For years you tried to convince the powers that be that working from home is just as productive if not more so than coming into the office. You cited article after article full of evidence to support your claims.
Well guess what? It’s finally happening! And all it took was a viral pandemic. And you said upper management never listens.
So now that you finally have the opportunity to work from home, don’t blow it! Working from home is a skill. How do you stay focused and effective? Should you wear pants? How do you avoid the total degradation of social skills and end up as a modern Nell? Well my friend, I’ve been working from home for the last eight years and I’m happy to share some of my tips in a series of posts.
- How to work from home (This post.)
- How to lead from home
- Geographically Distributed Teams
- When Remote Work Goes Wrong
Wear Pants or equivalent
There are many people who work from home and brag about how they don’t have to wear pants. It’s true that video chat only captures the top half of your body so who cares what’s under deck? Perhaps you’re excited that you don’t have to wear pants. Some of you may even be excited about not taking showers. Ewww. I’m here to suggest that you wear pants (or shorts, or a skirt, or something office appropriate) and that you continue to take showers.
First of all, a bare ass on an office chair is not as comfortable as you might think and it’s kind of gross. Perhaps your plan is to wear pajama pants. Definitely do it one day just to get it out your system. But the rest of the time, I recommend getting dressed for work as you normally would. It helps you get in the right mindset.
When you work at an office, you already have a pre-work ritual. For many this involves coffee and crying. Whatever it is, it’s an important part of the mental transition from your home life to work life.
When you work from home, it’s easy to fall into a pattern where it all blends together in a mishmash of disappointment. Maintain a pre-work ritual that helps your brain make the transition from home life to work life. It can be as simple as making a coffee and putting a sign on your door. For Mr. Rogers it’s singing a song about what a beautiful day it is in the neighborhood. If you feel like a song, go for it. You’re at home!
I also recommend a post-work ritual as well to indicate your day of work is done and you’re ready to “head home” now. This is important. When I first started to work from home, I didn’t do well at this transition. Yes, I would physically be present with my family, such as when we sat down for dinner. But my thoughts would still be at work. This was not fair to my family and not healthy for me. Again, Mr. Rogers would sing a song about good feelings to indicate his work day was over. The dude was a work from home pro. Today I just close my computer and remind myself, “Tire fire’s out. Time to be home.”
When you work from home, it’s important to set boundaries both in the physical and relational sense. If you’re lucky enough to have a dedicated home office, that’s great. If you’re like many friends of mine who live in the bay area and can only afford an overpriced closet, you’ll have to be more creative like set aside a space with makeshift partitions. Use police tape if you have to. The important thing is to have a space that represents work.
It’s also important to set boundaries with your family or roommates. When you work at home, it’s very easy for your family to take it for granted. They’ll ask you to do this quick chore or answer that quick question. Make it clear that when you’re at work that they should treat it as if you were at the office. Practice your angry glare for when they burst in your office and it’s not an emergency. But don’t take it too far. When it is an emergency, take care of it for gods sake. Take advantage that you’re only pretending to be at work.
Set Work Hours
The freedom to work at home can often lead to two undesirable outcomes. In one case, a person may barely get anything done because they are constantly distracted. In the other, they never stop working because the boundaries between home and work become blurred.
I found it helpful to establish set work hours. It helps create a healthy rhythm for work. It also lets your family and colleagues know what to expect in terms of when you’re around and when you’re not. Despite Dolly Parton’s sage advice, these work hours don’t have to be 9 to 5. You could have two blocks of time. Or eight. Whatever. Just set up a schedule and stick to it as best you can.
If you have a Playstation or XBox, yank the power cord and toss it in a random direction outside. Or ask a family member to hide it until you’re done with work. Maybe throw a padlock on the fridge. Working from home comes with a lot of distractions. If you’re not careful, you might spend an entire day doing household chores while snacking with your soaps on and not get any work done. Do what it takes to remove even the temptation of distractions.
I also recommend turning off all notifications. Set aside a specific time (or times) to check notifications and emails. Constant interruptions are a productivity killer. Make sure folks at work know how to get ahold of you in case of emergency whether via a text message or bat signal.
Some of the previous tips about setting boundaries and work hours help create the mindset and discipline for getting work done. Whatever you do, find a system that works for you so that you can remain focused while working.
Focus on what’s important
The start of your work day is a great time to set goals for your day. A good approach to goal setting is to set SMART goals - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time Bound. Thus a goal of not losing your shit during the day, while commendable, is not what I’m referring to here.
If you jump into work and just react to whatever is in your inbox or chat, you can spend your entire day on inconsequential busy work and not actually make progress on important work. I know filling out the March Madness brackets is important, but it can wait until you have some downtime between tasks.
I like to set maybe one or two important goals to focus on for the day. The rest of the time is spent in meetings, maintenance tasks, and unblocking others by responding to emails or chats. It helps to allocate a bounded amount of time to these tasks so they don’t take over your day. Most emails can wait until tomorrow for a response.
You won’t serendipitously run into Shuri from IT at the watercooler. Chad from Sales won’t regale you with stories from his latest weekend kitesurfing trip. While that last one might sound like a good thing, humans are social creatures and need to interact with others. When you work from home, it can get lonely. Schedule time to chat with people on video conference. Hit people up in chat. Whatever you do, if someone has Do Not Disturb enabled, do not send a message anyways. That’s just rude.
It’s important to communicate so your social skills don’t degrade as depicted in The Oatmeal. Trust me, it happens.
Not only that, since you’re not constantly bumping into folks, it’s very easy to get out of sync with your team. At the beginning of each work day, let folks know what your going to focus on. At the end of each day, let your team know what you got accomplished. Let people know when blockers come up. Communicate.
One last tip is to be flexible. Working from home has so many benefits, use them! Earlier I said to set work hours. Rules are made to be broken. Feel like going to see that new movie in the middle of the day? Treat Yourself! You can make up the work later in the day. A regular schedule is good to establish a work rhythm, but do enjoy the freedom to deviate from it from time to time.
Likewise, I recommended setting aside a home office space where work is done. That doesn’t mean you can’t curl up to a tub of ice cream on the couch once in a while and get some work done. I’ll allow it. You deserve it!
Once you have the hang of working from home, feel free to enjoy the flexibility!
This advice is focused on the home worker. I have a lot more to say about how to build effective remote teams so stay tuned to this blog. I hope this was helpful to you.