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Working from home during 'survival mode' poses challenges

Over the last few weeks, many people have been forced to work from home to avoid the spread of COVID-19. Though there is a certain appeal to skipping the morning commute and staying in your pajamas, working from home can be a challenging adjustment for those used to reporting to the office every day.

According to experts and longtime remote workers, there are a few simple things you can do to make the adjustment easier when it comes to setting up a home office space, learning virtual communication tools and working from the same space as your partner and children, from making sure you have the right keyboard to scheduling snack time with kids and communicating with your spouse using a virtual messaging service, such as Slack.

Robin Kelleher, president and CEO of Hope for the Warriors, has been remotely managing her nonprofit for 15 years and is working from her home on Mason's Island in Mystic. On its website, Hope for the Warriors posted a list of the five best tips for learning to work from home: 1. Get dressed; 2. Don't work from your bed or couch; 3. Schedule your work day; 4. Stock up on tea, coffee and water; 5. Check in with your colleagues via video; 6. Cut yourself off from work at the end of the day and on breaks.

The Day spoke to Kelleher and Hope for the Warriors' Vice President of Communication Karen Lee, based out of South Carolina; Chelsea and Tony Northrup, a Waterford couple who have been working from home together for over a decade; and Aliza Sherman Risdahl, an author on topics ranging from working from home to eCommerce who has been working from home for 10 to 15 years as a consultant for many virtually run companies.

Here's their advice:

Setting up your space: Building your home office

The first step is setting up a space that allows you to be productive, provides privacy and is comfortable for your body with ergonomics in mind.

For Tony and Chelsea Northrup, who produce YouTube videos on photography techniques, tools and tips, this meant designating studio spaces throughout their Waterford home.

The couple, who have 1.4 million subscribers to their YouTube channel, published a video titled "How to work from home and actually get stuff done." Their main tips for viewers new to working from home include increasing your bandwidth through your internet provider, getting dressed for work every morning and separating your work and home spaces.

The Northrups found that having a recording studio, podcast studio and photo studio in their home helps them focus on their work in a setting that doesn't conflict with their home life.

"We tried to do our work without a designated video studio, but if you wanted to start recording, you had to do 45 minutes of cleaning first," Tony said. "Having this designated space kept all of that clutter away from our work."

Chelsea recommended making sure your workspace has work-centered items in it.

"Even if the space you're working in is small, at least make a little nook for yourself," she said. "Move some of your personal items to make it as similar to your workspace as possible."

Having a set location for work that doesn't overlap with where you sleep, eat or watch TV and play video games is essential, the Northrups said.

"I think it's good for mental preparation, it's hard to get work done in an environment where you're used to relaxing," Chelsea said.

Tony said that focusing on ergonomics is important to avoid back pain from slouching toward your laptop, or long-term damage to your wrists that can lead to issues like carpal tunnel. He recommended buying a Bluetooth keyboard to keep on your desk and elevating your laptop or monitor on a stack of books.

Chelsea said having a physical notebook on her desk helps her stay organized. Every morning, she writes her to-do list in her notebook and keeps it in a visible spot. "It's so easy to let the day get away from you but having a list keeps me on track and it makes me focus," she said. "When it's on a notebook I can just look over, it's not going to get lost on my phone or my computer."

For Aliza Sherman Risdahl, author of 11 books including "Cybergrrl at Work: Tips and Inspiration for the Professional You," which features tips for women who are working from home, creating a designated workspace that is somehow closed off helps.

"Not everybody has the luxury to have a separate space, but having a door is very important," Risdahl said. "A lot of people are used to having a cubicle or office, so your brain is used to having parameters."

If your space is small, you can section off some of it.

"Think creatively, a closet that can be cleared out and will give you a little bit of confinement in a sense," she said. "Put up screens or separators or rearrange bookcases to set up as pseudo-walls."

It's also important to make sure you aren't seated all day, said Risdahl, who suggested creating a makeshift standing desk using books or boxes.

"Take the opportunity for phone calls and office calls to pace, use a recording device so that you can walk around and move without worrying about being seated to take notes," she said.

Sticking to a schedule: Designate work hours and break times

Once you have your home office set up, it's important to "go to work" at the same time every day, and have a designated end time, Tony Northrup said.

Set your work hours and stick to them like you would at the office. Schedule your lunch break and even practice meal-prepping and packing your lunch like you would for the office, Chelsea Northrup said.

Also, it's important not to eat at your desk, even if you would typically do that at work. Separate your spaces so that your work life and home life don't overlap.

Robin Kelleher of Hope for the Warriors said she helps her employees stick to schedules by having multiple meetings per day over Zoom, a video conferencing app.

