Many of us started a new routine several weeks ago: working from home. So I’ve turned to a long-time friend and work environment expert, Ryan Anderson, Vice-President of Digital Innovation at Herman Miller for some advice. If you’ve ever sat in an ergonomic chair, you have Herman Miller to thank for that innovation. Ryan’s career over the past 25+ years has focused on the future of office space and how technology impacts the ways people work, so yeah, he’s really an “expert” in the truest sense of the word. I met Ryan when I served a great church in West Michigan several years ago. Ryan and his wife Jill have great hearts for ministry and the service to Christ.
BILL: Ryan, thanks for your willingness to be part of this interview.
RYAN: Thanks for asking!
BILL: First things first, does it matter what I wear to work now that I’m working from home? I know that’s an odd question, but I’ve read you should put on clothes like you’re heading to the office. Does that sort of thing really matter?
RYAN: I don’t think it’s just about what you wear, specifically, but I do think it’s important for each of us to create a basic routine to help us be sustainably productive. The emphasis here is on “sustainability.” These first few weeks of working remotely should be focused on establishing a new normal in our lives because the need to work remotely will likely last for several months. The upside is that being effective as a remote team can be extremely advantageous during normal times, and these patterns can benefit ministry teams well beyond the Covid-19 crisis.
BILL: On a typical weekend I work from the kitchen island. I realized within the first two days that wasn’t going to work for me. For those who don’t have a designated home office, what can they do to create a productive space? What’s essential and what’s not essential?
RYAN: What’s essential is mental focus, physical comfort, and technological support. I’d begin by finding a place in your house or apartment that is as sequestered as possible from the chaos of daily living, but where you still get a strong Wi-Fi connection and that isn’t too hot or too cold. That can even be a space that isn’t very pretty like an attic or storage area and work to make it comfortable. That means finding a surface to work on (most people will be comfortable on a surface between 27” and 30” high or so, based upon their height), sitting in the most comfortable chair that you’ve got, positioning yourself looking towards a window to enjoy some natural light or bringing in some extra lamps. If you’re on video a lot, you can hang a curtain or sheet behind you, or sit in front of a wall so that your camera points towards it instead of towards anything in the space that might be distracting. Finally, no matter where you work, get up and stretch or step outside every hour or two. The movement and fresh air will greatly impact your productivity and mental health throughout the day.
BILL: Many of us have struggled to maintain a healthy work-home balance (especially church ministry types) but that line is completely erased now. How does someone working from home maintain some balance and good boundaries so they don’t neglect either work or their personal life and family?
RYAN: It’s interesting you ask that because in the business world there’s been a longtime stereotype that working from home may result in people slacking off, but I’ve found that the opposite is often true—that people can’t “turn off” the work because they don’t leave their workplace. This balance has always been tricky for those in ministry because the needs of serving others is so demanding. I’d circle back to that theme of being sustainably productive. You can’t effectively serve others in these very trying times if you become exhausted or burned out, so each of us needs to establish a daily ritual that ensures a good night’s sleep, time to be with the Lord, time to be with family or friends (even virtually), and times of rest and relaxation. It will be different for each person, but it starts with the understanding that you have to turn off your work each day to be your productive best over time.
BILL: What about parents with small kids at home? Got any tips for parents who need to get work done and don’t want to seem like jerks to their kids?
RYAN: This is extremely difficult. My best advice is to recognize that every day will be a mix of being productive and needing to care for your little ones. As best you can, teach your kids that your home workspace is a quiet zone that shouldn’t be disturbed unless it’s an emergency. Then, even if you need to check on them frequently, at least you’ll be able to have short periods of time without disturbance. For those with very young kids, your workday may need to be structured around their nap times and bedtimes, which is unconventional, but so are the times we’re living in.
BILL: I don’t think it matters if you’re introverted or extroverted, sooner or later we miss the hallway conversations and breakroom banter. How can a team (or a small group) stay relationally connected while they are physically distant?
RYAN: Technology can help greatly. I’m a big fan of using video conferencing calls like Zoom or Skype for times of connection—team coffee, team prayer, and 1-on-1 meetings. But here’s my warning: ministry teams should not become overly-reliant upon video or audio conference calls as they are very demanding of people’s time, particularly for those trying to care for kids or juggle busy schedules. Instead, I’d adopt a platform such as Slack, Teams, or Basecamp for day-to-day work, which allows people to contribute whenever they have a free moment and then use video or audio calls more sparingly for those times of connection. If you’ve never looked into a solution like Slack, now is a great time to watch a tutorial and give it a try.
BILL: Some reading this are supervisors and others are volunteer leaders of groups of people. How can a leader check-in without becoming annoying? Are there are any pro-tips for leaders to be there for their people without becoming a nuisance?
RYAN: It’s very situational. My best advice is for leaders to ask their team members that question directly and then to be on the lookout for burnout. Most people will raise their hand if they need help on a project or to help another person, but too often we neglect our own mental and spiritual health. It’s the job of a leader to prioritize care over productivity and to seek out those that may be withdrawn and struggling.
BILL: I’ve been working from home less than two weeks and already I’m having a hard time focusing on one task without dealing with a phone call, text message, or email alert. Part of it is this particular season and part of it is getting used to a new working space. How can a home-bound work, stay focused, and minimize outside distractions?
RYAN: Personally, I keep a running laundry list of everything that I need to do, and I decide each morning which ones aren’t critical. In fact, I’ll often email my boss and say, “Head’s up, I’m going to prioritize this but not this.” just to make sure we’re aligned on what things should take a backseat to others. Then, I’ll block time on my calendar to address the most critical items and treat those like a meeting. I won’t answer the phone or answer emails until I’m done. The reality is that most of us have far more to do in a given day than we can ever accomplish. Many of the demands placed on us each day won’t get done and that’s okay; the key is to determine what’s not the highest priority and push those things off.
BILL: What didn’t I ask you but I should have?
RYAN: I’ll just add this. I think that ministry leaders should pray for creativity and innovation and be quick to porotype new approaches to ministry. We’ve been designed in the image of a designer, and these times require innovative, new solutions to problems. I know that technology can be frustrating, separation can be isolating, and fear can be paralyzing, but it’s in the most challenging times that Christians have historically been the most active in positively impacting the world. Wi-Fi, video calls, Google Docs and mobile apps are gifts to us to help a scared and hurting world. It’s time for Christians to step up, get creative, and to demonstrate love in the digital era.
BILL: Ryan, we can’t thank you enough for your insight and wisdom! Thanks so much! Now I’m going to lean back in my fiberglass Eames armchair…
RYAN: Enjoy it my friend, and thanks for reaching out. God bless.
Bill Search is an Executive Pastor at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City and SmallGroups.com contributor.