Microsoft 365 First Steps: Move Forward, Stay Productive

Posted on September 29, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft 365 with 11 Comments

Note: This would normally be a Premium post, but thanks to Microsoft, we are able to offer it to all readers without any roadblocks. –Paul

Within just a few weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown and our new remote work requirements, a new crop of self-help influencers appeared in droves online as if by magic, offering the unwashed masses their newfound advice about staying productive while working from home. I found this advice to be cute, given that I’d been working from home for over 25 years by that point and had never had any issues staying productive. But now that we’ve rounded the 6-month mark with no end in sight, I’ve grown to be a bit more understanding. Truth is, we all need a little help in these trying times.

Most of my learnings are decades old and hard to even conjure up, given that they’re now ingrained as habits and even traditions, from the way I structure my workdays to the methods I use to distance myself from work on off-hours that I feel should remain private and devoted to myself, my family, and my friends. But I’m also torn by the need to be specific, to offer actionable advice that will hopefully make you more productive when you do need to work and more resilient when you need, very much, to not be working.

So let’s step through this minefield.

Be respectful of time. Your time and, if you’re managing a small business, all of your users’ time. Schedule meetings for 30 minutes, tops. Schedule no meetings after 1 pm or so on a Friday. Get up from the desk throughout the day, and at a reasonable time at the end of every day, and don’t check back in. Work during the day during the workweek, and don’t interrupt others’ private time on nights and weekends with non-emergency emails and Teams chats. Do chores around the house, or go on walks or errands to break up the workday and level-set your mind. Take naps. Seriously. You’ll be more productive.

Be secure, stay secure. At the beginning of September, I wrote about how small businesses can use admin features like Security Defaults and Secure Score to keep their organizations secure. But this is something that individuals should assess from time-to-time as well, and you should at the very least enable two-factor authentication on your personal (Microsoft account) and work accounts and keep the bad guys away from your critical work or personal data.

Embrace Microsoft Teams. Teams has emerged as the most crucial Microsoft 365 tool during the pandemic and I’ve heard repeatedly from users that they intend to expand their use of Teams further over time and continue using it even if the world someday returns to normal. The productivity and collaboration functionality in Teams are almost endless, and it’s much more than just a chat-based way to keep up with the rest of your organization. Instead, Teams is the dashboard for your entire workday, a complete platform that can meet virtually any need, and it enhances your meeting capabilities in ways that are truly transformative. I wrote about some useful Teams features last week. But new Teams features arrive almost every month. It’s going to keep getting better.

Seriously, embrace Teams. I can’t stress this one enough: Teams will almost certainly become the central communications and collaboration tool that you use to interact with your coworkers. And it should replace other solutions that only offer part of Teams’ total set of functionality. It should be used to make audio calls and for chats instead of the phone and messaging apps on your smartphone, for example: With Teams, these interactions are formally preserved to some degree within your organization, and if they’re recorded, they can be shared with others or referenced later by the attendees.

Work from anywhere. While you should not feel obligated to work at all hours, you should embrace the freedom of being able to work from anywhere. That means on any PC or other device you choose, and it means from any location, whether it’s another room in your house or somewhere away from the four walls you’ve been staring at for six months. This is easily enabled by signing-in to your Microsoft 365 work account on a PC or device that was provided by your workplace, or by signing-in to specific apps on your PCs and devices. If you are using Microsoft 365 Business Basic, the lowest-cost plan, you have access to the web and mobile apps, and that will likely meet most needs. But those overseeing organizations during this remote work era may want to consider upgrading some users to Microsoft 365 Business Standard, which provides access to the full desktop versions of Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote on up to 5 Windows PCs and/or Macs (plus Access and Publisher on the PC only). That can be very useful in cases where users have to use their own PCs.

Consider your work environment. If you’re sitting at a kitchen table or other awkward location and trying to get work done, you might be doing more harm than good because of ergonomic deficiencies. It sounds obvious, but make sure you have a high-quality chair, a proper work desk with the right height, and a good PC setup. If you’re an employee, see whether your workplace can help you out, perhaps by letting you bring your office-based setup home for the duration. And if you’re an employer, be proactive and offer this help. It will pay off in the long run.

Learn. We all have more time than we think we do, and we can and should use part of that time to learn. This can work-related, perhaps new features in Microsoft 365 like Lists that will make you more productive, or it can be personal, such as learning a new skill like baking, playing a musical instrument, or learning a foreign language. It can be as simple as reading and building up an attention span after subjecting our minds to years of abuse from inane web-based content or TV shows. Whatever you choose, schedule some time each week to engage your brain in new ways and break through the tedium.

Wellbeing matters. When you’re bogged down with your own issues and there’s no end in sight, it’s easy to forget that we’re all going through the same pandemic. So be kind when someone else on your team is freaking out, and lookout for signs of stress and fatigue in others. In the near future, fortunately, this may even be automated for Microsoft 365 customers: At its Ignite 2020 conference, Microsoft announced an incredible set of wellbeing features that it’s adding to Microsoft Teams in early 2021 that are aimed at addressing burnout, and stress, how the lack of a commute hurts the work/life balance. To stay up on these features and how and when they will arrive, it pays to stay up-to-date with new Microsoft 365. Fortunately, I wrote about doing just that last week.

Be together when you’re apart. One of the hard things about not going into an office is that you miss out on all the personal milestones that you share with your coworkers: Birthdays, anniversaries, baby births, and so on. It’s not exactly the same, of course, but there’s no reason why you can’t celebrate these events virtually in a Teams meeting. Or host an after-hours work cocktail hour where you can unwind a bit and chat with the people you miss more than you ever thought you would.

