Working remotely: What was considered a nice perk not too long ago is now a required way to work in many places across the country. With the COVID-19 pandemic, companies of all sizes are being disrupted, and many workers are suddenly adapting to new, albeit temporary, business environments.

Remote working can be a very different experience from being in the office, and the quick shift to this arrangement can be jarring. What are the best ways to stay in touch with colleagues and managers? Do you have all the right tech equipment? Is it even possible for entire teams to work efficiently, all from different locations? (Hint: It is.)

Professionals across the globe have been successfully working from home for years and have laid a firm groundwork of best practices that can help you navigate unfamiliar territory, individually and at a scale of full teams and entire organizations.

When reading the following 15 tips on working remotely, remember that they’re not hard-and-fast rules. Everybody’s situation is unique, and exceptions and bumps in the road are to be expected when so many people are adjusting to a new normal. So, don’t forget to give yourself some leeway during these challenging times. Here are tried-and-true ways to maintain focus and morale when working from home:

1. Stick to a schedule (as much as possible)

One of the biggest keys to working remotely is to maintain a regular schedule, ideally as close to your normal work hours as possible. For one, you want to be available at the same time your coworkers are to avoid delays in responding to questions or problems. It also helps prevent the temptation to let working hours blend into personal time, which can slowly drain you of much-needed energy on both fronts.

At the same time, you want to be flexible about your routines. Try to keep your start and end times fairly regular, but don’t be so rigid that you feel obligated to take breaks or tackle the same tasks at the exact same times every day. Keep it fluid. It’ll help keep you sharp.

2. Find your space

Having a workspace separate from your personal space is also vital – again, if possible. If you have a spare bedroom or any room that you use less often, convert it into your home office. Keep the door closed as much as is practical. When you’re in that room, your immediate surroundings become a constant visual cue that you should be in work mode.

If you don’t have a separate space where you can work, try sitting in a different chair or on the opposite side of the sofa. Even subtle changes can be effective for putting you in your professional headspace.

And keep your home workspace organized. Visual clutter can add to your stress level. Plus, you don’t want to be tripping over cords and cables that aren’t normally running across the floor.

3. Know your prime time for productivity

You know how — and when — you work best on certain types of projects, so let that be your guide of what to tackle when. For example, if mornings aren’t your best hours, avoid working on the most critical or challenging assignments until you’re more alert and productive, and use the early hours to handle more routine tasks. Or vice versa. You might not be able to avoid a conference call that’s outside your prime time for collaborating, but play to your strengths as much as you can.

4. Protect your work-life balance

When your office is where you live, it’s easy to let work bleed over into your off-work hours. Don’t let that happen. At least not consistently. Work-life balance is crucial for mental health and productivity. Never being completely unplugged can quickly lead to frustration and burnout. Be the guardian of your personal time and shut down your work computer or applications when your workday is over.

Resist the temptation to try to power through a project because you think you can “wrap it up in just a couple more hours.” And avoid the lure of email after you’ve shut down for the day. Use that time for yourself or your family.

Of course, there might be some nights or even weekends you need to work longer, and that’s understandable as long as it’s once in a while and not most days. And when you do temporarily shift your work-life balance this way, recognize that not everyone else is doing so.

If you need to email a colleague on a night or weekend, make it clear that you don’t expect a response during nonwork hours. As an extra precaution, add something like “— not urgent” to the subject line so the recipient knows right away that you respect their work-life balance.

5. Distance yourself from distractions

Another reason for a distinct work-from-home space is the barrier it puts between you and all possible distractions — your devices, TV, the fridge and all the other things that might be calling to you since you’re at home.

And the same goes for anybody you live with. Try to make sure significant others, kids or roommates know to not disturb you when you’re working as much as possible unless it’s something critical. Of course, interruptions may be unavoidable when everyone is inside together all day every day, so just try your best to be patient and calm.

6. Don’t neglect breaks (or your neck and back)

Just as you would at the office, take a break every so often when working from home. Stand up and leave your designated work area every few hours. Take 15 minutes to get in some quick meditation or stretching, check in with a friend or family member, or go for a walk to get some fresh air to re-centre yourself. Doing so can help you return to your professional duties refreshed and refocused.

It might also be worth it to invest in a sit/stand desk or a desk riser to elevate your desktop so you can stand while you work. Options range from full standing desks to cardboard extenders that cost around $30. Though just like you don’t want to sit all day, you don’t want to stand the whole time, either. Switch it up periodically throughout the day so you’re not putting the same strain on the same muscles all day, every day.

7. Keep up appearances

At least most of the time, don’t let yourself become the work-from-home cliché of someone who’s stopped grooming and wears pyjamas all day. Keeping your normal morning routine of showering and changing into work clothes can put you in the right mindset to get down to business.

