I have worked from home full-time for the past three years. I know a few people who have done so for a lot longer (decades), but, regardless of how long anyone I know has worked from home, we seem to have many of the same observations.
Thanks to the coronavirus, we are becoming a lot more familiar with the concept of “social distancing” and work from home may become more prevalent for a while. When I worked in a cubicle, I romanticized the idea of work from home. Now that I’ve done it for a while, I realize it is a unique work experience with its own benefits and drawbacks. Rather than enumerate those in detail, I’ll address some practices that I have adopted and evolved during my time at home.
Regiment Your Day
This is a big one. When you’re working in an office, there’s a natural boundary to your day – you physically go to the office in the morning and you physically leave the office in the evening. This boundary can be ingrained to the point that it’s no longer noticed.
When you work from home, this boundary doesn’t exist, so you need to explicitly create it. Whether you are lucky enough to have dedicated space (with a door) or working in an open part of your home, the work is “always there.” This was particularly difficult for me when I was writing software as I could just walk back to my computer and bang out a bit of code when it popped into my head.
So start by giving yourself a firm start-time and a firm finish time. I have two blocks of time built into my daily calendar – more on calendar usage later – to allow me to batch process things at the beginning and end of the day. This helps me simulate the palate-cleansing effect of the commute.
Communicate – A Lot
Chances are you don’t work in a vacuum and you have co-workers who are either working at the office or also working from home. One of the advantages of working in an office is the “water-cooler” chit chat where new ideas can be hatched or hashed out. Also, this is where your co-workers become three-dimensional humans and deeper team building occurs. This is really hard to simulate remotely over tools like Slack.
I’m a fairly introverted person, but I’ve learned that I need to overshare on Slack in order make sure I am understood. When I’m working through something complicated – or something that I don’t think I’ll be able to communicate effectively in writing – I’ll get the co-workers involved online via Zoom or a Slack call in order to work it through verbally.
Another form of communication is long-form written documents. My employer has begun making more use of the Amazon Six-Pager format for fleshing out new ideas. When implemented in something like a Google Doc, this longer form structure becomes a focus for meaningful collaboration.
Another thing that seems small, but helps build culture as more people work remotely is to talk about all the things you normally would around the water cooler. Share photos of your pets, talk about the 5K you ran, let people know about your community theater production, your kids’ promotion ceremonies, and other threads that make up the tapestry of our lives. I recommend making dedicated channels so that regular work discussions don’t get clogged, but that’s how we do things in the office anyway. You don’t interrupt a presentation to show everyone photos from your cruise, so don’t do that in Slack, either. Put it in a channel, but definitely talk about such things. It helps build connection and trust in real life, it helps even more when the primary communication method is a keyboard.
Cabin Fever is Real
Working from home is a great situation, but don’t work exclusively from home. For me, Thursdays are the hardest days of the week because I’ve been in the house all week. It can become distracting. When cabin fever sets in, the only cure is a change of venue. Scout out locations in your area where you can grab your laptop, your noise-cancelling headphones, and get on decent wi-fi (always use a VPN) and get some work done.
I live in a fairly rural area so my choices are limited to a local coffee chop with spotty wi-fi, a McDonald’s with great wi-fi, a local community college campus, or the public library. I will rotate between these, depending on my needs. If I know I have a Zoom call, the parking lot of the community college is great (good wi-fi, no background noise in my car). If I know I’ve got a lot of data work to do, it’s McDonald’s. If I feel guilty about not supporting local merchants and I’m just editing documents, it’s the local coffee shop. If I don’t have a call and I really don’t want to be disturbed, it’s the library.
I usually change venues once a week to keep the cabin fever at bay. It can be a huge mental distraction. so I recommend scouting alternate locations if you’re transitioning to working from home.
Do Something Else During the Day
This is related to the preceding section. It dealt with changing your work venue every so often. This is more about creating the daily practice of pushing away from your workspace for a period of time and doing a non-work activity.
