How to get ahead while working from home


Just because you’re working from home these days doesn’t mean your career needs to stagnate. There are many things you can do to stay productive and make the most of these extraordinary times.

With governments and businesses around the world doing what they can to halt the spread of COVID-19, many people have been asked to work from home. If you’re faced with the emotional and practical challenges of self-isolation, these guidelines can help you stay motivated, stay productive and build new skills to continue to build a successful career all from the comfort of your own home.

1. Create a routine

Chances are, you’ve been used to a set routine and this has ended abruptly, leaving you feeling unsettled. So, focus on your new routine – get up, get dressed and start the day as you normally would. Designate a workspace where you can separate home life from work life, even if it’s just a particular chair, and then try not to sit there when you’re not working. Also, your usual commute to and from work gave you time to mentally prepare for work and to wind down after a busy day. Try to replicate this by building in some transition time before you start work and find an activity that signals the end of the working day and acts as a buffer as you transition back to your personal life.

Forbes found that up to 89% of workers admitted to wasting time through distractions or momentary diversions. And that’s when they are in an office! Distractions can multiply when working from home, especially if you are juggling childcare and other responsibilities. Organise your schedule and focus on your time management. A structured calendar will also highlight preparation time you may need for certain things and help you prioritise tasks.

If you hit a slump or are struggling with procrastination, try the pomodoro technique. This has been found to alleviate the anxiety linked to beginning a task and it enhances focus and concentration by cutting down on interruptions. Set a timer for 25 minutes. Work until the timer rings. Take a three to five-minute break. Set the timer again and keep going till you’re done.

2. Polish up your virtual networking skills

We’re often told that networking is a key way to get ahead in our careers, but even in normal times, not everyone knows how to do this well. To create a solid network that supports your career ambitions, you need to be intentional and purposeful. That hasn’t changed just because we’ve all moved online.

Schedule time to network in exactly the same way you would do if you were going to attend an event. Now might be the perfect time to revisit your LinkedIn profile and other online networking platforms like UCT Connect (the UCT alumni platform) and reach out to contacts on that platform. Start by checking in with the people you already know are your allies or those you have not spoken to in a while – your old classmates, lecturers, mentors etc. You can also use the platform to identify and connect with new people. Why not invite them to a zoom meeting to explore possibilities of how you can help each other move forward?

The essential wisdom of taking time to nurture your personal relationships, as well as your professional ones, holds true even though we are not able to necessarily meet for coffee in our favourite coffee shop. Check in with friends, family, neighbours. Offer assistance if you can. When Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, ordered 100% of the New York workforce – except those in essential services – to stay home, he asked the American public to be aware of the mental health consequences that isolation can bring. In one if his recent daily briefings, he reiterated that the COVID-19 crisis is a mental health crisis that deserves more attention. noting a recent survey that found up to 38% of Americans are experiencing mental distress. "Don't underestimate the trauma that this has created for people," the governor said. "It has been incredibly anxiety producing, traumatic, disturbing and we've felt and seen all along evidence that this is creating a significant mental health challenge for people."

3. Learn how to host a great online meeting

To facilitate your virtual networking, you will also need to take this time to upskill and learn how to host a virtual meeting well. Top tips include, making sure you assign a facilitator to guide the conversation and make sure everyone has a chance to contribute. Virtual settings can feel quite impersonal because of the physical and psychological distance, so you need to be creative in keeping everyone engaged. Andy Molinsky, a professor at Brandeis International Business School has had to move much of his teaching online and he offers the following suggestions for keeping online interactions personal and effective. He says, “try to make sure that the angle of the camera on your face is at a comfortable level for others to see you. When I first started out, I’d erroneously put my laptop on the desk and tilt the camera up to my face, which I soon learned gave my audience a great view of my nostrils.” Also, look into the camera as much as you can to maintain eye contact and manually move the image of your participants closer to the camera so you simultaneously make eye contact with them and see their response.

If you invite someone to a virtual meeting, let them know – ahead of time – if the cameras are going to be on, as this gives people time to prepare. Also, if you’re using Zoom, you can set a virtual background that will hide whatever domestic disaster may be going on behind you!

4. Support your team instead of monitoring them

If you’re leading a team, you may be worrying about how to check if they are still working. It is essential, now more than ever, that you learn to trust your team. Academics at Harvard Business School advise letting go of the notion of monitoring people who work from home. You can keep an eye on deliverables, but not on the hours in which people are getting the work done.

One of the success factors for teams that work well remotely, is to begin by setting clear parameters. Schedule a virtual meeting to assess the work being done and also the ways in which you’re going to do it. Figure out how you are going to operate at your best and in what medium – and how often – you’re going to communicate. Ask about the individual challenges each of you face – some people have easy access to resources and others may not. Not all team members have laptops and internet connectivity at home. Some may have a laptop but also have children who are using it to study online. Identify these issues and find ways to resolve them.

Be mindful that you are in danger of losing the human connection that directly contributes to team performance. Find ways to replace the informal communication you may have had at the office –perhaps have lunch together, virtually, now and again. Be creative, do what you can to support one another and keep everyone feeling connected, motivated and on the same page. Now is the time to communicate. Check in frequently with your boss, your colleagues and your network.

5. Focus on what you can control

In these difficult times, all of us need to practice self-leadership to keep perspective, keep productive and make the best decisions we can. Part of this means learning to understand that we cannot control everything. At any given moment in a chaotic world, most things fall outside your control. Figure out what’s in your control and invest your daily time, attention and energy into making a positive impact where you can. Try not to take everything personally either and don’t forget to celebrate the wins – even small acts of acknowledgment can foster exceptional team spirit, especially when things feel tense or stressful.

It is vitally important that we consider how we treat each other in their times of need. Every difficult situation is an opportunity to cultivate courage, kindness, patience and wisdom. If for, example a colleague has to take meeting looking a bit dishevelled with a child on their lap – have empathy. We’re all in this together and trying to cope with our individual situations as best we can. Our empathy and human connection will help us weather the storm and emerge better for it.

Azvir Rampursad is the corporate partnerships manager and a specialist in talent strategy and leadership development at the  UCT Graduate School of Business' Career Centre. The Career Centre offers students individualised and expert career coaching and year-round support, recruitment and engagement opportunities.  Visit the Career Centre at the UCT GSB to find out more.

This article has been updated to reflect news events.

Self-mastery | Innovation | COVID-19

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