Editor’s note: This article is from the July 2020 issue of UCLA Magazine. You can read the entire issue online on June 22.
When COVID-19 led to physical distancing orders in March, millions of Americans became remote workers. For Christopher Tang, a distinguished professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, the script was all too familiar. In 2003, Tang was dean of the business school at the National University of Singapore when the university went into lockdown mode in response to the SARS coronavirus epidemic. It forced students, staff and faculty to work from home, but the technology to make that happen was primitive by today’s standards. “We didn’t have Skype, FaceTime or Zoom to create a virtual working environment,” Tang recalls. “We had to rely on texts, emails and conference calls.”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic made working from home more popular and necessary, major Fortune 500 companies were already offering fully remote jobs, driven by the needs and desires of their employees. In 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that around 5% of workers were employed at home, and it’s a trend that’s likely to accelerate. Videoconferencing company Owl Labs’ 2019 survey found that remote workers were 29% more likely to report being happy in their job than those who worked on-site, and 34% of survey respondents would take a pay cut of up to 5% in order to work from home. Remote workers frequently cited numerous benefits, including better work-life balance, increased productivity, not needing to commute and lower levels of stress.
But the work-at-home life isn’t without challenges. The increased flexibility of your schedule also means the lure of nonwork activities and the difficulty of remaining disciplined — or, for Type A personalities, the potential to overdo it and allow work to blend into evenings and weekends. There’s also the absence of chitchat with co-workers, which can result in you feeling socially isolated — or, depending on your household, there could be the disrupting demands of pets, children or other family members. And for workers whose jobs require constant interactions with managers and team members, even state-of-the-art remote communication tools can’t always measure up to physical proximity.
But Tang views remote work as far more viable today, across many business sectors, than it was in the past. To successfully make the leap, he recommends the following:
Set a Pattern
Successful remote workers establish a daily routine and environment that places them in the right mindset. “You need to treat working from home as if you’re going in to work,” Tang says. Ideally, that means setting up a proper office (not too cozy, he advises). It means a morning routine of showering, getting out of your pajamas and donning professional attire — even if the only one likely to see you during the day has four legs. If the ritual also incorporates a workout, meditation or simply a lingering cup of coffee during which you set the day’s priorities, all the better. The idea, Tang says, is to establish a mental separation between personal time and work time.
Keep Regular Hours
Having the flexibility to go to the grocery store or gym during nonpeak times is one of the great perks of the work-from-home life, but Tang cautions against slipping into a schedule that becomes random and haphazard. “Keeping regular work hours is important, even at home,” he says. It’s OK to take advantage of the flexibility to set hours that maximize your productivity or meet your scheduling needs. For example, if you’re more of a morning person, or need to be done by the time the kids get home from school, then start and end the workday early — if your job allows. But Tang recommends mostly adhering to the same hours, with regularly timed lunch and coffee breaks.
Find Quiet Time
If you have family at home, and especially if that includes young children, you might need to establish some boundaries. “It’s important to communicate that even though Mom or Dad is at home, they are still working,” Tang says. Ideally, your office is in a separate room with a door that can close, but not everyone has that luxury. If parents have an important call or need to focus on a project, they can keep children occupied with a quiet activity, such as a jigsaw puzzle.
Technology has taken us far, but it can’t fully capture the body language, tone of voice and other nuances of in-person interactions. To compensate, Tang says, remote workers need to err on the side of overcommunication. Whether with other team members, a client or a supervisor, be sure to give frequent updates and check-ins, seek clarifications, ask questions and raise concerns. As much as possible, use voice and video rather than text and email, particularly on matters where there is a potential for disagreement or conflict. Tang notes that it’s also important to have open lines of communication so that employees don’t feel constrained from bouncing work ideas off one another. Videoconferencing requires different rules of engagement than face-to-face meetings, balancing camaraderie and clarity.
Gather Around the (Virtual) Watercooler
It’s vital to keep the communication channels open with colleagues — not just for work-related matters, but also for building the camaraderie that can be critical to the success of your organization’s mission and your overall job satisfaction. Find ways to replicate the casual watercooler and coffee-break conversations that keep you connected. If you work with other remote employees, Tang suggests socializing with them by taking breaks and lunch hours via phone or videoconferencing. If you have an interoffice instant messaging platform, such as Slack, set up a channel or room devoted to nonwork conversations.
Seek Social Connections Outside of Work
For many, a major downside to working from home is the social isolation. The absence of daily contact with co-workers necessitates proactive measures to cultivate other social outlets, Tang says. That’s where one of the biggest upsides to the work-from-home life comes in. “View the time you save by not having to commute as an opportunity to virtually reconnect with friends, family and former colleagues,” he suggests. “Keep in mind that there are other people doing the same thing. And they might feel lonely at times, so we need to make an effort to reach out to keep up our social network.”
Paying attention to your own wellness — both mental and physical — remains as important as ever. To do this while working remotely comes with challenges and opportunities. For instance, if you like to snack, set limits and remind yourself that just because there’s ample food nearby, such actions carry a price. It’s also helpful to step away from the workspace for short periods to break up the day, give your eyes and brain a rest, and keep the blood circulating. “As a remote employee, spending time away from the physical work environment can provide a different perspective on the company and your colleagues,” Tang says.