Working from home during a pandemic
Author: Jérémy Bourhis
31st March 2020
These are uncharted territories for most of us. Following on health authorities recommendations and in order to protect our team, Cronofy has gone fully remote since early March. Historically we have operated a semi-distributed model. But working from home during a pandemic is nothing like working from home in normal circumstances. We’ve had to learn as we go. We asked several members of the team with various experience working from home (WFH) to give us their thoughts on the current situation and how they are coping with the current situation.
Cast your mind back to before this situation started. What was your view on working from home? Was it something you were yearning for? What do you think now?
(the respondents don’t usually work from home)
Jeremy: I never really wanted, or even thought, about working from home full time. I like going to the office and spending time with my team. As a marketer, some of my favourite moments at work include bouncing ideas off one another to come up with new messaging or marketing plans. That’s a lot harder to do – but definitely not impossible – when everyone is remote! Now that’s not to say that I haven’t worked from home before.
Sometimes I enjoy working from home for a day, so I can fully focus on writing content or progressing a project that needs my full attention. But I’ve come to learn that there is a big difference between working from home from time to time and working from home everyday. I have to say that I’m looking forward to being back in the office!
Karl: I always thought working from home was an exception, and it has never been something I wanted to do full time. I’d previously considered at most, working from home one day a week so I could do things like the school drop offs and pickups. There are aspects of office life that I really enjoy. The commute is a great opportunity to listen to podcasts and get into “work mode”.
I like being in the office and I really like my colleagues! I enjoy having face to face conversations with my co-workers and the banter that comes with it. The last three weeks has proved to me that working from home does not mean that any of those things have to stop, just the way that they’re initiated has to change slightly.
Laura: I’ve always been someone who enjoys physically going in to the office for many reasons. I like doing work in a separate place. I’ve enjoyed working from home every now and then for a day when needed for whatever reason but never been keen to do remote full time. Until recently I also lived in a shared house without communal living space so working from home meant just being in my bedroom and that didn’t always feel healthy. I also enjoy the social interaction at work and love to collaborate or bounce ideas around – I don’t like how this can’t happen as naturally when you’re working from home.
I still feel that it isn’t as spontaneous but I’ve been pleased with how effective the video calls and Slack chats are for our team. In all honesty, previous companies were not ideally set up for remote work like Cronofy. I felt incredibly isolated when I once had to do a 9 day stint after spraining my ankle. I managed my own workload fine but mainly my projects meant working on things alone. It was really bad for my mental health and I worried a lot. It made me pretty anxious that everyone was in the office without me – what were they saying? Was I missed? After about a week I started to second guess some of my decisions and work that was perfectly good, as I’d just been on my own for too long.
That isn’t an issue in the current situation as no one is in the office and we’re all communicating! I’ve always hated the idea of doing it full time and I won’t say that it hasn’t been a bit challenging. Having said that, I’m actually liking it a lot more than I thought and have been pleased with how different it is to previous times. The supportive team, frequent communication and video calls each morning have meant that I haven’t felt at all isolated. I still wouldn’t want to do it full time but I’ll feel much more comfortable doing it in future if I need to.
The supportive team, frequent communication and video calls each morning have meant that I haven’t felt at all isolated.
Chris: I’ve always been a fan of working from home, just because of the flexibility it allows. However, it was never something that I’d yearned to do full time! A couple of days here and there is great and it can really help me to focus on a particular task by having minimal distractions.
Previously I was sat on the sofa with my laptop on my knees, but very quickly it became apparent that this wasn’t going to be suitable, not even in the short term. We’re very lucky to have been able to setup a proper office environment in our smallest bedroom, having a desk to sit at and being able to bring home my big screen and office chair has made working from home a lot nicer. It’s meant that I now have a dedicated work space so that I can still have separate work and living areas all under the same roof.
I’m still a fan of working from home and if anything I’m more equipped to do it now than I was at the start of all this.
Nevett: I’ve always appreciated working from home being an available option to help deal with the various joys of adult life: receiving deliveries, being available for the school run, that sort of thing. I’d planned to do more of it, since I have a young family and any amount of increased presence at this time is absolutely golden, but I hadn’t really considered moving to a full at-home pattern. I don’t think my mind has changed much – it’s been a good team and personal challenge to quickly move towards fully-remote, but given the opportunity I’d probably spend a couple of days a week within reach of the office coffee machine.
This is obviously a very unusual situation. What has been different in your working from home experience these past few weeks compared to normal?
