Insights

5 ways to improve productivity and combat stress while working from home

Reduce the stress and anxiety of working from home in isolation by thinking like a workplace strategist, shares Frances Gain.

2020-04-07

By Frances Gain
Senior Associate, Workplace Strategy and Transformation – London, Amsterdam, Paris

Bring the benefits of the workplace into your home office

Millions of people around the world are working from home to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. For many of them, it’s now a normal part of the working week. For others, it will likely be their first experience of working in isolation, bringing a host of new challenges to both productivity and health.

In this article, we explore some tips for managing the symptoms of stress while getting your work done:

 

  1. Adapt your work style to reduce stress levels
  2. Break your procrastination habits
  3. Protect yourself from distractions
  4. Create effective routines for structuring for your day
  5. Reclaim your commuting time to distance work from home

 

Existing studies into the effects of remote working reveal several relevant findings. The option of occasionally working from home was seen as a health benefit and improved how employees felt about their health in the workplace too. On the other hand, as the frequency of home working increased, so did the percentage that perceived a negative impact on their health.

The study shows that choice plays an important role in how we feel about our work environment, and while it can have a positive overall impact, working from home all the time is not good for our mental and physical wellbeing.

In workplace strategy, we spend our time helping organisations support the diverse psychological and physiological needs of their employees in the workplace. This makes people feel safe and helps increase productivity. Many of these principles can be applied at home too, and while choices about where we work are limited, we’ve created these tips to relieve stress, build resilience and maintain productivity.

1. Adapt your work style

Disrupted structure fuels stress and anxiety, but everyone feels the effects differently.

Some people experience a lack of structure as overwhelming. It can be a struggle to get working on important tasks, but as pressure mounts, productivity rises. For these people, the right amount of stress can be a powerful motivator.

Others might feel inspired when those same structures are removed. However, if they get distracted or fail to meet their personal expectations, anxiety spikes. The fear of not “doing enough” can lead to productivity paralysis.

Think about whether pressure drives you or disables you. If we know our own way of working then it becomes easier to harness or mitigate stressors. More than ever, we need to understand what influences our behaviours in order to tailor our own creative process.

 

Tips to understand your stress response and productivity flow

  • Use an anxiety tracker or mood journal to understand your stress response.
  • Record your reactions to deadlines, emails, and meetings.
  • Ask your household if they notice patterns in your productivity.

Ideas for systems to support your unique work style

  • To add more structure, use the Pomodoro technique for bite-sized deadlines to help you work remotely.
  • If you feel stressed or overwhelmed, reduce your to-do list or use a task manager to help you approach one thing at a time.
  • When perfectionism is debilitating, set realistic milestones. Aiming for progress, not completion, can be an effective stress management technique.
Try these strategies to prevent yourself being distracted from focused work.

Try these strategies to prevent yourself being distracted from focused work.

2. Call out procrastination techniques

Everyone knows the tell-tale signs of a procrastinator in the office – they travel back and forth from the teapoint for “one more” biscuit, before circling the coffee machine for the next thirty minutes.

At home, procrastination takes a more subtle form. It’s chores masked as time well spent. If you find yourself compelled to clean when an email pings, then it’s problematic. Make this isolation phase productive - but schedule your life-admin at the right time.

 

Put it out of sight and out of mind

  • Remove possible procrastination lures, or remove yourself. 
  • Set up visual barriers or change locations when triggers are near.

Create a “parking lot” for ideas

  • A running list of the chores, home-office activities and side projects you’d like to do.
  • As new ideas springs to mind - write them down rather than acting immediately.

 Schedule procrastination time in your calendar

  • Allowing “distraction time” brings relief and a calendar slot provides time limits.
Digital distractions can be another source of work-related anxiety.

Digital distractions can be another source of work-related anxiety.

3. Manage digital distractions

Much like procrastination, acting on distractions feels good in the moment and provides temporary relief, but is a hard habit to stop. The average person scrolls the height of Big Ben every day, so a quick update on the latest news on social media easily spirals into another lost hour.

