Telework Plan for Health and Productivity During Stay At Home Orders

Telework Plan for Health and Productivity During Stay At Home Orders
March 21, 2020 Maggie Lynch
In coronavirus
woman working from home sitting at table near a window

If you are fortunate to still have a job, chances are you are now working from home. In my own extended family, we are split 50-50. I have siblings and both of our sons work for the government. Anyone with office jobs are now teleworking. I have a sister who has been a delivery driver (Door Dash, Grub Hub, Walmart, Amazon) for several months and is now working more than ever before. Other family members are part of first responders—police, hospitals, senior care facilities. So they are all over the map.

For many people who haven’t ever had to work from home before it is really difficult. The distractions of family or roommates can make focusing on tasks hard. The call to check the latest news on Coronavirus infections and what’s happening keeps people on social media or searching the Internet.

Mother with baby in the kitchen working with documents and speaks by phoneFor those with children it is necessary to determine how the childcare will fit in with your work duties. It may require you to shift your work time or split hours to when children are asleep or can be otherwise occupied. If you are fortunate to be sharing childcare/parenting with a partner, work out who is responsible when.

Our other son, a police officer, has split duties with his wife for taking care of their toddler. Their childcare provider is no longer taking care of other people’s children. Our son is working the midnight to 8 am shift. His wife does the childcare in the mornings until our son wakes around 1pm–during child naptime. He then takes over childcare of their toddler while his wife begins her workday in a designated part of the house for her office. She works from approximately 1pm until 9pm–breaks for dinner with family. Fortunately, when he leaves for work at 11pm, everyone is asleep.

I know not everyone will have such an easy example of shared care, but the key is routine and working out who is responsible when. When possible look at shifting work time so both parents can get in their hours, still get in sufficient sleep, and have quality time with children and each other.

I’ve been working full time from home for nearly seven years now. Before that I was in charge of designing and delivering online courses for a variety of institutions—primarily universities. So, I’d like to share some of my knowledge that you may find helpful getting into the routine that works best for you.

Create a Space That Works for You

Depending on your living situation this may be a daunting task. If you are teleworking I assume you have a computer—either a desktop or laptop or both. If you are fortunate to have a spare bedroom or an office, you are in great shape. The key is to set it up to be ergonomically correct. If you don’t have an extra room, you need to carve out a space just for you. It may be the dining room table from 9am to 5pm, or a corner where you can set up a bench at the right height.

Before we moved into our manufactured home a year ago, we were living in a one-bedroom apartment. I commandeered the small 18-inch by 30-inch table in our tiny dining room for my writing space. Most of the time we ate from chairs and TV trays, but for special occasions I could move my monitor, laptop, and equipment out of the way so we could actually use the table for a special meal.

The point is, you can find a space if you put your mind to it.  A shelf under the stairs. A place in a closet. I have one author friend who used a small powder room as her office for quite awhile. She sat on the toilet and put a board across the sink which was within reach, and then put her laptop on the board. Be creative. The key is to find a place that is somewhat private if you can. Preferably a place you can close a door. That isn’t always possible. When we had our one bedroom place, the dining room table was the best spot. I just had to make rules about disturbances and do the best I could–as well as working hours where my husband was asleep our out of the apartment.

Ideas for small offices at homeIf you are working from a laptop you need to be careful that you aren’t always looking down, crooking your neck forward, to do your work. There are two things you can do to avoid this. 1) Hook it up to a monitor that you can set higher. Use books to make it eye level if you don’t have something else to set it on. 2) Put your laptop higher, at eye level. Hook it up to an external keyboard.

You might say: “I don’t have an external monitor or keyboard.” These are very inexpensive to get at secondary markets. Your local thrift store (e.g., Goodwill) certainly has keyboards. Some of them have monitors. Ask friends and family if they have an extra one to spare. If you still can’t find anything, then be sure you take regular breaks (see below).

Ergonomically the most important thing you can do to help is have the screen at eye level so you aren’t looking down and crooking your neck. If you can’t do that, then train yourself to look down with your eyes but not your head as much as possible.

The second thing is to arrange the height of your chair so that when you type your arms and hands are at a ninety degree angle from your body or slightly lower. The third most important is that your knees are level with your hips. If you can’t get this with your feet flat on the floor and can’t adjust the chair anymore, put something beneath your feet to raise them up. Click on the image below to get detailed information from the Mayo Clinic.

