As Jamiroquai once put it
“Future’s made of virtual insanity now
Always seem to, be governed by this love we have
For useless, twisting, our new technology
Oh, now there is no sound – for we all live underground”
Well, while we don’t quite live underground here may be just a touch of insanity starting to creep in, and of course we are all experts with virtual technology now, right?
After the switch to remote working in 2020, the new year is an opportunity to reframe the not-so-new daily routine.
While lots of us enjoy a new found flexibility, research shows working from home also led to longer hours, so redefining a work-life balance is likely to be an ongoing target in 2021.
Think of this blog as a curation of tips, tricks and hacks I have come across, some of which I am guilty of not having fully utilised myself – nothing especially new but hopefully things to remind you of how to optimise the way you are working.
Let’s face it, it’s not unrealistic that for most of us we will be at home until the spring and even then, back in the office on a rotational basis, possibly until later in the year. Therefore, time for some reflection:
- What have we learnt from all this?
- How can we improve?
- What will be taken with us into the ‘new norm’?
A Tale of 3 (or more) Stages
A recent article in the FT succinctly summarised the 3 stages of WFHIAP (working from home in a pandemic):
- Fuelled by excitement, it was all fun at first, learning to zoom, everyone was it in together. You became IT support to your parents, friends, and significant others. You passed on your knowledge of video calls, stating we do these all the time at work.
- After those virtual highs came the days being an unending blur of work and home life.
- Then, as 2020 came to a close, came the will this ever end phase?
The General Stuff
As I mentioned at the top, nothing in here will blow your mind but it might just serve as a timely reminder. Even if there is just one thing you do differently upon reading this then I’m calling that a victory!
Here is a list of things I focus on and that work for me:
Set and stick to a routine
Without steady schedules, the lines between work and personal time can get blurred and it can be stressful to get right.
Find a dedicated workspace
Get everything you need in one place. Even in a small or shared space, try to designate an area for work and when you need to, walk away close the door, and physically compartmentalise.
Give me a break
Making time for breaks is important to help manage and be at your best – try to take lunch and regular screen breaks. Give yourself time to concentrate on something else so you feel more focused when you return. Even just 5 to 10 minutes of short breaks can really help your productivity too.
In and out of work, human interaction matters so schedule video calls and pick up the phone instead of emailing. If you’re struggling with working at home, speak to your colleagues or manager about your concerns.
That’s some general stuff but let’s dig into the real detail starting with…
You’ve Got Mail
Nothing brings you thudding back to reality in January quite like having to deal with the hundreds of unread emails in your inbox. But there are tricks for taming the beast.
Of course, email overload is not exclusive to WFH, but it’s become harder to switch off than ever before. With no commute, unless you count the 8 seconds from bed to my office to catch up, many feel constantly connected.
I know when I break for lunch with my children, I worry about the emails piling up. I am email sensitive, 10 years in client services makes you that way.
I find it hard to not respond to emails straight away.
This is only ok in my experience, if it buys time or acknowledges the email. To rush an email is often to REACT rather than RESPOND.
One thing is certain, with more responsibility = more emails. It defines opinions of you and whether you like it or not we are judged on it
So, find a system and make it work.
Here’s a few things to CONSIDER, it’s not right for everyone I know, email management and style is purely subjective, and it should be. After all it’s not just functional but also shows our personality in our communications style and tone.
⭐️ Keep your auto-replies on until you’re on top of things
> It’s not just for holiday (remember those?!) or actual time out of the office either, ever thought about popping them on whilst you are in the middle of something really important, like finishing a client proposal?
‘I’ll be away from my emails for a couple of hours, but if it’s urgent here is my mobile”
⭐️ Switch to offline to avoid new emails coming through while you’re still dealing with the old ones.
> Prioritise, are you easily distracted by current inbound when your task is to deal with what is already there?
