Companies across the globe are unexpectedly embracing working from home out of necessity. In fact, according to a recent Gallup Poll, 62% of employed Americans currently say they have worked from home during the crisis.
At Open Raven, we were founded and remain a 100% remote team. There’s no shortage of great resources and tips available for working remotely, but in my experience, there are three big topics that determine team and personal success when working from home:
- Getting communication right.
- Understanding and neutralizing negativity bias.
- Structuring your day.
Yes, other stuff matters. However, if you do these three things well, you and your business have a good chance of being successful even if you don’t nail everything else.
1. Getting Communications Right
If you were to rate the percentage of communication that was the actual “content” (e.g., the words, slides, etc.), what would it be? Well, according to a famous study by Dr. Mehrabian, less than 10% of communication is verbal.
Think about it: If you’re talking on the phone, you can get your words across, at least, with your voice tone. What about facial expressions, gestures, or posture? Only having the verbal aspect of a conversation and no non-verbal signals means that you’re losing at least half of the intended meaning.
Add multi-tasking into the mix where people are distracted and not listening to verbal communication; it results in poor communication. Not to mention the absence of a personal connection between both parties.
To help communication in a remote work setting, we need to recognize that there are different types of meetings – “formal” meetings and “informal” meetings – and each meets different needs.
- Formal Meetings – are a small group of people focused on a predetermined topic. There is no magical solution to replace traditional formal meetings when everyone is remote, but modern video conferencing restores much of the fidelity lost when in-person contact isn’t possible. Notably, it brings back facial expressions, gestures, and posture.
- Informal Meetings – These are unscheduled conversations. Video conferencing can simulate an in-person meeting, but it does a poor job of replacing the impromptu conversations that are the mainstay of “ informal meetings. ” Since these are low-risk conversations, I find a simple phone call is fine.
To make these better, I find it helpful to have a loose agenda that touches on how things are going, what the person you’re talking to is working on currently if they feel like they need anything they’re not getting at the moment, and so on. It’s also helpful to keep these to 15-20 minutes and try to do these calls walking outside or at least away from the distraction of your laptop screen.
Further, virtual team lunches, happy hours, or other unstructured time with each other can help offset the time you would have typically had in-person to help forge and maintain bonds with one another.
2. Understanding and Neutralizing Negativity Bias
As humans, we all have the subconscious tendency to exaggerate the negative and downplay the positive. If you are unfamiliar with it, this phenomenon is well documented as “the negativity bias.”
When you’re not face-to-face in an office, and you’re working from home, you’re relegated to lower fidelity conversations (e.g., Slack versus a watercooler conversation). Out of visual contact leaves you interpreting communications much more than you have to do in person. With negativity bias, instead of giving the other person the benefit of the doubt, your natural instinct is to assume the worst. Simply stated, the extra “white space” you have when working remote is far too easy to fill with negativity.
To offset negativity bias in a remote setting, I recommend you do the following:
- Be clear about tone – State your intent. Assume it won’t be clear otherwise. Leave less whitespace by exaggerating the positive and use emojis or whatever suits you to clarify statements.
- Celebrate and savor the good moments – Let them burn into your brain. Give yourself, others, and the whole team credit. Build a reservoir of positive thoughts to draw from.
- Give the benefit of the doubt – Our own internal narrative is more often the culprit of perceived negativity rather than the intent of the other person. So try to refrain from premature judgment.
- Breathe – Count to 10 deep breaths, use the Apple Breathe feature for a couple of minutes, or whatever works for you. It will reduce the impact of stress-based reactions and diminish the exaggerated responses that come so easy today, given the mountain of extra stress we are all feeling.
3. Structuring Your Day
Before, when you would leave your home to go into an office, you had a clear cognitive signal of when the workday began and the same signal when you would leave work. Now, when you’re working from home instead of in a separate, designated workspace like a company office, both the start and end signals are gone.
Your regular morning routine and the drive for getting ready evaporates since you’re “just staying at home.” If you do nothing to create a structure for your day, the most natural outcome is haphazard attention to how you look and feel. When the start of your workday is signaled by when you first check your phone in the early morning and then drag on well through the evening with no clear end, it can cause fatigue or even burnout.
On top of losing traditional start/stop signals that were previously tied to your external workplace, people can no longer meet ad hoc. As a result, everything turns into a scheduled meeting. Your calendar is now packed tight.
To help take back control of your daily schedule, I propose the following:
- No meetings longer than 45 minutes – The 15 minutes between meetings will allow you to attend to biological realities and enable you to mentally shift gears between meetings. It also means that if one meeting runs a little over, you’re not always running late, trying to catch up for the remainder of the day.
- Force empty space into your schedule – The way I personally use this technique is by working in the early morning (my “priming time”) and then stopping to exercise, often by myself, with music playing on my headphones (no lyrics). I find this gives me optimal chances at solving thorny problems when I return to my work later in the morning.
- Treat mental energy as a fixed resource – The idea here is that you only have so much cognitive power each day, and once you use it, it’s gone. At some point, you’ve burned through all your high potency brainpower, and you’re then stuck with gut-level decision making where your biases are primarily in control of your thinking. So how can you make sure to use your best energy for your most significant opportunities or to tackle the most prominent problems? Schedule it early in the day and protect the time. Save the easy stuff (email, calendaring, expenses, etc.) for later when you know you’ll be working with less mental savvy.
- Start using a shutdown sequence – Cal Newport has a method he uses for turning off work for the day that can help reestablish your evening boundary. Take a systematic review of work that was done, tasks for tomorrow, and a glance at the upcoming weeks. Once complete, close down your computer and say the magic phrase: “schedule shutdown, complete.”
Cal Newport asks the question: “What do you do when work comes knocking again after shutdown?”
Here is the Newport rule: “After I’ve uttered the magic phrase if a work-related worry pops to mind, I always answer it with the following thought process:
- I said the termination phrase.
- I wouldn’t have said this phrase if I hadn’t checked over all of my tasks, my calendar, and my weekly plan and decided that everything was captured, and I was on top of everything.
- Therefore, there is no need to worry.”
Working from home may not be for everyone, and this situation should be temporary for most of us, but in the meantime, it is our reality. Use these tips to help create the right approach for you – one that allows you the right balance while you work from home.