Tips to help remote workers gear up for the day with balance and well-being in mind

We spoke with a psychology professor and a productivity coach to help remote workers design a productive prework routine fit for the telecommuter age.

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Image: iStock/seventyfour

Due to COVID-19, millions of remote workers are now logging on from home rather than commute to the traditional brick-and-mortar office. Many have used the traditional daily commute to gear up for the day and enjoy personal interests such as reading a book, listening to a podcast, or catching up with friends.

These dynamics of change without the need to move our bodies from one physical space to another. In lieu of this daily commute, many remote workers are now crafting their morning routine from scratch with varying degrees of success.

To help individuals design a virtual commute of sorts with well-being and balance in mind, we spoke with a productivity coach and a professor of psychology about developing healthy routines in the telecommuter age.

"One of the downsides of telecommuting, and especially doing so in a pandemic where we really shouldn't leave the house much, is that the days can bleed into each other. This creates a feeling of monotony, where no day is different from the rest and there's nothing to look forward to," said Alexis Haselberger, Udemy instructor and productivity coach, via email.

"Most of us have the tendency to reach over to the bedside table, bleary-eyed, grab our phones and start scrolling through email before we've even set foot out of bed. Ensuring that there is a bit of "life buffer" before you start working helps us to reset for the day and to feel as though we are fully human, instead of just workers," Haselberger continued.

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Focus on new "rituals"

From listening to a preferred podcast on the metro to having a cup of coffee as we get dressed, a standard morning before commuting to the office is filled with nearly automatic day-to-routines for many. Sans a physical commute and the dress code requirements of in-person meetings, many of these habits have been cast to the wayside. That said, Haselberger and Steve Joordens, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, both discussed the importance of creating new prework rituals.

"I sometimes describe these as rituals, because they are. They are repeated behaviours we do in specific sequences and they, to some extent, mark time and add structure to our existence.

And yes, our old rituals are gone, at least for a while, and yes, we would be smart to replace them with new rituals," Joordens said.

Haselberger explained that rituals provide a number of benefits including allowing individuals to "psychologically prepare for the next step" in our day as well as ward off "decision fatigue."

"Humans are creatures of habit, and ritual and routine helps us to feel as though we have some control and agency, even in times where so little is within our control," Haselberger said.

Get dressed for the virtual office

At times, the shift to remote work has impacted pop culture and the economy in unforeseen ways. For example, Walmart disclosed that it's selling fewer bottoms than tops earlier this year, a trend that can be attributed to increased video conferencing from afar. Regardless, Haselberger reiterated the importance of getting ready for the day as part of a new prework regimen.

"When I'm coaching my clients about creating a routine around a "virtual commute," I often suggest that they start by putting on real clothes.  Even if just on top. (Yoga pants are OK.)  The act of getting dressed is a static piece of our old routine that can help create a bridge to the new routine," Haselberger said.

Add some movement to the routine

Simply rising from bed and taking the short trip to the home workstation can add to the sedentary nature already inherent in traditional office work. After all, as the adage goes, sitting is the new smoking. Ahead of the workday, Haselberger suggests incorporating outdoor activity; this addition could serve as a spatial trick of sorts to help jumpstart the workday.

"I suggest that people get outside, even if it's just a walk around the block. You want to recreate the act of leaving and arriving, as that will signal your brain to get into work-mode," Haselberger said.

Joordens also reiterated the importance of including movement in one's daily prework regimen.

"If so inclined, this would be a great time to take up an aerobic activity, which also enhances mental wellness and can become another part of your routine. Perhaps a jog instead of a walk," Joordens said.

SEE: Big data's role in COVID-19 (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Make this time about you

During a standard commute to the office, there's typically ample time to enjoy personal hobbies and interests whether it be a podcast or text message exchanges with friends. For remote workers, it's similarly imperative to allocate time for personal interests before logging on for the workday.

"In addition, if there is something in your life that takes your mind away from COVID-19, even for a short time, perhaps add that to your ritual. A brief meditation perhaps, or listening to some music that takes your mind to a better time," Joordens said.

"The important thing is to create a new schedule, a new ritual. Stick to it and include some positive mental health components within it," Joordens continued.

Months into the coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19 continues to take its toll on populations, economies, and personal mental well-being. Amid a modern plague and lockdown restrictions, prioritizing this period before work could be particularly beneficial for people, Haselberger explained.

"If we have some personal buffer time, this is something, however small, that we can look forward to each day and that is incredibly helpful during a sustained crisis like the one we are in," Haselberger said.

SEE: Give your resume a pandemic refresh with these 7 savvy tips (TechRepublic)

Foster "multiple personalities" and personal well-being

For commuters and remote workers alike, one's prework routine functions to sate myriad needs as individuals prepare for their professional and personal lives concurrently. Interestingly, during this transition period before the workday, individuals are in a peculiar existential limbo; a place between their personal and professional lives.

Preparing for the workday is more than virtually transporting from one space to another. As Joordens points out, this shift also about preparing socially for these interactions and expectations.

"When we go from our family lives to our professional lives, this often marks a fairly major transition in who we are and how we work. In a sense, we all have multiple personalities — different ones coming to the fore in different situations," Joordens said.

"At work, we are the person with certain skills, certain tasks, and co-workers who see us in a certain way and expect certain things from us. Our family sees us entirely differently and expect different things from us. As we move from one personality to another, we benefit from having some time literally away from both. Time to be just us — the us we know as "me."

Joordens explained that this commute exists as this time period and serves as an opportunity for individuals to "reset" for the workday as well as "the personality needed to succeed within it."

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