Ergonomic diagram for office from Mayo Clinic

Use A Timer To Get You Up and Moving

This is one of those do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do things. Though I am trying to get better. When I become focused, especially when a story is going really well, or I’m in the midst of researching something really important, I can stay glued to my screen and my task for several hours without getting up. This is very, very bad for my body.

One of the things that stops me from getting up is a fear that I will lose the thread of my thoughts if I get up. But last Fall I took a class, with all writers, that emphasized 45 minute sessions. We would write, an alarm would go off, and we were forced to stand and move around for 15 minutes. We didn’t have to talk but we did have to move. This went on for an 8 hour day. During the 15 minutes we were moving around the facilitators shared health data on the importance of that. In other words they distracted me with their words.

What I learned is that when I returned to my task 15 minutes later, I had not lost the thread of my story. I had not lost the direction. In fact, I felt energized to get back to it. Whereas before doing the timer process, I would work until my body and mind was exhausted (hours) and then get up very stiff and be unable to return to work.

Think about it. Most people who work office jobs get up and move more than they think. You might have to walk a piece of paper to someone. You might be called to attend a meeting. You might actually need to use the restroom. You might be distracted by a phone call you need to answer.

So, set a timer for 45 minutes and then force yourself to get up and move around your house. What works well for me is to set my oven timer because it’s 30 feet from my desk and it beeps incessantly. It forces me to get up, walk over, and turn it off. Once I’m up I might as well do my 15 minute break.

If weather is nice, I step outside for 15 minutes, take some deep breaths and enjoy the view. Or, I might take a 15 minute walk. That can be nearly a mile around my neighborhood. Or I nice easy stroll to the mailbox which is 1/10th a mile for me.

Do you have a pet? Take 15 minutes to play with your pet. If you are someone who is normally more active, find a way to dance, walk, march in place, whatever works for you. Put on some music and don’t worry about looking silly, you’re with family.

Note: Some articles suggest only 20 minutes of sedentary work. If that works for you, that’s great. For me, that has always been too short which is why I like the 45 minute mark.

making a lunch choice that's healthy. Man is choosing between pizza and celery and carrotsThe Lunch Break (or Breakfast or Dinner Break)

It is important to take an actual meal break. Please, don’t do what I’ve done in the past—that is eating your lunch while working. Take a minimum of 30 minutes away from your work area. Eat somewhere else in the house, on the deck, in a yard, at a park if there is one nearby. This is important for both your mental health and physical health. This is also a time to push yourself to try to eat healthy. For me, my default eating when stressed is comfort food. Unfortunately, my comfort food isn’t salad. However, I find if I’ve purchased salad makings in advance then when I get up for my lunch it provides me a distraction making up that salad and I have something good for me to eat during lunch.

I’m not saying you have to forgo all unhealthy things–that would be ridiculous for most people, including me. I’m just suggesting that staying healthy is the best way to ward off future problems. If you are a pizza for lunch kind of person, consider something different for at least three days out of the week while your at home.

If you are tired at lunch time, it might be a good time to take a short nap after lunch. Set a timer to wake you up in 20 minutes.

One of the things experts have said is that being outdoors, where you don’t have to touch anything or come into contact with anyone is not only a safe place to be, but also gives you fresh air circulation you may not be getting at home. I take a daily walk around my neighborhood (about a mile) which takes me 15-20 minutes. If I see someone outside, I wave and say hello and then continue. Sometimes, I’ll stop and chat if they seem inclined to do that. But we both make sure we are at least six feet apart. I live in a senior park, and I’m always happy to see people outside for a few minutes enjoying some sunshine and fresh air.

Team Check-ins

If you are a manager, it is important to have regular check-ins that are not necessarily just work related. Everyone is under a lot of stress, and working from home can be more stressful than being at the office. Take time to have group meetings virtually, if you can. If you are talking to people one-on-one, make sure to start with a question that invites them to share concerns. “How are you doing with all the news about COVID-19?” Or “What’s working well for you that you’d like to share with the team?”

Be careful in your phrasing of questions, because employees won’t be truthful if they are concerned you will think they are not working hard enough. For example, if you ask: “Are you finding the distractions at home too hard to get your work done?” OR “What has been the most difficult for you during this transition?” These types of questions may lead to people answering untruthfully or with short answers like: “We’ve worked through the distractions. Nothing is keeping me from work.” Or “Everything is great. Nothing to worry about. I’ll get it all done.”

senior couple looking at tablet while doing facetime with family

Put Extra Effort Into Keeping Up Social Connections

Exercise is important for your physical health. Social connections are important for your mental health. At the end of your workday and/or on the weekends, make an extra effort to connect with your family, close friends.

