Remote working tips and tricks

Productivity

At the time of writing this article, the UK has been put in lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that a lot of people have to work from home where they can.

As developers, we should be used to working remotely with our colleagues, but remote working at a scale this large is unheard of in modern times.

To help out with this, I have come up with a list of tips and tricks on working remotely, including productivity tricks, tips for communication, and how to cope mentally during this time.  These tips should also help you when the lockdown is lifted and we can all go back to the office.

In Part 1 of this series, I will go through how to keep productive whilst working from home; stay tuned for Part 2 and 3!

Without further ado, let’s get started.

Productivity

Keeping productive whilst working from home can be difficult sometimes, usually because there’s a lot of distractions around; this makes sense though, doesn’t it?

Home is where you go to relax, where there are jobs to do like cleaning, tidying, and laundry; it’s not your natural working environment like an office where it’s made for that purpose.

These tips should help you keep productive whilst working at home.

Create a working environment

To work from home efficiently I recommend creating a proper working environment.

For those with an office in the house this step should be easy, simply use your home office to work from, try not to spend any more time in your office than you need to. 

For those without the luxury of a home office though, creating a working environment in the house can be difficult.  Unfortunately, I am one of those people, let me explain my situation.

I share a terrace house with my partner who also works for AO and for the foreseeable future we will both be working from home.  This has its benefits don’t get me wrong, but it also creates some tricky situations.

For example, my partner is a project manager, the majority of her day is spent on video calls organising projects for a team.  I am a front end developer and the majority of my day is spent coding, pairing with team members, and attending meetings.  If myself and my partner worked in the same room all the time it would be difficult for both parties, we would talk over each other and it wouldn’t be great for the people on the other end of the calls either.  This would be much worse if we had children, we’re expecting our first child in September so hopefully, the lockdown will have lifted by then.

So, how did we solve this problem?

We both agreed that we needed separate working environments, my partner works on the kitchen table, and I work in the living room on a makeshift desk, also known as an ironing board!

You might laugh at that, I do.  I’ve looked everywhere for a foldaway desk that I can put away at night after the working day is over so the living room can return to normal but, alas, they’re sold out everywhere.  Such is the problem with a majority of the population also being in the same situation as us.

This is why, with your working environment, you might have to make the best of a bad situation.  You might need to work from your kitchen table, even if it’s not the most productive place to be.  You might need to create a makeshift desk out of an ironing board, but it works, and it does work quite well

The point here is to create the best working environment you can with what you have, it might feel odd at first but if it works, it works.  Good luck!

Set strict working times

We’ve all been there.  It’s 5 pm, you’ve left the office, and you get home at 5:30 pm.  You’ve not had time to finish off the last bit of that project you were working on during the day and you think to yourself: ‘I’ll just sign on for 30 minutes and finish that last bit’.

Before you know it, you’re sucked into your emails and replying to them at 7:20 pm, and you still don’t manage to finish that last bit of work; this is a classic trap that many people fall into.

When working from home it is essential to set strict working times for yourself so you don’t work longer hours than you should do.  You need to make sure that you obey your working hours and finish the working day on time.

Why is this important you might ask?  Well, it’s quite simple really, when your working environment becomes your home, you need to make sure that your home doesn’t become work.  A home is a home; it is for spending quality time with your family, kicking back with some snacks and a movie, and a place to recharge your batteries ready for the next day.

A good way of enforcing strict working hours on yourself is to set an alarm on your phone that alerts you 15 minutes before your working day is over, that way you know you need to finish up and get things ready for the next working day.

I recommend making your working hours visible within your communication tools.  At AO, we use Microsoft Teams which includes a feature that lets you set a daily status, alerting your colleagues when they message you.  I’m using it to display my working hours so colleagues know when I’ll be starting and finishing my day.  I’ve also amended my calendar’s working hours so meetings can’t be booked in outside of these times.

Remember to be respectful of other people’s time, try to avoid booking in meetings over lunchtime and make sure to check their calendar before blindly sending out an invite and hoping for the best.

