Simon Henning outside in China while wearing a face mask

As employees around the world face the prospect of long periods of remote working, how can we work effectively, keep connected and stay positive?

For the last seven weeks I’ve been stuck in an apartment in northeast China. What started out as a family visit for the Chinese New Year has turned into a coronavirus-induced period of isolation and (very) remote working.

I’m used to remote working, but this is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. It’s hard going. It’s called on every trick in the book to keep the spirits up, the body healthy and productivity ticking over.

It’s also a challenge that businesses and thousands of workers in the UK are now facing, as the country gears up to tackling the coronavirus on our own shores. It’s unlikely to see the extremes of movement restriction and other measures I’ve been experiencing here in China, but many businesses won’t have managed remote working on this scale. Many employees won’t have worked from home before – at least, not for an extended period.

Be prepared

Thankfully there’s a wealth of advice and support that’s a mere Google search away. But to get the best out of it, you really need to be planning for remote working right now – from the technology you need, through to ground rules and ways of remote working. You really don’t want to be fretting over these things on day one of working from home.

If you’re a manager, now’s the time to work out how your team is going to adopt remote working. When are those regular one-to-one check-ins going to happen? How will people report back to you, and how often?

This won’t only be important for getting a regular work pattern of remote working bedded down, it’ll help with engagement and morale. Isolation can be a sapping experience.

The myth – remote workers are slackers

Let’s just bust this one right away. Plenty of studies show remote working doesn’t wreck productivity. In fact, the opposite tends to be true.

You need some solid basics in place though – the right technology, well-managed workloads, clear objectives and effective lines of communication, for example. Nothing new there; but neglecting any of these can be deal-breakers for effective remote working.

Mental wellbeing

There’s the mental toll of remote working to consider too. Being deprived of the social and collaborative benefits of working within a team in an office environment can be a tough gig.

I’m a big fan of Leapers, a community that supports the mental health of freelancers and the self-employed. It’s recently published a very useful guide for anyone working remotely under stressful conditions.

The ‘basics’ mantra is to eat well, sleep well and get some exercise in. The guide also provides tips around structuring your day, remaining social, and maintaining a healthy mix of communications with your colleagues – it’s not all about staying in touch via email. The human voice, especially, helps people feel connected and eases the sense of isolation.

Importantly, the guide reminds us to listen and share. Take the time to ask colleagues how they’re getting on – and let others know how you’re doing too.

As someone who’s been fending off cabin fever for seven weeks, I can well and truly vouch for all these things. More than anything though, I’ve found that communication is the difference between effective (and enjoyable) remote working and an unhealthy, lonely chore.

There really is nothing like the sound of a human voice to close a 5,000-mile gap.