⭐️ Sort by people, rather than date, to get to the most important messages first
⭐️ Triage your emails into the 4 D’s; Delete, Do the work, Defer to the to-do list or Delegate
⭐️ Email Sprints – blast emails 3-4 (x) times per day rather than all the time, unless you job demands always on, in which case do what you need to do.
In other words, find a system, optimise it and stick to it.
Next up, we better talk ZOOM!! Although what follows can broadly be applied to any video platform of your choice.
It doesn’t take too much effort to put across a good, clear image even with the standard webcam technology that comes on your average laptop or tablet.
Far too often we jump on a video call, only to see the other person(s) backlit like a shadow from a bad horror movie, or worse lit up like a Christmas tree. Fear not, there a few useful principles to keep in mind.
- Just like our eyes, cameras need light to render a good image
- When there’s not enough light, too much light or a light is pointed in the wrong direction, it can cause cameras to render a lower quality image.
Webcams automatically adjust to and record the brightest source of light (key light).
Above: If your key light source is shining down from above your head, it will put your face in shadow and people will not be able to see your face, or expressions, clearly.
Behind: If that light is behind you, you’re no longer the focus.
Towards You: The best placement of your key light source is close behind your camera, coming from the same direction your camera is pointing. Aim to position this light source as close to the camera as you can without it shining directly into your eyes.
Also consider lights with a yellow-ish tone as this will create a sense of warmth and will feel welcoming, rather than harsh white LEDs, that are more at home as security lighting!
For Zoom if you pop into Settings > Video, check “Touch up my appearance,” and Zoom will soften the focus on your camera, theoretically adding a touch of magic and minimising any issues with your appearance. Can’t say it’s made me look any more like Brad Pitt but worth a try.
Top Tip: if you don’t have a good forward-facing light source (aka a light), open up a white image or Word document on your monitor or laptop and use that as a light source on your face.
Camera Position: Look Eye, Always Look Eye
Get your camera position right.
There are 2 main things to remember:
- Keep it eye-level – looking up someone’s nostrils is not something anyone wants to see.
- Keep it constant – frequently changing camera angles will distract your viewers and can be a turn-off.
All The Gear, No Idea
If you haven’t already considered investing in an external USB mic, there are loads of really affordable options and the difference between them and your computer/laptop mic is considerable.
Equally, a decent head set, airpods etc will work fine. Just play around and test the levels, ask a colleague which sounds best.
You might often see someone with one airpod in, it can look odd but separating your speaker and microphone is often optimal. Think TV, earpiece and a mic, it’s for a reason.
I have a decent external mic, but Microsoft Teams and it are not friends, it does not seem compatible, yet on Zoom it works a dream. Don’t assume, test and check. Find the right set up based on your kit.
The same applies for a webcam, a USB webcam especially a 1080 one will really sharpen the focus, and change the angle of your video range.
Other Tips & Tricks
2-4-1 – If you can log in on two devices, it gives you an audience view, especially helpful if presenting. No one wants to see the presenter view with your random notes showing.
Be an editor – where appropriate consider recording meetings, calls, and presentations (with permission of course). You can easily then transcribe the audio into notes. A Zoom recording for example produces both a video and audio-only file. As simple as using the dictate function in word, or something more sophisticated like Otter.ai to get the audio in a word doc. Useful for writing up meeting minutes, and generally concentrating and being more present without having to try and capture every single phrase.
Be a teacher – make use of things like polls, breakout rooms, and whiteboards. If you’ve got it, use it! Again, play around, experiment. These platforms are in a constant battle to update their functionality so get on board with the latest.
Remember, this is an unusual situation and things will not feel normal. You may still find it odd working from home all the time, or still struggle with video calls or finding a balance.
Be kind to yourself and acknowledge that you might not be as productive as you usually would be in a 9-5, 8-6 setting, but overall, your productivity is likely to be just as good if not better but in a different work pattern.
Be realistic about what you can achieve given the circumstances, and relax when your work is done.
Stay Safe, Be Curious & Keep Learning.