As the novel coronavirus continues to tear through the world, professionals are being encouraged, and in some areas, mandated to work from home, to reduce the risk of infection and the mounting burden on our healthcare system. Overnight, what was once viewed as a work-life balance perk at law firms has become our new reality 100% of the time for the near-future—until when, we don’t know.
Over the past half-year, as a contributor to ZERØ’s Lives of Lawyers series, I have been exploring the confluence of health, productivity, and competence in the legal sector, presenting actionable insights for streamlining our workflows, allowing us to do more by doing less, feel better, and be more productive.
I believe that it is crucial for lawyers and firms to invest in self-care and wellbeing, not only to preserve the health of every lawyer but also to boost employee morale, retention, client satisfaction, productivity, and value. In this installment, I hope to provide some tips about how best to work from home during this time—how to stay sane, maintain clarity, and focus, and continue working in a fast-moving, unprecedented global emergency. But it’s crucial now more than ever, in the midst of a global health crisis, to create a sense of balance and take care of ourselves, physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Working from Home as a Lawyer: Why This Time is Different
For most of us lawyers, working from home is by no means new—many of us have been working from home one or two days a week, and all of us have experience plugging in from home late night or on the weekend, to meet the 24/7 demands of our profession. But working from home all the time, without the option of going into the office or relying on back-end in-office support, while a global pandemic races through the world at break-neck speed, is unprecedented and presents new challenges.
Notably, this period is scary for many of us, which makes it admittedly difficult to get work done. With family and friends scattered around the world, news developments breaking across networks and platforms faster than the six-minute increments we bill, it is more challenging than ever to maintain focus and stay positive. And while this is not the first crisis most of us have experienced, it is novel in that it is affecting the entire globe simultaneously. Also, the containment measures that require us to self-isolate to protect one another deprive us of the ability to seek comfort by meeting those closest to us—ironically enough, just as many of us have flexibility in our schedules for the first time in our careers.
When working from home full-time, it can be easy to let the workday stretch out to become all day. The boundaries are so blurry, they cease to exist. How do you know when to unplug? Can you ever really unplug? How to decompress after a workday without your typical commute? How do you separate work-life from personal-life when there is no personal engagement to scurry off to?
What the Coronavirus Crisis May Teach Lawyers About Work
And yet, in a sense, while the novel coronavirus has dramatically changed the fabric of our lives, these questions are not entirely new. For years, mobile technology and an increasingly competitive legal landscape have made lawyering a 24/7 job; we have been “on-call” for years, and it has not been clear when to unplug.
Indeed, COVID-19 is exposing our vulnerabilities, highlighting and exacerbating some of our worst tendencies, feeding on our immune systems, which are increasingly compromised by stress. Like any other crisis, it is producing a real change and presenting us with an opportunity to transform: to re-evaluate existing habits, to create new structures, draw boundaries, to manifest what we believe, and to practice patience and empathy not only with others, but with ourselves too. This is an opportunity to directly tackle our own tendencies towards perfectionism, anxiety, depression, and chronic stress and replace these with new habits that work for us—to recalibrate workflows and reprioritize our time, to change some of our habits and routines to make working from home a success. This is the time to ask ourselves when to work, how to work, where to work, how best to create boundaries between work and personal life, and how to streamline each of these in turn. This is really the opportunity for reconfiguring workflows, understanding how we get distracted, and how we can maintain focus. The current pandemic is by far the most extreme case for testing how we can handle extreme stress, weather the storm, and reorient ourselves, but also an incredible opportunity to harness change. Now is always different, and different isn’t always bad.
How to Manage Stress When Working from Home
It can seem selfish to focus on taking care of ourselves when thousands of people are being diagnosed with a potentially deadly virus on a daily basis around the world. But we have more to give when we feel better. As advocates, it can be easy in the time of crisis to try to be there for everyone and neglect ourselves, but this pandemic is a painful inflection point, reminding us that we can only truly give if we have what to give, which requires that we invest in ourselves and prioritize what is truly important to us.
