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Working from home: productivity nightmare or blessing?

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As TTT approaches our 6-month anniversary of remote working, I’ve found myself reflecting on the fundamental shift we’ve experienced in the way we work. Back in March, I was in a unique position – barely 3 months at a new company before I found myself packing up and wondering when, or even if, we’d return to the office. 

Our first few months, like many other companies, were spent adjusting to what is now (perhaps too) commonly referred to as “the new normal.” Our key focuses were on set-up, equipment distribution (a larger issue for many companies than you might initially think) and support. As schedules were disrupted, children were kept home, and expectations were re-evaluated, the priority was ensuring our staff had the tools and systems they needed to succeed. 

But the adjustment period is slowly coming to an end. To date, I’ve now spent twice as long in a remote working environment than I had in the office. I have co-workers who I haven’t seen in person throughout that entire time. We’re coming to terms with the realization that the “new normal” isn’t simply a cheeky saying, but a very probable reality – and we’re not alone. Companies like  Twitter and Fujitsu are now entirely remote, with no plan to return to the office. Other companies have seen a substantial shift in their home-office make up, even after the world has begun to re-open. 

A graph using a sample of 273 organizations and showing the percentage of the workforce that is working remotely. Prior to COVID-19, 28 organizations had no remote workers, 61 had between 1-19 percent, 7 had between 20-39 percent, 3 had between 40-59 percent, 1 had between 60-79 percent and 0 organizations from 80-100 percent. As of June 29, 1 organization had no remote workers, 9 had between 1-19 percent, 18 had between 20-39 percent, 12 had between 40-59 percent, 18 had between 60-79 percent, 30 had between 80-99% and 13 had 100 percent remote workers.
This drastic change in the workforce is an indicator of the “new normal” that lies ahead.

At a certain point, it became clear that we can’t just focus on reacting or adjusting – we have to thrive. For me, that meant looking into ways that I could recapture the productivity I had in the office.

Life as a Project Manager

Of course, that’s easier said than done. A typical day for me consists of scheduling meetings, attending meetings, and walking over to people’s desks to check-in with them – in short: meetings. There’s more to it, obviously (like scheduling, budgets, and issue tracking) but a key component of my job is communication, and once I started working in my new office (a generous term for a kitchen table), I realized that was where I struggled. Like any good project manager, I sat down to devise a plan to address the issue.

First we look within

It may seem like a contradiction, considering my commute had been reduced to approximately 36 seconds, but after the transition, I found myself feeling like I had less time to get things done. Upon reflection, it became clear what the issue was – there were no more quick questions or check-ins, no pit-stops at desks, or inquiries into whether you had “a moment to chat.” All of these moments, which before had taken 5 minutes, were now scheduled meetings or redundant Slack threads that took up way more time than I was anticipating. The setup, the technical difficulties, the miscommunications and the distractions all added up, and I started to lose sight of the priorities.

Productivity isn’t as easy as 1-2-3 especially during these difficult times. It seems like we are always trying to find the most efficient way to utilize our time.

I found salvation (or at least a solution) when I took a quiz by todoist that helps you determine what productivity method suits you best. My result: the Getting Things Done (GTD) method. Everything from its structure to its no-nonsense name spoke to me, but that definitely won’t be true for everyone. Feel free to take a look at the other methods and see if one of them catches your eye (or try them all out). 

The GTD Method

The GTD method breaks your workflow down into five steps, with each step creating the foundation for a productive work session. The five steps are:

  1. Capture. Write down everything that comes to mind, regardless of task size. These tasks will be the foundation for the work day.
  2. Clarify. Take those tasks and create an action plan for them. This helps to create clear steps on which task requires more or less work.
  3. Organize. Move each task accordingly. Put deadlines, add dates or delegate. Organization will help you visually see what is needing to be completed.
  4. Review. Look back at your tasks. Determine what is completed or what still needs to be done. Make sure you are up to date with your work. 
  5. Engage. Start working! Use the system that is in place and start checking things off your list in a productive manner. 

I should mention that this method is simply the foundation for your workflow, and can be adapted to your specific style. There may be a certain step that provides more value – although I do recommend always tackling #5. 

For me, this structure allowed me to track my progress, redefine my priorities, and highlight the gaps in my own process. Without the reminders and quick connections of the office, I had found smaller items getting left to the side for longer than intended. The GTD method helps address that. I also found myself struggling with priorities and a sense of accomplishment. The Organize and Review steps of GTD ensure I feel secure and accomplished at the end of the day. In the end, I have more balls in the air and I’m dropping fewer.

But that’s not all due to the GTD method. For me, that was just a starting point.

That’s not all, folks

In addition to the GTD method, there are other strategies that have helped my transition.

  1. Love the desk you’re with. If your job is like mine, you’ll be spending 7 – 8 hours at your workstation, so you want to make sure that you have the necessary tools for your day. Starting off with a welcoming desk (my latest obsession is plants) and a good chair may seem like a no-brainer, but it is an important part of being productive. With a good set-up, I no longer find myself so easily distracted.
  2. Break it up. When working remotely, we often forget to take meaningful breaks. Sure, we may get up and wander to the fridge, but we rarely take the time to let our brains unwind. To ensure I have these moments, I (tentatively) schedule my breaks: 1.5 hours of work followed by a 5 – 10 minute break. This break can consist of refilling your coffee, chatting with your partner, stepping outside, or simply going for a walk around the house. The important thing is that it’s intentional.
  3. Over-explain to save time. If I can’t chat with someone through a call, I tend to “over explain” and give more context than I think is strictly necessary. If you can’t cater to your correspondent’s way of communicating, it’s always better to give more information.  At first, you may feel like it’s too much, but you’ll get used to it. This strategy can reduce the time spent clearing up miscommunications or misconceptions. 
  4. Always postpone that which you can’t do today. Inspired by the “Organize” step of the GTD method, I prioritize all my to-do’s in the morning and schedule the big items first. I’m not sure about you, but for me my brain starts slowing down around 3:00 pm, so I aim to finish all my big tasks prior to that (I save the easy wins for the evening). I also determine which tasks are non-negotiable and which aren’t, which relieves the stress of not getting everything done on a particularly busy day.
  5. Individual time needs to be protected. If you have free space as a project manager, chances are it will fill up quickly. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but it can mean that all the admin and internal projects can get waylaid. To tackle this, I block off time in my calendar for these specific tasks, ensuring I have some protected time to work on it. An added bonus? I can prioritize and plan everything else more effectively. 

Moving Forward

Utilizing these different strategies has helped me recapture that sense of urgency and motivation that’s a bit more difficult to find at home. But it’s only just the beginning. Most of these strategies could, to a certain degree, apply to an office space. 

What’s more exciting are the innovations and changes that will be a direct result of COVID-19 and the global shift towards remote working. As we move forward, away from our 6-month “anniversary” and towards the brave, new future, I’m excited to try new things and keep pushing to find the best way to work in our (you guessed it) “new normal.”

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