Coronavirus: How to stay healthy and productive when working from home

Reading time: 11 minutes

Coronavirus is forcing many companies to send their employees home. While remote work has been on the rise in the past few years, the pandemic is undeniably giving it a boost, and people around the world are discovering the joys and challenges of working from home. The first few days, it feels like heaven: working in your pyjamas, eating your favourite snacks, even taking a little nap when you’re tired—how amazing! But after a week, many people report lower levels of productivity, loneliness, back pain, and even weight gain. How can you stay healthy and productive when working from home?

Because of the coronavirus, we are in a unique situation where many people will experience true remote work in the coming weeks—where the whole company is working remotely, rather than just a few people—without the necessary infrastructure or training to work in a healthy and productive way. If that’s your case, there are some simple strategies you can apply so you can keep on doing great work without losing your sanity.

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A dedicated workspace

If your company just asked you to work from home for the time being, the very first thing you need to do is create a dedicated workspace at your place. The very best option is to have a “home office”—a room that is just for working—but obviously not everyone has that luxury. If you don’t have a spare room, here are some tips to design your workspace.

  • Assign a dedicated space. Don’t work from your bed or your couch. Choose a spot in your home and officially make it your workspace. If you only have a kitchen table, decide that this one chair in this specific corner is going to be where you sit when you work. If you’ve had time to bring some things from work, try to make it feel more like your work desk. For instance, some people like to have a plant or some framed photos next to their computer.
  • Make it comfortable. If it’s your first time working remotely, it’s unlikely you have a proper office chair in your home. While it may be a bit over the top to invest in an Herman Miller Aeron Chair (retail price USD $1,400), take a few minutes to figure out which chair is the most comfortable in your home, and make it your office chair. If your back tends to hurt, it may be worth getting a proper chair. There are some affordable ones such as the $65 mid-back office chair sold by AmazonBasics. Just do a bit of research and you will find lots of options.
  • Get enough light. If you can, put your desk near a window. “A lot of people often stick a desk in a cupboard or box room—much better to have sunlight during the day,” says  Jamie McHale, a freelance consultant and developer based in Scotland. Seasonal affective disorder affects up to 10% of the population. We need light to boost our levels of vitamin D and ward off seasonal depression. A lack of natural light also has a negative impact on our sleep. Make sure to get enough natural light during the day.
  • Adjust the temperature. Working from home has a huge advantage: you get to set the temperature! No more bickering about the air conditioning. Research from Cornell University suggests that the ideal temperature for maximum productivity is 25°C or 77°F, but this is an average, so make sure to play with the temperature and figure what works best for you.
  • Invest in quality equipment. If you have the budget and these are things you normally use at work, buy a proper mouse, headphones, and monitor. Reproducing the environment and tools you have in the office will put you in a work mindset, and not disturbing your usual work habits will make you more productive.
  • Bolster your Internet connection. Because of coronavirus, you may not be the only one having to work from home. “Secondary connections are particularly important when multiple family members work from home. For example, if one member is uploading a large file, that may impact the audiovisual quality of another member’s video call,” writes Darren Murph, Head of Remote at GitLab.

Overall, try to make it pleasant. Several remote workers recommended art and plants to feel more creative and productive. If you are stranded at home, you will need to spend most of your day in this makeshift office. Try to make it as nice as possible.

If you live with roommates or have a family or a partner who don’t have to work from home just yet, tell them about your workspace. Make it clear to them that when you are sitting in that specific room or that specific chair, you are in work mode. Especially if you have odd hours, working from home can create conflict when you share a house, as people around you innocently interrupt your work, not realising they are breaking your flow.

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Consistent routines and rituals

When you physically go to work, you are naturally forced into a routine: get up, shower, maybe grab something to eat, commute, and start your work day. When working from home, things can get a bit fuzzy—and that’s not good for your productivity. It may feel artificial, but it’s crucial to establish routines and rituals when working from home.

