of face-to-face contact is really hard. But the reality is, humans are really adaptable and we can get used to (almost) anything. I believe that working from home will quickly become the new normal and we will find ways to adapt.

Q. How do I set expectations with my boss and other workers about what I can achieve from home? I’m trying to stick to a routine as much as possible but with young children things don’t always go to plan.

A. Always best to be honest and open in these situations – and given everyone is in the same boat, I hope your boss will be understanding. Try to get some clear “output” goals from your boss (what he/she expects you to achieve or produce each week) as distinct from how many hours you are expected to work – this is a small, but important distinction in times like this.

Q. How do I stop myself from working all day when I’m at home? I find myself getting up early and working, then I break to take care of the kids at night, then go back to work until I sleep. It’s exhausting.

A. Try experimenting with a “shut down” ritual (and potentially a morning ritual) so you can have a clear start and end to your workday. Without this, it’s easy for work to blur into our non-work lives. You might also set yourself some rules such as “no work-related technology / email” before 9am or after 6pm. Getting into a daily routine and building new habits is really important during this time where we are all trying to figure out how to make working from home be as effective as possible.

Q. Both my wife and I are trying to work from home with three kids trying to keep up with their lessons. It’s really hard on all of us not to get distracted and stay on task as much as we should. Do you have any advice?

A. Try to organise your day into “sprints” of 60 minutes. See if your wife and you can take it in turns with one of you being the teacher and the other getting work done. Also, don’t feel guilty about easing up on any screen time rules you have – this can be useful time in managing the tricky reality of working from home while also trying to be a parent / teacher.

Q. What support should I expect from my employer in establishing a home office and managing my workload. Do employers really understand the difficulties or working from home? I think they expect us to be as productive as ever or even more so.

A. I think that this is a new reality that most leaders / managers are trying to get their heads around. Where possible, be transparent with your manager and give them feedback on what you are finding challenging – hopefully they can offer some good advice. It’s also important that managers view working from home as a competency that can be taught – as opposed to a skill that comes naturally. There are a lot of resources online, but you might want to consider doing a formal course in how to thrive in the home office environment.

Q. I’ve been working from home now for over a week and though I’ve got a good set-up I find it very stressful. I miss my colleagues and the banter we normally have, and I never seem to be on top of my work as much as I normally would be. What can I do to make things easier?

A. Putting some more structure into our days can help to reduce stress. Think about scheduling a daily call (ideally via video) with at least one of your colleagues so you can still have that human connection. And if it is scheduled in the diary, it provides you with something to look forward to.