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Telecommuting Tips from a Work-From-Home Veteran

The irony of this COVID-19 situation is not lost on me.

Before I joined the government service in December, I went through a series of home-based writing and consultancy jobs which meant that for the most part of my adult life, my day-to-day revolved around coffee shops and my home office. That’s almost 8 years of mastering the art of being productive whatever the working conditions are, whether I am at my desk, or at the beach, or in a hostel dorm room in some foreign country with a bunch of tourists who badly need long overdue showers.

I wanted to be in government service because I decided I needed to have a tiny bit more structure by putting my big boy pants on, although I wouldn’t say I hated telecommuting since it practically allowed me to be my own boss, and to travel while earning a living at the same time. After a few months of transitioning to my new office life, here I am being flung back into the work-from-home cycle that I badly wanted to outgrow.

Working on the go: fleeting moments of productivity while exploring the hip and trendy
Saigon central business district // The Workshop, Ho Chi Minh City

When the government issued the community quarantine directive, including orders to work from home in light of the Coronavirus outbreak, my whole office had a series of meetings to plan out the work arrangements now that we are basically barred from being out and about, and now that we were directed to limit attendance only to essential personnel under skeletal work plans. This whole campaign to flatten the curve is intended to avoid further transmissions and to slow down the increase in the number of cases. What really struck me was how difficult it is for traditional types of work to transition into other modes like working from home or limited hours, especially because office-centric work is the way it has always been done. Of course, there are security and logistical considerations to bringing work home due to the type of work that we do. I am positive this is the same issue for offices anywhere, considering that traditional work has always revolved around showing up in person and being in the office to fulfil tasks and assignments.

That said, I was not the least bit concerned that working from home was going to hamper my productivity. Sure, it will take getting used to, with my new team at work and all, but I am certain that I can draw from extensive experience in staying productive and making sure that stuff gets done on time. Over the years, I have developed habits and strategies to keep myself from getting bored at home while working.

If you’re on the same boat, having to go into telecommuting, here are some of the tips that I share with you, dear reader, as I found them to be great practices for myself:

Commit to a schedule

Working from home also must follow a structure, just like any workplace. One has to be committed and disciplined. Align your pace with your remote teams and do not procrastinate, because things will pile up if you don’t do them. You may even need more time to do things that used to be easier when everything was within reach at the office. Since you are not in the same room with others, communication might lag and your turnaround time to do things that used to be done in a flash could suffer. Structure will allow you to compartmentalise tasks so that you do not get overwhelmed. Also, discipline will remind you that, no, this is not a paid vacation. You still need to get stuff done.

Set up a dedicated work station

Yeah, my work desk is not usually this organised

Your workplace must be conducive to productivity. I find that wherever I go, I like working while facing a light source, like a window or the lights from the ceiling. I dislike lighting from the back as it usually glares off of my computer screen. I also operate better when my tools are spread out in front of me, that’s why to others, my workplace may look like a giant mess (I call it ordered chaos). Depending on your own quirks, what’s important is setting up a station that is away from your bed or your sofa. This is a no-brainer, because the temptation to nap or watch TV will be very strong.

Freshen up

The idea is to shake off the cobwebs of sleep and trick your body into feeling as if you are going somewhere. That “somewhere” is your productive zone. Make your bed, shower, brush your teeth, and put on comfortable (but not too loungey!) clothes. I have a drawerful of ratty pambahay clothes that I try to stay away from if I need to “dress up” for work. I go into my coffee ritual (grind, measure, brew) and set the tone for the next few hours with some good music. I may also do a bit of light chores like cleaning, especially around my work area before I settle in.

Lighting an incense has become a sort of ritual. I used to light one before I start each work
day. I like the sandalwood incense that I bought in Pushkar, India which has a light, energizing aroma

I find that this helps me prepare before doing mentally tasking stuff. Having a mental divide between rest and relaxation time and Game Time! is important. Otherwise, the inertia of down time will make it very hard to stay focused.

Minimise distractions

My way of thinking is TV shows, movies, books, and other distractions should be well-deserved, and the only way I won’t feel bad about consuming entertainment media is if i have been productive. This is vigilance and mental discipline that you must learn to have if you will be working from home for extended periods. Distractions are sneaky. One episode turns into a whole-day binge fest and before you know it, you have wasted an entire day vegging out in front of the computer with chip crumbs all over your shirt. Be in the zone and stay in there. Then later, when the work is done, reward yourself with well-deserved idle pleasures.

Also, if you don’t happen to live alone, make sure that other people in the house respect your workspace and your working zone. If you struggle with distractions, inform your parents, children, siblings etc. that you are working, and you are not to be disturbed.

