Many companies are dealing with the risk of COVID-19 infection from the novel Coronavirus by having their staff work from home. Here are a few tips based on Savingforcollege.com’s experience on how to be effective when working remotely.

This article is a little off-topic for our site, but Savingforcollege.com has long had a distributed workforce. Even though we are based in Miami, we have staff in every time zone from eastern to pacific. We hope that you can benefit from our experience.

Pros and Cons of Working from Home

Not every employee can work well from home. Working from home is well-suited to knowledge workers, but not necessarily factory and warehouse workers.

Working from home offers several advantages. You can save on commuting and daycare costs. Your commuting time will drop to zero, giving you more time to spend with your family and increasing your productivity.

But, working from home can cause you to lose contact and camaraderie with your colleagues. Your home may present a lot of distractions, especially from children and pets. You also lose the opportunity to unwind and decompress while traveling home at the end of the workday.

Another solution is to break up your staff into small groups and have each group work from a different location. That way, if one group succumbs to COVID-19, the rest of your groups remain unaffected.

Establish Boundaries

When you work from home, it is very easy to blur the boundary between home and work, so that you either end up working 24/7 or not working enough.

Establish boundaries in time and space.

  • Use a separate quiet room for work, such as a home office, that you do not use for any other purpose. When you’re in this room, you are at work. When you leave the room at the end of the work day, you are home.
  • Ideally, your home office should have a door that you can shut. Not only does this establish a psychological barrier between home and work, but it also separates you from your pets and children. If you have cats, they will visit you when you are speaking on the phone or participating in a video conference. After all, you must be speaking to them, since there’s nobody there. It is also difficult to get work done when there’s a cat sleeping on your keyboard.
  • Set specific hours when you will be working. If you work with colleagues in different time zones, decide whether you will shift your schedule to match. If your colleagues are on the east coast, you might need to start your day earlier.

Schedule breaks throughout the day to get up and stretch. Sitting for long periods of time is not healthy. Use the time to visit the restroom, to empty your trash can or do other small chores for a few minutes before returning to work.

Maintain a morning routine. Many remote workers are more productive once they have showered and gotten dressed for the day, as if they were going into work. While working all day in your pajamas may sound enticing, it could make you less productive.

Technology

Confirm that your Internet speed is fast enough for video. Upgrade your Internet connection if necessary.

If you are bringing home a laptop from work, get a full-size Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. Laptop keyboards are not well designed for long-term use.

If there’s uncertainty about when you will shut down the office, have staff bring their laptops home every night.

Get a large, high-resolution monitor. A large monitor lets you have multiple documents open at the same time, improving your productivity. In particular, the resolution should be high enough for you to have two documents or a document and a web browser side-by-side.

If you don’t have a laptop, consider using a Chromebook or a Chromebox. They are inexpensive options and let you work on documents in the cloud.

Try surviving without a printer. This is a good opportunity to transition to a paperless office. The key challenge will be finding a logical way to organize the documents so you can find them easily, especially the most important documents. It may be helpful to create a master document that includes a to do list and an outline with links to other documents.

Get a comfortable chair and set up your workspace to follow the ergonomics advice that everybody usually ignores. In particular, place your computer monitor and keyboard at the proper height.

Video and Teleconferencing

Meetings interrupt the day and can lead to lower productivity because they leave staff with shorter uninterrupted stretches of time. So it is best to avoid breaking up the day by scheduling meetings for the end of the day or the beginning of the day.

Start the day with a 15-minute daily huddle, where staff share any good news and a brief summary of what they are working on. If anyone needs help with anything, they should say so.

Make sure you have at least one meeting-free day a week.

Keep meetings short, to no more than an hour in length, by having a clear objective for the meeting. The meeting should have an agenda that specifies the information that will be shared, the issues that will be discussed and the decisions that will be made.

Limit the number of participants in the meeting to just the people who need to be in the meeting. This is especially important for videoconferencing, since videoconferencing works best for small groups of up to 4-6 people.

Be proactive in video conferences and conference calls. If you have something to say, speak up. Otherwise, mute your line. It is helpful to have the meeting organizer direct the meeting, asking each person by name to speak.

Do not try to multi-task. You can’t pay attention to a meeting and also do other work at the same time.

If you need to use the restroom during a conference call or video conference, don’t announce that you are leaving. Just get up and go. The other participants may not even notice that you are gone. If you’re running the meeting, you can announce a 5-15 minute break in the middle of a long meeting. That gives people enough time for a bathroom break or to return a few calls or respond to important email messages.

The best video conferencing software includes Zoom, GoToMeeting and Google Hangouts.

If you will be spending a lot of time on the phone, get a good phone headset, like Plantronics. Many phone sets have several attachments to ensure that the headset is comfortable.

Email Communication Tips

Maintain regular contact with your colleagues through email, telephone and video. But, be smart about how you contact them.

Keep email messages short.

Get to the point in the first paragraph of the email message. Include a specific call to action, identifying what you want the recipient to do.

Do not CC everybody on the email message. Think carefully about whether each person needs to receive the email message.

Beware of the bystander effect. If you include too many recipients on your email messages, nobody will respond because they will assume that somebody else will respond.

Do not click on Reply All on a message with multiple recipients. Again, ask yourself whether they really need to see your reply. Even if they do, the sender of the message to which you are replying can summarize.

It can help to distribute a list of key contacts to all staff. The list should specify the responsibilities of each contact, why and when you should contact them.

You can also utilize instant message programs, such as Slack and Google Chat, to send quick questions or comments.

Office Supplies

Bring home basic office supplies, such as PostIt notes, paper clips, pens and paper.

If you are missing anything, Amazon Prime provides same day and next day delivery.

If you are a freelancer or are self-employed working from your home, you may be able to deduct the cost of office equipment and supplies. The home office deduction was previously claimed as a miscellaneous itemized deduction. But, miscellaneous itemized deductions were eliminated by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. Instead, you must claim home office expenses on Schedule C (sole proprietorship) or on IRS Form 1120S (S corporation) or IRS Form 1120 (C corporation).

Appeal for More College Financial Aid

If your expenses have increased because you are working from home or your child’s college has suspended in-person classes, ask the college financial aid administrator for a professional judgment review.

The college financial aid administrator can make adjustments to the cost of attendance or data elements on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) when provided with documentation of special circumstances. In particular, if your child needs to buy a laptop, the college can add it to the cost of attendance.