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13 minute read

How to Work from Home Effectively

Jason Huddle: Tom Cooper is a trainer and coach who works with teams to improve communication, teamwork and performance. He’s also a homeschooling dad of eight kids and has been working from home for more than a decade. I’ve asked Tom to share some insights about working from home.

Tom Cooper: I got an email yesterday from a person who’s working through this and she said, “You know, for many of us we we’re home schooling or enacting distance learning plans while juggling full time work. It’s challenging.” So, the first thing I would say, “How do we keep our sanity in this? You know, this is a season. We’re going to get through this.”

This feels like it’s never going end, but it will. Don’t lose hope in that.

So, if we’re gonna get really practical about it, how much routine can you continue to have? What can you do to make it seem normal? So, …I would recommend that you get up every day with an alarm, you know?

You know, you get dressed, you go to a workplace. Now, your workplace might be your dining table. It might be a card table in your bedroom. It might be whatever it is, but you go to your workplace, and you do your work thing, and I think that there’s something psychological about having the space to go do the thing. It’s a work thing. And you know what stopped me the other day about this? They were saying, when you go to work, you pack your stuff and you get in your vehicle and you commute to the office and you get to work, and then you get your cup of coffee. You’ve got a routine. You’ve got a prep for work routine, and then you’ve got an end of day routine that you already do. I would encourage folks to do some kind of a routine.

Jason Huddle: Doesn’t that also come with getting the family to respect that? In other “I’m in a place where I’ve got my own space and so I can close the door that has it. The normal sounds in my office are kind of contained in my office, but you might have a spouse who’s working in the same space with you. You might need headphones on to keep from distracting and so I would recommend that you pick (some) up.“ words, if you are “at work,” whether that be the dining room table or upstairs in an office, the family understands. This is the same as Mom or Dad being at their office. We can’t just interrupt them. We can’t just call them whenever we want. We have to treat it just like they’re at their office. Isn’t that true, too? Tom Cooper: Absolutely right. I put a sign on the door that says, I’m on a call, please don’t disturb. So yeah, the idea of being able to say “I’m at work” is reasonable. And I told my kids, you know, if you need to reach me during the workday, send me an email. If it’s urgent. You can text me, but send me an email and I’ll schedule a time to talk to you. And that sounds kind of crazy. But the reality is, if I’m gonna be able to be effective in the work that I’m doing, I need to have a think time. And I can’t just have my door broken down, or somebody interrupting (me) every 10 minutes.

Now, I’m super sensitive to the fact that I’m blessed in that my wife works outside the home. And so, she kind of corrals the home school activities during the course of a day. But it’s still very interruption-driven, you know?

And what do I do about these kids interrupting me all day? Well, you have to bake that into the process. Ask them to not do it. But then, they’re gonna need your attention. So, you’re gonna need to find a way to be able to find natural breaks in the process. Give them a cadence where they’re able to connect with you every hour or two. A couple of minutes to connect with them— checking in. “How’s school going?”

Give yourself a little bit of a mental break, but recognize that part of the stress that you’re under is that we are social creatures and we’re made for connection.

What’s going on…with them, and how can you help smooth them into the next activity? Because they’re used to having a structure, and they really need a structure right now. Putting them in front of a tablet or in front of a screen, it’s not gonna be great for them. So, you might need to send your kids to play for the next hour. I’m gonna be on a conference call. You need to go outside and play.

And I think it’s good for us to get outside. Your kids need to get out. You need to get outside.

But…thinking back on our productivity, one of the things that I want is an appropriate level of production. But in this season, none of us knows what a good hard day is because we’re under the kind of mental or emotional stress that we’ve not been under before.

Jason Huddle: True.

Tom Cooper: And so you gotta give yourself a break, you know. It’s not reasonable to expect that you’re going to be able to juggle all the balls and act like you’re not juggling all the balls. It’s okay to slow down a little bit and to be able to walk away at the end of your workday. And that doesn’t mean that you can sit and watch Netflix or DisneyPlus. Now, you might have to do that. You might need a mental health break in the afternoon because you might just be totally stressed out, and that’s okay, but you gotta find a way to figure out what your productivity is and be able to do that work.

And then the other piece that I think is just critically important…is the human connection. That is super valuable. I would recommend some kind of virtual happy hour with folks.

Pick up the phone and call people. People have time to talk. I received a call yesterday from somebody haven’t talked to in months, and he just needed to talk, and it was great to catch up with him. So it’s okay. Give yourself a little bit of a mental break, but recognize that part of the stress that you’re under is that we are social creatures and we’re made for connection.

Jason Huddle: Those are all great points. Even during a workday, you get up, you go have some coffee, you go to the water cooler. You do certain things during the day just to give your eyes a break. Move your muscles a little bit, even if it’s for five minutes. You need to keep that routine at home.

And then the other piece that I think is just critically important…is the human connection. That is super valuable. I would recommend, you know, some kind of virtual happy hour with folks.

Tom Cooper: Absolutely. I mean, there are times where…I’ve got to go clear my head a little bit because my brain functions best when it’s fully in order, just like the rest of your organs. When your body is moving around, that helps you, too.

So, being able to be intentional about saying I haven’t stretched in a while. I’m sitting in a chair that’s maybe not the best chair for work. I’m sitting kind of hunched over a table, and it’s not the right height for my keyboard. And so my back is kind of scrunched over. You probably need to be thinking about that.

