Balance and Health

Tips and Tricks for Remote Workers

Working from home has many benefits — no commuting, no need for matching socks — but it also comes with challenges. In the 15 years since Quality Information Partners (QIP) opened, our staff members, who all work remotely, have learned a lot about making the most of this environment. Here, we share some of our best tips for comfort, productivity, and balancing work with the demands of the outside world.

Get ready for the day

Working from home means comfort to many of us, and while some remote workers might find that working in sweatpants and slippers is a great benefit, others find it helpful to treat their home workday as they would an office workday. Showering and dressing each morning can help tell your brain that you are ready for work. Set your desk with the items you need to complete your tasks in comfort. In addition to your necessary work supplies, make sure your water bottle is full, your chair is comfortable, and you have ample light.

Sitting and moving

Many of us who spend our days working from home are using computers, tablets, and smart phones. Relieve eye strain by occasionally looking away from your screen for 30 seconds, ideally by trying to focus on something that is 30 feet or more away.

In a traditional office environment, other people often let us know when it's time to take a break. Set limits on how long you sit in your chair and stare at the computer screen. While it’s wonderful to have uninterrupted work time, it can be too easy to get so engaged in a project that you forget to take breaks, eat lunch, or stretch.

Moving around during the day can help reduce stress and even provide a new perspective on a project — even if that just means spending a portion of the day working standing up or from a different spot in your home. Taking a stroll around the block or doing some stretches outside can also provide a helpful mental break.

Learn more about safe computer use from our staff members’ experiences.

Boundaries

You might remember the dad who was being interviewed by the BBC when his toddler and baby burst into the room. Although the viral video was adorable, being interrupted during important calls, meetings, or, in his case, television segments, is not ideal.

Other humans, be they young or old, can be incredibly disruptive, but there are some great options for creating boundaries between your work life and home life, even when they share a roof. Doors and locks are excellent barriers, however those without locking office doors can consider displaying signs such as "Do Not Disturb" or "Working Quietly." Other visuals, such as noise-canceling headphones, can also let others know you are not available to socialize.

Leaving the "office"

You’ve worked a full day, but you have lots of work left. It would be convenient to just knock out one more spreadsheet or draft one more document. Some remote workers might find it challenging to leave work when they work from home. QIP is committed to promoting balance between work and life, but working remotely means no one is going to turn out the lights on you or lock you out of the building. So, how do you stop working when it’s time to pay attention to life? Consider the following options for creating a clean break from work:

  • Set an alarm for 30 minutes before the end of your workday to signal that it is time to wrap up your work and attend to any end-of-day tasks.

  • If you have an office, turn out the light, close the door.

  • Close your computer and walk away for at least an hour.

  • Schedule a phone call, happy hour, or time with a loved one.

Remember that working from home should encourage a work-life balance that allows you more comfort, more time in your home, and hopefully, the solitude you need to complete your work. The simple strategies offered here can help you get the most out of your work-from-home day and maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Time and Productivity

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What part of the work day is most productive for you? While many employers might like to hear a response along the lines of, “all day, every day,” research into organizational science and behavioral economics suggests otherwise.

"Although managers expect their employees to be at their best at all hours of the workday, it’s an unrealistic expectation. Employees may want to be their best at all hours, but their natural circadian rhythms will not always align with this desire," writes Christopher M. Barnes in the Harvard Business Review.

QIP's founders Beth Young and Tom Szuba have noticed this phenomenon in each other many times: Beth’s peak output is in the early morning, and Tom’s top productivity is in the late afternoon. It is so predictable for them that they often reserve those times of day for thinking deeply about an issue, writing an important report, or cranking out a proposal. After all, we all should be at our best when we have to accomplish our most important tasks. Does this mean that Beth and Tom aren’t productive during other times of the day? Of course not; they simply plan to undertake certain energy-demanding tasks during windows in which they expect to be most productive.

Peak productivity can certainly be a function of habits and routines, but it goes much deeper than that. In fact, it is at the core of our human biology—circadian rhythms and our natural body clocks. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, “A growing body of research suggests that paying attention to the body clock, and its effects on energy and alertness, can help pinpoint the different times of day when most of us perform our best at specific tasks, from resolving conflicts to thinking creatively.”

Unfortunately, according to Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke whose work is profiled in the Washington Post, the vast majority of people do not take advantage of their body’s peak hours:

"Almost 80 percent of people take their most productive hours of the day, between, say, 8 and 10 a.m., and basically squander them on things like Facebook and e-mail. I have nothing against them, but they're not something you need high capacity to do. You have very few hours in the day when you’re at peak performance, so every minute of these hours that isn't spent doing something important is just waste."

How might this affect your work? For starters, do you schedule your (and your team’s) most demanding tasks to reflect your most productive times in a work day?

"Consider this circadian rhythm when setting assignments, deadlines, and expectations," writes Barnes. "This requires taking a realistic view of human energy regulation, and appreciating the fact that the same employee will be more effective at some times of the day than others. Similarly, employees should take their own circadian rhythms into account when planning their own day. The most important tasks should be conducted when people are at or near their peaks in alertness … [and] least important tasks should be scheduled for times in which alertness is lower."

