Many businesses are getting ready to become virtual as the virus spreads. We've put together a guide to help keep you productive in your home officeI’ve been working from home on a continual basis since 2015, and a big chunk of 2011 was spent at home as well. Over the years I’ve learned a few things and with the pandemic sending many of us into our home offices, it seemed like a good time to share some of the insights I've gleaned. This guide is aimed at those who'll be working from home for the foreseeable future, not just a day or two.
When I first started working from home after the February 11 earthquake, I had my original set up on the kitchen table. This is to be avoided at all costs – having your workspace staring you in the face 24/7 will do your head in. Every ‘ping’ had me checking my emails – I could not leave them alone – and turning the computer off didn’t help, because I could clearly hear its malevolent voice saying “Switch me on. Go on… you know you want to. You could be missing out on something important…”. Finally, in exasperation, my husband declared that we were spending the weekend turning the spare room into an office.
If you have a spare room, this is the ideal spot, because at the end of the day you simply close the door and ‘go home’ – just as you would when leaving the town office. Because you’re going to be spending a big chunk of your day in there, take some time to make it a pleasant place to be. If your work environment is somewhere you physically enjoy being, you’ll be more productive.
If you don’t have a spare room, try to find a spot that doesn’t include the TV, fridge, PlayStation or Xbox.
The Distraction Factor
When I tell people I work from home they respond in one of two ways:
- I could never do it. I’d be too distracted.
- Cool! You can drop me at the airport tomorrow (more on this one later)
The reality of working from home is that you’re often actually more productive than you’d be in the office, because believe it or not, there are less distractions. As long as you haven’t set up your workspace in an area where the leftover roast chicken, Netflix or Fallout can blur your focus, you’ll find you get through more work in a shorter space of time. That’s because you’re not gossiping in the kitchen, comparing notes on the rugby, dropping by each others’ desks for a five minute chat that turns into a 15 minute one, or nipping out for coffee.
I’ve learned this from experience: if you put your head down and your bum up in your home office, you’ll accomplish in 4 hours what would normally take you 8. FACT.
The art of self-discipline vs. the potential for skiving off
At first, working from home on an extended basis feels a bit like wagging school. To combat this guilty feeling, you might be tempted to glue yourself to your desk – I know I did. When I first started, I never considered fitting domestic chores in during the day, but the reality is that as long as you stay near your workspace and you prioritise Work Tasks over Household Jobs, you’ll find that you can spread your domestic chores over the week, rather than cramming them into the weekend. However you need to know where the line is; e.g. no-one’s going to bark at you if you spend 10 minutes hanging out the washing, but taking an hour off to mow the lawn (unless you’ve decided to make that a lunchtime objective) is somewhat of a no-no.
Discipline is something you also have to instil in your friends and family. Or perhaps it’s just good manners. When people learn you work from home, they assume that you’re not actually working, because you’re at home. They ask for favours, drop by unannounced, and say things like “Oh it’s not a real job. She works at home.” It took me quite some time to train my friends and family into a different mindset, and I can’t count how many times I uttered the phrase “I am WORKING. I am not TECHNICALLY at home.” Be firm. Obviously, you’ll help them out if it’s an emergency (as you would even if you were in the town office) but don’t encourage the thinking that you’re available to them during working hours.
The joys of kids and pets
Of course, this doesn’t apply to kids, particularly really young ones. These little treasures care not a jot that you’re supposed to be working; the fact that you’re at home means you are theirs. You couldn’t find them 10 minutes ago when you announced that everyone’s teeth needed to be brushed, but the minute you settle into your chair and focus your attention, they will appear, and demand that attention for themselves. If everyone is at home due to the pandemic - you, your partner, the kids - it’s a good idea to work out a schedule of who’s in the office working and who’s looking after the rugrats. This article from Stuff has some excellent advice on managing kids and your workload while in isolation.
