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Working from Home: How to Stay Motivated and Focused

You have your computer, your contact lists and a range of communications apps. You have a pretty good idea of what projects you need to work on and who to stay in touch with at work. But you realize you have been staring at that lamp for a long time or thinking about the run you have planned for mid-day. Are these the things that you should be focusing on?  We have some suggestions about how to refocus and get those priorities clearly defined.

Situation Appraisal (SA) is the KT approach for figuring out:

  • Where to begin. (There’s a deadline looming but…maybe I should do a grocery list and I need to check in with someone on my work team…)
  • How to recognize situations that require action. (I can’t work on that until I get approval… I still need to get some toilet paper …)
  • How to break apart issues that are overlapping and confusing. (That project is on hold for three months and I can’t reach anyone at the new client…)
  • How to set priorities. (Deadlines are mounting and disappearing; is there something else I should be doing…)
  • How to manage a number of simultaneous activities efficiently. (All my direct reports are working from home, …is this a good time to call?  Europe…oops, I forgot about the time difference…)

Take time out to do a Situation Appraisal of your work-at-home situation using these logical steps:

  • Make a List: This includes threats and opportunities and the current or future concerns that need action.  What are those nagging issues you know something should be done about?
  • Separate and Clarify Concerns: Get specific about your responsibilities and challenges.  Move from “I have a lot of stuff to do” to a more detailed list of specific activities.
  • Consider Seriousness, Urgency, and Growth: Set relative priority among concerns.  In simple terms. How important is this right now?  When is the deadline to have this done or it becomes another issue entirely?  If I do nothing, will it get worse and by how much?
  • Determine Actions Needed: Consider the decisions, problems and risks that need to be analyzed to move ahead.  Not every situation requires the same type of action.
  • Determine Help Needed: Do you need information and commitment from others?

The List: Make a list that includes the specific tasks that you can still perform working at home. If this list is relatively straight forward, you can also include home responsibilities such as home schooling, food sourcing, cooking, exercising and checking on family and friends. For work, this may include the routine report due at the end of the month and a project that is going to miss its deadline, get postponed or cancelled. This is a list of what needs to be done. This is also the time to consider other situations that may require action for which you have a lesser degree of responsibility. You don’t need to act on all these things now but adding them to the list can help you avoid future surprises. As your workflow adapts to economic realities, this list will change. Not only will projects disappear but opportunities will arise. Consider how to add some new skills that will help you at your job or make you more marketable. Take some time with this list and come back to it as needed.

Too much? Rather than survey everything, consider limiting your initial list to an important client or a single project.

Separate and Clarify Concerns: Most of the items on the list are more complex than they first appear to be. But even if a concern is simple, it is still useful to examine whether it should be broken down. This is particularly true in the current, downward – trending business environment. To clarify your list, consider asking these questions:

  • Is this a single item or does it require a number of actions, approvals or refinements?
  • What do I mean by this? (has the budget changed? Does the way I have always done this still make sense?)
  • What is actually happening?
  • What other actions are suggested by this?
  • Can I improve the way this is handled?

These questions help you break tasks into components. Taken together, these questions get beneath the superficial description of a situation to elicit hard data. You can shift the emphasis from opinion to verifiable information by contacting others to check facts or verify assumptions. Other people may have different information and, therefore, different viewpoints about the same situation. Without clarifying, it is possible for people to have disparate assessments of the work ahead. Spend some time to consider if everyone involved in an item on your list is on the same page.

Consider Seriousness, Urgency, And Growth: A practical and systematic process for prioritizing the list is to consider each item in terms of three dimensions. These dimensions can be used in any situation, against any content, and by just you or a team in pursuit of a common goal.

To prioritize your list, for each item, ask:

  • How serious is the current impact on people, safety, cost, productivity, customers, reputation, etc.?  If you have other guiding prioritization factors, use them.  The key is getting agreement on what is important across key stakeholders.
  • How soon will it become difficult, expensive, or impossible to resolve this concern as it currently exists? What is your deadline for action?
  • What evidence is there that the seriousness will grow in terms of impact.  How fast is that impact growing and by how much?

On the basis of one or all of these dimensions, you can judge that one concern is relatively more important than another and should therefore be considered first. Or you may judge that an item is relatively less important and should be considered later.

Determine Actions Needed: While building your list, separating and clarifying concerns, and setting priorities, consider relevant decisions, problems and opportunities. While some items are simple, it’s worth taking a moment to look at the list and consider:

  • Do any of these items require a decision in order to move forward?
  • Does the issue present a problem that needs solving?
  • Given the current situation, do you know the best action to take?
  • Is there a dilemma around the best action to take?
  • Are there steps to be taken to avoid possible future trouble regarding this item?
  • Does a plan need to be made to safeguard some decision or future activity?

If the answer is yes, you can add related tasks to your plans in order to safeguard the best outcomes for your activity based on what needs to be done to move forward on specific issues. Understanding where you are in terms of the questions above will help you in deciding what actions need to be addressed first.

There is no reason to waste time on work that should not be done until decisions are made plus there may be actions that you take now that will ensure that the work you do remains relevant. For example, if you were working on a job description for an important new hire, does a decision need to be made about moving ahead with this position? If your main work project suddenly disappears, do you have time to focus on building some new skills? Decisions that must be made quickly will benefit from identifying a few key objectives and some of the obvious risks.

Think About Help Needed: You may be working alone but you are not alone. Most concerns require help from others to be resolved successfully especially those that are highly urgent. Groups will include those who approve use of resources, those who are doing the work around these actions, and those who use the outputs from these actions. They are your key stakeholders and should be involved in discussions.  Make sure to clarify who is involved in each item and discuss urgency and priority with them. Make good use of those communications apps and take the time to clarify the work that lies ahead.

Once you have identified the things that require action, have broken them down into components as necessary, established priorities and identified the actions and people needed to accomplish them, you now have a prioritized list of clear actions with responsibilities and due dates to work from.

This informal use of Situation Appraisal techniques can help you focus your day—and week—on what is important and can significantly cut down on time and energy wasted. By using these techniques, you can set and communicate priorities more rationally and work more effectively. As new responsibilities or challenges arise, the SA steps can help clarify and prioritize them as your work/life situation continues to evolve.

While spontaneity keeps things interesting, maintaining productivity is always a challenge , especially when the normal flow of the day has disappeared. In reality, new information is constantly coming to light and your list will change. But using SA can help you gain some focus and look ahead as you adjust your homelife and work-life during the Covid-19 pandemic.

About Kepner-Tregoe

For over 60 years, Kepner-Tregoe has empowered thousands of companies to solve millions of problems. We provide a data driven, consistent, scalable approach to clients in operations, manufacturing, IT Service Management, Technical Support and Learning and Development. We empower you to solve problems. Kepner-Tregoe provides a unique combination of skills development and consulting services, designed specifically to reveal the root cause of problems and permanently address your organizational challenges. Our approach to problem solving will deliver measurable results to any company looking to improve quality and effectiveness while reducing overall costs.

The following organizations provide updated information on the status of the COVID-19 virus: European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization.


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