  • Don’t jump straight into work. “I start my day before jumping into work with meditation, breakfast, and movement,” says Dani Hart. People working from an office have a bit of time between the moment they open their eyes and when they need to do actual work. Give yourself some headspace in the morning. Don’t rush. Not having to commute doesn’t mean you need to start working earlier.
  • Put everything in your calendar. Schedule everything you want or need to do. Don’t rely on in-the-moment motivation to get things done. When working from home, it’s easy to lose track of time and realise late in the afternoon that you haven’t done half of what you set out to do. And by everything, I mean everything. Need to do your laundry? Add it to your calendar with a specific time and duration. Meetings, lunch breaks, focused time, everything should go in there. Some remote workers use the Pomodoro technique to manage their time. You can use what works for you, but make it a proactive process.
  • Create boundaries. Change your online status to “here” or “away” depending on whether you are available. This also goes for your overall schedule. Decide what time you will be starting work and when you will close your laptop, communicate your schedule with your teammates, and try to stick to it. When the work day is over, it’s over. If you find yourself working longer hours, ask yourself: is it because this project requires the extra work, or because I’m home and figured it doesn’t really matter if I work a bit more? Very often you will realise you’re still working just because you didn’t force yourself to get up and do something else.
  • Get dressed. At least the top part. Yes, it’s very nice to stay in your pyjamas, but for some people it’s not the best way to get into a work mindset. Take a shower, put something on. Getting dressed in the morning and changing into something more loungy in the evening can be a great way to reinforce boundaries.
  • Establish communication rules. Agree with your colleagues on the best ways to stay in touch. Do you prefer real-time chat or asynchronous emails? Would you rather be pinged when it’s truly urgent or do you enjoy the idea of hanging out in a Slack channel? This may be the right time to create a personal user manual. Another good habit to form is to assign someone to take notes during meetings, so everyone can easily revisit after the call.

These few tips will go a long way in helping you and your team stay productive and creative. You may have to experiment with your routines and communication channels. Just make sure to stay aware of how productive and relaxed you feel. Where and how you spend your day will not only impact the quality of your work, it can have a massive impact on your health.

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Mental and physical health

According to a survey conducted by Buffer, the two main struggles remote workers face are unplugging after work and loneliness. Working from home, when not done probably, can have a terrible impact on both your mental and physical health. But long-time remote workers have some strategies you can apply.

  • Proactively tackle loneliness. Remember how we said you need to schedule everything? This goes for social interactions too. You won’t have serendipitous watercooler conversations when working from home. “Scheduling short phone check-ins with coworkers throughout the week helps you stay connected and feel less isolated,” says Lindsey Holzberger. Book some time with your colleagues during the day for a video chat, and book some time with friends and family after work.
  • Take breaks. There won’t be anyone to tap on your shoulder and invite you to grab a coffee. When working from home, you are responsible for taking breaks. Make these proper breaks: close your laptop, go for a walk, go to the gym, dance in your living room—whatever helps you recharge your batteries. If you need some inspiration, I built a free Chrome extension with research-based tips to take mindful breaks.
  • Exercise. Working from home means you’ll be moving less, which is not great for your health. Make sure to work out, ideally once a day and at least a few times a week. It doesn’t matter whether you go to the gym, go for a run, or do some yoga, just book some time to shake that booty.
  • Eat healthy. Except if you live in a huge mansion, chances are you will be sitting less than a minute away from your fridge, which can be extremely tempting. If you are going to work from home for a while, it may be worth stoking up on healthy snacks so you don’t reach for the crisps (chips for my American readers) every time you feel a bit peckish. It’s also a good idea to cool your meals. Not only will the food be healthier, but it will be another excuse to take a proper break away from your screen.
  • Stay hydrated. Put a big jug of water on your desk or buy a bunch of LaCroix. Some remote workers track their water intake in an app. If you’re struggling to drink enough water, you may want to give it a try.
  • Go outside. People who have a dog have an advantage here. Don’t spend the whole day working inside. Get some fresh air. Ideally, leave your phone in your pocket—or even at home—when you go for a walk. It will benefit both your body and your mind.

Finally, make the most of your temporary no-commute life! Read more books, spend more time with your kids, pick up a hobby, study a new topic, finally clear out the garage… A world of possibilities!

Useful links for working from home

Want to learn more and prepare better? Here are some more resources you can explore.

Hello! 👋 I'm Anne-Laure Le Cunff. I write about what I learn as an entrepreneur and neuroscience student. Do you want to make the most of your mind? Subcribe to Maker Mind, a weekly newsletter with neuroscience-based insights on decision making, continuous learning, thinking, creativity, and productivity.

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