(the respondents usually work from home)
Ad: In broad terms, not a lot has changed for me as I am in the unusual situation that both my wife and I usually work from home and we have stuck to our usual working habits. However, simply knowing you can’t go out has obviously meant that now we feel more claustrophobic.
We’ve mitigated this with a few things – getting more exercise, “treating” ourselves with the occasional ride around in the car, and calling friends and family more often. Exercising following things like the 7-minute workout are very easy to do at home, and we’ve organized a few video calls with friends so that we’re all eating “together” or having a coffee at the same time. It’s silly but these have really helped improve our mood and keep us physically and mentally healthy. Plus there’s always time for some silliness, especially in times like these.
Tom: I normally visit the office once a week to see colleagues and have meetings. Just a small amount of face-to-face contact can do wonders for building a unified team, so missing out on that has felt like a big loss. But working remotely has always been my preferred mode, and things have actually “improved” lately because the entire team has been remote as well. When everyone is in the same situation, there’s less danger of anyone feeling like they’re missing out.
What challenges have you been facing in these first 3 weeks of the “new normal”?
Jeremy: Human interactions and separating home life from work life are the things that come to mind. Working from home – and having my commute reduced to the distance between my bedroom and my living room – has made me realize how much value I put in these moments where I can empty my mind.
I also miss the day-to-day interactions with the team and the rest of the company. Not being able to turn and speak to someone and exchange ideas means that I’ve had to develop new habits and make sure that I take the time to call and talk to my team as often as possible.
Morale has also been an issue at times. The present situation, with no clear end in sight has made it harder to enjoy the present. Thankfully, we’ve a great team at Cronofy and we’re supporting each other through these unusual times.
Ad: Dealing with the social change, especially given how bleak the news can be, has certainly taken a toll on my mental health and happiness. I think it’s important to keep balance in mind; this situation has to be taken seriously, but there is also no need for panic. It’s so easy to completely soak your attention up with the news that it can have a material impact on you. I’m trying to find that balance where I feel informed but I’m also being deliberate in reading and watching other things.
It’s also a great time to start volunteering; my local community has formed a group to help the vulnerable near us, and that feeling of taking some action, even on a very localized scale, has helped me to be more positive.
Karl: I can feel myself going through the change curve the longer remote working goes on. The first two weeks were really fun! It was new to me and I could walk the kids to school every day, pick them up, and take the dog for a walk at lunch times. On 20th March 2020 the schools closed and since then we’ve been home schooling the kids, which has made things a little more challenging.
Thankfully, Cronofy are really flexible which allows me to balance my time between home and work, without any guilt. This means that my work gets done, and the children get the attention they need.
Laura: The biggest challenge was the adjustment to working in the living room – that’s the only space available and I’m on a table wedged between a sofa and the kitchen – luckily it’s a really spacious open plan room. I thought it would be more distracting but it really isn’t – it feels like it’s more and more normal everyday.
The only issue with this setup is that at the end of the day you are still in the same room. That’s a little odd and I wonder if over time might become more so – being able to see ‘work’ when you’re trying to relax in the evening?
There’s been a couple of cat-related-video-call-fiascos too – but luckily I think most people are fairly understanding about these kind of things, especially at the moment!
My housemate started working from home about a week after me and we had to rearrange the living room to fit his desk in, we call it our ‘co working space’ now! We’ve found we can’t make video calls at the same time as it’s too distracting and bad for the background noise for those at the other end! I’ve also had the odd day where the actual news and atmosphere in the world has just felt a bit more overwhelming. In some ways the lockdown is good as we at least know what we’re doing for the next few weeks – all the uncertainty adds to the stress for me.
Chris: Ensuring that I still maintain a separate work and home live. Early on I was still working in the living room, at the end of the day I was then relaxing in the same space. As I’ve mentioned above, I quickly realized this and set up a separate office space which made a big difference.
Another challenge has been that my partner is now working from home as well, so we are sharing the office space. Having calls at the same time means that one of us has to leave the office space and venture elsewhere in the house. Thankfully I don’t have many meetings and it’s usually just the morning sit down meetings where we have clashes.
Tom: The new normal still does not feel normal at all. No one knows for sure what exactly lies ahead, so we all have to be adaptable and accommodating. Many people’s schedules and responsibilities have altered dramatically, so we all need to be forgiving when plans change at the last minute.
Many people’s schedules and responsibilities have altered dramatically, so we all need to be forgiving when plans change at the last minute.
