Combating COVID-19 isolation working from home – Tips for new remote workers

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The COVID-19, or Novel Coronavirus, outbreak of early 2020 has many employers and employees suddenly thrust into an entirely new work scenario, working from home (WFH). To many, the sudden shock of going from an office filled with peers you can walk over and chat with, to sitting alone at home with your laptop, is causing feelings of isolation. While there are many excellent articles on how to work from home, most of them assume the ability to venture out into public, which is not an option until COVID-19 has run its course. 

I have been WFH for over eight years and would like to share with you some tips that have helped me combat feelings of isolation.

The Space

Create a comfortable workspace

Creating a comfortable Work From Home space goes a long way toward fighting isolation. If the space you’re working from is not comfortable you will not want to be there, which will lead to further discomfort and irritability during the work day. 

The first step is physical comfort. Ensure your desk is big enough to hold all your equipment, and at the proper height. Get your computer monitors up high enough that your head is not tilted down to prevent neck and back pain. Like the Wirecutter article on “The Best Office Chair” states, “Buying an office chair is like buying a mattress: If you’re spending a third of your life in this furniture, it had better support your well-being and not break your back. If you have a full-time desk job, 14,000 hours is the minimum amount of time you’ll spend sitting over the next 10 years (assuming you sit in a chair for at least 35 hours a week).” You will be sitting for quite some time having a comfortable office chair is an absolute necessity. Your chair is not an item you want to skimp on, it’s an investment. Read reviews and visit an office store to try out the chairs to get a feel for what is available. A bad office chair will leave you feeling sore and uncomfortable at the end of the day. Over a long enough timeline, it can cause long-term issues.

Other desk and office issues you may want to address for your comfort and health, are wrist pads, an ergonomic mouse, etc. and anything that makes repetitive motions inherent in your job more comfortable for you. If something is uncomfortable, listen to your body and invest in your comfort. There are many online, free ergonomic assessments to assist you in setting up the office space that is right for you. You will thank yourself later!

Mayo Clinic – Office ergonomics: Your how-to guide

Once your physical comfort is taken care of, start looking at emotional comfort. An emotionally comfortable environment is one that makes you feel happy to be in. The elements that make up this are: sights, sounds, and smells. Often incorporated elements are: wall colors, photos of family, artwork on walls,live plants, and lighting, whether salt lamps, dimmable bulbs, or candles.

Over the years, I have experimented with many types of home office setups. My current setup is:

  • Standing desk – I have found, due to a back injury as a teen, that standing for a portion of the day helps significantly reduce my back pain.
  • Mix it up- Standing all day can be physically exhausting. Usually in the mornings I will sit for a couple hours, then spend the bulk of the day standing. 
  • Raised monitors – Raising monitors on custom stands enables my head to be leveland eyes straight forward. This again is important to reduce strain on your neck and back.
  • Essential Oil Diffuser – This creates a nice smelling environment. Depending on my mood I will use different oils. You can experiment with citrus for energy, vanilla for calm, find what works for you.
  • Sailboat artwork – Sailing is my happy place! Seeing sailboats on the wall reminds me of those happy times.
  • Fish tank – I have enjoyed the fish keeping hobby for decades. There is a little 10 gallon saltwater reef tank just to the left of where I stand. When I am stuck on a problem, watching the critters in the tank for a few minutes helps me relax. It provides a great brain break.

Music

Music is a powerful way to alter your mood, quickly. Pick out music that is soothing and not too distracting. The occasional song that comes on that you want to stop and sing with is ok, but keep it to a minimum. Many people find they are better able to concentrate with instrumental only music. My go to is piano solo music, in a modern style when I want something in the background that is calm. To get my brain amped up I will listen to music with binaural beats.

Volume is important here too. It should be loud enough that you are not struggling to hear it, and quiet enough that it is not distracting. With either extreme your brain is going to pull your focus away from your work.