Get up and stretch

After ensuring that your workplace is ergonomic and optimised so that you can sit there for extended periods without straining, make sure that you get up and stretch after a few hours of work. More on this later. Basically, the culprit to loss of productivity is being too relaxed that you slouch or sink into your office chair which is disastrous because this is a recipe for exhaustion. I find that I work better with a hard chair with a backrest instead of those commercial swivel office chairs with sophisticated hydraulic seat adjustments. Whatever works for you, just make sure you get up and stretch to promote better blood flow and to keep yourself energised.

Follow a break schedule

I try not to snack so much when I’m working from home, because this also signals my brain that I’m not really working. Instead, I try to portion my time by having periodic breaks to get up from my seat, get a glass of water or juice, enjoy a snack mindfully, refill my coffee mug, and go to the bathroom. I also fully quit and step away from my desk at lunch time, and allow myself a full hour (if possible) of doing nothing but attending to my physical needs. I may take another quick shower just to freshen up, or even just wash my face for that extra energy boost.

Pausing or a bit of sunshine and a cold brew while telecommuting
// Chye Seng Huat Hardware Specialty Coffee, Singapore

Note: Since I follow a daily schedule of 5 Muslim prayers when I am at home, I also use this time to get up, wash up, stretch, pray, and meditate even just for 10-15 minutes. Even the act of performing prayers, with all of its physicality, is a good way to stretch and re-energize.

Productivity apps

Throughout my work from home years, I have developed an attachment to my arsenal of productivity tools. I personally liked Trello to schedule my daily tasks, especially when I was in total control of how to schedule my work. This doesn’t work for me now, because I usually anticipate direction from my superiors and tailor my work tasks according to the direction of my Division head. Stuff like Trello (task management), Skype (Instant messaging, file sharing, and overall coordination), Evernote (note taking), Google Calendar (scheduling), and Time Doctor (my previous consulting company used to have us on a time tracking software which logs our productivity; this curbed distractions as Time Doctor sends back screenshots every so often to your screen. Invasive, yes, but we were running on company time while working remote, so it was necessary).

However, one thing that has stuck with me and has guided me to more mindful and focused work is my personal favourite app, Focus To Do, which is basically a Pomodoro timer (note: this is an unpaid post, lol) . The Pomodoro time system is my preferred productivity method because it involves working on 25-minute stretches without any distractions, or pomodoros (they are called such because the guru of this method used a tomato-shaped timer). The idea behind the technique is that the timer instills a sense of urgency. Rather than feeling like you have endless time in the workday to get things done and then ultimately squandering those precious work hours on distractions, you know you only have 25 minutes to make as much progress on a task as possible. After each pomodoro has lapsed, you are reminded to take a 5-minute break, before resuming another 25-minute cycle.

Stopping to tick off tasks from my to-do list // Luna Bar Coffee, George Town, Penang

After several pomodoros, a longer break is highly recommended. I found that this method worked well for me because my eyes and my back thanked me for it. I used to work in very long stretches and suffer the consequences of throbbing migraines and eye strain, as well as really bad upper back stiffness from being hunched over a computer.

BUT Don’t get caught up obsessing over productivity

When a productivity app or system does not work with me or mesh with my working style seamlessly, I find that it messes with my clear train of thought and ends up being more of a burden than something that should streamline my work. If i spend more time figuring out how to integrate a productivity app in my routine after going through the tutorial and after giving it a try, I ditch it from the get go and don’t waste another minute grappling with it. It’s not worth the stress. I gave up bullet journalling because of this. Let’s be honest here: I obsessed over cute fonts, layouts, and systems and ended up not getting a lot of things done.

Know when it’s time to quit for the day

Should all these tips work for you, it is very easy to lose track of time. Before you know it, it is already dark out and the night alerts for the quarantine curfew has started. Now that you have done the work for the day, just like in any workplace, clock out and have a life. Since we can’t really make any plans to go outside and socialise, which is the entire point of this house arrest-like conditions, even just deciding, “I’m going to stop working at 7PM and will have dinner and then watch a few episodes of The Crown.” is enough to transition into a restful state.

One of the most beautiful co-working spaces/work lounges I’ve ever been to
// Star Hostel, Taipei

All things considered, I really hope and pray that we all survive this experience. It may not be ideal, but life does have to go on. Now that we have more time to be at home with our families (or my cat, in my case), it’s time to make up for all those times when we were barely home. I wish that with all these tips, I am able to make use of my being a former broke underpaid bum and make this temporary situation bearable and maybe even enjoyable for us all.

See you on the other side!

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