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Baylor's Sara Perry Shares Tips on Making the Most of Working from Home

March 25, 2020

The international response to the COVID-19 public health crisis has led millions of workers to make home their new office as communities and organizations promote social distancing to slow the spread of the virus. For many individuals, this spring marks the first time they will have worked from home for a substantial amount of time.

Sara Perry, Ph.D., assistant professor of management in Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business, an internationally-recognized remote work researcher and author of a 2018 study published in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, offers tips in five key areas for employees to consider as they make the most of working from home.

“Research has given us some good empirical evidence of key areas that will help remote work be more successful,” Perry said.

Sara Perry, Ph.D., assistant professor of management in Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business

Create a physical workspace.

Perry: If it’s possible, we have to have a separate working space, especially if you can close the door to focus. This would be ideal, but if you can't do that, try setting up different workspaces around your home that are well-defined and that you can “close” at the end of the day to help maintain a balance in terms of your family and your work.

Now, if you have kids in the mix as well, then I think we need to set up a workstation for them as well. It can be the kitchen table or the bar. Younger kids can have stations of their own, too – like the stations they would have in preschool. Some people even talk about making a standing desk with books, to be able to move your position throughout the day. Everyone in the family might even like to rotate around throughout the day, sharing the different workspaces. Think about how you can work outside, too, weather permitting.

Adhere to a work schedule – and take breaks.

Perry: We aren't going to have clear boundaries of time. We're going to have to make them. The best thing to do is to start with a schedule similar to what you would already be doing if you went to work. If you can try to stick close to the same schedule, you're going to find the transition easier. Don't start sleeping in and doing things completely differently — that will make the adjustment a lot harder.

Take breaks. Research by my colleagues Emily Hunter and Cindy Wu found that optimal breaks come mid-morning, and it can set you up for the rest of the day. It’s important to get up and move away from the screen periodically. A short break can help preserve your focus and attention resources for the rest of the day.

For your further wellbeing, you will need to turn work off at the end of the day, because no one is going to shut it off for you. Pick a way that you're going to do that, whether it's to put your stuff away, or by planning some sort of transition time that would replace what your commute would have done. Some people will call someone or listen to a podcast. For others, or a walk around the neighborhood provides something to transition and decompress. Think about what you would normally do (or want to do) and see if you can work that in for your own transition from work to family time.

Connect with others.

Perry: The change in physical environment is going to be a big change even for people who are used to working remotely. At work, you may feel a sense of connection to people even if you don’t even talk to them. You at least have their presence, and we’re going to miss that in the coming weeks. One of the biggest concerns in the remote work literature is isolation, and while individuals who have families at home might not feel isolated from people in general, we might feel isolated from our professional lives and identity.

We’ll have to be more proactive about using technology in a way to stay connected while still remaining productive. We don’t want to have virtual meetings for the sake of meetings, but we might want to have some for the sake of connection. For leaders, check in and make sure people have resources and that they are doing okay as we all adapt to a virtual workspace. Try to be proactive about it. Maybe we have a video call simply to check in for 30 minutes at the end of the day or whenever, just try to stay connected.

Help children and family adjust.

Perry: With my children, I’m thinking about how to create some type of structure, taking lessons from our homeschool friends about how they set up their day. I’ve found that my children and my friends’ children get excited about reconstructing their own schedule from school at home. So, let them have some input about what their day should look like, and try to work your schedule in tandem or in parallel with that.

Scheduling loose blocks of time for tasks throughout the day can help with this, too. Blocking off time can help you communicate, “for the next 30 minutes or the next hour, we’re all going to work on this activity at our separate stations, then meet and redirect. We know it's possible because a lot of schools have a model where students are self-directed. You give them direction and then they go do it. However, we also don’t want to over-schedule, or over-do anything. We need to enjoy the time that we have with them, and be grateful for that, and practice gratitude daily as we try to manage all of this.”

Manage expectations.

Perry: In light of everything that we're facing, it’s important to stay flexible. That’s true for leaders—really try to have flexibility and allow your employees to figure out how remote work best works for them. We can't micromanage from afar. We can check in, make sure everyone has resources, make sure people are doing OK. Some people need a little more of that than others, but we really need to just adapt and be flexible.

It’s important that everyone should try to be realistic, be clear with expectations, but also try to be realistic about what's actually going to happen over the next several weeks. All of us are under a lot of stress, more stress than normal. So, we just have to have realistic expectations and recognize that all of us, and our leaders, are experiencing a learning curve. We need to think about the big picture as we roll this out, and really keep employee wellbeing as the number one consideration.

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