I’ve been working out of my home since 1997. Last year, I applied for a job that would have required me to work in a regular office. You know, the kind where you dress like a professional, show up at a particular time, and deal with co-workers.
This was not a selling point.
I didn’t get the job, which is probably just as well. I’m the kind for whom working at home is the most natural fit. I set my own hours, I dress in whatever I feel like wearing, and the vast majority of my human interactions are telephonic or electronic. I have clients whom I have either never seen or met so rarely that I would not recognize on the street. (Seriously. This is not hyperbole.)
Now, as social distancing is becoming a way of life and many people who have never worked from home are suddenly being thrust into that situation, allow me to offer a few suggestions on how to make working from home less painful—and maybe preferable.
Note: I know nothing about how to work from home while your kids are running around the house, so I can’t offer any insights on managing that particular challenge apart from offering this article from Harvard Business Review. If anybody has recommendations on this important topic, please post them (with links, if available) in the comments section below.
Establish a routine
Having a routine helps to trigger the mindset that you’re going to be working. A few suggestions:
Set your alarm. If you can sleep late, you probably will (said the Voice of Experience).
Get dressed. Working all day in whatever you wore to bed is frankly gross. Get up, take a shower, brush your teeth, and put on real clothes. Sweatpants are fine as long as you didn’t sleep in them.
Decide on your work hours. You may not get a choice about this. A friend who works in tech support for a large company often has on-call hours which are dictated by her employer so that from 1:00 to 5:00 (or whatever), she must be available if a call comes in. On the other hand, if your work schedule is not dictated by your employer, you will need to decide when you plan to start and end your workday. At what time will you begin taking phone calls, and at what time will you let them go to voicemail (assuming you have that luxury)? Otherwise, work time and non-work time will bleed into each other, and you’ll find yourself taking business calls at 6:30 in the morning or working until 10:00 at night.
Stick to your routine. It is shockingly easy to make great organizational plans in the evening and forget about them by morning. Especially if you’re new to working from home, make a point of adhering to your routine until it’s second nature. Once you know you can do it, the occasional deviation is fine.
Discipline is key
Working from home offers a thousand temptations you don’t have when you’re in a standard workplace. To be honest, these are also some of the perks of working mere steps away from the kitchen and the laundry room. You can put in a chicken to roast and go back to work until dinner is ready. You can throw a load of laundry in the washer while you’re on hold. You can schedule appointments for oil changes and the dog’s rabies shot for times when most of the world is at work. Snacks—the kind you like, not that crap the office manager buys—are at your fingertips.
It’s also easy to linger over lunch with a colleague and then spend another two hours catching up on errands, only to return home and decide that you really need to go for a run and you’ll work later. The truth is that unless you have a pressing deadline, you’ll probably end up putting off until tomorrow what you meant to do today. To combat this, try to limit outings during your workday to the amount of time that would have been available if you weren’t working at home.
On the flip side, it can also be surprisingly difficult to stop working for the day, especially if your desk is set up in a corner of a room where you spend a lot of non-work time.
If you have an actual home office with a door, fantastic: you can train yourself to associate walking into the office with working and walking out with the end of the work day. If not, you need to be more conscious about telling yourself when it’s work time and when it’s not. I’ve heard of people who turn off the desktop computer and put a blanket over the monitor so they don’t see it during non-work times. A laptop or tablet can easily be tucked into a drawer. Putting away notes and files can contribute to the “out of sight, out of mind” approach.
Protect your work time
One of the things you may face as a person who works at home is others’ belief that since you’re not “at work,” you’re free to drop everything at a moment’s notice if someone needs—or simply wants—you to do something. You will need to be proactive about letting them know when you can’t do XYZ because you’re at work, even if your work space is the kitchen table. If your work is structured so that you’re only paid for the hours you work—meaning you don’t get paid time off—don’t hesitate to tell people this, and don’t be surprised if you have to repeat it every time a regularly-employed person says, “You need to handle _____, because I have to go to work.”
There’s long been a tendency to discount working from home as not really working. I expect that in the coming days, there may be a shift away from this mindset as more and more people find themselves commuting down the hall.
