Many people think that working from home is “the dream.” You can wear whatever you want (ah, sweet freedom from the tyranny of neckties, pantyhose, and high heels!), no one is stopping by your office every five minutes to ask you questions or otherwise interrupt your work flow, and you can listen headphone-free to—and sing along with—whatever music you like without anyone giving you dirty looks about it.
But as millions of people around the world are discovering right now, working from home isn’t as easy as it seems. It actually takes some planning to do it right. Many people are having to transition quickly (sometimes with just a few hours’ notice) to working from home, and because they and their organizations weren’t fully prepared to do this, the adjustment will certainly be a bumpy one.
If you’re in this situation and follow a few key guidelines, you can increase your odds of making this adjustment successfully. There’s already a lot of great advice on this subject out there (a Google search for “how to work from home” currently yields nearly 100 million hits!), so I’ll just focus here on a few points that I think are most critical.
The Kid Factor
If you have school-age kids, there’s a good chance they’re going to be home with you during the next few weeks. Freelancers and others who work from home regularly and have children manage that setup usually by doing most of their work while the kids aren’t around. But with schools closed and non-school activities (e.g., sports, clubs, playdates) canceled, kids are stuck at home all day—and there’s nowhere else for them to go. (I suspect that soon, many stay-at-home workers will be experiencing a version of what happened to this professor during a video interview with the BBC.)
In that case, you may have to adjust your work parameters. Maybe you can’t hole up behind a closed door in your home office but instead need to work in the same space where your kids are so you can keep an eye on them. If “standard” work hours aren’t compatible with your kids’ schedules, maybe you can shift your work schedule so you get most of your work done while they’re sleeping or in short “chunks” during the day while they’re self-occupied (e.g., watching a movie, playing a game, reading a book). This holds especially true for meetings. If possible, try to book them for when your kids are scheduled to be busy on their own (watching a movie, playing a game, etc.), or sleeping. Older kids usually understand the importance of giving you your “work time,” but it’s harder to get that message through to younger kids (who do, after all, need more attention)—of course, as a parent you can’t ignore your kids if they really need you. So if your boss isn’t able or willing to hold meetings around your kids’ schedules, you’ll just have to warn your colleagues that your little ones may be surprise attendees at those meetings!
For example, when I’m babysitting my nieces I typically plan on being able to work for about one hour within a two-hour period, because they can usually occupy themselves for only so long before they get bored and suddenly become “interested” in what I’m doing. I organize my day into 30- or 60-minutes sprints and, like Usain Bolt, try to stay hyper-focused on getting across each finish line. I treat that focused time like the precious commodity it is and save it for the stuff that’s really important. I save sorting through e-mail and other “light” tasks for when I’m watching Frozen II for the tenth time with my nieces.
Your mileage may vary, of course, so you’ll have to do your own calculus to figure out how much work time you can actually expect to have during the day. The tasks that require your full attention are best saved for when your kids have other things to do. If possible, save the ones that require less brainpower and attention for when you don’t have 100 percent of your focus available.
If you’re also expecting to homeschool your children while trying to work—well, all I can say is “Good luck!” I can’t offer a lot of firsthand advice on that topic (it is definitely above my pay grade!). Fortunately, there are lots of great resources out there to help parents who are suddenly—and for the first time—having to balance work, childcare, and homeschooling all in the same space. Here are some great places to start:
- “How to work from home with kids (without losing it)” (CNN)
- “Parents share home schooling survival tips on Twitter amid coronavirus lockdown” (CNET) [Don’t underestimate the power of crowdsourcing!]
- “How ‘regular school’ parents can homeschool their kids” (CNN)
- “Home-Schooling Tweens and Teens During Coronavirus Closings” (New York Times)
Lastly, don’t forget that adjusting your work parameters also includes adjusting your expectations of yourself. Face it: if you have kids with you at home all day (and for the next several weeks), there’s no way you’ll be able to be as productive as you are when you’re in the office and they’re at school or daycare. Just accept that reality. So check with your boss about how much flexibility you can have for work hours and deadlines. And if you’re the boss, work with your clients to adjust deadlines for you and your employees. During this time of crisis, it’s time for everyone (employees, bosses, clients) to step up and help each other.
Set Your Parameters
I wake up each morning and make my schedule, and when I do, I plan the work around when I’ll be able to handle it best.
Whether or not you have kids at home with you now, you figure out where you will work. If you have a dedicated home office, that’s ideal. But if you don’t, try to find a space that you can claim as a temporary office. Maybe it’s a chair and side table in the living room, or maybe it’s one end of your dining table. Whatever it is, make sure you can leave your work stuff there all the time so you don’t have to set it all up each day. And sitting down to work in a dedicated work space makes it easier for you to shift from “at home” mode to “work” mode.