8. Stay healthy

Having your entire refrigerator and pantry to snack from during the workday creates the temptation to eat more often than usual, even if in small bites. Try to reach for healthy options like fruits and veggies or other nutritious nibbles rather than chips or sweets. Or at least try to limit the less-nutritious items. And make sure you’re drinking lots of water.

Also, don’t eat at your desk or wherever your work-from-home setup is. Nourish yourself in your own space, not your workspace, to help reinforce your mental work-home boundaries.

And to whatever degree possible, try to prioritize getting enough sleep — ideally going to bed and waking up around the same time every day. Exercise is critical too. Eating well, moving your body and staying well-rested are important to do in the best of times, and most certainly right now.

9. Get outside if you can

For your mental and physical health, getting outside regularly is essential while working from home. Whether it’s for a jog around the block, walking your dog, gardening or anything else, try to take an hour or so every day during daylight hours to get fresh air. The vitamin D from the sun helps keep you healthy, and seeing the outside world can help stave off cabin fever. Just be sure to practice proper social distancing as necessary.

10. Learn to accept background noise

Keep in mind that when you’re working remotely, you can’t help some noise here and there. Loud vehicles may go by, your neighbour may mow their lawn or your kids may scream when you’re on conference calls or video chats.

It’s OK. Allow for this, and don’t try to mask it. If your pup starts yapping or another loud noise disrupts things, apologize for the interruption and move on. Don’t sweat it; many other people are in the same boat.

11. Communicate early and often

It’s easy to feel like an island when you work from home, especially in long stretches. Your coworkers may not be physically with you, but staying in close contact with colleagues is essential. Take advantage of every means of communication at your disposal.

If your team uses a group chat platform like Slack or Skype, keep it open (at least in the background) and have notifications turned on. You’ll feel more connected and won’t risk missing out on both team chatter and important updates.

For meetings, either group or one-on-one, video can do wonders for the working-at-home soul. Yes, getting on video with Zoom or FaceTime, for example, means you need to brush your hair and change out of your sweats (which you should be doing anyway — see No. 7), but seeing your colleagues’ faces and expressions while strategizing or even just chatting furthers the feeling of connectedness, helping with morale and productivity at the same time.

12. Ask for what you need

Having the right equipment is another key to working remotely. A video-capable laptop is typically the most essential tool, loaded with all the software you need for being in near-constant communication with your coworkers. At this time, a mouse isn’t the only peripheral you’ll need; also try to get your hands on a headset, at least.

If you’re lacking anything that’s necessary for doing your job or keeping in touch with the team, ask for it. Your manager and company want to set you up for success, but they may not realize you’re missing something unless you tell them.

13. Stay secure

Because you’re outside of your company’s protected network, your digital security is in your own hands. It’s typically not realistic to make your home internet connection as locked-down as your office’s, but there are a few things you can do to reduce vulnerabilities.

  • Change your router’s password. This helps keep people from logging in to it using the default credentials — which are easily guessed since they’re usually all the same — and taking control of your network or infecting your equipment with tracking software or malware. And make sure you use a strong password, ideally of the 16-character variety.
  • Update all of your software. One of the main reasons applications are updated so often relates to security. Older versions often have known issues that have been patched by the latest updates. Check that you have the newest version of every program you need.
  • Keep others off your work devices. It’s not that you’re being mean, you just never know if your roommate or child might accidentally go to a site or download something that could compromise your entire system. It’s better to be safe than sorry on this front.

14. Limit social media

It’s easy to get caught up on Facebook or Instagram when you’re at the office, and it’s even easier when working from home. Of course, while much of the country and world is sheltering in place, social media is a vital tool for communicating with and checking on the welfare of family and friends.

So, while it’s understandable that you might be on social media a little more frequently due to the COVID-19 pandemic, try to limit your posting and responding to others during work hours to what’s most important, and let the rest wait until later.

15. Try to stay positive

Even if there weren’t a pandemic upending all that was familiar, working remotely for the first time is a challenging adjustment. Not being around people and not getting the change of scenery between home and work can lead to mental and physical fatigue if unchecked. If you’re struggling, cut yourself some slack.

Try not to lose sight of that fact that nobody is perfect, and things are likely to go awry from time to time — and that’s OK. Times are difficult, but this is doable. You’re not alone in learning how to handle every new scenario that’s being thrown at you right now, and it’s important to not be too hard on yourself.

As much as you can, seek out the silver linings. Being reasonably positive-minded, in addition to following as many of these remote work best practices as possible, can help keep your morale and productivity up at the level where you want it.