Working from home? Here are five tips from U of T experts

A woman works on a laptop at a table at home
(photo by Tom Werner via Getty Images)

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended people’s daily work and personal lives in ways we could never have imagined only a few weeks ago.

While there’s certainly no playbook for the entire country being in lockdown, there are things we can do help maintain a healthy work-life balance when both activities are forced into the same physical space.

Writer Don Campbell asked three leading experts from University of Toronto Scarborough’s department of managment – Associate Professor David Zweig, Professor Julie McCarthy and Associate Professor John Trougakos – how we can make the best out of working from home during the pandemic.

Separate work spaces

The same way you personalize your office workspace, you also need to carve out your own at-home workspace, says Zweig.

“If you have a home office, use that. If not, create a makeshift office or desk to get work done,” he says. “Psychologically, this will set boundaries between our work and family duties. It also signals to others in our house that when we’re in our ‘work-only’ space during work hours, we shouldn’t be interrupted.”

Likewise, communicating with our family members about scheduling time for work and life/family duties is important, according to McCarthy.

“Let your children or partner know what time you need to work and what time you’re available for them so you can focus on each. Creating this structure will allow you to be more productive because you won’t be constantly shifting your attention back and forth.”

Keep a regular schedule  

Setting a clear schedule for work, personal and family time is also key.

“Take regular breaks, get some exercise and clear your head,” says Zweig. “Schedule in a five-minute break every hour and take time away from your computer to have healthy meals and snacks.”

While it may be tempting to sleep in, McCarthy says maintaining a regular sleep schedule is also important.

“We need to be keeping relatively consistent patterns of sleep to keep our circadian rhythms in check. This helps reduce our levels of exhaustion, keeps our energy levels up during the day and makes us more resilient overall.”  

Zweig adds that, if it helps you to get into “work mode,” by all means get dressed as if you were going into the office.

Take care of yourself

McCarthy, who along with Trougakos launched a study to look at the well-being of Canadian workers throughout the pandemic, says paying attention to your mental health is more important than ever.

“Anxiety is really driven by a feeling of a loss of control,” she says. “What we're seeing now is very high levels of anxiety and fear among workers because things are so uncertain.” 

She says there are a number of things we can to do to stay focused on things that we can control, including setting goals for ourselves, proper self-care and maintaining social connections with friends, family and co-workers – even if it means using technology to do it. 

It’s also important to take time to do things that bring you joy, she says: If you enjoy art, start a painting. If you enjoy cooking, maybe try making a new dish with a family member.

Take care of others

While we may be isolating ourselves physically to “flatten the curve,” it doesn’t mean we have to remain socially isolated. Reaching out to friends, relatives and even our co-workers by phone or email can help ease a stressful situation.

Zweig suggests asking co-workers if they’re open to more video meetings or calls rather than relying on emails alone.

“Even if it’s just to spend five minutes commiserating with others and sharing a laugh with them, it can go a long way,” he says.

McCarthy adds that the positive feelings we get through altruism can also help with our own mental well-being.

If you're a supervisor, communicate

Support, flexibility and understanding are all things supervisors should be keeping in mind, says Trougakos.

“One of the critical things you can do as a supervisor is communicating to people in advance, letting your employees know that you're there for them and that the organization supports them,” he says.

He says be mindful that projects may take a little longer to finish, but also provide clear, firm and positive guidance whenever possible. Checking in with your team is also important, whether its scheduling daily video meetings or just connecting one-on-one for 10 minutes at a time.

“Anything you can do to help employees feel in control and positive about being helpful and productive will help tremendously.”

For those wanting to learn more about personal well-being while working from home, McCarthy and Trougakos will be co-hosting a live webinar on April 3rd through the Rotman School of Management.

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