Of course, you can’t schedule work for your peak performance windows if you don’t know when they are… so, if you don’t already recognize your performance patterns, we encourage you to take some time to identify them. Perhaps even keep a journal to see when you feel most alert and how it affects your output. Once you get your head around these periods of “peak” time, schedule your most important and energy-consuming tasks for those windows.

As for the rest of the day? There are plenty of less demanding tasks that will fill your time—including time sheets, status reports, and desk straightening—so you’re still working a full day but, hopefully, more productively if you are using this awareness of your body’s natural performance rhythms to get the most out your “peak” windows.

If you find this to be of interest (like we do), check out the following links for more information about performance science and peak productivity windows:

https://turnerproofreading.com/identify-peak-productivity-hours/

https://www.lemonade.com/blog/how-to-be-more-productive-at-work/

https://www.inc.com/oscar-raymundo/how-to-maximize-the-two-most-productive-hours-of-the-day.html

https://examinedexistence.com/the-science-of-productivity-video-by-asapscience/

Crucial Tips for Safe Computer Use from Real-Life Experiences

A few QIP workers have learned working long hours on the computer can cause pain and injury, but have thankfully healed and discovered how to prevent future problems.

Some of us at QIP work from home, while others work on-site; in either case, we tend to spend much of the workweek pressing keys, grasping and clicking mice, gliding fingers on touchpads, and looking at screens. All of these activities put one at risk for problems that a QIP director, a graphic designer, and a writer/editor have experienced.

Luckily, some of the most common risks inherent to these types of activities can be mitigated by following a few key protocols. Though we are not doctors and are not offering medical advice, a sharing of information and resources, as well as an examination of our successes and lessons learned, may be helpful to other computer professionals.

Use proper ergonomics, and take breaks from the keyboard and mouse

Aches, pains, tingling, and numbing in the hands and arms can result from a poorly designed workstation. QIP Communications Director Deanna started experiencing those symptoms many years ago. She now practices proper ergonomics and other measures to remain healthy.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides a Computer Workstations eTool with a broad array of information about working at a computer safely. The site includes explanations of how to set up an ergonomic workstation, checklists for workers and employers who wish to evaluate workstations or purchase equipment, and best practices for avoiding the muscle damage that can result from repetitive use.

While there is a lot of information on the site, and computer professionals should be aware of all of it, here are a few tips we’d like to highlight:

  • Hands, wrists, and forearms should be in a straight line.
  • Elbows should be bent at between 90 and 120 degrees.
  • Feet should be flat on the floor or a footrest.
  • Throughout the day, take regular breaks from the computer.

The OSHA site includes helpful diagrams that illustrate proper ergonomics. Another source with a user-friendly diagram is the Computer Ergonomics page provided by the University of Michigan to advise students on safe computer use. A single, printable poster on this site illustrates proper workstation posture.

Both OSHA and the University of Michigan University Health Service warn that using laptops safely presents special challenges. According to the University of Michigan site, “Laptop computers are not ergonomically designed for prolonged use. The monitor and keyboard are so close together that they cannot both be in good positions at the same time. For prolonged use, it's best to add a separate monitor and keyboard.”

QIP Writer/Editor Liza started experiencing muscle pain as a result of non-ergonomic laptop use with insufficient breaks. She, with the help of QIP, invested in a new monitor, keyboard, mouse, and wrist cushion. These items help her maintain a healthy posture and maximize the comfort of her arms and hands. She also began taking breaks from the computer every one to two hours, as well as a lunch break away from her desk. She reminds herself to take breaks by setting an alarm each time she sits down to use the computer. Liza says, “The health of my arms and hands is important to my job—and to everything else I do. Investing a little money in ergonomic devices, and also being proactive about taking regular breaks, allows me to work as a computer professional without pain or problems.”

Deanna discovered that regular massage; arm, chest, and shoulder stretches as shown in this Prevention article on doorway stretching; orthopedic arm bands that compress the muscles; and a kneeling chair ease the pressure on her forearm muscles and alleviate her symptoms. Even proper hydration can make a difference in how her arm muscles feel, something she learned from her massage therapist. “I was initially misdiagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. I later discovered that my issue has to do with the overuse of the muscles in my forearms,” Deanna says. “Regular massage has by far been the most effective element of managing my symptoms, but being mindful of how often and the manner in which I use my arms, and being aware of my posture, are crucial to my health.”

Position the monitor appropriately, and take breaks from screen viewing

Hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, backs, and legs are not the only parts of the anatomy that can be harmed by computers. Unfortunately, it is also common for modern professionals to experience eye pain or vision problems due to prolonged or nonergonomic screen viewing.

The OSHA Computer Workstations eTool contains information on how to safely use a monitor and how to avoid eye strain due to lighting and glare issues. Here are a few of the many recommendations OSHA gives:

  • The top of the monitor should be at or just below eye level.
  • The monitor should be at a right angle to a window with bright light.
  • Throughout the day, take regular breaks from looking at screens.

