Working from Home 101

It was the mid-1980’s, I had a baby and I was working on my doctoral dissertation when I realized that being able to work from home would make my life easier. I borrowed what we now call a “dumb terminal” and bought an acoustic modem into which I had to place the telephone’s handset, once I’d dialed the relevant number. After that experience, I never looked back.

In 1988, I started running a custom computer software company from my home. I’ve worked from home since then, other than occasional site visits to clients, and a couple of college-level teaching gigs that had me on campus a few days a week. Not surprisingly, in my more than 30 years of working from home, I’ve learned a lot about being productive that way.

Things are quite different now than when I started. The spread of broadband Internet eliminated those acoustic modems a long time ago and the growth of inexpensive laptop computers and free wifi means many people can work almost anywhere. On the other hand, all that Internet plus everyone having a phone in their pocket has changed expectations about people’s availability. Many workers are now expected to respond to emails and resolve problems at night and on weekends, not just when they’re at the office.

The tools to do the job have changed, too. For most people suddenly working from home, there are two classes of tools that will be essential. The first is something that lets you connect to your work network, whether a VPN (virtual private network, highly recommended for security reasons) or software like TeamViewer, LogMeIn or Splashtop. In some situations, you’ll use a combination of a VPN and one of the others. These are questions for the people who oversee IT at your workplace.

The second thing you’re likely to want is a way to “meet” with co-workers or clients. That could certainly be the telephone, but if you need to show what’s on your screen or you want to look at people’s faces while meeting, you’ll want virtual meeting software like Zoom, Skype, GoToMeeting, or any of a variety of others. (Please, when on a group call of any sort, mute your phone/microphone when you’re not talking.)

One of the things working from home has taught me is that actual meetings are nowhere near as important as many workplaces think. The vast majority of communication with my clients is via email. We pick up the phone or use a meeting tool only when discussion seems to be getting bogged down or when one of us needs to demonstrate how something works. As you transition to working from home, make a call or meeting your last choice. Of course, that may feel strange at first, especially if you’re used to lots of interaction with your co-workers. I’ll say more a little later about maintaining your work relationships.

Tools, though, are only a part of working from home effectively. The key aspect is work habits, that is, discipline. Once you develop that discipline, though, you may find that you’re far more productive at home than you ever were in the office. Most offices have lots of distractions that are so built into the environment that people don’t think of them as interrupting work. On the other hand, some work depends on the kinds of interaction and collaboration that’s easy in an office, and harder when you’re all working remotely. If that’s true for you, then scheduling time regularly for conversation may be important.

The first step to productivity is to figure out what you need in order to feel like you’re at work. For me, one of those things is getting dressed every morning (though I have colleagues who like to work in pajamas). For you, it might be having your cup of coffee when you start in the morning or reading a particular work-related website first thing.

Next, figure out your work hours and stick to them as much as possible. When I first started working from home, I discovered there were any number of tasks in my house that seemed to need my urgent attention before I could get down to work. If you weren’t doing those things before work when you went to an office, you don’t need to do them before getting to work now. (Obviously, this will be variable for those who also have children home from school or other responsibilities that are usually hired out and aren’t right now.)

Sticking to your work hours is easier if you have a designated place to work. I’m fortunate in having a private office in my home — an extra bedroom that has been my office since we moved in. Most people don’t have a spare bedroom or two (for couples both working from home), but look around for a spot where you can carve out a dedicated work space so you can spread out your stuff and leave it there. Ideally, that space will include a door you can use to shut everything else out.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

If you can’t do that, think about creative ways to keep your work stuff together and accessible. Maybe re-purpose a laundry basket, wicker basket or kitchen tray.

Part of the discipline of working from home is not working all the time. This is, of course, a broad problem these days, but when your workspace is at home, it’s easy to fall into working all the time, or at least thinking about work all the time. What has worked for me is saying that I work business hours, and once I leave my office at the end of the day, I’m done and on personal time. I also stop for lunch and sit at my kitchen table with the newspaper every day. Your needs and style may vary, but it’s important to figure out how to delineate work time from personal time and then try to stick to it. Depending on your job, of course, you may have to be on call 24/7, especially during an emergency like this, but at least think about what’s actually required and do your best to carve out some time that belongs to you and your family.

Taking care of yourself is important while working from home. My work is sedentary, and no commute means little incidental movement, so I’ve made exercise a routine part of my life. My husband and I have gone to the gym three mornings a week, usually the same three days, for years (except when sick or traveling, of course). I often go out for a short walk at lunchtime. In very cold or hot weather, I often “take a walk” inside my house.

Going out to the gym isn’t going to be possible for many of us during this pandemic, but those not quarantined can certainly get out for a walk, run or bike ride. Walking in your home and using your stairs instead of a stepper provide options, too. I suspect a lot of YouTube exercise videos will find new audiences over the weeks ahead.

Mental health matters, too. Working from home can be isolating, especially if you are an extrovert who is energized by being around people. (I’m not, but my sister, who has been working from home for more than 20 years, is. She likes to work in coffee shops. Obviously, that’s off the table right now.)

Make sure to build talking to friends into your life, even if you can’t see them in person. I’ve had a monthly lunch with one friend on my calendar for a couple of decades. We won’t be able to do that right now, but we can still talk on the phone; we’ll schedule that in, so it doesn’t slip between the cracks. I often combine mental and physical health by calling someone and then walking around the house while talking to them.

Don’t forget to reinforce your business friendships, too. While I’m the only worker in my business, I’ve been part of online groups in my field since the late 1980’s and have developed not just business relationships, but friendships, with some of my colleagues across North America and around the world. These give me places to get help and to whine about work when I need to.

This emergency won’t last forever, but I think a lot of workplaces will learn that many of their employees can work productively from home and will loosen their policies on this. If you use this opportunity to learn to be productive from home, you may have more options afterward.

This piece was inspired by a Twitter thread from Steve Smith.



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