Nevett: The little voice in my head that tells me to check Twitter for my regular dose of anxiety is that bit louder with the crisis going on. It’s almost as much of a distraction as the baby and toddler that I’m sharing a house with as I try to work! Luckily my wife is a full-time mum so I’m not spending too much of my time child-wrangling.
The main challenges we had as a team were working out good communication tools that gave us a feeling of presence without being imposing. I’ve particularly appreciated using Discord for ad-hoc no-pressure voice communication with the immediate team throughout the day.
How do you stay energized during the day? How do you break the routine and avoid becoming a WFH hermit?
Jeremy: My Apple Watch is keeping me active! Seriously, it’s a good reminder to take the time to stretch my legs and generally move around. I also go for a long walk after work because I can’t imagine just staying inside the entire day – as long as the social distancing and lockdown measures allow me to do so.
Outside of work hours, I make sure to spend plenty of time on the phone with my family and friends. We even have weekly group calls where we spend a few hours talking about everything but the pandemic!
Ad: Something of a routine (albeit a loose one) helps me a lot. I have 3 slots – before work, during lunch, and immediately after work – which I use for either a work out or some reading time. Even if I work late, the slot is right after work, so it gives me a sort of mental boundary that makes it clearer that work time has ended and home time has begun.
During the working day, I keep a water bottle next to my keyboard and it has become a habit to drink more often. This is a 2-for-1 win: I’m hydrating properly for the first time in my life, and once the bottle is empty then I need to leave my desk to refill it. Small prompts like this, and never eating lunch at my desk, help get me moving and stave off the worst fatigue.
I’ve previously tried the Pomodoro technique of splitting your day into 25 minute segments, but I found it broke my concentration more often than not. It, or something like it, might work for you and it’s worth a try. The biggest thing is to find what works for you and that will take some time and experimentation.
The biggest thing is to find what works for you and that will take some time and experimentation.
Karl: Set targets. The Apple Watch makes it really easy to track your activity during the day. At a bare minimum I’m making sure that I’m standing up and walking around every hour, hitting 30 minutes of exercise everyday and meeting my move goal. I’ve been setting my goals and publishing them on Twitter, to ensure that I have some accountability when it comes to meeting them.
The past three weeks, I’ve also been much more strict with my calorie intake, seeing as I’m not quite as active as perhaps I’d like to be without my usual commute.
Laura: Trying to leave the house either before work or at lunch definitely helps boost me for the day. I’ve also been taking five minute breaks to do star jumps, burpees or the odd household chore – something different, energizing and not screen related has really helped beat any potential slumps!
Chris: Having a dog ensures that I need to get out at least once a day to take him for a walk. I generally do this in the morning, it’s a nice way to start the day and if I’m lucky it tires him out enough for him to sleep most of the time I’m working. If I’m not so lucky then he can be a little cheeky and start trying to get my attention.
Now that we’re limited to one public exercise activity a day I’ve either been going on a run in the morning or on a much longer dog walk. I’ve also been really conscious of staying hydrated during the day as well, I’m drinking a lot more water and squash and I’m very rarely having a cup of coffee now. When I was in the office I was having at least one mug of coffee a day, with our fancy coffee machine it’s so tempting to have more and more! I also ensure that I have a full lunch break, having a break from your screen is really important and I feel that it helps to energize me and set me up for the afternoon.
Tom: It’s important to have at least a brief change of scene. I get out of the house for a walk every lunch time, and thankfully that is still possible under the new regime. When working in your home, boundaries become crucial. Try to carve out a distinct “working” space (even if it’s tiny): work happens here and nowhere else. Your home life is important, and you should treat it with respect.
Try to carve out a distinct “working” space: work happens here and nowhere else. Your home life is important, and you should treat it with respect.
Nevett: I find routine very useful personally. We have reasonably strict mealtimes with the kids, and that helps keep me in check with taking a lunch break and not staring at my screen until late in the evening. Other than that, keeping my regular routine in the morning helps me kickstart the day. If I ever start dialling in to the morning meeting still with bed-hair, in my pyjamas, or without getting breakfast, then I’ll be well on my way towards bad hermit habits.
What has Cronofy put in place that helps you stay upbeat? What else would you like to see?
Jeremy: The great thing – despite the terrible situation – has been that we didn’t go into this totally blind. A lot of people within the company already worked from home or have worked from home in the past.
Communication is key and we have daily catch-up calls where people can just drop in and out to have a quick chat and talk about anything they want! Some recurring meetings are now happening daily or weekly to keep people in the loop.
