I’ve been working from home occasionally for probably close to ten years now, and full-time for the last few months. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, many more people are now getting to enjoy (I guess?) the privilege of working from their homes during the crisis.
If there is one thing that I hope comes out of this whole miserable period it is the understanding that there are a lot of people out there have jobs that really don’t need physical presence in an office building. And if they don’t need to be in an office, maybe they don’t need to live in an expensive city either. This could be the beginning of a whole new boom for small and mid-sized cities with affordable costs of living. Maybe you can afford a house after all! And maybe companies don’t need to lease out an expensive building in an expensive city, fill it to the brim with people in open floor plans or (even worse) hot-desking to do the work they need to do.
It’s an even bigger win for disabled and non-neurotypical people who often struggle to work in the modern knowledge workforce despite their skills. For people with autism, ADHD, and other related conditions, modern open offices or cubicles are a difficult work environment whereas the home environment may offer much more safety and control.
If this is your first time doing this, it may seem a bit odd, even naughty, to be working without commuting to an office building. With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of things I have observed over the years of working from home to help you get a feel for what this is like.
The number one thing to do in the beginning is to develop a good routine. I would suggest initially basing this routine on the same one you had when you physically worked in an office building.
For instance, if you had to be at the office at 9am, but you had a 45 minute commute? Enjoy 45 more minutes of sleep and log on at 9am. It can be tempting to log in early. Don’t. Set aside certain hours that are going to be working hours. Wake up at the same time, start at the same time, eat at the same time, finish at the same time.
As time goes on, you can tweak this routine as needed. Try to find a routine that works for you and stick to it as best as possible each day. It’s very easy to slip because no one is there to tell you not to except yourself.
Controlling Your Environment
One of the great things about working from home is that you have far more control over your working environment. You don’t have to face constant interruptions from noise or other things that are out of your control.
If you have the space in your home, I’ve found it helpful to set aside a space, however small, specifically for working. I never work on the couch, for instance; I always sit at my desk.
Sometimes a change of scenery is nice, so you can go someplace else. Many people like coffee shops, though I’d rather go to the park and sit at a picnic table. But given the current limitations imposed by COVID quarantines, your chances of finding a good change of scenery spot might be just moving from a desk to a porch or balcony. Getting some fresh air is important.
Equally as important as routine is self control. It’s very easy to say “I’ll just fix one more bug,” and suddenly it’s 9pm and you’ve been working for 13 hours. Sometimes things happen, stuff breaks and you need to roll with that, but on normal days learn to prioritize what needs to be fixed now vs. what can wait until tomorrow. And when you log out, be done for the day. Go and enjoy what you can given the current situations and resist that temptation to log in later that night and fix “one more thing.”
Take breaks. Take a walk around the block if you still can (remember social distancing needs), or walk around your apartment or house if you can’t. Stretch. Do some lightweight exercises.
Again, it’s easy to get sucked in when you don’t have normal workplace distractions. But sometimes those distractions are useful. Yeah, it sucks when someone interrupts you at your desk, but how often do you then decide it’s a good time for a bathroom break, or to grab a soda or snack or something? Make those things happen at home. I find a variation on pomodoro to be a benefit here.
Watch yourself for distractions. It is easy to get sucked into watching a YouTube video or something when you should be working, especially if you are doing a task that requires some waiting time to complete. When you are supposed to be working, be sure you are working. Try to stay busy.
After work, go do something else. If possible try to get some exercise or some fresh air. Watch a movie, spend some time with family or pets, read a book. Unplug from your work environment. The idea is to draw a clear line between work and not-work.
Do you have family? If you do here are a couple of additional points.
Be sure you don’t neglect your family duties. This seems counter-intuitive (because you’re at home, right!) but I’ve seen several friends’ relationships suffer after they started working from home (and it’s usually related to the self-control issues above - they can’t stop when it’s time to switch into family mode). Be sure your family is on board with you working from home and know what to expect.
But on the other hand, if your family is at home while you are home, be sure they realize that you are working and that they should try not to disturb you and give you space to work. I work with my wife and 7 year old in the house and, while distractions do happen, they’re both pretty good about allowing me space and quiet to get things done. I have the fortune of having a separate space to work and, while my door is usually open for them to come and go, they know that if I’ve closed the door that means I’m trying to focus on something and to try not to disturb me.
Leading A New Work From Home Team
If you are a team leader, there are a few other points you should consider.
Literally everyone’s universe has been turned upside down by COVID. Even if they don’t have the disease itself, they are now working from home possibly for the first time ever. Many are anxious about the entire situation or worried about friends and family. Patience and stability is the best thing you can provide your team right now.
Realize that the normal flow of work has been massively disrupted and people will react to that in different ways. Some peoples’ productivity may go up, others may go down as they adjust to the new reality or even just dealing with the anxiety this whole situation has caused. Be understanding. Try to help people navigate this period. Be a source of stability, not a source of chaos.
Try to set aside one period a week where the whole team can be on video-conference together and just “virtually co-work.” This is a good time for you as a leader to take the temperature of the team and see what places could be improved. Look for places that you could improve new for workflows. Again, stabilize and eliminate chaos if you can.
Reach out to each of your team members individually and be sure they are coping as well as possible. Offer to help in whatever ways you can.
You may need to rearrange meeting times to account for people now having kids having remote schoolwork to do, for instance. The scope of work for your sprints may need to be adjusted. Be flexible with your team as much as possible. Go to bat for them when necessary. And realize that we’re all together and we’re all trying to make it through this difficult challenging time. We’re better together than apart.
Keep up with your personal hygiene. There is a level of truth to this Oatmeal comic.
Watch your food intake. It is really easy to pack on some pounds especially at the beginning. You graze a bit from the pantry, especially if your usual workplace does not stock free snacks and drinks, and suddenly you’ve packed on 15 pounds and can’t fit your pants anymore.