‘No one wants to Zoom with an egg avatar.’ How to keep your health, sanity and career afloat while working from home

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Workers are grappling with layoffs, income loss and a lack of paid sick leave as the coronavirus pandemic upends the American economy. And though millions of employees are unable to do their jobs from home as public-health experts urge social distancing, many white-collar workers are now navigating a brave new world of remote work.

Some 45% of employed people say they could do at least part of their job from home if a quarantine or school or work closure required them to stay home, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey of 1,216 adults. Several employers, among them Google GOOG, -2.05%, Apple AAPL, -2.45%, Twitter TWTR, -10.13%  and Microsoft MSFT, -4.21%, have asked employees to work from home in an effort to stem the spread of the COVID-19 disease.

But folks unaccustomed to working from home might now find themselves struggling to be productive, juggling work against demands from children or spouses, and feeling socially isolated. Stress related to the coronavirus, which had infected at least 7,769 people and killed at least 118 in the U.S. as of Wednesday, has taken a toll on some Americans’ mental health, the poll showed.

Laurie Ruettimann, a Raleigh-based author and human-resources consultant, suggested offering coworkers “grace and the space to make mistakes” as everyone learns to cope with the new normal. “If we start to accept that in the next 30 to 60 to 90 days we’re in a transition period, and the rules are out the window,” she said.

“I think we’ll calm down and feel better about all the mistakes we’re about to make,” she told MarketWatch. “We’re going to miss out on important things, the chain of command is going to be disrupted, and we have to be OK with it,” she added.

Here’s advice from Ruettimann and other experts on how to survive working from home in the age of social distancing:

Communicate work hours to your boss and your family

Set clear boundaries around your time for you, your family and your colleagues, said Susan LaMotte, the CEO of the consulting firm Exaqueo, who has worked remotely since 2011. Keep “a very updated calendar” so that coworkers can see when you are and aren’t available. “If you tell people that family time is 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., you don’t respond to the text or answer the call that comes through unless it’s an emergency,” she said.

‘There’s an opportunity here to really rethink the way not only we work, but the way we live. Why anybody would replicate work-life-balance stress in a time of coronavirus is beyond me.’

Laurie Ruettimann, an author and HR consultant

And during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, LaMotte added, be very clear about any resulting changes to your work schedule. If you’re a boss or manager, communicate to your team if scheduling expectations (i.e., working on weekends) have changed.

Switch off all distractions and remind everyone else you’re working and taking breaks, says Paige Cohen, a senior associate editor at the Harvard Business Review, in a short video on remote work.

Ruettimann, who has worked from home for about a decade, called the idea of work-life balance in the age of coronavirus “a myth.” “There was no work-life balance before,” she said. “There isn’t going to be work-life balance now that you’re working from home.”

In fact, Ruettimann doesn’t buy the idea that you can replicate your usual work environment at home. “If anything, I lean in heavily into my home routine and I try to fit work around that, and that makes me a little bit happier,” she said. She prioritizes activities like eating meals, talking to her family and working out — and once she has an idea of how her day looks, she schedules her work around it.

Get an ‘accountability partner’ or an alarm to log off

Remote workers who “take a risk and start to guard their schedules and claim a little more time for themselves” will benefit, Ruettimann said. “There’s an opportunity here to really rethink the way not only we work, but the way we live,” she said.

“Why anybody would replicate work-life-balance stress in a time of coronavirus is beyond me — if anything, this is the time to say, ‘Wait a second; I’m going to do what I want to do. I’m going to do it on my terms,’” she added.

Of course, having greater autonomy still calls for being responsible and accountable to your colleagues, she added — and going easy on coworkers when they inevitably make mistakes.

Easy access to home amenities and lack of an obvious hard stop — say, a bus or train to catch — can make it difficult to stop working when your work day ends.

To that end, you can “build your own trigger” to signal that the day is over, said Julie Kratz, the CEO of Next Pivot Point, an inclusive leadership training and speaking business. Your cue might be sundown or dinner time, she said, or when your kids want to interact with you.

You can also designate an accountability partner to make sure you both stop working at a certain time, LaMotte said, akin to a workout buddy. Or you can set a timer on your Google Assistant or Amazon AMZN, +1.23%  Alexa as a quitting-time cue.

