Working from home in a time of uncertainty

How to be flexible, productive and kind to yourself when working remotely.

For those working from home for the first time or (like me) are returning to work from home due to COVID-19, you may not realize that the best thing you can do to stay focused is to be flexible and kind to yourself.

After scrambling for a space where your background won't expose your entire life to your coworkers, you may have spent the better part of this week reading the hundreds of articles with advice on how to work from home effectively. Despite working from home for most of 2018-2019, I found myself doing the same thing—attempting to find comfort in the “tech tips” and “survival hacks” that filled my news feed.

I noticed, however, that these articles didn't cover one of the most important things that I learned while working from home. It wasn't the Pomodoro technique or the Getting Things Done method that kept me on task, nor was it tracking my sleep cycle or a mid-morning meditation that gave me the energy I needed. To remain productive, sane and (even sometimes) joyful, I had to recognize that I wasn't perfect.

The following list describes the “release valves” I use to relieve the pressures that build up throughout the day—the expectations that I've set for myself that I may not live up to.

1. Make your routine flexible

I start every morning with a routine that goes something like this:

  • Wake up
  • Shower (and shave, if necessary)
  • Read, draw and/or journal (with coffee!)
  • Stretch
  • Start breakfast
  • Get dressed
  • Finish & eat breakfast
  • Take the dogs out
  • Do the dishes
  • Personal projects (if there's time)
  • Start work

This routine is 3 hours long but it can be squeezed into 2 hours, if needed. Alternatively, I can remove things like reading or working on personal projects, if I want to spend more time stretching or feel like sleeping in.

Sometimes, after taking the dogs out, I'll realize that it's 8 o’ clock already and time to start the work day! Other times, maybe when there's less dishes to do or the doggies do their business quickly, I'll have 30-45 minutes to read the news, work on an open-source project or write a blog post (like this one!)

It really just depends on the day, and that's okay. Once I accepted the fact that this routine is flexible it got a lot easier to stick to it.

2. Start work at the same time, let your team know when that changes

Teams work best when they share a set of core hours. Whether it's 2 or 8 hours of overlap, being able to reliably get a response from a teammate during the hours we've all agreed on makes working together remotely much more efficient and pleasant.

To be a good teammate, it's important to respect these core hours and to be honest when something comes up that'll affect that. If, for example, a lunch break is taking a bit longer (due to having to go to three different stores to find toilet paper), I make sure to let my team know that I'll be starting late.

This does two things:

  1. It demonstrates that I respect others’ time.
  2. It makes it more likely that others will let me know when they're running late.

If you've ever been on the other side of a message with no reply, you'll have empathy for the person pinging you to ask “if you'll be joining standup”

Remote work requires over-communication. For this reason, I like to have my team's messaging app installed on my phone, so that I always have a reliable way of letting them know when I'll be deviating from core hours.

3. Pair with others often

Remote work can get lonely. Whenever possible, I try to find ways to pair on tasks with others. Extreme Programming (XP) practices like pairing do not only apply to software developers.

I've found that the same outcomes that come from pair programming—like fewer distractions, higher quality work products and increased information flow within a team—can also be garnered from pairing with product managers, other designers and programmers on things other than code.

During a daily standup meeting or via direct messages throughout the day, I'll try to find time with my teammates to pair on my own work or work that they have on their plate. Even if it's just 30 minutes of my day, having that time to connect with members of my team one-on-one helps us stay on the same page and trust one another with difficult decisions.

4. Try timing yourself (and maybe turn off notifications)

Sometimes there's nobody to pair with or a task just makes more sense to do on my own. In these cases, I've found that it's best to “time box” to stay focused on the task and not get distracted by other ancillary pieces of work—or worse, Twitter!

Instead of setting an arbitrary amount of time in which to do a task, I've found it's better to time myself forwards using a tool like Toggl, or just a simple stopwatch and sticky note.

Seeing the number increment upward with a bit of text to remind me what I'm working on is usually enough of an emotional tether to keep myself from clicking that red badge on an email or messaging application.

That being said, if there's too much distraction from notifications, it's easy to quickly turn on “Do Not Disturb” (with a keystroke on Mac or a desktop shortcut on Windows). Just remember to turn it off after your current task is done!

In times like these, it's also easier than ever to get pulled into the news. In the past, I've used StayFocusd to keep myself from habitually opening Twitter. There's also tools like News Feed Eradicator if a task involves using social media but I'd like to avoid getting pulled into distracting conversations.

5. Take breaks, and remind others when you're on one

When working from home, it can be easy to forget to take a break. Since working at Pivotal Labs, I've learned that taking just 10 minutes away from the computer can help solve even the most difficult of problems.

To avoid burnout and back pain, I take at least one break in the morning and one in the afternoon. When I'm doing lots of small tasks, I may need to take more frequent, but shorter, breaks. These breaks make changing contexts from one task to another easier than just staring at the screen trying to force my mind to shift directions.

Since I'm never sure when the right time to take a break is, it's difficult to set them up in a calendar for others on my team to see. Some teams that I've been on prefer that people taking breaks post in a messaging app's dedicated channel.

This “break channel” can be good for two reasons:

  1. It lets everyone know who is unavailable (and by contrast, who is available) at any given moment.
  2. It reminders other team members that they should consider taking a break, maybe even remotely together!

In situations where teammates do not post at break times, I still do not hesitate to tell others when I'm on one. If I get a message while walking the dog or taking a walk around the house, I'll quickly respond with a message like, “on a break now, will be back in 10 minutes”.

These techniques can be summarized in two words, “over-communication” and “patience”. Over-communication ensures that the things I might think are obvious are made obvious to others; while being patient with myself, my team and others I work with has made it easy to adapt to the ever-changing environment of remote work.

If this helped you, please let me know via email or comment on Medium and!

Do you have your own tips on working from home? I'd love to hear them! I also found this curated page from Notion and this amazing self-care focused post from Alice Goldfuss to be super helpful, this week.