Protect your non-work time
Shortly after I began working from home in 1997, a client called at 9:30 p.m. He’d been thinking about an issue we were discussing earlier, and what did I think about ABC? It was all I could do not to say, “Why couldn’t you have made a note to call me in the morning? Is your pencil broken?” The next day, I signed up for Caller ID. Ever since, if a client calls during my off-hours, I let them go to voicemail unless they’re returning my call about an urgent matter.
Some people will feel perfectly free to contact you 24/7 simply because they know where to find you. If you’re happy with that (or your employer requires it), fine. But if that’s not how you want to live, you will need to be proactive about defining when you do and do not work. (See above about deciding on your work hours.) Managing expectations is key: if people know you’re not available at a particular time, they’re far less likely to get upset at not receiving an immediate return communication. For this reason, I routinely update my outgoing voicemail message to let people know what office hours will be for the next few days. If I’m going to be out of the office for more than a day, I also add an auto-response for emails.
Take advantage of technology
If it weren’t for technology, I couldn’t do what I do. Thanks to a fairly basic tech setup, I can receive documents, perform research, write, deliver the results, and issue bills without leaving my house. Practically the only thing I still need to do in person is go to the bank, and that’s only because mobile deposit doesn’t work on client checks that have security seals.
If your employer is requiring you to work from home, it’s likely that they’ll set you up with the necessary technology and support. If it’s your own choice, it may be up to you to make your own tech arrangements. Either way, here are a few things to consider strongly:
If possible, have two computers. That way, if one crashes or is unavailable, you have a spare. It’s rare that they’ll both be down at the same time (although I once had this experience).
Use the features your system offers. One of my favorite features on my landline is that when someone leaves a voicemail, I get an email with a transcription of the message. The transcription is usually lousy, especially if the person doesn’t speak clearly, but it means that when I’m out, I don’t have to call into my landline voicemail to know whether someone has called. Another much-loved feature on both my landline and my cell is call blocking; in these days of robocalls, I consider it a necessity. These features don’t cost extra; all I had to do was look for them.
Purchase and use virus protection. The two main providers are Norton and McAfee. Whichever one you buy, use it regularly. Otherwise, it’s like having a condom in your wallet—a nice idea, but it’s not protecting you from anything. Especially if you spend a lot of time on the internet (whether for work or otherwise), update the virus definitions and run the program at least once a day.
Have a backup system. Some people back everything up to the cloud; for others, this isn’t an option for security reasons. I choose to back up to an external drive using the backup program that comes with my Norton plan. For convenience as well as security, I also email to myself significant documents I’m working on. As with so much else, it’s whatever works for you.
Find a tech expert. A friend who worked from home before retirement had the great good fortune to be married to a high-level computer programmer. As a result, whenever her computer misbehaved, she had an in-house expert on call. For those of us who failed to plan that well, it’s enormously helpful to have either knowledgeable friends or a tech expert on call. (The latter is preferable so as to avoid unduly taxing your friendships. Plus, the tech expert’s fees are probably deductible as a business expense.)
Invest in the best tech you can, within reason. If your work involves significant phone time, don’t try to use your cell if the signal in your location is spotty; keep your landline and buy good-quality phones. If you and your client need to send large files back and forth, look into free file-sharing services such as Dropbox. When I began working as a legal researcher, I realized quickly that going to the library every day was eating into my productivity, and so I got a subscription to an online research database which, while expensive, enables me to do the same work much more efficiently (and also during times when the libraries are closed). I could use another, less elegant program which would come at no cost, but because I spend so many hours each week researching, the more expensive program saves me time and effort. Another tech subscription allows me to manipulate pdfs, reducing the time spent on exhibits and appendices.
On the other hand, the tech industry is masterful at upselling. Many programs that are available in free basic editions also have pricy premium editions; assess whether you really need these extra features. If you don’t require lightning-fast internet, don’t pay the extra money. If your work involves creating documents, you likely don’t need 10TB of storage or software that will enable you to edit videos. If you don’t need to take your computer to meetings or when you travel, you don’t need to pay extra for the newest, lightest laptop or tablet unless that’s what you happen to like.
If anybody knows of additional resources to assist the newly-working-at-home set, please share them in the comments section. We all have a lot to manage these days. We need each other, now more than ever.