I think the other component that I wanted to mention is communication with your boss. Have great conversations with your boss about what’s reasonable and what’s expected; what’s achievable during this season, because you might feel like you’re doing a great job and your boss might be frustrated. You’re not producing as much, or you might be just beating yourself up. (You may) feel like you’re a lone performer and your boss is barely keeping their head above water and your boss might be feeling intimidated by how much work you’re doing.

Jason Huddle: Regardless, remaining relevant is key. Whether you’re talking about your boss, or just running your business and making sure you’re out there in front of people, keeping that awareness up for your customers. Either way, it’s critical for sure.

A lot of people overlook some details when it comes to these virtual meetings that we’re all having. Why don’t you talk a little bit about that, Tom?

First, practice, practice. You need to know how these apps work. You could set up a test meeting. I’m telling you right now, get one of your co workers and say, Hey, I need to practice this stuff a little bit and we get on a Web X together?

Tom Cooper: I’ve been doing virtual meetings for a very long time, and I’m excited because we have not been in a good position ever before. I mean, the tools are more accessible and more functional. All these tools are terrific for being able to have that type of connectivity in remote connection and the like.

First, practice, practice. You need to know how these apps work. And the good news is that you can get free accounts. You could set up a test meeting. I’m telling you right now, get one of your co-workers and say, “Hey, I need to practice this stuff a little bit and (can) we get on a Web X together? Can we get on a new meeting together? I just want to play with some of these features. This is all new to me, and I don’t want to look like an idiot. Would you be willing to help me?”

And your coworker’s having the exact same problem. So, make the time to practice. Figure out how to I set up a meeting (and) invite people.

You know, those kinds of things matter, because it helps you look more professional during the meeting. You don’t have to be an expert, but you need to figure out the basics. How did I get into the meeting? How to get out of the meeting? How do I view those people other than the host? How do I start a meeting invite? Practice that stuff because when you need it, you don’t want to be stressed out going on schedule a meeting and I (have) never even looked at how this works. Can I talk for just a second about how to look good?

Jason Huddle: Yeah, absolutely. Please.

Tom Cooper: So the first thing we’re gonna realize that the stuff that was put into your laptop is probably the cheapest possible component they could put in there, whether it’s a camera, whether it’s a microphone.

Also, your microphone placement matters. If you’re trying to take notes by typing during your meeting on your laptop, every stroke is gonna “clackety clack” right on top of the microphone. And so, it’s gonna make you sound terrible because, you know, they can’t hear you over the sound of the 1940’s typing pool where you got people on typewriters…typing away. That’s what you sound like. So, I would strongly recommend that you look at how to get a better microphone.

All the Instagram models can tell you that angles matter, and so if you’re laptop is on your desk, or worse, on your lap, that camera’s pointed up your nose.

Jason Huddle: I find that using headphones helps me hear everybody better, too, especially in a situation where you have multiple people and they’re all talking. I don’t know. For me, it helps me kind of decipher who’s saying what.

Tom Cooper: Yeah, I’m in a place where I’ve got my own space, so I can close the door … The normal sounds in my office are kind of contained in my office, but you might have a spouse who’s working in the same space with you. You might need headphones on to keep from distracting and so I would recommend that you pick (some) up. But your audio is the most important thing you can improve to make you sound better (and) look better on the video meetings.

The next (step) is around your video. All the Instagram models can tell you that angles matter, and so if you’re laptop is on your desk, or worse, on your lap, that camera’s pointed up your nose. Nobody wants to look up your nose, literally.

If you’ve got nothing else, get a couple of those Amazon boxes that are piling up in your house, because you’ve been ordering stuff.

Put it on your desktop and put your laptop up on top of the boxes and have that camera right (at) eye level.

That will make a huge difference, because that will get you in a place where you can be seen more like you.

Also, when you’re talking on a meeting like that, look at the camera. Don’t look at the stream. Look at the camera because…if I’m looking at the screen, I’m kind of looking down. It feels weird now…but it makes a big difference in the way people perceive you, so that could make a difference.

You might consider upgrading your webcam. You know, by getting a webcam, you could put on a tripod on your desk. You might find that’s a huge improvement. One of the nice things about that is that you move your body a bunch and your camera moves every time you do that. If you’ve got your webcam on a tripod, fixed in position, then you just look less fidgety—not as distracting for folks.

Jason Huddle: Can I also add to make sure you’re aware of exterior noise around you? Like if there’s people talking, or even if you’re unwrapping a piece of candy or things like that, just mute yourself for a second and do that

It’s so distracting when the speaker is talking and they’re giving some good points and I can’t hear because of somebody’s peppermint. Tom Cooper: That’s really good.

Jason Huddle: Talk about lighting and also give us a few horror stories that you’ve seen.

Don’t put your camera facing the window with you between the camera in the window, because then you look like you’re in the Witness Protection Program. So turn yourself around. Have the window in front of you, right in your face, so we can see your face.

Tom Cooper: So the most important thing you (should avoid) is have your face be eliminated. That means don’t put your camera facing the window with you between the camera in the window, because then you look like you’re in the Witness Protection Program. So turn yourself around. Have the window in front of you, right in your face, so we can see your face. You can spend the money on lighting. I’ve got some ideas about that. But realistically, don’t have your face in the dark. People want to see your face.

But…just look at yourself in the camera and see. Do I look like I’m in the Witness Protection Program? Is there a bright light behind me? That’s probably the biggest mistake that I’ve seen made.