Pets are a bit different, although trying to rationalise with them is somewhat similar. It’s been a while since I had a cat, but in my experience the cat that refused to come near you last night while you were sat on the couch thinking you’d like a bit of a cat cuddle, is the same one that will decide the next morning that your keyboard is precisely the right spot for a snooze. While you're using it. Or that whatever you happen to be looking at on your monitor is tantamount to treason.
If you have a dog, and it’s used to being outside all day, you might want to continue with that. The trick there is convincing them you’ve left for the day, which means sneaking around your own house and trying to unload the dishwasher without them hearing you. However, having your dog in your office with you is, I’ve found, calming and soothing. It’s no wonder that more and more dogs are going into offices with their humans; there’s a ton of research to support the notion that the presence of pets is highly beneficial in work environments. My dogs spend the morning in the office with me, snuggled up on the dog bed and snoring loudly (this has proved somewhat embarrassing and required explanation when I’ve been on a Skype or Zoom call with a client), but after their lunchtime walk they spend the afternoon outside, unless it’s a howling gale. Although dogs are champion sleepers, spending the whole day in the office isn’t entirely recommended.
It's a tough life for these two…
Lunchtime! So many more options than a sandwich
I eat my actual lunch at my desk. In an office environment, this is rightly seen as detrimental to one’s wellbeing, but working from home means you have so many more options for your lunch break, none of which include eating. First and foremost is leaving your home office and doing something completely unrelated to work. For me, it’s walking the dogs (and in summer, swimming with them). There’s nothing like a bit of exercise to set you up for the afternoon work session, especially if you’ve been struggling with a problem, because by the time you get back your subconscious will often have worked it out.
Other people I know like to get the grocery shopping done. You wouldn’t believe how much faster this goes, and how much less stressful it is, doing this chore in the middle of the day instead of fighting the crowds during the after school/work rush.
You might decide to mow the lawn or do a bit of gardening; whatever it is you do, make sure it has nothing to do with work. Of course, if you’re the sort who prefers to eat away from your desk, by all means do so. But working from home means you can devote your lunch break to something more enjoyable, and then eat whatever you want at your desk – and no-one’s going to complain if that happens to be a re-heated curry or stroganoff.
Keep an eye on you
Even if your office doesn't have much of a dress code, it's still important to get properly dressed, because when you work from home there’s a temptation to live permanently in trackies. Studies have shown that personal grooming has a direct correlation to our wellbeing and how productive we are. While it’s true that people are only going to see the top third of you during a Zoom or Skype call, spending the day un-showered in your jammies is a no-no. There’s no quicker path to feeling like a slob, and that leads directly to an inability to focus and a drop in productivity.
It’s true that you don’t have to battle the morning rush hour – and it’s awesome! – so yes, you get to sleep in a bit. But keeping your regular office hours is important; make sure that you are dressed, breakfasted, and at your desk, coffee in hand, at the usual time you would be if you were in the office.
Where you are and what you’re doing
This is where tools like Slack are crucial. You may already use the app as a means of communication; once we’re all in our home offices it will become increasingly important. With most messaging apps, you have the ability to set your status, which means the rest of your team can see at a glance what you’re up to. You don’t have to be specific – no-one needs to know that you’re clipping your toenails or on dog-poo-patrol – but it’s helpful to let the rest of the team know when you’re not at your desk.
If you are going to be out for a while – and things do crop up that mean you have to vamoose quick smart – a quick message to everyone is all that’s needed to let them know that continually pinging you is pointless. And that you’ll be back as soon as you can.
Most people fear that they will be less productive, more distracted and struggle with self-discipline if they have to work from home. The reality is that, provided you set a few simple rules for yourself, it can be a good experience. Of course you will miss the social interaction, especially when everyone in your office has a good rapport and a few laughs. But faced with the looming certainty of a quarantine during this pandemic, there are ways to make the best of a bad situation. It takes a bit of getting used to – and in the end, it’s not for everyone – but with today’s technology, you don’t need to fear isolation, and you may actually find that your productivity levels rise.