An article in The Atlantic on eye health contains information about how to protect your vision if you’re a heavy screen user like those of us who work with computers for a living. According to the article, experts offer this advice: “Take what they call a ‘20-20-20 break’: Every 20 minutes, give yourself 20 seconds to check out what's going on 20 feet away from you.”

QIP Senior Graphic Designer Jess got valuable advice from her eye doctor when she started experiencing vision issues. She says, “I now designate, within every hour, a few one-minute breaks when I do not look at any screen. Instead, I look out my window or go onto my balcony to simply look around.”

It can happen to you

It can be easy to dismiss health recommendations, to assume that they apply to other people, but not to you. Each of us at QIP who were harmed by computers had never dreamed that it would happen to us. However, if you work on a computer for a living, it pays—literally—to follow the protocols advised by experts. No one wants to miss work due to health reasons. And no one wants everyday life to be disrupted due to painful muscles or vision problems. Professionals who use a computer can mitigate or avoid many health issues by ensuring that the workstation is set up ergonomically and by taking regular breaks throughout the day.

Deep and Shallow Work: Why Both Are Brain Essentials

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Think about some businesses or organizations you have visited recently. Did the employees working there display a commitment to quality? You can likely remember instances when you witnessed extreme quality—or the opposite. How do great employees do great work? One of our QIP core values—committing to quality—involves two very different types of work. It turns out that both types are essential to the human brain’s ability to be productive.

Deep work produces quality

The scholar Cal Newport coined the term “deep work” to refer to distraction-free, cognitively demanding work. In his book Deep Work, he cites evidence that many workers are continuously distracted by email, text alerts, phone calls, social media, and clickbait temptations, and have trouble finding sustained time to think deeply.

Consider whether you engage in deep work, for around 90 minutes, without distraction, on a regular basis. If so, that’s great. If not, Newport has some recommendations:

  • Change your phone notification settings.
  • Find a work environment that minimizes disruptions.
  • Schedule deep work sessions into your day.

QIP Program Manager Kris Dunman, for example, protects her deep thinking time because attending to tasks such as emails, phone calls, and meetings, while very important, sometimes prevents her from accomplishing deep work. She marks calendar time slots as busy when she needs to focus on specific projects. She says, “I aim to respond quickly to colleagues. However, phone calls and emails can make it difficult to accomplish work that requires focus. Fortunately, I can rely on team members who help to make sure our projects balance responsiveness with time for deep thinking.”

Don’t skimp on shallow work

Newport notes that the human brain can sustain only about two deep work sessions per day. More than this on a regular basis will exhaust your brain’s daily capacity for deep work—and you risk burnout. What Newport terms “shallow work” plays an important role in helping our brains recover from deep work sessions, as well as process the problems we were tackling in those sessions. Therefore, email, text messaging, and Internet surfing can have an important place in our lives—so long as shallow work is not all we do.

In a New York Times article about the value of “wasted” time, Lisa Belkin writes, “Over the years I have come to see that the hours away from the writing are the time when the real work gets done . . . a paragraph turns itself this way and that in a corner of my brain even while my fingers are buying books on Amazon.com.”

Deep vs. shallow

Reflect on how much deep versus shallow work you tend to do each day, or each week. If the balance seems off—you are either working deeply too often and burning out, or shallowly too often and feeling unable to concentrate—strive to gain the necessary balance. Finding time for both deep and shallow work is just one way you can enhance the quality of your outputs on the job. We find that striving to keep this balance helps us stay true to that particular QIP core value. Indeed, our commitment to quality runs so deep that we named our company after it.

Making Work-Life Balance a Priority

At QIP, we don’t just hire employees. We work to build a team of people who know they matter and who’ll stay with us for the long run. The productivity of our company depends on having a steady team. We know that if our company operated like a revolving door, we wouldn’t be able to maintain the high standards we’re known for. A long-term team of committed workers translates into an efficient business with long-term success.

So, when we tell our team to balance work and life, we mean it.

Sure, exciting things are happening around here on the professional front. But it is our current team of people that is the secret ingredient behind our accomplishments. Since founding QIP in 2004, we have seen that good people with good skills and good clients with good projects make for a wonderful workplace, and a successful company.

As we continue to develop our business, we aim to sustain our QIP culture. Our philosophy is that while business success is important, fulfillment in life is even more crucial. That’s because when things get out of balance, workers tend to either leave or lower their standards. On the contrary, workers who feel fulfilled in their personal life will bring the best of themselves to work each day.

We therefore honor work-life balance and adhere to a 40-hour work week. Yes, if our employees have a big deliverable or proposal due, they may be asked to commit more time that week. However, on a routine basis, we expect that employees will strike a healthy balance between QIP needs and personal needs.

We tell our team, on a regular basis, two things:

  1. You matter and we are happy to work with you.
  2. We want to be in this with you for the long run, so be sure to fit work into your life—and not the other way around.

This healthy perspective on individuals, teams, and life beyond the office continues to make QIP a great place to work. We are thrilled to continue to have happy employees who successfullydeliver to our clients, year after year.