by Shannon Chen and Professor Sharon Parker
For a printable copy of this article, click here.
A regular day’s work in the office can be challenging enough with an endless stream of meetings, the office’s only printer being overloaded with print jobs, and constantly moving client deadlines. Imagine how much more demanding work can be when it is conducted from home when there are the usual challenges of work, coupled with the commitments and distractions of home! A potential recipe for heightened stress and burnout….
Other people might experience the reverse challenge: that is, not quite enough that’s engaging and interesting to do in order to keep them focused on the work. Under such circumstances, it might be very difficult for workers to stay motivated and productive.
Fret not! There is a way to maintain your productivity and well-being. That is to create work at home that is SMART.
What is SMART work design, and why does it matter?
Good work design practices have been shown to have a significant impact on how individuals feel at work, and affects their work motivation , engagement  and well-being .
The SMART work design model (see smartworkdesign.com.au) was developed by Australian Research Council Professor, Sharon Parker, at Curtin University’s Centre for Transformative Work Design in the Future of Work Institute. This framework is based on decades of research on work design.
The model outlines five key elements to consider when creating meaningful, interesting and motivating work, as well as work that is free from stress.
The five elements of the SMART work design model are summarised below:
These aspects of SMART work design can be applied to the situation of people working from home, which is a form of ‘remote working’.
How SMART applies to remote working
A study of telecommuters from industries such as banking, health care, education, technology, and social services noted that telework was positively associated with not only higher self-ratings of task performance but also greater supervisor-rated performance . Autonomy, in the form of employee’s control over their work environment (“A” in the SMART model), was shown to have contributed to the positive relationship between telecommuting and greater perceptions of task performance.
Further, a recent review of the literature on remote workers’ well-being found that greater levels of autonomy inherent with remote e-work functioned as a resource that buffered against emotional exhaustion and promoted job satisfaction .
This review also reported that social support was one of the resources that was depleted when employees worked remotely for prolonged periods of time. Without social support, employees experienced greater emotional exhaustion. Social support is an important part of the Relational work characteristics in the SMART work design model.
Research also shows that some workers at home often experience interference from home demands, especially female workers , which can make their work load unmanageable (and hence low on “T” for Tolerable demands).
These findings show that the Agency, Relational and Tolerable aspects of SMART work design are especially likely to be affected by remote working, yet all are crucial for well-being and productivity. As discussed in her video, Professor Parker argues that well-being and productivity are especially vital aspects to consider at this time of enhanced stress and a fragile economy (see "Working From Home: Why Should We Care About This Topic?").
Crafting SMARTer work
Crafting refers to the self-initiated steps that people take to change their work designs themselves. Your job is includes tasks, activities, and relationships. Each of these aspects can be ‘crafted’ to create a better fit between your work and you.
Although your job tasks and responsibilities are likely to be defined primarily by managers and by the objectives of your organisation, there is still usually some scope to adjust the SMART aspects of your job so that they better fit your individual needs and preferences.
For example, you may be able to exercise some control (or Agency) over when or how often you do certain tasks. You might also change the nature or degree of interactions with people in your work to improve Relational aspects of your work.
The key point here is that YOU can redesign certain parts of your current work experience to make work motivating, meaningful and satisfying - even if that work occurs from home.
Here are some tips on how you could make working from home more Stimulating, Mastery-oriented, Agentic, Relational, and Tolerable:
1. Make your work from home more engaging (Stimulating)
● Create variety and interest in your work by sharing knowledge and collaborating with others. For example:
Knowledge sharing – identifying and sharing tips on how to work from home Sharing tips and what works to cope with remote work;
Coaching others in their area of expertise – to help build up your ability to coach;
Setting up a session with a colleague to test and explore the functions of communication tools such as Zoom or Webex, or experiment with team coordination tools such as Trello.
● Seize the day and learn about something new: Keep learning – this could be a perfect opportunity, especially if your work demands have lessened, to build a certain skillset that might be relevant to future work
2. Enhance your effectiveness whilst working at home (Mastery)
● Stay motivated by increasing task identity:
Break your time into several smaller chunks and allocate specific tasks for those time frames.
Use an alarm or alert on your computer or phone – set time limits for each of your tasks.
Try the Pomodoro technique to work in short bursts.
All of these actions establish a sense of achievement when you complete a set of tasks within the allocated time frame.
● Use goal setting and time management techniques to keep yourself on track
Set goals, including longer-term goals, weekly goals, and daily goals for yourself. This way you know exactly what you are trying to achieve.
Manage your time to ensure you spend time on your goals, and do not get too distracted by other activities (see Agency for more time management strategies).
● Role Clarity: Ask yourself,
Do I have clear planned goals and objectives for the job?
Am I clear about what had to be done?
Do I know what my colleagues and/or supervisor expect of me?
If you don’t know what you’re meant to be doing, seek clarification – by making a call or dropping an email.
Be sure you are clear about how you are progressing. Ask your team members/ manager for feedback if you are not sure.
Obtain feedback from your customers/ clients or other stakeholders. Ask what is working well and what is not.
3. Exercise your autonomy in productive ways (Agency)
● Work Scheduling:
Match the right type of work with the right type of environment in advance.
now your working preferences, and try to structure your day around these preferences.
Developing a weekly routine.
Encourage your manager to trust you to decide your own hours (within reason), and to focus on managing your results rather than micromanaging your presence at the desk (see Professor Parker's video and blog, "Tethered or Trusted? The 'There's No Excuse Not To Be At Your Desk' Phenomenon".
● Work Methods/Decision-making autonomy: Researchers studying part-time teleworkers found that, on the days that workers set goals for themselves, they reported greater job satisfaction .