"We are trying to keep people connected in that way that reframes the idea of 'we have too many meetings' to 'we have enough meetings to keep people connected,'" Kelleher said. "In a time like this, it's important to have a lot of meetings and check-ins because there isn't a lot of redundancy right now, everything is changing every five minutes."

For managers scheduling meetings, Kelleher said it's a good idea to hold 45-minute meetings with 15-minute breaks in between.

Technology and Equipment: Tools for working from home and virtual communication

As we all adjust to virtual meetings rather than in-person conversations, a lot of tools can be used to help workers stay organized and connected.

Zoom allows large groups to join together for video meetings, with options like "raising your hand" to ask questions and chat boxes that allow workers to share ideas and links.

According to Kelleher, it's helpful to have a moderator during larger meetings on Zoom, who can call on people to address their questions or comments.

Workers and managers also can use Zoom as a tool for having fun in the workplace, by changing your video's background to visuals like a cute puppy or a beach setting. As a manager, Kelleher said you also can use video chats to host events like virtual happy hours and spirit weeks, encouraging workers to dress differently on different days, with themes like sports jerseys or holiday attire.

When hosting virtual meetings or conversations with colleagues and supervisors, Kelleher suggested having an online "notebook" that everyone can add their ideas to, like Sharepoint or Google Docs.

"Keeps you very organized but keeps you very connected, because we're all working off the same documents," Kelleher said.

For Kelleher, it's also important to have a headset that can drown out background noise and have a remote nearby so you can quickly turn down the volume if your children turn on the TV when you're in the middle of a Zoom meeting.

Chelsea Northrup also recommended wearing headphones to avoid being interrupted by your spouse or children while you're focused at work. "Headphones are the universal sign for 'don't talk to me,'" she said.

Karen Lee, from Hope for the Warriors, said she finds it essential to have a power strip located by her desk like she once had in her office. That way, she always has access to chargers for her laptop, tablet and phone.

"It seems so simple but it's important when you have a Zoom meeting and realize your battery is dying," Lee said.

Family: Working from home with your partner or kids

Many workers who are used to being in the office eight hours a day are finding themselves working alongside their spouses while trying to navigate a new role of home-schooling their children during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One way to cope with this adjustment, Kelleher said, is by using humor and recognizing the challenges.

At Hope for the Warriors, workers have been following a new social media trend of saying "my co-worker" when referring to their pet or child — for example, saying "my co-worker just laid down on my keyboard."

Kelleher also said that rather than ignoring children or pets that may appear in the background of videos during meetings, take time to have a Zoom call where you introduce your children and pets to your colleagues.

Kelleher's co-worker, Karen Lee, said it's OK to be frustrated with those interruptions, though.

Lee said that she often struggles to snap between her work mode and parent mode when her son needs something while she's working, but she tries to recognize the challenge and be patient with herself and her family.

"You just have to forgive each other about 28 times a day, you're in a constant state of excusing each other," Lee said.

Risdahl also said that parents should be more forgiving of their parenting techniques as they learn to work from home and home-school their children all at once.

Parents, she said, can start by hosting a family meeting where they dedicate certain spaces for work and set schedules.

"Kids don't want to listen to schedules but they do really well with schedules," Risdahl said.

Risdahl, who has a 3-year-old son and whose husband is adjusting to newly working from home, said it's also important to recognize that things aren't normal right now. It's OK if your children are watching too much YouTube.

Risdahl said, "Loosen up your screen time rules, these are different times. We're in survival mode right now, the damage that people think may be done by giving too much screen time to their children is no comparison to the damage that could be done if someone gets sick."

Two ways to feel less guilty about allowing extra screen time are choosing educational shows and scheduling conversations between shows to ask your child what they learned or liked about a certain program, before playing the next.

"There are definitely ways that you can turn screen time into educational opportunities and conversation opportunities, but most importantly, the break you need," she said.

For the Northrups, working home together was an adjustment. Tony Northrup began working from home part-time in 1996, while Chelsea Northrup didn't transition to home work until 2008.

"For me the biggest adjustment was about just respecting each other's private space, you can't babysit the other person," she said. "You can't judge when they're working or how they are working."

The Northrups, who now have a 16-year-old daughter, started working at home together when their daughter was 5 years old. Setting boundaries was important, Chelsea Northrup said.

"Sometimes changing your clothes will help with that, get dressed, put your headphones on, look professional," she said. "Plan out breaks, and have snack times and lunch times at the same time, or plan a walk as a family so that the kids feel like their time is coming up."

Tony Northrup agreed that this method has helped their family.

"It's a lot easier to tell your kids, 'We have a break coming up at 11:15,' than have them know you have a break coming up but don't have a specific time," he said.

Tony Northrup said that while pets can be a good distraction, it's important to keep them on a schedule, too. "I take them on walks and give them food at the same time every day, otherwise they will constantly be asking for them," he said.

