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Let’s take a wild guess at what this last working week has been like for you – you’ve probably been checking work emails from your sofa, you’re brewing coffee while your conference call bubbles to a heated discussion, and walks to the water cooler or pantry are now replaced by incessant pacing to and from the kitchen. If you’re lucky (or not a parent), that saunter didn’t involve stepping on the business end of a Lego brick.

Welcome to working from home (WFH) – the new normal in a world besieged by Covid-19. Living rooms double as cubicles, video calls are meetings, and every day is a casual Thursday. Fun fact, this article was put together from home.

As the coronavirus pandemic sees countries around the world hunker down for a lockdown to curb the virus, corporate outfits and businesses around the world and within the UAE have been quick to roll out remote working, ensuring employees stay home and stay safe. As of early March around 37 per cent of UAE firms surveyed by recruitment company Gulf Talent planned to launch work-from-home programmes. Coupled with the strict stay-home order issued earlier this week by UAE authorities curtailing all non-essential travel, those WFH numbers are likely to have increased.

Due to the extraordinary circumstances created by a virus, hundreds of white-collar workers in the UAE have been pushed headlong into this new reality abruptly without enough time to acclimatise to new technology, or gradually transition into WFH on a trial-basis before working remotely full-time.

That means reality might be at odds with ‘work-in-your-pyjamas’ idyll – most of us will be busy ironing out technological glitches and logistical challenges instead of clocking in productive work. We spoke to both WFH newbies and veterans, and employers and employees, on how to overcome the most common challenges of telecommuting.

Set up for success

Your sanctuary that you’re used to escaping into to get away from the stresses of office politics and deadlines is now going to moonlight as your office. While this amounts to living the dream for some, it’s natural to feel unproductive in surroundings you’re used to unwinding in – a 2012 study by Ohio University shows that detail-oriented dull tasks that require focus are harder to perform without the structure of an office workspace. Household chores or the next Netflix show on your queue might seem more tempting than that weekly report you need to file in. Which makes demarcating an area for work vital, points out HR professional Claire Donnelly, a senior consultant at Dubai-based Mike Hoff Consulting.

Houri Elmayan (38), founder of Dubai-based PR consultancy PR Wonderland, has sectioned off a part of her living room as her workspace. ‘This helps me keep away from distractions and focus since it’s away from the TV and the kitchen and my desk faces a blank wall.’ The Lebanese PR consultant swears a workspace mirroring her physical office environment has helped her stay focused and on task over the years, whenever she’s worked remotely from home.

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If you don’t have the luxury of space or the heads-up to have set up a functional home office, Aline de Albuquerque Pereira, group marketing manager at Dubai-based firm MTAF Group, suggests giving a wide berth to comfy spaces like the bedroom and using ergonomic spaces – her dining table is her ad hoc office. Spaniard expat Alberto Gil, on the other hand, has converted his baby’s nursery into a day-time home office in his Dubai Marina home.

Productivity also requires discipline. So Houri follows a routine where she wakes up, gets dressed, makes coffee, then goes straight to her desk. On days that she strays from her routine and starts her day in front of the TV, Houri admits that motivation is hard to come by.

Sticking to a routine helps shift your mindset from ‘relax mode to work mode’ says Christine Kritzas, counselling psychologist at The Lighthouse Arabia. To trick your brain into being productive, Christine also stresses not lounging around in sweatpants. ‘Dress as you would dress to go to work’. In the absence of commute or other physical markers of entering a workspace, changing into work clothes and back into leisure clothes helps you bracket your day.

Communication is key

Once you’ve set up your home office it’s only natural you’ll feel out of depth about what follows in terms of daily tasks, says Claire. ‘This is why communication has to be on top of the priority list. Morning huddles is a must even in the office and when remote working, it needs to be adapted to a virtual huddle through apps like Go To Meetings, Microsoft Teams or Zoom. It’s an opportunity for employees to chip in on what they’re doing and discuss the challenges they’re experiencing face-to-face.’

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Christina Koutra, associate professor of management at Abu Dhabi University, reminds managers and organisations of the part they play in turning up the volume on communication. ‘The management needs to support people with the right resources and knowledge needed to perform duties remotely.’ This can range from setting up hardware like double-screen systems at employees’ homes to even providing them stationery they need – like Alberto’s employers did – along with the reassurance that any essentials bought for work would be reimbursed later.

Claire concurs, highlighting how lack of access to data or apps and systems can hamper productivity and make communication breakdowns more likely, especially if, ‘some companies and managers might not be used to remote working or managing staff remotely.’

All the experts also underscore the importance for bosses to have realistic expectations of what employees can deliver when working from home, and avoiding micromanaging. Trust is fundamental to remote work paying off.

The social aspect of workplace communication ranks higher more so in stressful times like these where motivation is likely to drop because of loneliness.