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, we are being pushed further online. My iPhone tracker informed me that my screen time rose 39% last week. We may think it’s in “pursuit of knowledge”, but unchecked, we’ll squander our focus time on sharing the latest memes, which inevitably stalls productivity and causes further stress. But like a shopaholic in a mall, we need the object of our distraction more than ever.

Digital distractions are part of modern life, but you can reduce temptation during work hours by setting boundaries and allocating time to indulge. Enjoy a habitual 6pm scroll session, reward yourself after deadlines, or build-in timed breaks. There is no shame in “parenting” yourself if it works.

 

Maintain your focus

  • It’s easier to avoid something completely, so log out before you are tempted.
  • Turn off pop-ups or use website blockers.
  • Put distracting social media apps in a different folder, and turn off all push notifications.

Mirror productive people

  • We naturally mimic what others do, so if you see others focusing it’ll encourage you to ignore distractions.
  • If you share your home, try working in the same space as others and mirror their behaviour. If they are easily distracted, it may be best to move!
  • Turn to YouTube to find “Study Vibes” live broadcast videos.

Find an accountability buddy and stay on track together

  • Despite isolation, you can access the power of human accountability and positive peer pressure online.
  • Work with a friend, find an online community group or try a productivity app.
  • Once established, share your targets, set a follow-up time and reconnect to review.
  • Ask a friend to make you accountable. This provides a safe and supportive environment without adding pressure from management.
Alternate posture and position for different kinds of work throughout the day.

Alternate posture and position for different kinds of work throughout the day.

4. Build new structures and routines

As humans, we are generally motivated by doing good work. Without the constraints of an office and influence of teams and managers, many employees feel lost as they lose the structure of a workday. If you or your teammate are feeling anxious and craving structure and accountability, then it’s time to create new routines.

A good example of how routines create positive structure is to look back at school. Students move to different classrooms between lessons. The change of work environment helps to reset and refocus attention on a new subject.

Think about the actions you can reinvent at home. Our routine gym classes, book clubs or picking up our children serve as “absolutes” in our diaries which force efficiency and time management. Anticipated events leave little room for indecision – if it’s scheduled, it happens.

 

Set new routines using the “when this - then that” technique

  • When I get an afternoon snack, then I’ll tackle my urgent emails.
  • When I’ve completed Monday’s team meeting, then I’ll walk the park.

Set non-negotiable habits by appointing times or setting days for tasks or activities

  • Reduce your choices and decision fatigue.
  • Allocate team-social time to 9am every day and then enjoy it without guilt.
  • Set aside Wednesday evening for online exercise classes.

Designate different locations for different behaviours

  • Use the bedroom for reading, the kitchen table for teamwork, and set up a secluded corner for focus.
  • If you don’t have many options, try alternating posture and positions from seated and standing to lounging.
Use the time from your missed commute to do ease yourself in or wind down.

Use the time from your missed commute to do ease yourself in or wind down.

5. Utilise missed commuting time

As much as we dislike commuting, which can impact our mental health, the regularity helps us transition to and from work. On the journey in, many people reflect on their to-do lists and meeting agendas.

It helps to move the mind from the comfort of home and eases it into work mode. Rolling out of bed and opening your laptop may sound good, but in reality, it’s a steep transition from “off” to “on”. Very few people can jump straight into productive work.

We don’t need to think when commuting. That’s key because it enables us to be mindless, allowing our imagination to wander. A big pause for thought that bookends the day. How can you recreate that commuter time now to help ease yourself into your first task?

If we don’t transition - we carry stress to work and take work stress home.

 

Consider a routine activity to separate work and home time

  • Evening walks to help transition from professional to personal life.
  • A 7pm drink with your partner or roommates, try a “Quarantini” or homemade Kombucha.
  • Have a coffee over breakfast with a favourite colleague.

Create an autopilot activity that is specific, simple and regular

  • Set a clear route to ensure the activity is decision-free. For example, walk three times around the park, no more no less.
  • Read for 30 minutes. Set a timer that reminds you to get off the “train”.

Balance the trade-off between work and play

  • The commute is two-way. Going in sets our minds up for work, while our return readies us to arrive home.
  • Don’t forget the first hour is preparation for productivity. Make a routine time for your chores before work.
  • Reclaim your last hour -it’s time to relax.

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