By Bec Brown, managing director, The Comms Department.
A lot of the country’s professionals are now officially WFH – working from home.
And while these are unusual times, you can still be ‘business as usual’.
I’ve been running our PR and Crisis Comms agency The Comms Department for eight years and we’ve never had a ‘traditional’ office. That’s right, all staff work remotely.
With a team that spans Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, we work with some of Australia’s biggest media, entertainment, travel and lifestyle brands and we’ve always worked from home (or from hotel rooms when we need to travel and occasionally from our client’s offices).
It took some trial and error when we started, but now with years of experience, working from home is BAU for us. In fact, we wouldn’t have it any other way because we’ve fine-tuned our structure and procedures for maximum output and enjoyment. (Our clients also love it because they pay for our expertise, not our central office overhead.)
It’s common to think that if you’re an extrovert who gathers energy from being around other people, working from home will be your worst nightmare. Or if you skew more towards introversion and restore your batteries by being alone, it’ll be utopia. The truth is, for either personality type working from home is a minefield. But with some smart planning, it doesn’t have to be.
While a lot of workplaces have flexible working arrangements, it’s not usually for extended periods. A novelty to start with, working from home means no boring commute, wearing what you want, less time in meetings, and no distractions from colleagues dropping past your desk “with one quick question”. But without structure, your productivity and good mental health can dissipate faster than the contents of your fridge and pantry (both of which you suddenly have unbridled access to).
So here are some of the things we’ve learnt so you don’t waste precious time adjusting to WFH. Instead, you can get on with ensuring you and your team are as productive, creative, consistent and mentally healthy as possible, all while delivering for your clients.
The three most significant issues you’ll need to manage are:
– Your mental health
Work station. Where possible, replicate your work office at home with the tech and tools you need. If you’re used to working with two screens or using a separate keyboard and mouse rather than your laptop, make sure you have what you need (and if your company will expense it, even better). If you miss the buzz of the office, put the radio on. If you find your neighbourhood noise too distracting, wear headphones. Don’t waste time being uncomfortable with your set up thinking you’ll get used to it. You won’t. It’ll only frustrate you and slow you down.
Your schedule. Try to keep your schedule as ‘normal’ as possible. Wake up at the same time you usually do and stick to your usual morning routine. Start and finish work at the same times you usually would. Don’t fall into the trap of checking emails, taking calls or texts late into the night if it’s not time-sensitive work, thinking you can sleep in the next day now your commute time has gone. Have lunch as you usually would but away from your work station. Unless I’m on a deadline, my rule is no eating at my desk – no snacks, no meals.
Dress the part. While it may be tempting to work in your PJs all day (and by all means go for it on day one if that makes you happy), but after a day of it you’ll probably feel a bit gross and unmotivated. It’s more beneficial to get into your ‘work mindset’ by simply wearing the clothes you’d typically wear to work.
When you’re at work, WORK. Ten minutes here or there on social media, watching the news updates, or online shopping may seem to break up your day, but it only makes your work day longer. Set yourself boundaries so work doesn’t then encroach on your life. While it’s tempting to do a load of laundry, clean the house, or cook something (I’m a reformed procrasti-baker), my rule is that if it can’t be done in the time it takes for the kettle to boil to make a tea, it can wait until a set break time or the work day is done.
If ‘the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place’, then this applies more than ever when you’re working remotely. Compared to an office environment, at first it’ll feel like you can’t easily speak to your colleagues. But that just means you’re going to have to work a little smarter to ensure you and your team are all on the same page.
Keep your regular meetings and use video. If you have all-team or one-one-one WIPS, keep them in your diary. If you don’t, schedule them in regularly. Where possible, make them video calls. Use Zoom or Teams or Skype or Slack or FaceTime – whatever video conferencing you have access to so that visual cues are always picked up and things aren’t misinterpreted.
Make mute your best friend. Whether audio or video, put your microphone on mute when you’re not speaking. Always. You’ll be surprised how your background white noise (birds, traffic, planes, cat, dog, child, leaf-blower) gets picked up. If there’s 10 of you on the call and you all have background noise, it’s the worst. And don’t think you can go sit in a park or café all day and make calls. You’re a professional, not a hobbyist.
Keep it social and collaborative. If you’re concerned about how your team will stay creative, brainstorm as a group as you usually would via video call, or use tools like MURAL which is an online canvas complete with digital sticky notes. And not all communication needs to be formal. In an office you might call out to a colleague a few desks away to ask a question – keep this up when working from home by using text, a call, or Slack to keep the usual flow of information happening. Now is not the time to become professionally isolated.
Put your ‘do not disturb’ on. If you have others sharing the house with you, know that they will want to speak with you every five minutes. Create a signal that you need to be left alone and let them know when ‘It’s on, I’m off’. Use noise cancelling headphones, or put a sign near your computer. In my early days, even with a dedicated room as my home office, my shift-working husband would wander in and start randomly chatting. I started wearing a cap (Vancouver Canucks, NHL fan over here) and we agreed that when it was on, he’d not to talk to me unless it was an emergency.
Your mental health
In challenging situations and times of change, having boundaries and structure is one way to help prioritise your mental health. To paraphrase novelist Gustave Flaubert, ‘be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be bold and original in your work’. When you’re working from home, it’s excellent advice.
Have one set working space. Don’t allow work to encroach on every part of your home. Choose one spot where work gets done. Your workspace might be the dining room table, your desk, or a particular chair in your lounge room. Everywhere else is out of bounds. (Especially your bedroom. Your bed should be a place for sleep or fun… and that’s it.)
Change the mood when your work time has ended. Change out of your work clothes, alter the lighting to make it softer, put your favourite music on, or light some candles. Over time, these physical cues will help you to shift from work mode to relax or play mode.
Nourish. Step away from the fridge. And the pantry. And don’t give into the temptation of dialling Uber Eats three times a day because no-one’s there to witness it. You’ll only wind up over-snacked and sleepy. Try to eat only what you usually would. It’s as simple and difficult as that. Depending on what level of self-isolating you’re at, you might be able to go to a café or take your lunch to a park. And if you drink alcohol at night, go easy. A hangover when you’re stuck at home all day on a deadline is way more demoralising than having one at the office, where at least there are other people to distract you and make you laugh.
Move. Set times to go for a walk or do any kind of exercise. When you do, your body produces feel-good chemicals such as endorphins, endocannabinoids and oxytocin. These make your brain more resilient to stress, increase your motivation, and make you more optimistic, hopeful and sociable.
Social connection. Studies have shown humans are wired for connection and that, without it, we falter, both physically and mentally. Just because you’re working from home, doesn’t mean you’re working alone. Maintain your social connections with colleagues where you can. If at the office you’d usually go for a mid-morning coffee run with a colleague, give them a call to check in while you make a coffee at home. If you live alone or need to self-isolate from your family, keeping these social connections will be vital. And if you have a pet, give them a squeeze.
Eight years ago when I started this agency, it was almost unheard of to have a full team working from home in the PR or marketing industry.
At the time, there were plenty of naysayers who thought working from home meant pyjamas, and a lack of productivity and professionalism. Over the years, I’ve seen these same business leaders embracing flexible working arrangements and working from home is more commonplace.
And for now, for many of us, WFH is vital. And it’s this change of mindset and work ethic that’s going to help give our industry the resilience it needs to continue in these very challenging times ahead.
Which is why I’ve shared our tips – because we’re all in this together.
And collectively, we’re stronger.
We’ve got this.