Brazilian expat Aline (30) has always appreciated the work-life balance working from home offered. But having spent the last week and a half working in self-isolation after a Covid-19 case was detected in her apartment tower, Aline, whose family is back in Brazil, confesses that the shine of WFH has begun to dull and she’s less proactive in week two: ‘Work-from-home is great in fits and bursts but not at such a long stretch without a foreseeable end. It’s overwhelming. I miss my colleagues, more so now that I can’t step out of the apartment and break my workday with outdoor chores.’

Even veteran remote workers like Claire who’s done this for six years confirm that isolation and loneliness are a great drawback and can drive one stir-crazy, especially now that our houses are our offices and bunkers. In fact, a 2019 survey of remote workers by Buffer, an online brand development agency, states that loneliness was the second-largest challenge faced.

To safeguard your own mental health or that of colleagues who are away from family and on their own, Christine recommends scheduling one-on-one virtual sessions to show support. ‘Also encourage them to seek professional help through web-based therapy if you’re concerned about their loneliness,’ she cautions, as long-term loneliness can lead to depression.

Christina Koutra, associate professor of management, says employers should provide the right resources and knowledge needed to perform duties remotely
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When news of the rampant spread of the coronavirus in Alberto’s home country of Spain would leave him worrying about the safety of his parents and siblings, work (from home) would take a backseat. ‘Luckily, my amazing team would detect [my distress] and cover my back.’

To make up for the lost team lunches and scuttlebutt and fend off cabin fever, Houri and her team members play online games like Yahtzee or Words With Friends. ‘It helps keep the morale up and have a bit of banter.’

Alberto has noticed that virtual tete-a-tetes keep spirits up. ‘The minute I suggested we switch on our cameras, the boring and monotonous audio meeting saw a boost in morale. Seeing each other makes a difference.’

Claire goes a step further and recommends lunching together over zoom or skype: ‘Having a screen in between you and a colleague doesn’t water down your connection.’

Set boundaries

The tricky part is when family members make it to that screen. Under the conditions of quarantining, a lot of people find themselves simultaneously remote working with spouses or juggling childcare with business. It’s a recipe for chaos.

Alberto (35), a regional sales support manager at Thyssenkrupp Elevator, confesses that parenting his toddler son and managing his Dubai-based team of nine remotely when the shutters came down on nurseries was a tightrope act.

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‘During the first week of working from home, my wife was still working as a registered nurse, so I’d schedule meetings to coincide with my son’s naptimes.’ Needless to say, his little one would often thwart his meticulously laid plans and make guest appearances on video calls. ‘My colleagues have been supportive and understanding about it,’ he says, citing that these are unique circumstances at odds with standard WFH.

Kids who gatecrash video calls are a recipe for viral fame as Professor Robert Kelly, the dad whose BBC interview was interrupted by his kids, will attest. But if you’d rather your weekly meetings are devoid of family circus, experts suggest dedicating a room in the home for work. Use simple and fun tools such as a stop sign on the door to explain to kids why they can’t enter, suggests Christine Kritzas, counselling psychologist at The Lighthouse Arabia.

Younger kids like Alberto’s might find it difficult to understand why mummy or daddy can’t play with them even though they’re home the entire time, points out independent HR expert Claire Donnelly. ‘Managers need to give employees the concession of recognising that they’re going to be distracted by children, and flexible work hours outside of the traditional 9-5 might make their lives easier.’

Claire who also shares her workspace with her husband, suggests spouses schedule meetings and calls in such a manner as to avoid clashes. Let’s face it, outshouting each other on simultaneous conference calls a professional picture does not make.

She circles back to her point about fluid work hours: ‘It is the essence of working from home.’

Take a break, unplug

For Aline, that flexibility translates to bumping up her workday to a 7am start and rewarding herself with a nice home-cooked lunch or mixing things up by using her lunch hour for an at-home workout session.

Aline, a group marketing manager, has her dining table as is her ad hoc office
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Alberto uses the 40 minutes shaved off his daily commute from Marina to Trade Centre to bond with his son.

Stepping away from work doesn’t have to make you feel guilty, assures Christina Koutra. ‘That you stay in the office for eight hours does not necessarily mean in the first place that people are productive all eight hours.’ In fact, she adds, ‘if used effectively, people are more productive when they work from home.’

Research by Airtasker conducted earlier this year backs this statement. The same research also states that longer breaks (think naps), set working hours and a to-do list all crank up productivity when working from home.

Aline vouches for the to-do list’s ability to keep her on course when she feels unmoored after spending hours working in isolation. ‘It helps me double down and finish the day’s tasks.’

Houri and Alberto both find work bleeding into their daily lives after 6pm in absence of physically punching out for the day or exiting the office space. Houri suggests that team leaders set boundaries for their teams and clients and ensure regular work hours apply. ‘We’ve also got to train ourselves to not look at work-related communication after hours,’ advises Christine from a mental health perspective. The inability to disconnect and working round the clock can deplete you of energy.

With the distinct possibility of work from home being our new reality for the next month or so of quarantine, a burnout is the last thing you need.

Meanwhile, Claire offers a silver lining: ‘Both employees and employers can use this time for self-reflection when it comes to management and working styles. It’s a good time to size up if you’re equipped to adopt flexible approaches and procedures in the long-term approach.’