Go for a run, play with your dog, go to the gym, cook yourself a healthy lunch. Do something that takes your mind off work for about an hour and then get back to it. This is essentially a scheduled context switch. You’ll feel refreshed and be more productive for the rest of your day.
Live by Your Calendar
This is somewhat related to communication, but warrants its own discussion. A calendar is not only a great way to manage your time, but also a way to broadcast your availability or, more importantly, your unavailability. Of course, I’m referring to an online calendar like Google Calendar, not a useless, siloed, paper calendar that only you can see.
When you don’t have co-workers around you in your office, it can be easy to lose the rhythm of the day, or for the day to simply not have a rhythm. Using a calendar is a great proactive way to structure your day. Here’s what mine looked like on a recent day.
The early appointment was not work-related. Yes, put those on the calendar, too, so your co-workers know you’re busy if they are trying to schedule a meeting. (We have customers all over the world, so an early or late meeting is not unusual.)
The daily start-up and wrap-up blocks are times that I specifically set aside to proactively get my day going or wind it down, respectively. In the morning, I review my calendar, respond to any overnight emails, check Slack for any automated messages or alerts that were generated, and review the attendance channel to see which of my co-workers may be out that day so i don’t try to message them.
On this particular day, I didn’t have any meetings scheduled. If I did, I would use the start-up block to do any last-minute pre-work needed to be prepared for it. The wrap-up block is primarily for responding to more emails from during the workday, updating the next day’s calendar, and making notes about any unfinished work I need to pick up the next day.
What about those blocks called “Request to Schedule?” Those are time blocks where I have nothing else scheduled, so I can get my tasks done. Creating blocks on my schedule accomplishes two things. First, it requires anyone who wants to schedule a meeting with me to reach out, since the time is already blocked off. Second, it forces me to edit my day if I want to schedule a meeting. In both cases it triggers a proactive assessment of the trade-offs between getting my regular work done and taking (or making) a meeting.
A calendar is crucial for me. I’m not in the office for someone to ask me “Are you available at 2:30?” The calendar makes that obvious to them.
You’ll notice that I set aside time to respond to emails, update my schedule, and do other tasks. I’ve tried to build the habit of batch processing as many things as I can. Early in my career, I felt compelled to respond to every email the moment I got it. As my career has progressed I have come to realize a thoughtful response is much more valuable than a quick one. Additionally, those instant responses represented a bunch of context switches throughout my day.
By corralling these tasks into dedicated time blocks, I’m able to be more productive during the course of my day and I’m also able to give more meaningful responses to any emails or messages that require them.
Turn Off Notifications
On my phone, I turn off notifications by default. If there are any apps that I consider important – which are primarily those that provide some kind of status update from my family – I allow them to send notifications to my smart watch. The bottom line is that if my watch doesn’t buzz, it’s not important enough for immediate attention.
This practice extends to all social media platforms as well as Slack. Although Slack is the primary communication medium at work, I will make use of “do not disturb” as I see fit throughout the day. I also mute a lot of channels.
This may seem counter to my previous advice to communicate a lot, but it’s really about taking control over how and when you communicate.
Leave the Home Projects Alone
Working from home means, by definition, that you’re at home. It’s the place that you care about the most and there probably always some project that needs to happen. Maybe you need to dust the baseboards, or touch up the trim, or organize your books, or some other project that needs to be done.
You’ll need to develop really strong blinders, or those projects will draw you in and sap your productivity. Maybe a limited project can be tackled as part of “Doing Something Else During the Day,” but it should be something that you can put into a finite box. Regardless, you’ll need to develop the ability to ignore or walk away from a home project to keep your workday on track. That’s another time when a change of venue may be useful.
A couple of patterns emerge from the above recommendations. First, take control of your day. Each of them in some way discusses proactive management of your situation while working from home. Another pattern that mat be less obvious is that you should take time to identify the positive aspects of going an office or other work site on a daily basis and try to emulate those as part of working from home.
I have found working from home to be a positive, but I can also understand that it may not be for everyone. As it becomes more common, perhaps a stronger body of knowledge related to its unique benefits and challenges will grow as more people start to share their experiences.