Try these remote work "life hacks" to boost focus, ergonomics and well-being

From virtual networking opportunities to strategies focused on fostering a healthier work-life balance, these remote work tips could optimize your virtual routine.

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Image: GettyImages/filadendron

In the last year, many professionals have transitioned to the home office with varying degrees of success. Compared to the traditional work environment, telecommuting comes with its own unique set of challenges. This includes ergonomic considerations when designing a workspace, crafting new pre-and post-work routines to more abstract considerations around work-life balance. We spoke with a number of academics, executives and remote workers to compile a list of WFH tips to enhance the virtual 9-to-5 grind.

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Work from home tips: Understanding your tendencies

Before adding new strategies to your virtual workflow, it could be a good idea to take an introspective look at your approach to telecommuting and work boundaries, in general. In more basic terms: What type of remote worker are you?

Timothy Golden, a professor at the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, discussed tips to structure the workday based on these preferences and traits for two general types of remote workers: "Segmentors" and integrators.

"Segmentation and integration of work and home lives has to do with how comfortable people are with mixing these two aspects of their lives together. Some prefer to keep them separate and distinct, while others are comfortable carrying out both at the same time," Golden said.

These segmentors prefer to separate their work and home lives, Golden explained, and as a result, he "often" finds these remote workers "are sure" to log off "after work hours and refrain from checking" messages in their personal time. Additionally, Golden said segmentors are "disciplined in their work habits" and "reserve work time for work, and family time for family."

Conversely, integrators are fine with mixing their home life with the professional workday, he explained, noting that successful telecommuters with a penchant for integration "permit their work to spill over into their family lives" and do not mind answering person calls on the clock or check the inbox after logging off for the day. Although there are integration caveats to consider.

"While integrators are more comfortable with letting work spill over into their family lives and vice versa, they still need to carefully balance the demands from both their work and their family," Golden said.

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Image: iStock/lightfieldstudios

Ergonomics, movement and focus

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, many organizations switched to virtual operations on short notice. While some companies offered stipends to help employees festoon their remote office, many people were left to finagle workstations with in-situ materials a la kitchen tables, stackable accouterments and more.

To this point, Chad Henriksen, the director of WorkSiteRight at Northwestern Health Sciences University, discussed ways to ergonomically utilize everyday items around the house to complement remote workflows. This includes using an ironing board as a standing desk if so inclined.

Additionally, Henriksen recommended following the "90-degree rule," and this means ensuring a person's "arms and legs are parallel to the floor" and "as close to a 90-degree angle at the elbow and the knee as possible." Henriksen also suggested taking steps to ensure your eyes are looking straight ahead.

"Keep your eyes in line with the screen. If you are slightly looking down or gazing up at your screen, use some books or a box to raise your screen to the proper height," he said.

Additionally, Henriksen suggested taking "micro-breaks" for approximately 10 to 15 seconds every half hour to stretch, add activity to the workday and "refresh" a person's focus.

As a "bonus tip," he also encouraged people to take their meetings standing up and or tuning in to calls while on a walk to incorporate movement to the task.

Tweaking the daily commute

The lack of a daily commute is one of the top remote work perks and this can save some professionals multiple hours each week. Although for some, this dedicated buffer space does serve as a beneficial time to ramp up and wind down before and after work. Gabriel Dungan, founder and CEO of ViscoSoft, said that he has incorporated a "fake commute" of sorts into the remote workday.

"Rather than just rolling out of bed and immediately checking Slack and email, I take at least 30 minutes to 'commute' to my home office. Instead of driving, I take a walk around my neighborhood and listen to music or a podcast," Dungan said. "This act of leaving the house, getting fresh air, and 'commuting' means that when I get back home, I've signaled to myself that it's time to be at work."

Over the last year, the home has pulled double and triple duty as a residence, virtual learning center and home office for many households, blurring the lines between personal and professional spaces. 

Psychotherapist Angela Ficken who has been working remotely for the last 12 months, made note of some of the benefits of telecommuting while also detailing the downsides, stating that many people have difficulty setting boundaries between home and work life.

"Responding to emails at all hours and not shutting off notifications after regular business hours, all of this means that they are now working longer, which increases stress, and they are now not honoring their own time," she said.

A few strategies Ficken suggested include turning off inbox notifications after 5 pm, scheduling short periodic breaks to stretch, get some air and enjoy a snack. Ficken also recommended remote workers plan at least one "fun thing to look forward to each week."

"Maybe that's seeing a friend, trying a new recipe, or going for a bike ride. You don't need to move a mountain to feel better. These are small steps that do help increase self-care, overall wellbeing, and can help you manage your stress," Ficken.

Some remote workers are devising clever tactics to help compartmentalize and separate the workday from their personal lives. Nicole Graham, a lifestyle and relationship coach at Womenio, has "adorned" the office door with various signs to signify when the workspace is offline or open for business.

"As ridiculous as it may sound, if you promise yourself that you will not work once the sign reads "closed," it will work," Graham said.

"It's easy to want to appear productive when you work from home, and it's simple to let your work time spill over into your personal life. But before you know it, you're up until the wee hours of the morning, wondering where the day went," Graham said. "Working from home, I've discovered that having clear boundaries between work and personal life makes me [a] lot more productive and happier."

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Expanding your professional network

Compared to the traditional office environment, working from home lacks the social interactions and haphazard water-cooler conversations afforded by on-site work. Interestingly, about half of professionals believe telecommuting has negatively impacted their careers and many feel as though working from home has reduced internal and external networking opportunities, According to a 2020 Blind survey.

Alison French, CEO and co-founder of Emerged, a healthcare-focused SaaS company, made note of the phrase "your network is your net worth" and detailed a few remote networking strategies to consider.

"Working from home can stifle the growth of your network so take advantage of university alumni groups or professional organizations to maximize your future net worth," French said.

Additionally, French said people are "never too busy to say yes to an invite to coffee, lunch, etc." adding that these social opportunities "are key to your sanity if you plan to WFH for the long haul." She also suggested creating a network of other remote works in a person's industry.

"Start a group chat or Slack channel. A quick Slack or group chat to share a joke, idea or vent help break up the monotony of spending the day alone in your house," French said.

SEE: How to manage passwords: Best practices and security tips (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Emphasizing empathy

Anna Lyons, senior vice president of people and culture at Alegeus, said she encourages employees to have "realistic" remote work expectations and this includes making "concise and focused" to-do lists covering the "critical" tasks so people can "feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of every day."

The last year has come with no shortage of stressors for remote teams wrestling with new collaboration tools, less than optimal work setups and technical issues amid a global pandemic.

Speaking to pandemic-related stressors, Lyons suggested that remote workers "lead with empathy and understanding – for ourselves and our colleagues."

"Work-life balance doesn't exist in COVID (cue the screaming child in the background). When we recognize that, we can give ourselves and others the space and grace we need," she said.

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