Breaking up the monotony of working from home

A few practical steps can inject a sense of variety and ease into your remote workday.
Breaking up the monotony of working from home

While finance professionals contend with an ever-changing and volatile economic environment, many are also fighting a daily battle with an invisible enemy: the monotony of working from home. Although some professionals working remotely now find themselves with more “personal” or family time available in the absence of daily commutes, the psychological impact of staying at home and working virtually has the potential to be overwhelmingly negative. In many organisations, managers are becoming all too familiar with complaints about “Zoom fatigue”, “blursdays”, and a gloomy sense of “living at work” as opposed to working from home.

“Despite good intentions, many professionals are drifting into work-all-day mode and are running the risk of living in their inboxes,” said Grace Marshall, a UK-based productivity coach and author of How to Be Really Productive. “This naturally leads to a heavy feeling of monotony, fatigue, and the risk of becoming disengaged over time.”

FM spoke to Marshall and Brad Shorkend, a behavioural specialist and co-chief executive of Still Human, a relevance advisory based in South Africa, which helps employers improve the employee experience, about how finance professionals can proactively break up the monotony of working from home and “arrive” at work with daily inspiration and energy during the pandemic.

Set your intention with weekly themes. “One way to re-energise yourself is to set a theme for every week and build new routines and rituals around this theme,” said Shorkend, who is also co-author of We Are Still Human (and Work Shouldn’t Suck!).

For instance, one week could be Fitness Week — with the emphasis on taking online classes or walking for 20 minutes every morning. The next theme could be “humour”, with the goal of finding ways to lighten the seriousness of the mood and weave humour into meetings and activities.

“By having a theme for every week, you are setting your intention — and intention is most often what breaks monotony,” he explained. “These themes can also encourage you to stop thinking about what the world is doing to you, and instead take back control of your own rhythm and routines.”

Create task zones in the workday. According to Marshall, most of us experience peaks and troughs of energy and focus throughout the day. With this in mind, she recommended creating specific zones or blocks of time in the workday and assigning different types of work (or tasks) to each zone.

“The important part of this process is to match up your energy levels with the type of work that needs to be done,” she explained. “For example, some people are most alert and focused in the early morning, which would make it a good time to engage in deep, immersive tasks such as analytical work or technical writing. In the afternoons or around midday, when focus tends to dip, this could be an ideal time to schedule meetings and more collaborative social tasks.”

By zoning your workday, you can create a sense of variety — while also instilling clear “start” and “end” times to maintain momentum and prevent time-wasting.

Follow the 50:10 rule. By remaining glued to screens for a considerable length of time, professionals not only deepen the sense of monotony but also dampen their ability to be responsive and creative. With this in mind, Shorkend recommended sticking to the 50:10 rule — spending 50 minutes online, and then leaving the screen (including your phone) for ten minutes.

“This requires making key adjustments like keeping meetings to 50 minutes and avoiding back-to-back online meetings,” he said. “Professionals should also look to differentiate between discussions that require a videoconference and those that could be phone calls … as each medium evokes different behaviours and responses.”

With a phone call, for instance, you can go outside, use your headphones, and even walk and talk if the meeting doesn’t require online presentations or note-taking. Phone calls often prompt us to listen more carefully and pay close attention to nuances in tone, which, in turn, can stimulate senses that may have “gone to sleep” at the screen.

Instil boundaries around work communications. In the physical absence of managers and supervisors, many finance professionals may be falling into the trap of making themselves constantly available (across all platforms) — and spending too much time responding to notifications, Marshall cautioned. This “always on” approach can contribute to the perceived monotony of remote working and drain our energy levels throughout the day.

“It is important to have honest conversations about communications etiquette and to clarify the team expectations in more detail,” she said. “For example, how many people can we realistically have on one Zoom call, and what are the expectations around response times on emails as opposed to WhatsApp messages?”

By setting out clear rules and boundaries — and defining expectations — professionals can then use these tools more effectively and eliminate unnecessary distractions (which ultimately lengthen the workday).

Create a mental commute. One way to prevent the insidious blurring of the boundary between work and home life is to create rituals or small daily acts that signify the beginning and end of workdays. For instance, Marshall recommended creating a “mental commute”.

“Whether you have a physical commute or you work from home, give your brain the chance to switch between work mode and home mode,” she explained. This could be as simple as changing your clothes or taking a walk around the block.

“And if you live and work in the same physical space, consider packing your work tools and materials away to signal the transition to your brain.”

Jessica Hubbard is a freelance writer based in South Africa. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at