Podcasts and Audiobooks

At the office there is a constant hum of other people’s voices. Working from home, there is silence. As happened to me when first starting WFH, you may not realize how much you miss hearing others voices. Combating that is simple, turn on some voices! Turning on a podcast or audiobook at a low volume tends to trick my brain into thinking other people are around and reduces feelings of isolation. However, if you do turn it on, make sure it is not something that demands your focus. Just as in the office, you want the words to be flowing around you, not demanding your attention. 

I have found that history books and biographies are great as I can actively listen during interesting parts and let the rest roll over me. The goal is not to absorb all the material, but to create that feeling of humanity around you through hearing other people’s voices.

The Work

Chat

One of the fun things about being in the office is hearing the chatter around you- people’s plans for the weekend, sports debates, and even the ability to stop by someone’s desk and chat for a few minutes.

This can still happen in the WFH world, but it takes a bit more effort. Chat programs, such as Slack, can be leveraged in many ways to promote communication and a feeling of inclusiveness. 

Here at Mindsize, we make heavy usage of Slack in our day to day communication. Some of the ways we use chat:

  • Department specific channels
  • Project specific channels
  • Interest specific channels

While departmental and project channels allow us to stay connected with our work, the interest channels keep things exciting and personal. We have interest channels for all sorts of things, ranging from foodie photos, to gaming, to how we support and give back to local communities.

See each other

Staring at text all day can be dehumanizing. Video calls have a way of spicing things up when being physically present is not possible. At Mindsize, we utilize Zoom for video calls. Zoom has a free tier that allows a group of people to video conference for 40 minutes. The lower tier paid plans are very affordable and allow for unlimited call lengths.

Zoom has desktop and phone apps so it is not at all uncommon for someone to take their dog on a walk and hop on a call at the same time. Coordinating dog walks on Zoom would be a great way to share the experience!

Stay social

Tapping into social media is another great way to stay connected to your network. Not only is social media a great way to stay connected, many years ago I was able to harness Twitter to build a sizable network across my industry. People many thousands of miles away I consider close friends.

Take breaks with family

One of my favorite parts about working from home is that I get to take regular breaks and go play with my 11 month old daughter and have lunch with my wife. Being in the office does not afford that luxury.

Patience is required to teach your family that you are not available all the time for play. A common strategy I have seen used is the “Closed Door Strategy”. If the door to the office is closed, I am in work mode and should not be disturbed. 

As great as it is to see family, the amount of time it takes to context switch if they are freely flowing around you can be maddening. I highly encourage you to develop a schedule with your family, for play time. It will help you and them get through the maddening cabin fever together.

The Balance

  • Watch shows together (i.e sailboat racing in olympics)
  • Work on that hobby you have been postponing
  • Remember, friends and family are only a text or call away

Watch shows together

Outside of work hours, you still need to stay sane. Try watching a show with a friend via a video call. Each of you will start the show at your house at the same time, and can chat about it as if you were in the same room together. (If you have Netflix, an app was just released, Netflix Party that easily enables you to watch with friends.)

This may sound like a strange concept at first, but it works out quite well with a little effort. During the last Olympics, a sailing buddy and I watched a replay of the sailboat races. He would send a link to the particular race to watch and then we would sync up the time in the race watch from. It was not perfectly aligned, but it was close enough that we could share the experience and chat back and forth without fear of spoilers. 

That hobby or project you have been postponing….

We all have them, those half finished hobbies and projects just waiting around for some lovin’. Now is a great time to pick it up and run with it. You will feel a great sense of satisfaction with the accomplishment. You may even make some new friends while researching information online! This is also an excellent time to engage family members.

Friends and family are only a text or call away!

The most important thing to remember when you are feeling isolated is that friends and family are only a text or call away! And, they may be feeling isolated too. Pick up that phone and dial. Use services like Zoom and Facetime to stay in touch with family. Particularly useful for grandparents wanting to see their grandkids.

Stay connected to the people around you and those feelings of isolation will be kept at bay. We will all get through this trying time, together!