I think that we will try to implement more social activities that can be done remotely like book clubs, gaming breaks etc. I’m thinking that setting up a playlist through Discord that everyone can listen to at the same time – or that allow us to see what other people are listening to – could spark some interesting conversations!
Ad: Making time for those little social moments in the day has been a huge help. To that end, we’ve scheduled “coffee time” twice a day, when people can jump on to a video call. Work talk is discouraged and it’s a chance to catch up and just enjoy a chat for 15 minutes. We’re also trying Discord, a voice chat app, as a replacement for the occasional conversations that strike up in an office- if we want to, we can jump in a voice channel and just work away with it in the background. Sometimes nothing is said for literally hours, but it means that we can opt in or out based on what we’re doing and how we’re feeling.
Karl: As a business, we understand that *feeling* connected is essential when remote working. We have scheduled times to check in with each other during the day, and we stick to them! There’s a new #coffee-time channel on Slack in which we all join a call and chat about our day (or anything really), plus regular sit-down meetings to ensure that people feel connected, and not isolated. All of these check-ins are on Zoom with video, which just helps maintain that human element.
Cronofy is also supporting people’s working environments. Need something to make your home working environment better? We’ll buy it. We want to make the remote working scenario as comfortable, and as “normal”, as possible.
Laura: Some team members already work from home primarily and that’s been great to learn from their veteran knowledge! The introduction of things like “coffee time” video twice a day to drop in and chat socially is a real morale booster. As well as communicating clear strategies, to be transparent and supportive, Cronofy are now hosting a weekly all hands round-up meeting. It really helps us all to stay connected and reassured. The team standups in the morning kick the day off so well and it’s nice to know what people are working on and ask/offer to help each other if needed!
Cronofy have also been great in the sense that they’ve provided a chair and monitor and so the actual equipment setup is much better than when I usually work from home with just a laptop – this has been essential to a longer stretch of remote work.
The team standups in the morning kick the day off so well and it’s nice to know what people are working on and ask/offer to help each other if needed!
Chris: Luckily, as the majority of the engineering team were already working remotely we were quite well prepared for this situation. One thing we have added is the “coffee time” others mentioned, a quick, optional video call at the start of each day and after lunchtime. It’s a chance to chat with each other about non-work related things, recent TV episodes we’ve watched, the news (it’s hard to avoid it) and just general chit chat.
Tom: Shooting the breeze and having an aimless chat is a great way to stay connected to your teammates and to not feel overwhelmed with things (the current unprecedented situation is a factor here, as is the normal everyday work load). Having the company’s “official” blessing to over-communicate in a non-work fashion has been a great comfort. Our regular Slack channels are busier than ever (#random is my favourite haunt), and we’ve set up new ones too. It’s feels good to know that “team sprit” is as important to the company as the nuts-and-bolts work is.
Nevett: The team has powered through the chaos really well. Since some of us were already remote it’s actually been good to level the playing field. We’ve tried to simulate the feeling of a physical office with Discord and keeping social chat going in Slack and with designated team-wide social video calls at morning and afternoon. Being able to get a decent webcam so I can actually face people when I’m virtually talking to them, rather than having them look up my nose from an angle, was particularly helpful for getting comfortable with the now more regular video calls.
How has working from home – or having everyone work from home – affected your habits and productivity?
Jeremy: I think it depends on the days to be honest. Not having to travel to go down to our London office has freed up more time. Also the internet is a lot better at home than on the train! I feel like being at home makes me more productive when it comes to writing and producing content in general. However there are also distractions that don’t exist in an office, so it’s all about self discipline!
Ad: I’m very lucky in that I’m really enjoying having everyone working from home. It has meant that I get the chance to catch up with everyone more frequently and made me realize how valuable those occasional chats can be. Once we’re through this situation I’m going to make an effort to still have the odd coffee with someone in the office via video call!
Once we’re through this situation I’m going to make an effort to still have the odd coffee with someone in the office via video call!
Karl: There are days when I feel significantly more productive at home than in the office. The lack of being tapped on the shoulder or other ad-hoc disturbances helps. However, now that the kids are at home, it’s give and take. I might work a couple of hours in the evening, to ensure that work is done, which allows me to help with home schooling.
Laura: I think I’m eating nicer breakfasts! There’s definitely some days where it’s been a bit harder to focus but overall I think I’m achieving the same amount. I’ve had some super productive days and then the odd morning or afternoon where the news or enormity of it all just meant that it’s a little harder not to be distracted. I think with self-discipline and usually a chat with someone else on the team, I’ve managed to overcome these every time and I think that will hopefully just get easier to manage as I become more accustomed to this routine.
