Working From Home: Tips From UC Davis Experts

Researchers Weigh In

Woman works from home with dog.
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Two, maybe three phones are ringing. Your children are screaming for lunch. Your cat hops in your lap. Someone’s video game is emitting awful noises, and you are trying to write a report or engage in a conference call. And you can’t find the mute button on Zoom because it’s covered by your email that you opened while multitasking.

Sound familiar?

Kim Elsbach
Kim Elsbach, UC Davis Graduate School of Management

We are one week in to California’s shelter-in-place order that moved many workers’ offices into living rooms and guest rooms.  

Here, University of California, Davis, offers two helpful perspectives. Our first tips come from a San Francisco-based, part-time MBA student in the UC Davis Graduate School of Management — Connie Xu. The second block of tips comes from Kimberly Elsbach, a professor of management in the GSM whose research expertise includes reputations, especially images of legitimacy, trustworthiness and creativity. This includes how one is perceived in an office or work-from-home environment.

Five tips for working from home

Xu wrote these tips for working at home after the city of San Francisco first issued its order last week.

  1. Take a shower in the morning and change into work clothes. This may seem like a simple step, but this mimics your normal workday routine. By jumping in the shower at your normal time, and changing into normal work clothes, you can trick your mind into thinking it’s just a normal day at the office.
  2. Eat a hearty breakfast. Make sure your belly is satisfied, and you’re hydrated as you begin your work day. There’s nothing worse than scouring the kitchen for snacks minutes before your conference call with your supervisor. If you need a quick fix, try ordering food for delivery to free up more of your time. Eating healthy contributes to staying healthy, and there are many simple and easy recipes online. 
  3. Ensure your kids or pets have plenty to do. Whether you set your kids up with an iPad or another activity, or give your dog a meaty bone, this is an important step to maintaining productivity while working at home. Projects, like those found at KiwiCo, can also provide a useful distraction for your kids while you get some work done.
  4. Set a work schedule. 10-minute breaks and hour lunches can quickly turn into naps on the couch. Be proactive and set a timer or keep an eye on the clock as you take normal breaks. Be sure to stand up and walk around during these breaks as well. If you’re stuck at your desk all day, you’re sure to lose focus. UC Davis GSM Professor Elsbach recently discussed the benefits of walking meetings here.
  5. Work in a dedicated work area (away from the bedroom). Setting up a desk in a spare bedroom, much like an office, is the best way to maintain productivity and isolate yourself from distractions. If you don’t have an extra room with a door to block out extra noise, the kitchen table will suffice as a makeshift office. Be sure to avoid your main bedroom, as this tends to lead to chores or sleepy habits.

Xu also recommends exercise. More tips from her in this blog on the Graduate School of Management’s website.

Perception is important

Elsbach, together with Jeffrey Sherman, UC Davis professor of psychology, researched the working-from-home phenomenon in a paper published in 2010. They interviewed dozens of researchers and managers. Elsbach later authored a second paper on the subject.

“My work on face-time bias indicates that you may be judged as less dedicated, committed, reliable or dependable if you are not ‘seen’ working”— which is the case for everyone who is working remotely right now, she said.

“This suggests that checking in visibly with supervisors and co-workers (through Zoom, Skype, etc.), may be important to maintaining positive perceptions of your reliability and dedication in the minds of those who assess your performance.  It also suggests that, if possible, supervisors should get rid of subjective ‘trait assessments’ on performance evaluations.”

She explained that this means, instead of looking at things like “citizenship” or “leadership” in performance evaluations, managers should switch to more objective assessments of performance output, such as the number of projects completed on time. She added: “These suggestions are useful all the time — especially since some people work remotely when there is not a pandemic.”

In conducting the research, Elsbach and her co-authors collected anecdotes of the ways that employees may create these perceptions remotely, including:

  • Make regular phone or email status reports
  • Be immediately available
  • E-mail early or late in the day

Better yet, maybe you should turn on the video on those zoom calls. But you might first want to follow the advice in Xu’s tip No. 1.

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