Set up a separate work space for focus and efficiency

Working from home can actually be more efficient than working in an office, according to some studies: When a company in China allowed some call-center workers to work from home, the productivity of those workers rose 13%. The workers at home took fewer breaks during the work day and there were fewer absentees, company executives found.

But they also got more done during work time, the study found. The reason: Fewer distractions at work, fewer meetings, less office politics, and less time spent trapped at the water cooler by a talkative coworker.

‘Think about the major requirements of your job, and divide this into chunks of time, so you can lay out your day and make some progress on each of these issues.’

Elaine Quinn, an author and small-business consultant

Find a separate space where you can focus, experts say — ideally, a separate room so you can “close the door and shut out other members of the household,” says Quinn. If that’s not possible, she added, use headphones.

Next, structure your day. People suddenly working from home can feel panicked and disoriented.

Their day can lack structure, and they don’t have other people around them to help provide it. Establish your priorities and goals for your work day and your work week, then pretend you’re back in grade school and structure your time the same way, said Elaine Quinn, a small-business consultant and author of “There’s No Place Like Working From Home.”

‘Because kids’ schools are closed and people may be distracted with the news, we need to be conscious of that instead of making people feel guilty or scared.’

Think twice before sticking with an egg avatar on video calls

Consider switching to video conferencing instead of conference calls, say consultants Bob Frisch and Cary Greene, as they promote stronger engagement. Managers should set up regular meetings using a video-conference technology such as GoToMeeting or Zoom ZM, +6.85%, said Quinn.

Instead of counting your work hours — like making up for a slightly longer lunch by working a few extra minutes — count your effort, Ruettimann said. Your overall effort and quality of work should be consistent with what you would produce in the office, if not better, she said.

Ask yourself if you’re doing your best, performing at a level you’re proud of, and being helpful to your colleagues. Does your work product meet the same standards it did two weeks ago?

You might wonder: Is it OK to wear a sweatshirt in a meeting? What if my child disrupts a call?

Ning Wang, the CEO of Offensive Security, a remote-based company that specializes in cybersecurity training and certification, said that while she doesn’t dress formally, about a third of her employees wear business-casual attire during virtual meetings.

Others prefer not to be seen and participate in meetings using audio only, but think twice before that. No one wants to Zoom with an egg avatar. If everyone turned into an egg online. How would that make you feel? You may be busy with your family, but you may have another colleague who is isolated and living alone.

Seriously consider participating in a live stream and, if need be, switch back to your avatar when you are not speaking. Nothing compares to seeing a friendly face. What’s more, when staff are out of sight, they can often be out of mind. It’s the time to build upon, not neglect, your impression management. Make your voice heard, experts say, and your face seen.

‘Stay away from things that take you out of the moment and disconnect you. Alcohol, too much screens or even emotional eating can sort of numb you out.’

Joshua Rosenthal, a clinical psychologist

Wang, who manages a team of more than 200 employees in 24 different countries, asks all employees to attend meetings on time and notify the appropriate person at least 10 minutes in advance if they can’t make it.

“Because kids’ schools are closed and people may be distracted with the news, we need to be conscious of that instead of making people feel guilty or scared,” she said.

Joshua Rosenthal, a clinical psychologist and the president of Manhattan Psychology Group in New York City, said it’s critical to remain flexible and engage in honest, open communication. “Over-communicate rather than under-communicate,” he said. But don’t bombard people with emails or Slack messages either. Pick up the phone.

Bosses, Rosenthal added, should aim to send at least one email per day to their staff to assuage concerns and make sure their employees know that their work is valued.

With an entire company working from home, it can be hard to figure out when people have stopped working for the day. One way to gauge this is to see if they are online on Slack WORK, -9.50%, if the company uses that or a similar messaging platform.

Wang recommends going the extra mile and snoozing Slack alerts when you are done for the day, or even at periods during the day to avoid feeling overwhelmed from a constant stream of Slack messages. She rarely contacts employees when they have the snooze function on because she knows that it means they’re done working.

Working remotely can be intense and lead to burnout

Telework has both positive and negative consequences for mental health and well-being for workers doing their jobs from home, according to a 2017 report from the International Labor Organization and the Eurofund.

The lack of a commute means workers have more free time to spend with their families, but researchers also found that working remotely leads people to work more intensely, “leading in some cases to greater employee stress and burnout.”

It can also “lead to a blurring of the boundary between paid work and personal life, leading to problems for the health and well-being of these workers,” researchers wrote.

