When the novel coronavirus started spreading across Asia in January, forcing the world’s largest work-from-home experiment, not many knew what to expect, least of all Bloomberg’s 400-plus journalists in the region. Six weeks later (and counting), only now are some starting to return to the office.
Meanwhile, the great experiment is going worldwide as COVID-19 cases mount in the U.S. and Europe, with Spain and France joining Italy on lockdown, and cities such as New York grinding to a halt. Chances are that you, too, will be executing a mandatory telecommute sometime soon, if you aren’t already.
To help get you through your own ad-hoc, at-home office situation, Bloomberg staff in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo offer some tips and advice.
The biggest piece of advice: “Go” to work.
“Try to stick to some semblance of your original routine from before you started working from home,” says Eric Lam, a cross-asset reporter in Hong Kong. If you needed to be at your desk at 8 a.m., don’t wake up at 7:59. “Give yourself a little bit of time before your start to wake yourself up, have a coffee, make breakfast. Especially for those of us, like me, who are not morning types.”
And dress the part. That means comfortable work clothes — not pajamas.
“It makes me feel awake, fresh, productive and less slovenly,” says Kristine Servando, deputy head of Asia digital in Hong Kong. “It was part of the mental trick of demarcating between work and the rest of your life.”
“For the boys: shave,” says Edward Gelband, part of the media distribution team in Tokyo.
Creating an “office environment” is important, too. Try to set up your workspace in a well-lit room or one with as much natural light as possible. Have a good chair. Stand up. Have a lot more meetings: Communicate, communicate, communicate.
Alex Millson, news desk editor in Hong Kong, has an indispensable item to avoid distractions from partners and children: “Noise. Canceling. Headphones.” He adds, “I just bought a pair of AirPods Pro, which are great at drowning out the playgroup we host once a week and other close-quarters distractions.”
He also ordered a lumbar cushion. “It’s totally saved my back — hugely recommend it for slouchers. Of course, it’s no good if you’re working from the sofa.” And his Nespresso Mini Essenza is working overtime. “It’s great because it makes a cup of coffee in 30 seconds. It’s so small, it can sit right next to your workstation.”
And don’t forget the little things, like getting a real mouse. “It’s a game-changer. Laptop trackpads just don’t cut it and could lead to mistakes,” says Lam. An external keyboard is a good idea, too, and if you can swing it, a second monitor.
When you live in your office, it’s easy to overwork.
Servando in Hong Kong stresses the importance of completely logging off when you’re supposed to. Resist the urge to come back to your computer after dinner. “Otherwise, the work life bleeds into home life, physically and mentally.”
“The biggest surprise for me is how fast the day can go without you realizing it, compared with working in the office,” says Lam. “Cutting out the commute makes me feel much more productive with my day. But on the other hand, it sometimes does not feel like you’re actually done with work when your working hours are up. So it’s important to know when to get up and turn it off.”
If possible, designate an area for work, as opposed to using your kitchen table or bed. It helps get you into a better mental space than you might think. Transitioning to a laptop, slower home internet and a laggy virtual private network can lead to major frustration. The key is to minimize it.
“I generally try not to sit on the couch until after the workday,” says Alice Truong, digital news editor in Hong Kong, who created a makeshift standing desk, using boxes to raise her keyboard and monitor. “I also got a new router and gooseneck kettle, both of which have been a boost.”
Megan Hess, also in Hong Kong, says the biggest thing for her was “creating an actual physical space to work, which can be tricky in a small apartment space.”She also recommends adhering to regular morning routines, such as listening to a favorite news podcast while getting ready. “I bought a small table and chair to sit at, and advise getting a monitor and separate mouse/keyboard so you’re not slouched over a tiny laptop.”One major bonus of having a dedicated setup: “After the workday was over, I put all my office ‘supplies’ (notebooks, etc.) away and out of sight till the next morning.”
What if my kids are home, too?
“Three-year olds are inherently attracted to keyboards, mice or anything that clicks, so it’s important that you have things that are even more irresistible handy, like their favorite toys or cookies,” says Young-Sam Cho, an editor in Hong Kong. “Saying ‘No, don’t grab that’ or ‘Hey, I’m in the middle of sending an important headline/story’ just won’t cut it. If nothing works, give them the iPad.
“And don’t ever wake them up.”
Clara Ferreira Marques, 40, a Bloomberg Opinion columnist in Hong Kong who lives with her husband and three kids, stressed the importance of scheduling blocks of child-free time. “This is challenging for most of us who end up alone at home, but not impossible.”
Also: Buy lots of craft material, coloring books, workbooks. Schools will not always provide the right amount of work and you will need to add or fill in.
“Prepare enough books and toys, but give them to kids only in batches,” says Penny Peng, 32, a news editor in Beijing. Think of activities to give them, such as light housework or cleaning their play mats.
