Here’s the most important thing I’ve learned from 20 years of working at home: Work.
It. Is. Work.
It’s not time for you to do your laundry, clean the house, or tackle the home improvement project you think you can do because you wandered the aisles at Home Depot.
Take the mental shift into viewing your work area at home — kitchen table, Lay-Z-Boy, or actual desk — as your office.
If you have the great good fortune to be able to work from home, you are luckier than the average bear right now.
Don’t abuse the opportunity to show how much more productive you can be, while reaching a better work/life balance. Bear down, make the mental adjustments you need to make, and get to work.
Here are a few things I’ve learned from working from home for 19ish of the last 25 years.
1. Get Your Mind Right
I mentioned this already, but it’s worth repeating: You. Are. At. Work.
Your office might now be the kitchen table or counter, a chair in the living room, the outdoor patio, or even an actual home office setup.
Wherever you are working from home, you’re working. It’s easy to feel like it’s a continuation of the weekend and that you’re on semi-vacation.
Deadlines don’t care.
Get to work.
2. Set Up a Desk — Or Not
There’s a metric shitton of advice out there that boils down to “you need to create a desk environment at home.”
Do you need that type of environment to be productive? If yes, then do that wherever space allows. Kitchen table or counter, living room coffee table, actual desk somewhere; if that’s where you work best, then that’s where you should work.
However, not everybody needs that. Below is a collage of where I’ve worked in our house (and this doesn’t count coffee shops or the library). I get bored working in the same spot and like to move around.
I have a desk and do like to use it when I need to research and take notes (yes, I use notebooks and index cards). I also love to write and read in my green Lay-Z-Boy recliner. Outside, kitchen (island, table, and chairs), and living room couch (especially when George is travelling because the dogs settle down better there) have all seen good work done with my ass planted in these various locations.
Experiment. You might find different spots toggle different switches in your brain for productivity.
If you do set up in a “public” area of your home, move your work materials out of sight or at least turn everything off and close the laptop when you’re finished for the day. It’s hard to resist the temptation of “one more thing” or “I’ll just check my emails” when work is visible.
3. Dress For the Occasion
All the jokes about shorts and PJs? True.
I never have on shoes unless I’m going to the gym or to walk the dogs.
It. Is. Glorious.
The downside is that it’s easy to fall into the habit of wearing the same 4 t-shirts that are always on top. Never having to put on pants — elastic waistbands are awesome — is another huge perk (IMO).
While this sartorial comfort is awesome for some people, it can be distracting for others — I’ve never felt more or less productive on those horrific occasions I’ve had to wear a tie, just like I was being choked.
Your mileage may vary. If YOU don’t feel like you’re dressed for work, you might have a hard time working.
Revel in the novelty of pantsless video meetings and t-shirts. If that doesn’t work for you, dress like you’re going to the office. Do you.
4. Routine Is Good
Working from home is still work. Take advantage of the flexibility of being able to start actual work rather than wasting time getting TO a place where you are supposed to work.
Your routine will be different from mine. Find one that works for you.
5. But Flexibility Is Good Too
When my oldest daughter was a baby, I was the editor of inform for AIIM. I would often work 5 to 7 hours during the day (about half the time).
Back then, I often did my best writing at night.
Lauren (my oldest daughter) would usually wake up around one-ish for a bottle. After the wife would go to bed around 10 or so, I’d go to my desk in the basement (I LOVED that desk, giant corner desk with tons of space) and write and edit until she woke up.
Bottle. Baby. A bit of TV during bottle and baby and then bed around 2.
Find your own rhythms that work for how you get work done and your family life (sometimes the two don’t meet well, for instance, I rarely write that late any longer because George likes to get up early and walk the dogs, especially as the weather starts to warm, and time with the wife is more important).
But don’t forget the next tip.
6. Shut. It. Off.
It is way too easy to just keep working. Don’t.
Pretend you’re in an office. You can “just one more thing” yourself into burn out, late dinners, missed time with your kids/spouse/friends/pets/hobbies/etc.
If it wouldn’t have been urgent to finish if you were in the office, set it down and finish it tomorrow.
7. Be Available – Worker Bees
There are almost too many tools available for you to be available. Whatever your company uses (I love Slack and Google Docs), be sure that you don’t get sucked into “just another episode” of whatever series you’re binge-watching.
For a few days, be hyper-vigilant and responsive. Many managers are going to be feeling a loss of control (mini-rant: managers who are control freaks who don’t trust their employees to get the work done suck). Reassure them that you are available and responsive.
Over time, treat online or phone communications like you would if you were in your office. If you’d let the call go to voicemail while working on something in the office, there’s no reason for you to do any different in your office-away-from-the-office.
8. Be Available — Managers
People are scared shitless, or at least mildly anxious, right now.
Be gentle as everyone’s emotions settle into this new reality and come to grips with the idea that it might be months before a semblance of normal returns.
Check in early in the day — even a simple good morning if nothing else. If you did a daily check-in, keep doing it. If you’re normally a hands-off manager and your folks still get things done, keep at it. Check in with them to be sure they’re OK, but don’t suddenly become a micromanager because you can’t see them.
Trust your people. You have hired good people worthy of trust and regularly encourage them to blossom, right? If you’re a control freak, this isn’t going to be easy for you. Also, if you’re a control freak, maybe spend some time learning to be a better manager and a leader rather than spending that time riding other folks so they’ll be productive.
