I’ve been freelancing from my home office for around eight years, and I would be reluctant to trade back. I enjoy the freedom and flexibility. On the other hand, it wasn’t an easy transition. I missed having colleagues close by and sometimes had trouble budgeting my time. For those who are working from home for the first time, here are a few tips.
Take time to set up your office right. You may want to pick up a second monitor – I find it indispensable. But also spend some time (and money if you can) on good ergonomics and a comfy chair. You’re going to be there a lot.
You will also have to learn new skills. Maybe Zoom wasn’t your best talent. It is now. And nobody from IT is coming to your home to troubleshoot your network problems. If you’re trying something new, test it before the interview/meeting. There’s nothing worse than facing technical failure while you’re trying to do something important.
Maintain a Routine
People often joke about working in their pajamas, but I’ve never done that. I’m a big believer in routine. True, I’m wearing jeans and a sweatshirt right now – hardly work attire – but I shower and shave every day. I just don’t get in the car.
I also pay close attention to my hours. I feel it’s important to get a full day in. It’s easy to get distracted by household chores and other to-dos. I take periodic breaks to walk around and get water, coffee or a snack. Remember, sitting is the new smoking, even at home. Sometimes, I empty the dishwasher. More involved chores must wait for later.
Some people have trouble taking breaks. Others have problems getting started in the first place. A timer can help on both ends. Set it for 30 minutes and get to work.
I tend to be rather rigid on when I work, but that’s just me. I do my best writing in the morning, so I try to start as early as possible, usually by 7:30. I’m not very good in the evenings, but everyone is built differently.
If your supervisor allows it, explore different approaches to time management. That can be guilt-inducing: “It’s 3 pm, I have to work.” However, you may be more productive if you work in the morning and after dinner. Or you may have no choice – see the discussion of small children below. Flexibility has its downside. If you decide to work at night, you may be cutting into family time.
It’s a good idea to create a list each day to outline your goals. That will keep you on task and prevent you from over- or under-working.
Most of all, build in a lot of flexibility. Interviews may be delayed or go longer. Experts may be difficult to pin down. Factor in new barriers when negotiating deadlines.
Home Office Parenting
Until COVID-19, I mostly had the house to myself. My wife was at her job, and my kids were at their school. Now, everyone is here. My family is really good about leaving me alone while I work. Still, my kids are 15 and 18 – it’s not like they’re yearning for quality time with dad.
Smaller kids are tougher. It’s pretty tantalizing for them to see their parents home and not play with them. When my kids were younger and home from school, we used to play during my breaks. We’d go outside for a few minutes, and then we’d all go back to what we were doing before. The important piece was setting expectations beforehand.
Still, it’s hard to explain time management to a two-year-old who is suddenly home from daycare. In some cases, you can work around their schedules: early mornings before they wake up, nap times and after they go to sleep at night.
This new normal can present an especially difficult dilemma for parents who want to limit screen time. Some may want to liberalize the rules a bit for this singularity. Another option is podcasts, even for the littles, and here’s a list of virtual field trips.
Elementary school kids often respond well to having jobs – just like mom and dad. Work with them to create an activity list, and hang it prominently so they can cross off items upon completion. These might include virtual tours, worksheets, puzzles, art projects etc. Plan a lot of them – kids have short attention spans. Make sure all the materials they’ll need are out so they don’t need to grab you every time they need something.
This is also a great opportunity to teach kids to be more independent – make sandwiches, sort laundry, clean up after themselves. Older kids may want to help with your work, conducting research, for example.
Set expectations for when you will be available. The timer can come in handy here as well. Tell the children you’ll be working and can’t be bothered during that window. However, when the timer goes off, you’re on their time.
Distance, Not Isolation
Being out of the office is a double-edged sword – you miss the collegiality but you may also have fewer meetings to distract from actual work. Still, don’t be a stranger. Carve out time to chat with friends and colleagues. My wife has implemented an optional morning Zoom check-in with her group. It’s a good time to reconnect.
Perhaps the most unnerving thing about COVID-19 is the open-ended time line. We don’t know how bad this is going to get or when it will end. Still, this could have happened anytime in the past 50 years, and we have much better technology to deal with it. Maybe you’ve been thinking about visiting the Musee d’Orsay or some other fine museum. Go for it.
Thanks to Tiffany Fox, Brittany Fair, Lisa Peterson and Ramin Skibba for their help with this post.