By Curt Stedron
Dogs barking, kids crying, a half-clothed spouse walking past your desk: It’s just another day at the COVID-19 office.
As the coronavirus shuts downs organizations around the world, legislatures have found that they are not immune to the shift toward “teleworking,” or working from our homes. And while this concept may have been a tempting fantasy for legislative staff in The Time Before, a full month of telework has exposed a new, less ideal reality: Working from home presents unique challenges to legislative staff in their quest to provide high-quality service to their institutions.
To that end, let’s explore some best practices designed to maximize our home-based effectiveness, both as individual staffers and as leaders and managers of staff teams. For optimum results, experts in the telework field suggest employing the three Rs: routine, rules and relationships.
Even though you are now working from home, each day should begin with a relic from the past: a commute to the office. Carve out a physical space to serve as your work zone, conducting all work-related activities in this location. And while your commute may be no longer than a short walk to the guest room, basement or garage, psychologically it represents a clear boundary between your home life and your work life.
One of the key challenges cited by telework gurus is the unhealthy blending of previously separate worlds—waking up to check email in bed; or creating your next day’s to-do list while camped on the couch at night watching Netflix. Establishing a daily “commute” to your “office” creates a hard border between work and not-work, which serves to increase our focus and productivity when we are actually on the clock.
The key principle here is simple: schedule, schedule, schedule! One of the biggest traps we fall into when we work from home is a randomized day. This is particularly true if you have a spouse or children at home with you. To overcome pinballing around all day between random tasks, create a detailed daily schedule in 30-minute increments. Even if your day requires non-legislative duties (like helping your child with homework), your overall effectiveness will increase if you map out each day in a detailed manner.
As leaders, surely some of that scheduled time will include virtual meetings. Be sure to set some simple rules for your online interactions:
- Keep them short! No more than 30 minutes. Human attention spans break down quickly in a virtual world. Assign homework in advance (items to review; proposals) so that meeting time can focus solely on points of clarity or key decision making.
- Engage your participants: unmute, turn on the video and ask questions. Keep the team involved in any discussion and avoid long lists of announcements.
In the legislature, relationships are the coin of the realm. And no workplace element is more disrupted by our move to telework than our relationships—with our co-workers, the legislators we serve, and other stakeholders that we normally connect with. As those interactions transition into the virtual world, work-from-home veterans suggest two simple tactics to bring people together in more meaningful and organic ways:
- Ask better questions. Too often the default question we ask one another in a coronavirus world is: “How are you doing?” Instead, try asking questions that increase our cohesion with others by inviting them to think creatively, rather than reflexively:
- What habit have you started, or broken, while in quarantine?
- What’s the last thing you’ve read that shifted your thinking?
- How would you like this experience to change you?
- What is your COVID nickname, or alter ego?
- For leaders, try to use your virtual time together to expand insight into other team members. If you are having a Zoom meeting, allow someone to give a “virtual tour” of their house. Or let someone share (appropriate!) photos from their computer archive. Seeing each other in a new light can have a huge influence on supercharging our team relationships.
Surely the shift to a telework world is a challenge we never expected to deal with when we joined the legislature.
Yet in this new paradigm, an old truism is reinforced: Legislatures are laboratories of innovation and invention. And when we apply that same spirit to our work-from-home lives, we find that—despite the barking dogs and crying kids—we are more than capable of adapting to our new reality, rising above these challenges to fulfill our vital purpose as stewards of democracy, and endeavoring as always to improve the lives of the citizens of our states.
Curt Stedron is NCSL’s Director of Legislative Training.