Create a to-do list

To be productive, I find it very helpful to create a to-do list.

A to-do list helps you keep your day in check, it’s the lifeline of working from home where you can easily forget that one thing you said you’d get done during stand-up.

As we use Windows machines at AO, I keep my to-do list in the Sticky Notes app, it’s always available on my machine and it’s effortless to add to as more tasks come in.

You might wonder why I don’t use a cloud-based notes app such as OneNote, Apple Notes, or Google Keep.  To this I would pose a question, why do you need to access your work notes from another device other than your main working device?  Personally, I prefer to keep my work and personal lives separate where I can, helping me to separate the two when the working day is over.

If you rely on a work phone for your day to day activities then moving your to-do list over to a cloud-based notes app is a great idea, but make sure you turn off your work phone after working hours.  Do not sync your work to-do list to your personal phone and remember, a work to-do list is for work and should stay on work devices.

If you are working out of hours and rely on your work phone for alerts, a work to-do list is very helpful as you can add tasks to it to tackle in the morning should an out of hours event happen.

Mark out your calendar as busy

With the entire team working remotely it can often be quite difficult to find time in your day where you’re not required for a meeting or a quick 5-minute chat that turns into half an hour.  It’s meetings and chats like this that severely cut down the amount of time where you can be productive and get real work done.

The trick here is to reserve time out of your day for working; no meetings, no chats, just work.  This can easily be done by blocking out parts of your calendar with personal appointments marked as ‘Busy’.

As an example, my usual remote working day starts at 8 am and finishes at 4:30 pm.  I have found that I work best in the morning, and enjoy meetings in the afternoon hours.  To ensure this happens, I have blocked out my entire morning from when I start to lunchtime, this way people who are trying to schedule a meeting with me can see that I am marked as ‘Busy’ in the mornings which dissuades people from booking time in the morning and allows them to fill up my afternoon with any meetings required.

I have also found that booking out your lunch hour is very important, it’s your personal time during the day that allows you to get a decent break from work and come back in the afternoon refreshed and ready to start again.  I’ve booked out an appointment for an hour at lunchtime and marked it as ‘Out of office’, meaning I am not at my laptop.  Even if you are at your laptop, you are not available at this time.

Distractions

Whilst you’re working from home there’s an endless list of distractions, here’s just a few: 

  • That basket of laundry you’ve been meaning to do
  • The washing up piling up
  • Your cat begging to go out every 20 minutes (or maybe that’s just my cat)

To keep yourself productive, you need to figure out ways of keeping yourself focused on the job at hand.

The first step is to realise that these distractions won’t go away, they’ll continue being there until they’re dealt with.  To that end, I recommend reserving time out of your day to deal with these distractions so they’re no longer on your mind.

For example, for that basket of laundry, I would sort out a reoccurring reminder on my calendar that alerts me every day to take out 5 minutes and put the wash on, that way I’ve dealt with the distraction before it’s even become one.  Same with the washing up, book out a little time to do the washing up, even if it’s just a little bit to ensure it’s not all piling up at the end of the day, that way it’ll be less of a distraction and you can focus on what you’re doing.

For distractions that are out of your control, try to understand that you can’t control everything, but you can do something to help prevent them from being a distraction in the first place.

As an example, my home can sometimes be quite noisy, this happens for various reasons that are out of my control.  When this problem arises, I wear my noise-cancelling headphones to help block out the noise and keep me laser-focused on my work, I even did this back in the office when it got too loud.

Don’t feel bad if you find yourself getting distracted at home, studies have shown that working from home is much more productive than being in the office, so give yourself the time to deal with your distractions and you’ll keep focused.

Wrapping up

Keeping productive at home can be hard, really hard, but I strongly believe that if you follow the tips above, your productivity levels can and will increase.

Let me know what you thought of this article!  Did you find it useful?  Is there anything else you’d like to hear about?  Feel free to get in touch.

Keep your eyes peeled for the next chapter in this series on communication.