I’m sure you’ve seen the headlines that workers are being told to work from home as a way to minimize exposure to Corona Virus (COVID-19) and schools are moving classes online.  On a positive note, we do have all the technology in place to make both working from home and online learning a huge success. What we don’t have in place is widespread discipline and best practices of how to do so. 

I’ve worked remotely since 2001 for companies like Microsoft, Expedia, Verizon Enterprise, and Medallia as well as for startup technology companies. When I founded Polaris Talent I knew I wanted a 100 percent remote workforce so I could hire the best people no matter where they are located because it’s possible to work from anywhere at any time.  Since our clients are global they don’t care where we are working from as long as we produce. As a result, I’ve learned a lot over the last 18 years about how to structure my day and which tools are most useful to stay connected and be productive. 

Obviously not all jobs can be done from home, but most professional and office jobs can.  Consider these best practices so you are prepared for working from home.

Keys to success for working from home

1.     Mindset – when you work from home, focus on the word WORK.  Get up in the morning, get dressed as if you are going to the office, and find a place in your house that allows you to focus.  You may not have the luxury of a dedicated office, but you should be able to find a place where you can shut a door to minimize distractions.  Don’t turn on the TV, don’t dive into social media, don’t let your kids/the dog/the neighbors interrupt you. Keep your hours and the order you do tasks in as close to what you would do if you were in your work-place outside the home. 

2.     Be task-focused and not time focused – people who have worked from home successfully for a long time have learned that you can get more accomplished in less time than in the office. You have fewer distractions and aren’t pulled into random tasks and conversations. If you focus on tasks and not the time spent it’s easy to be more productive at home which is why many companies, mostly in the tech and call center world, encourage working for home for many of their workforce.  You’ll likely find that you can get 8 hours of work done in about 6 hours when you work from home. Be results-oriented and get the work done, then go about your life.

3.     Over-communicate – The key to success for remote teams is over-communication.  Tell everyone everything they need to know to be successful and in the loop.  It is impossible to tell them too much since you need to pick up the slack from people not being able to easily overhear what is happening in your organization. 

4.     Make use of technology – In addition to a computer, a phone, and good WIFI the key to success is having lots of tools that allow a remote workforce to collaborate across locations.  If you don’t yet know how to use teleconferencing tools like GoToMeeting, Zoom, or Skype or group chat like Slack, Hangouts, or Lynx now is a good time to install them and learn them.  If your work team isn’t using them, it’s time to suggest that they are looked at. Many of them have free versions. My partners and I rely on phone calls, Zoom and Facetime, Slack, and shared Google Docs to stay in touch with each other and our clients during the workday.

5.     Set up a regular daily check-in call with your team – In many industries there is a morning meeting that sets the tone for the day.  Some call it a Daily Scrum or a Sales Kickoff. Whatever format it takes, it’s imperative that some form of morning sync happens. 

At Polaris Talent, we have a morning call at 7:30 am PT daily so that we can stay in sync between our San Diego and Racine locations.  We use the time to check in on what happened the day before, talk about what is on the calendar for the current day, and share the info we need to be successful.  And actually, we check in regularly during the day to stay in sync since we have a very dynamic business. We also end our day with a wrap-up call to handle end of day issues that can’t wait to the next day or to do work on larger projects like a website relaunch. 

Many of our clients use Slack (a workplace collaboration tool similar to a group chat) to do a daily check-in. Each morning people log in and give a quick summary of 2-3 things they are working on that day and if they need input or need to handoff to other people. Whatever format you pick, commit to it daily by putting it in your calendar and making it a priority.  The daily kickoff should not be skipped. 

6.     Always assume positive intent – One of the positives of working from home is you can avoid getting sucked into office politics and drama.  The downside is it’s easy to feel out of the loop or feel insecure about if your work is getting noticed. Put your best work out there and trust your leadership to see the quality of your work.  Always assume positive intent in all interactions and build trust whenever you can.

7.     A word to Management – Managers, if you are the micromanager type that doesn’t trust people out of your sight, you need to pivot your attitude and management style ASAP or you will lose workers.  If working from home becomes the new normal for society and your organization, you need to employ virtual tools that allow you to communicate easily and with clear expectations for task and output.  During my career, I had weekly 30-minute 1:1 via video calls with my manager. We used the time to talk about my tasking and priorities, if I needed any “blocking and tackling” to get stuff done and checking in to make sure I was aware of any company news or changes that were relevant to how I did my job.  Using dashboards to share data, shared docs folders, or similar is a great way to keep your team on track. Look at this as a growth opportunity for your leadership skills and as a retention strategy for your workers. 

8.     Special tricks for when the kids are home – Working from home will get incredibly hard if the kiddos are home too but it’s possible for all to be successful with some planning. While it’s tempting to park them in front of a TV, the reality is that if schools are closed, they will have their own schoolwork to be done. 

Make a rule that any TV during the school day has to be educational (Netflix has great documentaries). Encourage reading and going outside to play. You don’t have to stay indoors even if you are trying to social distance yourself and your family to stay healthy. Set your kids up at a desk or table and make school hours your work hours.  Start them on a task, be nearby to answer questions within reason, and then work side-by-side with them. When you have calls or times that you need privacy, older kids can do quiet activities in the same room or perhaps that is the time you do let them watch an educational video. The upside is you are modeling your work ethic and showing them what you do.  Think of it as an extended “take your child to work day”. I homeschooled my daughter for 5 years while also working from home. We made it work because I was at my desk about 7:30 am and didn’t wake her up until mid-morning.

This allowed me a few hours to focus before I had to think about how she was spending her time. We’ve joked that she learned my industry by osmosis so when she needed a job in her teens, it was natural for her to also work in recruiting.  Today, she is a co-founder in Polaris Talent. 

9.     Take care of yourself mentally and physically – You are likely to discover that you spend more time at your desk at home than you do at the office. Make sure you take breaks to take a walk, make a meal, and give yourself a mental break.  It’s all too easy to let work take over your home when you work remotely. Set mental boundaries of when you’ll think about work and when you won’t. This is why I suggested you set up your home office in a place where you can shut the door to maintain a boundary between your work and your life.  Out of sight, out of mind is a great manta for when you work from home. Turn off email notifications after a certain time or set boundaries with co-workers about the types of mail you will and won’t reply to after hours. Find ways to connect with people that give you some of the social interactions you will miss not being in the office.  Admittedly, introverts will enjoy the social limitations of working at home more than extroverts, but everyone needs social interaction even if it’s just a phone call. 

I really think that we have an opportunity to prove working from home works on a large scale.  Remote workers tend to be happier employees, there will be cost savings in offices without workers there, and productivity will increase. This will allow companies to reduce overall operating costs and pass those savings on to customers. This may be the silver lining in the COVID-19 virus long term.  Short term, we all need to be prepared to be flexible and adopt a growth mindset if we are asked to make changes in how we go about our lives in order to save some lives.

Marie Watkins is CEO of Polaris Talent Inc. She has 25 years in HR and Talent Acquisition for companies from 2 people to 200K. She is passionate about helping companies find the right talent to hire and in helping job seekers find a job they enjoy going to on Monday morning. Marie is a subject matter expert in entrepreneurship and volunteers her time helping emerging companies grow.