If you’d been told in January that you’d be able to work from home for months on end – dodging overcrowded trains and office politics in the process – it might have sounded like a start-of-the-year bonus. The reality, of course, is not so enjoyable. As the world adjusts to the coronavirus pandemic, one of the biggest changes is enforced home working.
Staying motivated, retaining work-life balance and video conference etiquette are just some of the challenges. But science is here to help.
Even before quarantines and social distancing measures became the norm, researchers debated what remote working does to your mental health and productivity. So we conference-called leading psychologists to ask them how best to thrive in the shadow of COVID-19.
Fashion doesn’t really exist when the world is on lockdown, but psychologists recommend you get dressed for work rather than joining those video calls in your PJs. More than just keeping up appearances, it helps to put your brain in work mode.
In a 2012 paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology , researchers use the term “ enclothed cognition ” to describe the way that clothes can affect the wearer’s behaviour. In the study, participants who wore a white lab coat performed better in tests of their attention, for example.
If you would normally wear a shirt to work, wear one in the home office too. “Get dressed in the morning, make yourself feel like you’re going to work,” says Professor Cary Cooper , an occupational psychologist at Manchester Business School. “But be comfortable.”
Don’t skip the shower, either. There’s bracing evidence to suggest that a cold shower can boost your mood and attention.
Routine and structure are crucial to making the quarantine period tolerable, and that starts with your sleep . Resist the urge to hit the snooze button. In what was described as the largest sleep study ever conducted, researchers at Canada’s Western University found that oversleeping can dampen your cognitive function just like sleep deprivation can.
“Research shows that keeping routines, but with some variation – having different exercises and tasks at different times – is really important,” says Jo Daniels , a clinical psychologist at the University of Bath.
Do something positive with the time you saved from your commute, such as cooking a healthy lunch or going for a jog.
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Then work according to your own circadian rhythms. “Structure your workload depending on whether you’re an owl or a lark,” says Cooper. “Do the most important work when you feel most energised, unless it has to be done before. If you’re a slow starter, doing menial tasks first and important tasks later is maybe the way to go.”
You can also create a more effective list of priorities by making a weekly to-do list, rather than a daily one – the truly important jobs will jump straight out at you.
As if a lethal pandemic wasn’t enough to trigger anxiety and depression , research suggests that remote workers can also be prone to bouts of poor mental health. A UN report in 2017 found that remote workers are more likely to experience high stress levels than office workers: emails are misinterpreted, work bleeds into family life and remote workers often clock more hours.
As well as switching off the laptop at the end of the day, make sure you do pleasurable activities for mood elevation, says Daniels. “If you feel yourself becoming anxious, switch to exercise, reading, listening to podcasts, creative pursuits, intellectual pursuits.”
Also take this time to catch up with friends and family and get to know them like never before. “It’s important that we stay in touch with people but also that it’s not just a touch-base focus on the coronavirus. Actually show interest in the other person,” Daniels says.
She adds that if you suffer acute moments of panic or anxiety, practising breathing techniques can help, as can talking about your emotions. Otherwise, try to look for the benefits of being at home. “For me, I don’t have to travel miles to work everyday and that’s great.”
Do what you can to physically separate your working space from your living space, especially if you have kids at home. Even the shortest distraction can kill your productivity. Research at Michigan State University found that a three-second interruption can double the number of mistakes you make in your work as your attention gets dragged away to something else.
Don’t have kids? Then self-isolate from that other great dependant: your phone. A study at the University of Southern Maine found that when testing complex tasks, the mere presence of the experimenter’s phone (not the participants’) was enough to distract people and lead to lower scores in the test.
Stepping away from tasks occasionally is a good idea, though. “Get away from the computer but keep a pad and pen with you,” says Carter.
Research at Indiana University found that longhand writing improves creativity and problem solving, while journaling is said to be an effective way to stretch your attention span.
The field of environmental psychology , which explores our relationship with our immediate surroundings, has lots to teach us about being stuck indoors and creating an office in the home.
“The first thing to think about is where to sit,” says Lily Bernheimer, director of Space Works Consulting .
She refers to a concept known as ‘refuge and prospect’, which says that humans are more comfortable sat with our backs to the wall and a view of the door or window. “We believe that we evolved to prefer these settings because these factors could have contributed to our survival by being the safest places we could be.”
A view of trees or even a picture of scenery on your wall can help. “If you can find a room with a view of any kind of nature then this has the ability to reduce blood pressure and the circulation of stress hormones, and it increases the capacity for directed attention, which is the ability to focus.”
It’s tempting to think that you can hack your productivity by […]