Square Mile
Menu Search

How to win working from home

Staying productive when you're in lockdown can be a struggle. Square Mile's here to help (and explain why it's such a slog)

As a great swathe of the British banking sector have shifted over to home-working, with relative ease (thank you British banking IT guys), you’re now probably facing the delights of the new world order... Juggling family commitments, household chores, furloughed friends WhatsApping you another hilarious GIF they’ve found, all the while trying to get to grips with Teams, Slack, MeetWebEx or Zoom (delete as applicable).

This can all be quite stress-inducing and there’s a (theoretical) reason for that. Cognitive Load Theory breaks down tasks into a few main parts. We’ll cover the biggest two here:

Firstly there’s the ‘intrinsic’ load, this is the bit of whatever it is that you’re doing that’s hard or new, or both. If you’re new to 30-person Zooms, the nightmarish technical aspects aside (the answer is almost always ‘mute’), simply navigating social niceties of interjecting while someone’s midflow, without the helpful ability for everyone to place you in 3D space, places a high load on the task. Do it badly and now everyone thinks you’re an internet arsehole - the worst kind. Even if you’re comfortable with your risk profile numbers, presenting them in this fashion is novel, and places a huge strain on your short-term ‘working’ memory.

Secondly there’s the ‘extraneous load’. This is usually referred to as the, ‘distractions in your environment’. The TV live-streaming Sunak’s latest jaw-dropping spending spree, the neighbour's weird taste in avant garde minimalist techno floating in through the window, the magnetic pull of whatever it is that’s being prepared in the kitchen…

How to shoot your (work) load

You can – and should – do a bit about the first part. Intrinsically difficult tasks get easier with practice, so it’s worth thinking ahead of time about improving your familiarity with new tools in a low-stakes environment before you’re in the middle of something time-critical and error-hazardous. A bit like, if you were a government, say, and you wanted to prepare for a pandemic ahead of the pandemic happening. And it’s way better if you’ve got a good teacher or set of instructions. If the app’s instructions are labyrinthine, look for a TL:DR online. Someone, sensible, has probably already figured out what actually matters for you.

So far as the second type of ‘load’ goes, it’s probably a bit of a slap in the face to the always-be-multi-tasking dogma, but you really, really should turn off those notifications. Get some good noise-cancelling headphones. Keep the home-office door shut for an hour or two at a time. Turn off the telly, also Netflix. (Just because it’s in a browser window, not the big OLED set doesn’t mean it doesn’t count.) Allot specific time periods to go through your messages, emails, GIFs and respond then. Turn your phone upside down and tape it to the desk so you’re not tempted. (You will be tempted.)

If you’re always interrupting your current task to respond to a new notification, you’re never giving your brain a chance to move the short-term memories into long-term storage, so it becomes achingly difficult to get on top of the myriad things that can make you good at the new normal.

Slash and burn

The next bit requires a bit more buy-in from the company at large but it’s worth mounting the campaign. Ask IT/management/HR to get rid of some of the wonderful productivity/communication platforms they’ve instituted over the years. Yes, there are economic benefits to having a vibrant ecosystem of tools to play with but that should really be some small sub-team’s responsibility to investigate. Having the whole company with five different overlapping ways of communicating isn’t a recipe for sanity or productivity.

A few platforms now have enough integrated comms tools that you can essentially do away with the need for (admittedly often better) dedicated apps that help with video conferencing, document collaboration or polling. If you’ve got access to one of Slack, Office 365G Suite you can probably do away with everything else.

Remember email counts as a communication platform. It’s almost impossible to completely do away with it but if you’ve got one of the above, with their integrated team chats, you probably don’t need email for a lot of internal comms. Restrict it to external use or where you’ve got regulatory requirements to lean on it.

Don’t use WhatsApp for work. How many productivity apps have a default patterned background? GIF-only space, this.

It’s very well organised in here

Use channels… essentially like folders were for email, and if you’re the sort of person who has a thousand folders for their email… well now there’s an actual purpose for that sort of obsessive tidiness. Channels are for keeping discussions on topic - and they’re amazingly good at lightening that cognitive load. You don’t even need to half remember where you had ‘that chat’ and in order to forward it over to New-Guy. They can go and find the channel themselves, read through the recent history, and bam - they know all about the problem with Martin from Compliance.

Likewise, you can organise the content of your chats within channels so that they’re easier to find. Think of it like SEO for your team musings. If you might need to refer back to the complicated and detailed brief you’re discussing giving alarmingly-rich lawyer, who’s name you won’t remember - drop an insouciant “isn’t X an Alarmingly-Rich Lawyer” into the thread, and voilà - easy, searchable, recall at your fingertips. Future you to cherish present-day you’s foresight, handsomeness and easy wit.


Give your brain a chance, it doesn’t hate you, it’s just got a lot of new on its plate. Good luck in there!