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One Month Into Working From Home: 5 Keys to Making WFH More Human

With so many people working from home right now, there’s no shortage of advice online about home office technology – how to use video conferencing or reposition your router.

Those things are important for productivity. But what our team at WillowTree has discovered in the first few days is the single most important thing for your teams is to make “WFH” mean “We Feel Human.” Our experience has been that the whole team works better when we are connecting with one another as people first: That we recognize the inherent stress everyone feels in the face of the pandemic, and that we give everyone on the team the room to adapt and adjust in the way that works best for them.

We’ve asked everyone at the company for their ideas and feedback about how we’re doing and what matters. What we’ve learned is that by following five rules, we have been able to keep people engaged for our business, our customers, and most important for one another.

  1. Acknowledge each other. Without the physical gathering place of our offices, we’ve lost the everyday opportunity to simply greet each other, to relate to our colleagues as people. When you have a Zoom meeting, build in time to say hi to everyone. Ask people how they are doing, and really listen to the answer. Re-establish the social bond that has been cut. My colleague Hannah White calls this simple act of acknowledgment a “GAME. CHANGER.”
  2. Be there for your team. While lots of people may have dreamed about working from home and wearing sweatpants all day, for many others the lack of social interaction is a source of anxiety. The larger your team, the more likely you will find people who feel isolated working from home, not liberated. It can be stressful, and people can get depressed – especially people on your team who live alone. So, it’s vital for leaders to check in with people, be visible, and proactively engage. Grant Arle, who manages a programming team for us, started having five-minute “water cooler” calls with each person on his team to reduce the sense of isolation: “Even if you get them to talk for two minutes, that can keep them engaged.”
  3. Compassion is crucial. The office is a shared environment that’s familiar, and when you’re there people’s expectations about when to schedule meetings or set project deadlines are pretty solid. When people are working from home, though, everyone’s circumstances and environment are unique. With schools shut, many people will be caring for their children while trying to work (I can relate: I’m home now with my four kids ages 7-12, and my wife is a cancer surgeon who is going to work every day). Other people may be responsible for the care of an elderly relative or a sick partner. The dog needs to be walked, the house quiet so the baby can nap, or the home office space shared with a partner who’s also WFH. Leaders and team members alike need to practice patience, respect schedules, and be flexible about when and how teams communicate – as my colleague Jared Govan notes, “we should constantly be reevaluating the appropriate medium for a conversation.”
  4. Diminish distractions. At home it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the news about the pandemic, the economic fallout, the politics around it. It’s also easy to be bombarded by Slack, texts, emails and the like. Focus becomes a problem and then people begin to be even more anxious about being able to finish a task or project. Leaders should encourage teams to shut off those outside feeds – and minimize the inside information barrage – so that people have time to focus. Remind them, too, to get up and walk around like they would in the office; it’s too easy to be stuck in the chair all day.
  5. Enough is enough. When you’re in the office, you go home at the end of the workday and tend to your personal life. For your teams, working from home should be no different. Even if someone can’t create a work-only space at home, they need to be able to make their home work-free for the night. Let them know it’s OK to quit your email, close Slack, and put away the laptop. Go pay attention to your family, your pets, yourself. Exercise a little, open the window, have some dinner, pick up a book, call your friends. In our family, we’ve found that we actually are able to slow down and pay attention to each other more than when we’re all hustling to the office, school, sports practice and everything else. Leaders can help, too, by not sending emails or messages after hours unless they are absolutely urgent.

None of this is easy – we’re all learning as we go. So far, we’ve been able to keep our teams together and working, but also making sure that all of our people keep themselves together. This could well be the new normal, too, so the more leaders can understand about making WFH more human now will help shape their businesses once the pandemic is behind us.

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