Even though my mother and siblings do not live near me, I am definitely more concerned than ever about their health on a daily basis. We’ve begun a practice of sharing what’s going on in our families at least once a week. We simply send an email to the group. You can set up a group for this on Google or Facebook. In our case, we simply do regular email with each one’s address and then REPLY ALL whenever we write a new note. It’s easier and feels safer for the older people in my family. My mother and her siblings are all over 80 now.

My church has long had an announcement email group and a discussions email group. Anyone can share in the discussions group. Since this stay home and social distancing order, people have been sharing more than ever. Recently a call for people to sew face masks and gowns for the local hospital was prominent. They also share upbeat messages, as well as fact-based news articles from health providers in case people don’t have access to the information. Those who are musicians are sharing songs, writing new songs, putting lyrics to old songs. Inviting flash mob timing though not gathering. They choose a date and time when all musicians will sing or play the same uplifting or strategic song from their porch or balcony or driveway.

Whoever makes up your social connections, just take extra effort to keep in contact. Whether that is through Facebook, email, or even an old-fashioned phone call. We recently called one of our sons to wish him a Happy Birthday. Perhaps weekly phone calls to close friends or family is something you want to do. If you have a friend or family member who is prone to depression normally, take extra time to connect with them more often.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up If You Don’t Do All of These Suggestions All of the Time

It’s easy for me to write about all the things you need to do. It is hard for anyone, including myself, to do it all even close to most o the time. We are human. We have good days and bad days. When situations are stressful and our routines are having to change, it is very, very hard to get it right.

Back in my psychology days we learned it takes 45 days to learn something new. Lately, I’ve seen the 21 days to form a habit. As with most statistics this is something taken out of context from a 2009 study. The reality is it takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days. See this Healthline article if you want more information on forming new habits and why they are so hard.

Also, tackling all these things at once may be hard, too. Pick one you can do and start with just that. For example, setting the timer to 45 minutes and then getting up to move around. Once you have that down, pick another one like taking a daily walk. If some of these suggestions are already part of your routine, then great it’s something you don’t need to work on.

The good news is that this study shows that if you mess up on occasion when you’re trying to develop a habit, it doesn’t derail the process as long as you get back to it. For example, when I’m trying a new diet (I hate diets by the way) and I screw up one day by having something not on the diet, I haven’t set myself back to the beginning. As long as I recognize my mistake and then get back on it the next day I’m good.

Other habits work in the same way. If you miss your 45 minute get-up-and-move habit. That’s okay. Don’t throw it out the window and give up. Just reset the timer and try to make it the next time. If you miss your planned daily walk, don’t decide it’s just too hard. Instead, recommit to do it the next day.

The study does indicate that the first couple weeks are the most important time to commit and recommit on forming the habit. So, keep telling yourself you are going to stick with it during that time. Don’t give up. If you can get through two weeks, it will be easier to stay committed moving forward.

No one knows how long this social distancing requirement will last. At the moment it’s looking like a couple of months. No one knows if we will cycle through in waves—a couple months of lockdown followed by a couple months of “back to normal” then again a lockdown. No one knows if we will get through this in a few months, but then be faced with it again in Fall or Winter as it becomes part of the regular flu season cycle. No one knows the answer to these things yet, because we haven’t had this particular strain of coronavirus ever. So, it’s good to have a plan. To develop some new habits and routines that you can return to whenever you need.

Father and daughter indoors playing and smilingExcitement Can Drive You Forward, But Monitor Yourself

When I began working from home all the time seven years ago, at first I was excited about how much time I had to work with no commute. Not having to drive an hour or more each way to work made me use those two hours to work even harder. I can tell you that is not healthy or sustainable.

Instead, consider that that commute time is now time you can use to prepare better for your working hours and to spend more time taking care of your physical and mental health. The time you are not driving somewhere is time you can spend with your family, and checking in with those social connections.

If you have any suggestions that have worked for you, please share them so others can benefit from your experience as well.

Stay safe. Stay well. Live with knowledge of what you can control and do that.

For me knowledge and action bring hope for the future. I pray it does for you as well.

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