And talk to your kids about what is happening, adds Ferreira Marques. Buy the papers. Explain the age-appropriate details. This is new territory for them, too.
Social distancing isn’t easy, especially if you’re used to a bustling office.
“It’s actually been quite a struggle for me to try to stay sane,” says Jihye Lee, 28, a breaking news reporter in Seoul. “I started making sure I talk to someone on the phone at least once a day.”
And although decompressing over lunch with co-workers might be out of the question, that doesn’t mean meals have to be solitary. “I’ve started eating while watching mukbang,” says Lee, “which is a form of YouTube where people just eat … and talk to you.” Her favorites are Boki, Hamzy and Hatnim.
You can also try watching movies with your bestie, just remotely. “When my friend in Beijing was under lockdown (and about to go crazy), I scheduled a lot of weekend movie screenings with her over a video call,” says Servando, who used Google Hangouts. “We’d pull up the same movie on Netflix and start streaming at the same time, and then unmute the call if we had a comment.” She kept the fare light and nongloomy: Top Gun, Taylor Swift’s Miss America documentary.
If happy hour was a regular fixture before working from home, try to recreate it virtually.
One Hong Kong employee said that after three weeks of working from home, a manager helped moderate a video chat for 20 people on their team. With drinks in hand, they talked about their working environment, their pets, their families (some showed their kids on camera) and shared happy and funny stories. The call lasted about 45 minutes.
Although it was strange at first, it was nice to connect to people outside their “office.” Smaller groups of two to three people kept it going over ensuing Fridays.
Most of all: “Be kind to yourself,” says Ferreira Marques. “It’s really hard, and some days all of the above goes out the window.”
Lethargy and weight gain can set in faster than you think. Your daily steps are about to go way down. And that 5 p.m. glass of wine is often much too close.
“Stretch out a lot before, during, or after the shift,” says Servando. “It’s so easy to succumb to the magnetic pull of a comfortable couch and pillow-laden bed and stay there.”
If gyms go on lockdown, as they did in Asia, at-home workouts are a good option. Consider rolling out a yoga mat or doing a 30-minute high intensity set via online exercise videos.
If not that, try pushups: “I’ve been squeezing in pushups throughout my day,” says Truong, “aiming for at least 100.”
For Lee in Seoul, short walks or five-minute workout breaks, such as these free yoga and stretching sessions on YouTube, spread through the day were also useful.
Millson used the change of routine as an opportunity to eat better. “For me, it’s been all about breaking the bad habits that creep into office life — a pack of chips with morning coffee, dim sum in the office on Friday mornings, things like that.”
He stripped all the snack foods from the cupboards, and he and his wife, who was also working from home, decided to go low-carb with meat, vegetables and small portions. “And that’s what it’s been like for three weeks. I’ve lost a couple of kilos so far — eight to go. I just wouldn’t have the willpower to do it in the office.”
Peng took 30-minute online gym classes with her 3-year-old daughter. “We use Keep, a Chinese fitness app. While most people were at home, they designed online class for parents and kids. The activities are as simple as situps or very basics for boxing, gymnastics, with music, of course.”
Ferreira Marques instituted a strict schedule that ensured everyone getting out and exercising at least three times a day: “Morning, lunchtime and evening,” she says. “Otherwise the lethargy takes over.” For her that meant dog walks, football, frisbee, cricket in the park — “and on the weekend, get out into nature as much as you can.”
And if you need to, take a nap. “Japan is one of the countries where people aren’t getting enough sleep,” says Marika Katanuma, 27, digital news editor in Tokyo. A short 15- to 30-minute nap on your lunch break can boost your productivity and keep you focused over a longer day. “It’s a bit like starting a new day.”
Embrace unexpected dividends
Working from home might bring fresh stresses, but with them, fresh rewards. You can listen to your own music, cuddle a cat to relieve stress and get additional sleep. And if you need a second monitor for your computer, it might be the perfect excuse to upgrade your living room TV.
“The irritations of (working from home) are a small sacrifice in the grand scheme of things,” says Rachel Chang, a health care and consumer news editor in Hong Kong.
Plus, “now that you’re not commuting, you’ve got extra time to do all the things that build up,” says Millson, who’s using his to run three times a week and spend more time playing games with daughters age 4 and 5.
“Compile a big to do list, and as soon as you log off, plow through it,” he adds.
Moreover, there’s camaraderie, even outside your company: Everyone understands the challenges right now. “There’s nothing that beats the experience of calling a source and having your toddler crawling toward you because he hears your voice and wants to play with you while the source can hear him playing, or shouting or crying at times,” says Manuel Baigorri, a deal reporter based in Hong Kong. He finds spending more time with his wife and kid an indisputable upside of working from home.
“Being able to have breakfast, lunch and dinner with them, play during breaks with my kid, and just seeing them around the house and being able to talk to them during the day is priceless.”