Large numbers of staff have had to get to grips with the ups and downs of working from home during the COVID-19 outbreak. After a decade of doing her ‘office job’ from home, Gou Group’s Mindy Vanden Berg has some words of advice for employees and employers
The COVID-19 outbreak saw many staff forced to abandon their offices at short notice and set up at home. For a large proportion, it was the first time, and the learning curve about the do’s and don’ts of working remotely has been a steep one.
With 10 years’ experience of working from home, Mindy Vanden Berg, Director of Partner Relations and Business Development at Gou Group, has good advice on the best practice to make it work for the benefit of employees and their companies.
To begin, she says that, in a moving business, there are not many office tasks that you can’t do at home. ‘I believe all aspects of a move manager and the pricing/rates teams’ roles do not require a person to sit in an office, especially with advances in technology that allow people to: have virtual calls; instant message; upload, store and share documents, templates, and so on; book freight; create shipping documents; download AWB/OBLs; and obtain online pricing and upload rates.’
She has also found that, if you get the right group together, remote working also operates well for decentralised senior management teams.
‘Each member has their own defined roles and responsibilities, and there is no ambiguity on what the common objectives and goals are,’ she says.
While she has enjoyed ‘every moment’ of working from home, Vanden Berg says there are some vital criteria for success.
Define your space
‘First, you need to have a dedicated workspace in your home, or wherever you will be working – preferably with a door that you can shut behind you when you are working, and when you close up shop at night,’ she says. ‘A shared desk or computer where you both work and conduct your personal business, perhaps in the same living space where you cook or eat or spend family time, will never work, because the lines will become blurred between work and free time, and your work/life balance will be disrupted.’
If you have a family, it’s important to establish clear rules with your partner, spouse, children – even pets (‘if your cat is as annoying as mine’), she says.
‘I have 16-year-old twins in high school, so they come in after school to have a quick rundown on their school day, then they know that I still have a few hours of work ahead of me, so off they go.’
Discipline is also essential, she says, so that during a working day ‘you don’t get sidetracked with everything else that goes on at home – housework, kids, nice weather calling you outside, and so on.’ However, it’s also very important to get up from that desk ‘at least once an hour for five-10 minutes to clear your mind, stretch your legs – whatever you need to do to decompress for a few minutes. I can promise you that productivity will go way down if you don’t do this one simple thing.’
At the end of that working day, be done, she adds. ‘Unless you have a job where you need to be available 24/7, when you leave your office and close the door for the night, leave your cell phone in the office.’
Working at home can feel isolating at times, and Vanden Berg says making an effort to be more socially active with friends and family is vital to provide the camaraderie and personal interaction that you would have on a daily basis in an office.
Before COVID-19, she explains: ‘I made sure to exercise regularly with friends and my husband, joined a book club and had monthly ‘mom’ nights, where we rotate making dinners, chat and catch up on life.’
The time you you save is yours
Also, do not trade your commute time for work time. ‘For 17 years, I commuted from my home to the office, 28 miles away,’ she says. ‘With Seattle traffic bad even then, it took me close to an hour each way, on a good day. When I traded the office for a home office, instead of using those two hours to spend more time with my family, get creative with cooking and exercise more – like I vowed I would do when I started working from home – I found myself working.
‘Thankfully, I have a husband who was not going to let me get away with that and, after a year or so, I learned to stick to a realistic work schedule – for the most part.’
Finally, it’s important to be very honest with yourself about your situation. ‘Working remotely is not for everyone, so you have to assess yourself and determine if you are disciplined, dedicated and interested in your job enough to stay focused,’ says Vanden Berg. ‘If you aren’t, you are only going to set yourself up for failure, because one day it will catch up with you.’
For companies managing remote teams of workers, Vanden Berg recommends they touch base weekly, have daily stand-up calls, respect family time, and offer flexibility in the schedule.
‘Set goals and objectives outside of just daily work and be sure to hold annual performance reviews,’ she says. ‘If possible, have an annual face-to-face meeting with the entire team, so people can reconnect and the team can continue to build the relationships among team members.’
Keep in touch – but don’t overdo it
Most importantly, don’t overburden your virtual team with unnecessary meetings – give people time to do actual work.
‘I have seen it with my husband while he has been working at the house; there is a tendency to feel like the team isn’t connected enough, so they set up meetings and then have meetings after the meetings, and he ends up working well over 10 hours a day just trying to keep up.’
Vanden Berg says companies that, during the pandemic, have put homeworking in place, can seize a dual opportunity to improve efficiency and benefit employees. ‘Realise you can give your staff a better work/life balance,’ she says, ‘and productivity improves when they don’t have people stopping by their desk or going to get coffee.’
With fewer staff working in the office, companies can also benefit from lower property overheads, and the ability to cover different time zones, as it allows recruitment from a global, rather than local, pool of talent.
However, Vanden Berg warns it’s not for everybody: ‘My husband is extremely anxious to get back into the office as he is very restless working from home.’