‘Generally speaking, most people are able to maintain a more consistent exercise habit before the cares of the day vie for your attention.’

Cedric Bryant, the American Council on Exercise’s president and chief science officer

Go easy on yourself. “I would consider this the week of acclimation,” Rosenthal said. “Be forgiving to yourself — if this is a stressful week, next week will be very different.”

Mental-health experts also recommend engaging in stress-reducing activities such as going outside for fresh air or a walk if you can, reading, and engaging in group activities such as board games with the people in your household. Also, don’t stay in your pajamas all day.

While it’s OK to cope with the stress of working from home by watching TV or having a glass of wine, Rosenthal said these shouldn’t become habits. “Stay away from things that take you out of the moment and disconnect you,” he said. “Alcohol, too much screens or even emotional eating can sort of numb you out.”

It’s also important for workers to have “unstructured time together,” during which people can talk about what they’re going through and get advice from one another, Wang said. Last week, she organized a company-wide Zoom call in which employees shared jokes and offered emotional support.

LaMotte, in a similar vein, has scheduled a Friday virtual lunch with her employees using the online-workplace platform Sococo. “A number of people were saying that they were starting to feel really sucked into things and just consumed and overwhelmed,” she said.

There, coworkers can share how they’re keeping their kids occupied, what they’re reading or watching on Netflix NFLX, -1.34%, or yoga-workout recommendations, she said.

…and don’t neglect your physical health

Physical activity can help people manage stress, improve sleep and elevate mood, said Cedric Bryant, the American Council on Exercise’s president and chief science officer. he said.

But finding time — and space — to exercise is much easier said than done when public-health officials are advising people to stay six feet apart in the name of social distancing. It’s also challenging when working remotely, especially if you have kids who would otherwise be at school.

People can still manage to incorporate exercise into their lives now, Bryant said. Walking, cycling, hiking and jogging are all outdoor activities that can be done without getting in close quarters with others, he said.

Outdoor “boot camps” can also work — so long as participants bring their own weights, jump ropes or other equipment.

Indoor activity is another option, he said: That could mean a circuit of push-ups, lunges and squats, or following along with free streaming services geared towards adults and children.

To name a few free options, Planet Fitness is livestreaming classes on its Facebook FB, -1.65% page. GoNoodle has movement videos geared towards kids. And then there are all sorts of exercise videos on YouTube, including yoga classes and Just Dance segments. Peloton PTON, +1.34%   is now offering a free 90-day trial, and users don’t need the bike for the services.

The American Council on Exercise has a selection of exercises for adults and a YouTube channel. Build Our Kids’ Success, a physical-activity program for which Bryant is a board member, has livestreamed classes on its Facebook page.

Adults should get 150 minutes of physical activity a week, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention advises. But people can space those out, for example, with a 15-minute morning walk and a 15-minute evening walk for five days, Bryant said. Thirty minutes in a day could even be sliced further into some five- or 10-minute segments, he said. Try scheduling alerts throughout the day, reminding yourself to get off the couch and move around.

You might want to put your physical activity at the start of the day, Bryant said. It all depends on a person’s schedule, he acknowledged, but “generally speaking, most people are able to maintain a more consistent exercise habit before the cares of the day vie for your attention.”

Learn to coexist with others in your household

People working from home should also make sure that they set clear boundaries and expectations with anyone they live with, whether that’s a partner, child or roommate. This will help to reduce conflict within the household and maintain work-life balance.

If your spouse, partner or roommate is also working from home, it helps to have a conversation early on about how you each like to work and stay focused, LaMotte said. Discuss which points in your day might have more flexibility, she said, and communicate the day’s major work priorities so you can both be considerate of each other’s needs.

If your partner is giving a presentation and you have a shared home office, give them dibs on the space. If you have an important conference call, your partner can be mindful about making noise. If you have kids or noisy neighbors, let them know that you appreciate their musical choices, but that it’s no longer appropriate to play music loudly.

“Don’t wait until the end of the day to decide who’s in charge of dinner or takes out the trash,” she said. “If you’re both really busy and stressed and you haven’t defined those roles, it makes it really hard to determine who’s going to do those things.” Be sensitive and respectful to the fact that another person is sharing your workspace, she said.

In other words, don’t be an egg head in real life, or on Skype.