Self-goal setting involves:
Establishing specific goals for your work efforts;
Consciously working towards achieving those goals;
Thinking about other goals you would like to achieve in the future.
Create SMART goals: Goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.
● Time Management/Work Scheduling
Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, proposed a useful and simple time management model. Covey suggested that people spend time in four ways, which can be captured along two dimensions – urgent responsibilities that require immediate attention and important responsibilities that contribute to your goals .
The following matrix illustrates these dimensions and proposes actions to take:
MANAGE: High urgency and importance. Requires immediate management and attention.
FOCUS: High importance, but low urgency. Requires strategic planning and focus because this quadrant has long-term importance. Careful planning here will reduce Quadrant A tasks.
AVOID: High urgency, but low importance tasks. These activities are distractions that get in the way of your goals and should be avoided where possible.
LIMIT: Low urgency and importance. These are obvious time-wasting activities that hold little value for you. Try to limit these as much as possible.
One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to spend too much time on the tasks that are urgent, irrespective of importance (including both the MANAGE and AVOID tasks). This can mean we ignore tasks that are important but not yet urgent (FOCUS tasks). Not putting time into the FOCUS tasks can backfire in the longer term, as these will become more urgent and transform into MANAGE tasks.
Click here for more tips and advice from Australian female laureates.
4a. Create support and connection to address social isolation (improving the Relational aspect of your own work)
● Regularly seek to remain in touch with colleagues:
If you’re accustomed to having lunch or coffee with colleagues, plan a quick social phone or video call to each other at lunchtime
● Recreate ‘watercooler conversations’ virtually:
These are informal, unplanned interactions that happen every day which are important for working as a team and building relationships. Your team can set up virtual morning teas or lunches, for example.
● Develop and maintain relationships
Make room in your calls with co-workers to talk about things unrelated to the job
Share a funny story about your adventures at home
Take some time to think of questions you can use when conversation stalls
Consider ways in which your colleagues and friends might like to be supported – with phone calls, errands or assistance with grocery shopping (extra-role behaviours/organisational citizenship behaviours that contribute to a positive work environment)
● Ask yourself:
How can I protect myself from feeling lonely or isolated?
How can I recreate unplanned parts of the workday, such as lunch hour or cappuccino conversations with colleagues?
What tools can I use to stay connected with friends, family and colleagues?
● Build high quality connections
Respectfully engage with others – this means fully attend and be present, and then list. Ask questions and really listen to the answers instead of waiting for a turn to talk
Enable others to do their tasks effectively by engaging in small acts that help them
See Professor Parkers’ video and blog post, "High Quality Connection (And We're Not Talking About The Internet)".
4b. Improve coordination with your team mates while you work from home (improving the Relational aspect of your team work)
● Set up your team for success
See Professor Parker’s blog and video on “Set Up Your Team for Success During COVID-19 Virus” where she advocates providing support for the team, clarifying how team members will work together, and keeping the big picture in mind.
● Review team business hours
Come together as a team to clarify and set out expectations on the work hours that team members have to be present and available.
For example, there might be some common hours where all the team members are working, and you might ask for people to let each other know if there are times they are not available.
● Foster mutual understanding of work responsibilities, tasks and due dates
Make sure you know what each member is working on and when their work is due, and follow this up with calls and emails. Inform your supervisor of any problems you may experience with completing your work.
Openly consider whether your teams goals and priorities should change amidst the current circumstances.
● Discuss any problems or issues via a phone or video call
To better clarify issues or concerns – instead of using multiple emails
Make deliberate efforts to be available.
Collate phone numbers, email addresses and other social media connections
5. Make the demands in your work manageable (Tolerable Demands)
● Establish a dedicated workspace and get dressed:
Create a space that is separate from general living as possible to establish some boundaries between home and work
Avoid working on your bed or in your bedroom
If possible, try to set your space up to feel similar to your office space
Try getting dressed in work clothes at the beginning of the day, and into non-work clothes at the end of the day to help activate a worker identity and mark a boundary between work and non-work (see Professor Parker’s blog post and video ‘To Dress or Not to Dress: Getting Into a Work Mindset’).
● Home boundaries and routines:
If social distancing measures escalate and schools are shut down, children are likely to be home most of the time. Parents may need to establish routines and take turns supervising very young children. In these situations, work may need to be conducted in a flexible manner.
Try to set boundaries with your family, explaining that during working hours, your office (or dedicated work space) is a quiet zone.
Have routines to mark the start and end of a working day.
Tag team with your partner to ensure that you share child care fairly, and don’t assume that the ‘female’ in a dual career family simply because of her gender.
● Manage the temptation to do house work during working hours:
Don’t procrastinate on work tasks by first doing some housework – set yourself a target to complete a work task and when you’ve finished it – then spend ten minutes doing the tidying.
Where possible, attend to house matters outside of your pre-determined working hours
● Have a finish time:
Finish about the time you normally would – and stick to it. If your start and end times are too variable, use lunch time as an anchor to determine when you should end your day.
If you finish on time and allow yourself the space to have some down time, you won’t fall into working all day and all evening.
Respond to off-hour messages between your working hours.
● Get moving to combat sedentary work and promote recovery:
Walk away from your desk – engage with family and friends. Recovery from work is crucial to ensuring you feel rested and productive for the next work task or day.
Get moving with some physical activity, such as a brisk walk or gentle stretching.
● Be kind to yourself and practice self-compassion
As Professor Parker argues in her video and blog post, Be Kind To Yourself: Self-Compassion In Difficult Times, sometimes when demands get too much, it is important to be kind to yourself. This sometimes means lowering your expectations, and not “beating yourself up” when, for example, you are not achieving everything you hope.