Hopefully, something here will help you get through these trying times, but if you have some tips of your own that you’d like to share in the comments below, please do so. This is a great time for us all to learn from each other’s unique experiences and perspectives.

And if you’re not yet using a commercial version of Microsoft 365, please try a free month of Microsoft 365 Business Standard, which includes access to the Microsoft 365 desktop, mobile, and web apps, and 1 TB of cloud storage per user, and can be accessed by up to 25 users during the trial.

Join the discussion!


Don't have a login but want to join the conversation? Become a Thurrott Premium or Basic User to participate

Comments (11)

11 responses to “Microsoft 365 First Steps: Move Forward, Stay Productive”

  1. zself

    Thanks. Teams doesn't work for me as a one-man consultant shop. None of my many clients who use Teams internally are able (for a number of reasons) to use Teams to work with people outside their organization. Zoom, WebEx, GTM are their tools of choice, hence my tools of necessity.

    I don't know why I write this.

  2. yoshi

    I started a new job a few months ago. I went from a shop that used Slack to my current shop that uses Teams. I can't even describe how essential Teams has become. Slack doesn't even compare, at least in the way that we used it at my previous place.

    I do a mix of office and work from home now, and I'd say Teams is the number 1 app I use in the M365 suite. I keep it installed on my phone as well, and just silent notifications during my downtime.

    I actually get annoyed now with some emails because they are things that would have been easier to say through Teams.

    • pstansberry78

      In reply to yoshi:

      Interesting. I use Slack every day and was thinking as I read this how much better it is than Teams. That said, it’s been a couple of years since I looked seriously at replacing Slack with Teams so maybe it’s time for another look and gap analysis.



      • yoshi

        In reply to PStansberry78:

        In all fairness, at my past company we didn't use Slack for much besides chat. At my current place, we use Teams for so much more than just chat. Calendar, video, etc.

  3. hometoy

    I see people getting stuck on where they join video meetings from.

    I don't have a dedicated office space so every so often I move to a different room (LR, Dining Room, Bedroom, Bedroom using a chest of drawers as a standing desk, etc.). So I've been doing a "tour of the house" by moving every so often.

    While the weather is nice, I've done on my back patio and last meeting was while sitting on my hammock! Can't wait for the Japanese Maple to turn fire red! :)

    Of course this would be easier if I still had my laptop..

    • Paul Thurrott

      Love this. I've always meant to do the same ... And I just don't for some reason. I just move between my office and bedroom most days.
  4. t-b.c

    I, too , have worked from home on and off for years. I've found that setting aside a specific "office space" -- even if its a small table next to the washer and dryer -- helps with both productivity and the balancing of worklife. In regard to productivity, my home office has an on-suite bathroom, a coffee maker and a large deck I can wander out onto when I need a break. It sounds luxurious, right? It is, yet I live in a two bedroom condo with less than 1,000 square feet. If you clean house almost anyone can find a little private space to outfit for your needs. Doing your job in the same space every day helps you focus on work. In regard to worklife balance, when the work day is over, you can leave the work on that desk and walk away. It's a bit like leaving the office. Don't revisit it until the next morning.

  5. pstansberry78

    All great tips. They all resonate with me.

    Like you, I’ve been working from home for awhile now, and I’d like to offer the one big thing that I think is most important and pass that on as advice for anyone still adjusting to working from home. Here it is:

    Get. Dressed.

    Seriously. I mean it. Not your sweatpants and bathrobe. Not your gym shorts and flip-flops. Your real go-to-work clothes. Why? Because anyone previously working in a shared office is conditioned to. I don’t wear my pajamas to the office. Why would I do that just because I’m working from home, instead? I get up every day, make my bed (another mental exercise for preparing for my day), and get dressed as if I were going into a shared office facility. I know that today I’m only traveling 30 feet to my home office, but this one thing helps to put me mentally into that “work mode” more than anything else.

    My second biggest piece of advice is always setting proper home/work balance, which you already hit on. It is so easy to get caught up in what you’re doing and work right through lunch, breaks, and the end of your scheduled day. Protect against it. For example, I block my Outlook calendar with a private meeting for lunch and for the last 30 minutes of my day through 7pm every weekday to prevent co-workers from scheduling meetings there (That inevitably run long because the meeting organizer can’t control the meeting or has no concept of time boxing) without my knowledge or approval.

    I love this topic and love seeing how other people are adapting. I’m an old hat, but am always looking for ways to improve.



    • ianhead

      In reply to PStansberry78:

      Right on! I think what you touch on feeds more into the more important overarching theme: ritual and routine. You need to ensure that your daily routine doesn't fall apart just because you're working from home, your mental health and time efficiency demand it.

    • Paul Thurrott

      Interesting. On a related note, Microsoft has found that the lack of a commute, which you'd think was a positive, is messing people up because they no longer have those transitions between home and work.
  6. William Clark

    I have worked from home for a number of years. I am lucky in that I have a dedicated office so I don't feel like I'm working out of my living room.

    What I have found to be important is to get time out of the house. It's harder in these days of Covid but you can do it. Take the time to run out and grab lunch to go. Don't eat at your "desk", eat outside or in your dining room.

    Find time for recreation. Put your phone down and turn off your computer. Don't answer ANY emails for at least 2 hours at night. Read a book, play guitar or watch Tiger King on Netflix. You need downtime and you should take it.