That said, you do need to ensure your team is working together effectively. If you need to, up your meeting frequency, but keep them short and to the point. Make sure you have online tools to communicate — Slack is fantastic for this (also free, with paid options for more extensive needs). Email is great, but IM, Skype, FB messenger, Slack, etc. are good for those quick “Hey, what do you think about X” questions. Or for a quick joke or short conversation.
I use my mobile phone as a mobile computer and reading device more than as a phone. Instant Messenger back in the 90s was like manna from Heaven for me. I can work with folks and not have to talk? Sign. Me. Up.
I’m not everyone though and some people like to have, ug, actual conversations. (Yes, fine, I like to talk too, but not all the time: introvert and that).
Some teams and offices are close-knit and up in each other’s business. Others you might not talk to your cubicle neighbor beyond a “‘morning” all week.
Technology is grand. Use it to keep in touch to the level you’re used to.
10. Online Status and Notifications
Every single tool has an on/off switch and most have a way to set your online presence.
Use them (except maybe the “working remotely” option).
While my rule of thumb with everyone I’ve worked with on collab tools is that “if I don’t answer, I’m not here” because I can never remember to set the things, for larger orgs, that’s probably not feasible. As everyone gets acquainted with Skype and Slack and Teams and whatever else is out that, change your status to reflect what you’re doing so your co-workers don’t think you’re ducking them. As I think about it though, it’s probably a good idea to remember that your co-workers also need time to focus and if they aren’t responding immediately it doesn’t mean that they are ignoring you, even if they’re status says “available.”
So set your notifications to whatever you need: do not disturb, out of office, etc.
Make a company-wide promise to respect those and to not think that Jim is binge-watching Altered Carbon instead of working just because he has Slack set to “away.”
Regarding notifications, I hate them and find them distracting. For those who need to actively collaborate with folks, I assume they are useful. This isn’t exclusive to working at home, but turning off notifications when you’re trying to focus on something is crucial to avoid distractions. Turn them back on again once you’re finished with thinking work.
12. Video — Lights, Camera, Action
For online meetings, turn on that camera (just make sure you’re wearing pants — English or American or especially the English meaning) if you stand up.
Key note: remove any potentially embarrassing items from sight. That sex swing in your basement . . . maybe take it down or take video calls in another room. I have taken video meetings from our kitchen island. Never thought about it until someone asked “Are those Guinness posters on the wall?” That actually opened the door to a more personal conversation and ended well.
Just do a quick check around you to make sure there’s nothing behind you that’s going to scare off a client or freak out a coworker.
13. Take Breaks
There’s a temptation to over-work at home in some sort of perverse, “I need to prove that I’m working SO I’M GOING TO SIT HERE FOR 6 HOURS STRAIGHT” mentality.
Yeah, don’t do that.
I mentioned in the beginning that it’s not an opportunity to do laundry. I overstated for effect. Take breaks.
Get up. Stretch. Go have a snack. Put that load of laundry in. Start dinner in the crockpot. Take the dogs out and get a few minutes of fresh air. Play with the cat.
I love the Pomodoro Technique of setting a timer for 30 to 45 minutes of “on/work” time and then taking a 10 to 15 minute break. There’s actual science behind this of how much more productive you are when doing it.
It’s true, I’m slowly making this a habit — my pig kitchen timer is ticking away as I type. When I use it, I almost always get through my to-do list. When I don’t, my days can turn to directionless meanderings through the rabbit hole of the Internet.
14. Eat Lunch
When I first started working at home, I found it easier to work through lunch than when in an office. We’ve all lost track of time when heads down and knocking work out. When you don’t see folks heading out of the office — or getting a waft of reheated food in the microwave — you can look up and it’s 2 o’clock and the tumbly is grumbly.
Unless you’re intermittent fasting, take a break and eat lunch. Do it in your work area if you must, but with family around these days, maybe take a few extra minutes instead to talk to your kids/spouse/partner instead of slurping soup down and dribbling on your keyboard.
15. Barks Happen
Your dog is going to bark during a conference call.
If your dog doesn’t, someone else’s will.
Mute. Answer the door to get the delivery or herd them (it’s always two here, though Knox is the big barker) somewhere else. Come back. Unmute. Laugh a second. Get back to the meeting. Pray you remembered to put on pants.
Cats will also make on screen appearances at random moments. Beyond locking them up, no idea how to prevent this; sneaky bastards as they are. Giggle and then remove them from your keyboard/face/lap the requisite number of times until they get bored and go away.
Of course, do your best to place yourself in a quiet place and have your spouse/partner/kids take care of the dogs when you’re going to be in meetings. Still, barks happen.
16. Remember How Lucky You Are
You have a job you can do from home. Maybe it’s not ideal and you feel cooped up and cramped. What you don’t feel is panic that you’re not going to be able to pay for rent, food, or utilities in this trying time.
For you, this is a minor annoyance in your career and work life. A hiccup. Others aren’t so lucky.
Count your blessings. Practice gratitude.
Embrace Working From Home
None of us have any idea how long this is going to go on.
Embrace the opportunity to be more productive AND have more time to connect with your family and your pets.
I hope these tips/thoughts on working from home help out.
It’s an adjustment. It’s also an adjustment that, even with the circumstances, can improve the quality of your work and your work/life balance.