As the structure of our recent-past harried lives falls apart and we stop running from one place to the next, alongside the panic and despair, there is a slight sigh of relief being emitted by many of us. But many of us also experience a pang of anxiety as the social aspects of working with others in an office suddenly disappear overnight. The lack of routine can also induce stress for many of us. For example, what do we do without our morning run before the office, or power yoga lunch break or dinner with friends at the end of the week? With time, even the absence of water cooler talk becomes remarkably profound. Each day bleeds into the next, and a certain kind of desolate, pajama-wearing nihilism begins to set in. Things start feeling bleak, time never-ending, the structure holding it all together gone.
Below are some tips that I have put together to stay sane during this indefinite work-from-home period:
- Try to set up a dedicated working space in your home and make sure not to take your work outside of that space. For those of us who do not have a separate room in the home that can be dedicated to office work full-time, get creative! Make a corner of your kitchen table or coffee table your office space, and when you’re done for the day, pack it away into a corner. But one key piece of advice? Don’t work from bed.
- Don’t be afraid to acknowledge when you’re stressed. We all react to stress in different ways, and there are many ways of dealing with anxiety, uncertainty, despair, hopelessness, and powerlessness. Many of us deal with our worry and the limits of our control with respect to the outside world, by doubling down on work, throwing ourselves into it more than ever, controlling ourselves, to maintain a sense of order. But chronic stress (apart from compromising our immune systems) can be a recipe for burning out. If you are feeling anxious, please know that you are not alone. Mandated isolation and a global pandemic are extremely triggering, but also an incredibly valuable opportunity to explore and find techniques that help you feel better.
- Your routine has probably changed fundamentally, so try to understand where you’re spending your time. Use this free time that you have now to determine what you can effectively delegate and automate..
- Establish and stick to a new routine to create a sense of normalcy. Create nice breaks to look forward to during the day and at the end of the day. Breaks not only boost creativity, but can also help you retain focus during prolonged work sessions, knowing that there is a precise cut-off time.
- Have some fun! There are lots of free and heavily discounted trials during this period—everything from painting, to yoga, to Gaga dance. Try something you’ve always wanted to do. Or even just do something you like and haven’t had time to do in a while – like read a book, doodle or a puzzle. Whatever it is that you want!
- Commit to moving daily. Even if it’s just a little. Whether it’s some light stretching, dancing, yoga, calisthenics— in the mornings, at night, whatever works for you. Movement is proven to help with mental and physical health, reduce stress, improve sleep and bolster cognitive abilities and focus. Consider attending a virtual live class via Zoom in lieu of a pre-recorded one, and inviting a friend to join! Motivating each other helps, and though digital activities are no replacement for in-person ones, you may be surprised by how wonderfully inspired you may feel after spending time with people near and far in such an intentional setting during these trying times. [I certainly am!]
- Set realistic goals and plan accordingly! A never-ending to-do list is unfeasible and unlikely ever to get done, which will leave you feeling unaccomplished, and like you need to work through the night, or more when you should be sleeping! Better to take the time to list what you want to do, assess how long each task is likely to take, prioritize and plan. Consider using the 1-3-5 rule.
- It is okay for you to unplug, sleep, and even watch something other than the news!
- Consider setting up a Zoom conference room for silent co-working. For example, 50-55 minutes of co-working on mute (on gallery view), and then unmuting for 5-minute breaks together on the hour to dance together, talk, or play a virtual game.
- Dress to feel your best. I believe in getting dressed in whatever makes you feel comfortable and confident. For me, that means loose clothing I can move around in, that I feel comfortable sitting in all day. If you’re joining video conference calls, make sure that you’re presentable from waist up.
- Don’t focus on the small stuff. Use technological tools like ZERØ to automate monotonous administrative tasks, or leverage other life hacks that can take some of the weight off your shoulders and help you be more productive when working from home.