Chris: In terms of habits I’m definitely a lot better at keeping myself hydrated. Not having to commute is quite nice, it gives me more time in the morning for my one activity without having to get up any earlier. Productivity comes in waves, sometimes it’s hard to focus and I’m not really sure why, maybe that’s just part of adjusting to this new normal.
Tom: To be completely honest, this is not a normal working-from-home environment. My productivity levels have taken a dip, and very little has changed in my day-to-day; I work from home all the time. There’s a lot going on out there, and a lot to think about!
Nevett: I’ve definitely not been as productive, but I think it’s more to do with the outside situation and adapting to change than an inherent aspect of how I’ve now been working. Our new communication practices mean I’m probably more in-touch with my immediate team than I was in the office. Outside of work, I’ve appreciated not paying more for less healthy lunches, and not filling the car up so regularly. There are a lot more dishes to wash up now though!
Are there any tips or learning experiences that you’d like to share to make working from home in a time of pandemic less stressful?
Jeremy: Don’t be afraid to tell your colleagues when you are having a bad day. We all have some in these stressful times and it’s important to realize that you aren’t alone. Also, these are weird, unusual times and it’s normal to be distracted sometimes. Don’t beat yourself up if sometimes you have trouble with your concentration. However, I have found that in this period where we don’t have control on much, focusing on the task at hand has been really helpful.
Ad: I’ve been working from home for some time and read lots of suggestions, but everyone’s situation is different. The best thing I’ve learned is that it’s worth picking a bunch of suggestions – even ones you think sound silly – and try one each day, keeping the ones that work for you.
It’s OK to find working from home hard sometimes – home is where we are used to relaxing, and it takes a while to get used to it being your work place too. It’s also important to make sure work doesn’t overrun your home life; it’s easy to do “just 5 more minutes” when there’s no commute to worry about, but none of us have infinite energy and it will catch up with you.
All of this is a new balancing act, so forgive yourself the occasional lapse. As with every change in life, practice makes perfect!
It’s OK to find working from home hard sometimes- home is where we are used to relaxing, and it takes a while to get used to it being your work place too.
Karl: Set boundaries. You’re at home so you need to be strict with when you’re at work and when you’re not. It’s easy to log on an hour early, skip lunch and log off half an hour late. Whilst this is fine every now and again, don’t allow it to be the norm and be mindful.
Make time to get away from your screen if you can. Cook a meal, read a book, meditate. I always like to do something therapeutic to set an “end” to my day.
Laura: Manage your exposure to the stress triggers. Don’t look at the news before work, at lunch and just before bed as well if you can help it. Of course it’s important to stay informed but you need to manage it. One evening my housemate trawled the internet and found the real worst case scenarios – I didn’t sleep well that night and saw a real impact on my stress and concentration all of the following morning.
Definitely push yourself to communicate with people even if you don’t feel like it. I think I would instinctively sometimes not reach out or not want to inflict my worries on others, to try and resolve something myself as the new mediums don’t feel as natural to me. But each time I have Slacked someone or joined the “coffee-time” chat I’ve felt myself boosted and a real lift in spirit just by interacting with people.
Chris: Where possible, separate your work and home environment. Have a dedicated room/area for working, then you replicate going to and leaving work as you normally would. Just because you’re working from home doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a proper lunch break! Finally, try to establish a routine and stick to it – maybe you do start and end work at your usual times, or maybe you start and end an hour earlier – just make sure that whatever you decide you communicate it to your work colleagues.
Tom: If you’re new to working remotely, don’t necessarily assume these past few weeks are an accurate representation of a normal remote environment. If you can get some things done and you’ve not been driven insane, I’d call that a win.
If you’re new to working remotely, don’t necessarily assume these past few weeks are an accurate representation of a normal remote environment.
Nevett: Keep your regular schedule. Don’t start letting the bedtime hours slip, and make use of the regained commute time rather than using it for a lie-in. Easy for me to say, since I’ve got a toddler climbing on me every morning in lieu of an alarm. Keeping boundaries can be hard, my “office” is a corner of my living room, but maintaining time boundaries is one way to achieve it.
And that’s a wrap. Thanks to everyone who took the time to answer the questions and if you want to share your own experience don’t hesitate to tweet us. Stay safe and healthy!
Date: 31st March 2020 | Category: Productivity