Next, figure out when you will work. This might be dictated completely by your company. For example, people who usually work 9 to 5 might be expected to be on the clock during those same hours while they’re working from home. Under normal circumstances, many employers give their work-from-home employees some flexibility (e.g., a certain number of hours within a predetermined window, as long as the work deadlines get met), and during these extraordinary times it sounds like many employers are following those kinds of policies when implementing new work-from-home arrangements.
If you have some say in what your work hours will be, try to choose those that work best for your productivity and with the structure of the rest of your day. If you’re an early bird who works best in the morning, ask your boss if you can skew your hours to start early in the day and end in the early afternoon. Similarly, if you’re a night owl, maybe you can arrange things so you sleep in a bit each day but work later into the night. It can’t hurt to ask—especially if you can assure your boss that you’ll have no trouble getting your work done.
Flexible work schedules can work wonders for individual productivity but can present challenges to group efforts, such as meetings. With that in mind, make sure that your “working” hours include a good chunk in the middle of the day (say, 11-2), so there’s a reasonable amount of overlap time during which meetings can be scheduled. (And if you’re a manager, be sure that your reports follow this guideline as well.)
Stick to a Routine
We need to just stay in the moment and stay in our routine.
After you’ve set your work hours, build the rest of your day around them. You no longer have to budget time for a commute (I seriously doubt you will encounter any traffic congestion or pileups on your walk down the hall), but you still have plenty of other tasks and events to plan for during the day (especially if you have children at home with you all day).
Resist the urge to wear your pajamas to work. You don’t have to put on office attire (and if you don’t feel like styling your hair or putting on makeup, don’t worry about it), but at least put on some “regular” clothes. Taking a few minutes to change your clothes helps you get into the mindset of “I’m going to work now” and helps you keep a firm line between “home” and “work.” (And if you have young children at home with you, putting on your “work clothes” can also help them understand when Mommy or Daddy is “at work” and they need to fend for themselves for a bit.)
As you move through your day, definitely take short breaks as needed. Getting a cup of coffee, moving the laundry from the washing machine to the dryer, collecting the mail from the mail box—those are all great breaks that let you stretch your legs and take your eyes off your computer screen for a couple of minutes. Just make sure you don’t fall into the habit of checking your refrigerator every ten minutes in the hope that something new and tasty has magically appeared in there since the last time you looked. (Not that I’ve ever done that, of course . . .)
You’ll also need to manage your distractions. Without fear of being caught by someone stopping by your office, you may be tempted to spend too much time checking your social media and refreshing news feeds (especially during this time of uncertainty and constant news updates). If you’re worried that you might not have the self-discipline to stay on task, here’s one possible solution: install a website blocker, a type of add-on that restricts which websites you can visit and when, based on parameters you set. So if you know that, say, Instagram is a huge time suck for you, you can tell the blocker to restrict your Instagram access for a certain amount of time.
Take Care of Yourself
Self-care is a requirement.
As we all settle in for a few weeks of working from home, remember that getting our jobs done isn’t the only thing to worry about. It’s also important for people to take care of themselves, too. Social isolation can be devasting (there’s a reason why most psychologists classify solitary confinement as a form of torture), so be sure to stay connected to other people. Today’s technology gives us lots of easy (and free!) ways to talk to friends, family, and coworkers; texting, video calls, phone calls, and social media are just a few of the many options out there.
Don’t forget to avoid physical isolation, too. Most businesses may be closed, but you aren’t actually confined to your home. So make it point to go outside every day (just be sure to practice social distancing if you see other people). Even a short stroll can clear your mind and benefit your body! If you have kids at home with you, don’t forget that they need time out of the house, too, so take them for a walk around the block or to the backyard to practice cartwheels. (Bonus: if your cartwheels are anywhere near as bad as mine, this outing can lead to some stress-busting laughter, too!)
Take care of your body. Eat as healthy as you can, and remember that even though you don’t have to go into the office for a while, you still need to shower regularly (though if you let that slide, I’m sure that anyone who’s living with you will let you know!). Keep your body moving, too. If local gym closures have shut down your usual exercise routines and the weather is too crummy for neighborhood walks, there are tons of online courses (a good chunk of them for free!) for yoga and at-home exercise routines that don’t require special equipment. (And if you find your anxiety level creeping up, look online for guided meditation courses.)
Lastly, as you shift to working from home, be sure to keep the lines of communication open with your managers, your reports, and your colleagues. These are indeed strange times we’re living in, but if we support each other, these changes will be easier to manage.
If you have any other ideas for how to navigate the shift to working from home, please share them here!