The Northrups also recommend communicating with your spouse via a workplace instant messaging platform, such as Slack, rather than just turning to them to verbally communicate, even if you're in the same room.

"You don't necessarily want to interrupt your partner when they're working, so if you send them a message, they can get to it when they have a natural pause," Chelsea Northrup said.

Emotional challenges: Adjusting to a 'new normal'

For workers who have been working from home for years, the transition was one that they likely chose and had time to prepare for and adjust to. For many workers now, the transition has been forced upon them by the COVID-19 crisis, with little time to adjust.

The Northrups, who have been working with clients in Wuhan, China, recognize that the sudden switch to solitude and self-discipline can be daunting.

"For extreme extroverts this is going to be downright painful by day two, introverts can probably make it a couple weeks, but everybody is going to be itching for social stimulation," Tony Northrup said. The couple assured new home workers that there are ways to make the transition easier.

To avoid feeling isolated, practice communicating with your colleagues and friends virtually as much as possible, go for walks or long drives to get out of the house, and use phone calls and video chats in addition to texting and emails.

"Celebrate the small victories," Chelsea Northrup added. Even if you don't get everything checked off on your to-do list, set small goals and reward yourself. "Have a treat like a little ice cream sundae, or, I like to have margaritas."

Risdahl said encouraged workers not to get stuck in a feeling of frustration if the transition isn't easy.

"Be easy on yourself, it does take a long time to adjust to something different, particularly with work," she said.  "Even in the short term, with the right kind of setup and the right tools we can all make the adjustment, but be patient with yourself and don't get too frustrated."

Lee warned workers that it's normal to recognize changes in personality after working from home, like preferring alone time or quiet time to socializing.

Kelleher said it's important to remember that no matter what you struggle with, it's important to remember that this transition isn't easy, or normal.

"There's nothing easy about this, this wasn't a choice everyone made to work from home. (It was) forced on everyone in an environment of fear and that is going to affect everybody very differently, but it's going to affect everybody in some way," Kelleher said, "And that's OK."

t.hartz@theday.com

Day Staff Photographer Sarah Gordon's work-from-home area is occupied by her dog, Livvy. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Day Staff Photographer Sarah Gordon's work-from-home area is occupied by her dog, Livvy. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

What Day staff members are doing at home

Sarah Gordon, staff photographer

“Put on real pants.”

Separate your spaces and stay away from your bed and couch throughout the day: “Have a designated area, even if it's a different chair at the same table, for working vs. eating and do neither on the sofa! Nothing but sleep in the bed.”

“Turning off Wi-Fi on phone while working on computer and setting apps like Instagram to Wi-Fi only to limit the social media phone scrolling."

“Setting a routine and being strict about it, this goes both ways. Don't read your email while you're eating breakfast, don't work on a story while watching TV when you're ‘off,’ don't watch TV when you're ‘on’”

Amanda Hutchinson, Ledyard reporter/assistant community editor

“One thing that has helped me is sticking to my routine. This might be easier for someone like me who works on a weekly cycle and always does the same things on Mondays, etc., but I’ve found that getting up at the same time I normally do and doing all the normal stuff I do in the morning before work makes it easier to focus.”

“I also don’t have a desk, so I’ve been working at the kitchen table, so I have a formal spot to do my stuff. Having worked from home a day here and a day there during snowstorms and stuff, I found myself to be a lot less motivated and a lot less comfortable when I work from the couch or sitting on my bed.”

Amanda has also been hanging out with her axolotls, Xochi (the black one) and Chewy Jr. (the yellow one).

Claire Bessette, Norwich and Preston reporter

Claire was working from home a bit before the coronavirus and has developed some helpful habits. She recommends lots of light, a good radio station and not too many snacks.

“I recommend a brightly lit room. I used to work in the den, but long ago moved to the kitchen, which has more windows and bright overhead lights. I dress for work. Having a work laptop made the move easy.”

“Having the radio on is a must for me. Local Norwich station in the morning, music and then NPR 'All Things Considered' starting at 4. I don’t schedule breaks and often work through lunch, but I’m sure that’s not recommended.”

“Snacking can become a problem. My rule is no snacking between breakfast and lunch. Afternoon, one small bowl of goldfish crackers and almonds/peanuts or a cut up pear, grapes and/or clementine in the afternoon after lunch. Always a big glass of water, filled multiple times during the day. My caffeine is usually a big mug of hot tea, filled twice with the same teabag.”

Peter Huoppi, multimedia director

Peter finds that making a to-do list helps him manage work and home-schooling his son and daughter.

“Make a to-do list for work. Being at home and supervising two kids with school work, I can’t count on always having a long stretch of time to complete something like editing a video project. At the office I know I can finish something during a workday, but at home it helps to break it down into smaller tasks so I know I’m completing what I need to complete.”

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