As QA testers, developers and designers, our industry is typically at the forefront of technology and a lot of progressive workplaces offer flexible working and the opportunity to occasionally work from home as standard.

Working in isolation

We may be used to working from home a couple of times a month, and it can feel quite exciting and liberating to work from your own space and get out of the office and the distractions that come with it. However, most of us are not used to working from home for extended periods of time, and many of us don’t have the mental and physical preparation to deal with the subtle, yet powerful, differences between office work and remote work. As the effects these differences have can creep up on us over time, especially once the honeymoon period and novelty has worn off.

Working in isolation

If you don’t regularly work from home and are feeling a little unprepared and worried about how to adapt to the change, this article will help you adjust and give you some guidance on staying focussed, healthy, and sane during unpredictable times.

This article is focussed on helping you maintain your mental clarity and mental health if you are experiencing difficulties adjusting.

8 Steps to coping with disruption and change in your routine

Having been self-employed for a number of years, I have firsthand experience of rapidly transitioning from a steady full-time office job to working at my makeshift home office and feeling like a fish out of water from the first few months. I struggled to adapt, even though it was new and exciting, and I quickly decided that I did not work well in isolation and joined a co-working space to be around people. So, here are a few things that helped see me through when I started working remotely.

1. Maintain a normal structure

It’s very easy to slip into an unstructured way of living. At first, it may feel liberating, and some people thrive on the uncertainty and the ability to create their own path but, initially, at least, it is vital to create a sense of structure.

  • Try to maintain normal office hours
  • Get up and dressed as usual – no lounging in pyjamas, as tempting as that may be
  • Switch off at lunch – take a break from the screen and eat a healthy meal
  • If you have a normal routine, such as a colleague you speak to at a certain time of day, or a task you prefer to tackle in the afternoon, try and stick to that as much as possible
  • Stay active and eat well – it’s important to maintain regular exercise and dedicate some time and thought to ensuring you’re moving enough when you’re stuck indoors more than usual.

2. Recreate your commute

You may be relishing the idea of not commuting to work every day. Traffic jams, crowded public transport, and delays are definitely not a great part of the day, however, the daily commute has one hidden benefit – it creates a clear barrier between your work and your home life.

Your commute

Even when working in isolation, one good technique to help maintain a daily structure is to physically leave your home, even for 5 minutes, to give yourself some physical space and time for your thoughts, before returning to your new place of work, fresh and focussed on the day ahead.

3. Avoid distractions

This is easier said than done. The remote working life can turn Slack chats into overdrive, and result in many more emails and phone calls infiltrating your home workspace set up.

To help avoid distractions and to maintain focus to avoid feeling overwhelmed and floundering, it is good to set some boundaries – for yourself, and others.

If you can, let your team know that you are only checking emails between certain hours. And notify chat channels that you are offline and only contactable in case of emergencies when you need to focus on completing a difficult task. This advice works when working in the office too, but the need for these boundaries is even starker when remote working.

Set yourself boundaries too, avoid social media and the temptation to begin mindlessly scrolling. I still struggle with this after many years of self-employment and working from home a lot. I use Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator to keep me from falling into a black hole of social media.

4. Reflect on the day

At the end of each day, after working from home, it is really important to have a time of reflection and consider how the day went. What did you manage to get done today? What could have been better? What was distracting me?

If you choose to recreate your commute, as suggested above, once you close your laptop for the day you can ask yourself these questions and reflect on your day during your walk “back home”  as you stroll around the block, or simply get a breath of fresh air in your garden or nearby park or square.

5. Plan tomorrow

Before closing down for the evening and reflecting on the day that has passed, I find it is incredibly useful to sit down and write the key tasks that you need to accomplish for tomorrow.

Chances are you are in regular contact with colleagues and workmates, and you might even have overzealous project managers trying to micromanage your progress! However when you’re working in isolation you are in more control of your time and workloads than before, and if you are able to start your day with a fresh list on your desk – in priority order – you will be able to jump right in without agonising over what you need to do or relying on remote managers or team members to help you plan your day.

6. Lists are great

As I just mentioned, lists can be excellent to prioritise the tasks for the day. One technique, popularised by American writer Mark Twain is to “eat the frog”, meaning you should tackle the most difficult task first to get it out the way!

But I feel the most valuable aspect of list writing is twofold;

  • Firstly, you physically write the task down and get it out of your head and onto a page
  • Secondly, the act of crossing out a completed task is incredibly satisfying, and studies show that in doing so the mind creates space to focus on a new task now that it knows it is complete.

Whilst I’m a fan of old fashioned pen and paper for my lists, I also use tools like Trello to manage workloads. I’m sure you have something similar, and I would urge you to use a similar task manager to organise your week, alongside traditional tools.

7. Keep in touch

Obviously you will have emails, slack, and various other means of communicating with your workmates during the period of isolation, however, it is important to try and maintain your social life as much as possible to ensure you have a good work-life balance and avoid feeling burnt out.

This will inevitably be difficult if we are working in isolation, however, we have all the tools we need to tide us over the coming weeks and months. Tools like Zoom and Whereby are ideal for video calls with friends and family.

If like me, you live away from parents and siblings it will be even harder to see the family and it’s easy for loneliness to set in – so I have decided to organise weekly family web video calls to ensure we stay in touch and keep up each other’s morales.

8. Remember, we’re all in this together

It’s easy to feel alone, isolated and even begin to despair over negative news stories and everything that is happening in the world. But if I have learned anything from seeing videos of isolated people in Italy playing music on their balconies, or the various local Facebook support groups that popped up to help communities and local businesses share their stories and lend a hand, I have learned that people naturally coalesce to help each other out during times of hardship.