Months ago, millions of us packed up whatever gear we could grab from the office, went home, and, overnight, began life as remote workers. From taking regular breaks to sticking to a schedule to establishing a dedicated workspace, there are plenty of strategies for making working from home work. But there’s a huge difference between choosing to go remote and being forced to do so during an emergency. As remote work becomes more of a long-term or even permanent situation for many during the COVID-19 pandemic, what can we do to prevent burnout? We got experts to give us their best tips, advice, and things to keep in mind.
1. Take the plunge and invest in a more comfortable set-up
If you’ve spent the last few months hunched over the kitchen table or curled up on the couch, avoiding investing in home office gear in hopes you’d get back to the real office soon, it might be time to reconsider. Even after just a short time, your body may be feeling the effects (stiff neck, back, and shoulders, anyone?). “The ergonomics of home offices are absolutely horrible,” according to Laurel Farrer, founder of the Remote Work Association. “There are hundreds of rules that go into keeping us healthy and safe at [on-site] work, from which watt of the lightbulb is used, to the length of carpet and how high desks are. When we go home, we don’t know what those are or that we should be implementing them,” potentially putting our health at risk.
Farrer, who also runs Distribute Consulting from her home in Connecticut, said it can be liberating to realize that we don’t need a lot of office odds and ends we thought we did, from stodgy office furniture to giant file cabinets. But making sure your pared-down remote set-up supports your well-being is still critical (see how yours measures up with this checklist from the National Institutes of Health). And you don’t necessarily have to spend a lot to feel better. “Small, simple, and cheap changes,” she said, like putting your laptop on top of a box (to raise it closer to eye level) or simply standing up more, can make a real difference. If you are ready to invest, though, Farrer suggested a riser or standing desk of some sort for your laptop, plus a real keyboard and mouse. Some fun extras? Arranging a good video call backdrop, and buying a good microphone and ring light, “things we’ve never thought about before” that can make video meetings look way more professional.
2. Continue to reinforce boundaries, but remember to (virtually) socialize
“You wouldn’t barge into someone’s office and expect them to drop everything they are doing for you,” a teammate once told Julie Chabin, who heads product design at Product Hunt and YourStack remotely from Paris. It’s the same with remote work. In the virtual workplace, with requests cascading in through email, instant messages, and calls, “it’s OK to say ‘thank you, I’ll take a look at this after I’m done with my current task,’ when you get a notification,” advised Chabin, who has worked remotely for five years.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t connect with colleagues. It just has to be more intentional, said Daisy Chang, professor of organizational psychology at Michigan State University. Though she misses walking down the hall to chat with colleagues and checking in with her graduate students in person, her department, like all newly remote teams, have to carve out time to “talk to each other, exchange ideas, maintain social connection” and get support virtually. From scheduling chats to more formal ways of getting on the same page, like syncing digital calendars to focus on a project at the same time, Chang said it’s important, especially for people who particularly crave in-person connection, “to find ways to inject that back into their work life.”
3. Over-communicate and be proactive
A lot can get lost virtually, especially when the shift happens abruptly, so it’s important to be super clear when discussing a project, idea, or request with coworkers. “In remote work, over-communication is just communication,” said Farrer. Even if it feels like you’re talking a ton and over-explaining, keep at it. “That’s how you stay connected.”
Chang, who recently conducted a study on the hasty transition from in-person to working at home and some of the unique challenges that workers face in the COVID-19 context, agreed it’s harder to communicate effectively. But the self-described optimist said she actually sees this as an opportunity to be clearer. Being apart could force us to be more thoughtful and challenge us to consider a problem more deeply before crafting an email or speaking up on a call, rather than throwing out a half-baked idea in passing.
Something both Chang and Farrer agree on is the need to be proactive, especially if a new colleague joins virtually or you’re the newbie yourself. Managers and companies should ideally be providing training and channels to get to know people, but some are still playing catch-up with the remote situation, too. In the meantime, “we really have to rely on ourselves,” said Farrer, whether that’s mustering the courage to hit “send” on an email to a potential mentor or simply scheduling a virtual coffee chat with someone you don’t know well.
4. Mix things up
Hated your hours or dress code? More productive in the early mornings? One benefit to remote work is that, on your own turf, there are opportunities to make your job work better for you. “We all sort of fall into a routine, something that’s comfortable, but it doesn’t hurt to learn new habits or change it up,” said Chang, who also suggested sharing what worked or didn’t with coworkers, from blocking out mornings for focused work to changing up your online hours.
After all, Farrer said, “you don’t have your employer sitting next to you telling you what to do,” so it’s important to work on being more self-reliant when it comes to getting things done and how you do them. Employees (even those with amazing supervisors) have to “take initiative to be their own boss for a little while,” making calls about what works for them.
5. Embrace kindness and vulnerability
It’s time for us to get real at work—at least a little bit. While keeping things professional is paramount, it’s important to recognize that everyone has their own struggles and personal demands, especially now. “The reality of working from home is it’s not all sunshine and rainbows all the time,” Farrer said, even in normal times. Being yourself and being open “is how you create a sense of culture in a remote team.” (In fact, Chang said, a number of studies show that being allowed to be your authentic self at work may lead to higher performance and engagement while feeling inauthentic at work can lead to burnout).
In other words, your coworkers are your coworkers, but we’re all human. “It’s essential to care about people, genuinely. Ask them how they are doing, let them be people, not just colleagues or clients,” Chabin said. “As we’ve seen with this global pandemic, we all have families, pets, children… it’s okay to have candid conversations.” And if you’re a freelancer or solo business owner, it may be helpful to find people in your field to reach out to for that same sort of support.
If you’re not ready to open up or your company’s culture doesn’t allow for it, acts of kindness can go a long way virtually. Whether that’s shouting out someone’s success with a client, or recognizing a birthday or work milestone, Chabin suggested, these simple acts still go a long way toward building trust. Extend those kindnesses to yourself—this is an incredibly difficult time for everyone (even remote work experts, Farrer said, were struggling at the beginning of the pandemic). If self-care has slipped as the months have gone on, recommit to claiming those extra hours you spent commuting as personal time, Chabin emphasized, whether that’s reading a book, working out, going for a walk, chatting with family or trying out a 15-step skincare routine.
If you’re struggling with remote life or feeling burnout creep in, above all, it’s important to remember: “This is not working remotely,” Farrer said, “this is trying to maintain economic and business continuity during a global crisis.”