6 Tips for Concentrating and Communicating While Working From Home

Author: Convene Editors       

No morning commute, no stopping by your colleague’s desk to say hello, no lunch at your favorite restaurant around the corner from your office — the daily routine is feeling much different for many workers as the world works to contain COVID-19. If working from home is creating challenges for you, the Convene team is here to help. We have always worked from our home offices, kitchens, couches, favorite cafés (not possible right now, sadly), and a range of other locations with a Wi-Fi signal. Consider these tips to stay productive, healthy, and sane as you adjust to your new normal.

working from home

David McMillin’s intern, Alfie, is always eager to help.

Start Your Day With No Screen Time

We all spend significantly too much of our lives looking at the glimmer of smartphones, tablets, computers, and televisions. Each day, I aim to spend the first 45 minutes without looking at any of those screens. I make coffee. I take our dog outside. I talk to my wife about what’s on her agenda for the day. I go on a walk or a run around my neighborhood. It helps me feel fresh and ready to focus on tackling my assignments, conducting interviews, and responding to emails. And in today’s current climate, which involves me refreshing my news alerts far too often, I find this routine to be even more essential for my mental health.

Cups of coffee consumed each day: Three

Favorite work soundtrack: John Coltrane

Place I miss most these days: Elaine’s Coffee Call, my go-to spot for working away from home

— David McMillin

work from home

Michelle Russell’s home office gets natural light from an east-facing window.

Get Started Early — and Watch the Sun Rise

I’ve been working from home regularly for 20 years! I’m probably unfit for an office at this point.

My usual thing is to get up early — I can get a lot done at my desk before 7:30. There are no incoming emails or anyone pinging me on Teams, and it’s quiet in my house. Just me and my extra-large mug of coffee and the glow of the laptop in the semi-darkness. I catch up on emails I might have missed, skim a few newsletters to see what’s going on in the world, and try to tackle something that needs my undivided attention. The window next to my desk faces East so I get to see some lovely pink sunrises — an added incentive to get out of bed by 6 a.m.

I am happiest when I can get a good walk in with my dog in the afternoon to clear my head and stretch my legs. I have failed miserably, however, at keeping regular office hours, and I call it quits around 9 p.m., when I recognize that I’m clearly not doing my best work.

working from home

Roscoe Russell waits for his walk.

Cups of coffee consumed each day: I limit myself to three extra-large cups, and never in the afternoon or I’ll be kicking myself and staring at the ceiling at 2 a.m.

Favorite work soundtrack: I prefer silence, although when I’m really stressed, I light a candle and listen to Damien Rice.

Place I miss most these days: Dunkin’ Donuts! I used to walk three miles a day, back and forth to my local Dunkin (for cup No. 2), but now I just brew from home.

— Michelle Russell


Manage Multitasking

working from home

Barbara Palmer likes to escape her home office for lunch on the fire exit.

One of my most-used features on my phone is the timer — I use it to carve out uninterrupted chunks to work on projects that require my better thinking. There’s tons of research that shows that constantly switching between tasks weakens our memories and concentration skills, along with our ability to filter out unnecessary information. It’s not always possible — our jobs and our tools sometimes demand constant attention — but the habit of using a timer helps me switch over easily to focused attention. I’ve also learned to take a minute or two before I respond to email. We learn a lot about what people mean by their facial expressions and email is notoriously bad at conveying emotion. Over many years of working remotely, I have learned to take a deep breath when I encounter a tone or comment in an email that I don’t like, and focus on the facts that the sender is trying to communicate. I get — and likely give others — lots of opportunities to practice that.

Cups of coffee consumed each day: Two cups and two cups of ginger tea

Favorite work soundtrack: I can’t listen to music, but sometimes I listen to recordings of waves at the beach

Place I miss most these days: Toss-up between Postmark Café in Brooklyn and any bookstore at all

— Barbara Palmer

work from home

Casey Gale keeps her planner nearby at all times.

Keep a Detailed Planner

For folks who aren’t used to working from home, our new reality might feel like every day is a free-for-all. But in order to maintain a routine (and your sanity), consider keeping a planner to map out what each day should look like, both professionally and personally. What tasks do you need to complete for your current assignments? Which coworkers should you virtually check in with, and when? Then, what chores do you want to complete once you’ve shut your laptop for the day? If you concoct a plan for both work and home duties, they’re less likely to intersect. I know the dishes are begging to be washed, but save that for once you’re off the clock.

Cups of coffee consumed each day: One

Favorite work soundtrack: The Infinite Acoustic playlist on Spotify

Place I miss most these days: Victoria’s Bagel Bistro, my favorite local café.

— Casey Gale

‘Chunk’ Your Time

work from home

Flowers brighten Cristi Kempf’s home workspace.

“Chunking,” where you tackle tasks throughout the day in specific blocks of time, is not my usual work-style MO. But with so many people working from home (including me) — and with so many lonely — I am finding it a lifesaver. Texts from friends or emails from colleagues that are not related to anything that must be done on a particular day get parked, with the latter getting attention at the middle and end of the day and the former getting attention once work is done for the day. What used to be “quick” exchanges rarely are during this COVID-19 crisis as folks are cut off from their usual routines need information, reassurance, and, frankly, kindness. And while I’m a rabid list-maker in normal times, that list is getting “chunked” now, too, with my tasks grouped by musts, try to’s, and hope to’s. That’s been a big help so that I keep focused and limit stress and save my reserves for the acts of kindness that in this painful time are no longer optional.

Cups of coffee consumed each day: 100

Favorite work soundtrack: Must have silence

Place I miss most these days: My car, because I don’t go anywhere

— Cristi Kempf

work from home

Curt Wagner’s boss, Twiggy, makes some demands during the work day.

Talk, Talk, Talk

This probably goes against every expert’s tips for managing your time while working, but I find that verbal communication helps me focus on work … when the conversation is over. I need to talk (my office pod mates will confirm this, possibly with frowns on their faces). Emailing, texting, or other messaging just doesn’t cut it.

I’m not talking hours of time, but when I was in the office, I needed to get up and visit someone face-to-face instead of asking my question electronically. Not always, but definitely when it involved more than a simple explanation on my end or a quick answer on theirs. It’s collaboration, and sometimes you get even better ideas from that discussion.

Now that we all are isolated during these self-isolating times, I find talking to someone keeps me on track, not to mention calm and less likely to go nuts. So pick and choose which work conversations would be better over the phone or in a video meeting, and go for it. If nothing else, you’re making sure people you used to see every day are doing OK, and maybe that verbal collaboration will lead to more hacks for working from home.

Cups of coffee consumed each day: Four in the morning, three cups of Earl Grey tea in the afternoon

Favorite work soundtrack: No soundtrack, but at least three phone calls a day

Place I miss most these days: First Slice for their pie, and Edge of Sweetness for their hand-made bagels and other goodies

— Curt Wagner

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