How to not suck at working from home

Jennifer, a six-year pro of working from home, says: make a dedicated workspace, stop doing your laundry and don't forget to leave the house sometimes.
Woman with a book open on her lap, a coffee cup and laptop next to her, and a cat next to her
Photo by Anete Lūsiņa on Unsplash

If you, like many Americans, are concerned about the potential spread of the coronavirus within the United States and are lucky enough to have a job with some flexibility, you may be looking into your company’s work from home (WFH) policy right about now. Some companies are even encouraging or mandating everyone to work from home. Apart from avoiding a potential disease pandemic, working from home has become increasingly popular in the past decade as technology has made it incredibly easy to stay productive without sitting in an office all day.

For the past six years, I’ve worked at a small consulting firm whose employees almost all work remotely. At different points, my company has rented a dedicated office space or desks in a coworking space, but I’ve never been obligated to work in any specific location. So for years, I have worked from home every single day. I know that in many ways I’m fortunate to get to work from home, but in general, I actually have a love-hate relationship with my home and my office being the same place.

Here are some insights I’ve developed along the way about managing the highs and lows of working from home.

Have a dedicated space

This is the biggest piece of advice I have for anyone starting to work from home. Depending on the requirements of your job (like the amount of acceptable background noise), this might mean revamping a spare bedroom (or spare corner) in your house as a home office. Or it might mean finding a dedicated location such as a library or a coffee shop to hunker down and do some work. The main point is that you are keeping a degree of separation between “home” and “work” — this is the key to avoiding the “Netflix on the couch” trap and the feeling that you never really “leave” work at the end of the day.

I personally have a room in my house that is entirely used as my office, where I have a desk for my laptop, an additional monitor and — importantly — a door that I can close to minimize distractions in the rest of the house.

Ignore the rest of your house (and the people in it)

If you’re the sort of person who can’t walk through your house without finding something to clean, something that needs fixing or stuff to be rearranged, maybe you should find a different location to do your actual work. Yes, occasionally I have started a load of laundry in the middle of the workday, but if housework proves to be too much of a distraction for you, your boss won’t be happy. Or you’ll find yourself working much later hours to accommodate the stuff you should have done during the day when you let chores intervene.

In my house, my partner and I actually both work from home. We each have our own dedicated space, and we each work with our doors closed and minimal face-to-face interactions throughout the day (we use Google Hangouts instead, just like if we were at the office). It took us some time to adjust to this since we enjoy chatting and it can be hard to resist when the other person is just a few feet away. But hanging out with your significant other or your roommate during work hours doesn’t count as working, so we put the closed-door policy in place for times when we need to concentrate and can’t be interrupted.

Find flexibility

Okay, I know I just told you to ignore all distractions and your loved ones. But YES, one of the biggest perks of working from home is that, when your work schedule allows for it, you can be flexible and find time to do the things you couldn’t do in the office.

Sometimes this means sitting down and having lunch with your partner. Sometimes this means picking up a phone call from your mom to ask about your next visit. Sometimes it means being available during the ridiculously long time block the cable company gave you for when they’d come by. When I worked in an office, when I finished a task, or if I had a short lull between meetings, I would just waste time on Facebook. Being at home, I’m able to use those brief breaks in the day to do things that are more important to me.

Be prepared to work more hours overall

This one might depend on your actual job and how demanding it is, but I found that I work more hours in a day when I work from home than when I go into an office or coworking space. One of the biggest reasons for this is not having a  commute — if I have to drive or take transit into an office, I generally don’t work before 9:00 a.m.or after 5:00 p.m. Now that I just have to roll out of bed, shower and walk across the hall to my home office, I regularly find myself at my desk from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., if not longer. In my case, this sometimes balances out with the small breaks I may take during the day (see #3), but I still log more hours of actual work when I am working from home. 

It also means that for those “almost sick” days, when you think you might be coming down with something, or you’re not quite 100% healthy after you were actually sick, you may find yourself plugging away at your desk, since there’s no risk of transmitting to coworkers.

Talk to your coworkers

Cartoon of woman jumping into the air surrounded by confetti
Jennifer: enthusiastic co-worker, even from home

Working from home, at its worst, can be isolating. There are downsides and plenty of annoyances with office culture, but hopefully, you have at least a few coworkers you’re close with or a work wife. If you suddenly switch to working from home, you’ll lose all of the unplanned interactions that can happen in an office, like chatting in the breakroom or just walking past a coworker’s desk. 

Take the initiative to reach out to your coworkers even if it isn’t strictly necessary — send them a message just to say “Hi!” or “TGIF.” Encourage them if you know they have a big presentation or a stressful meeting. And maybe even use video calls for meetings to get some face-to-face time. At my company we are big fans of Bitmoji, which is highly dorky but a cute and casual way to congratulate each other on accomplishments or commiserate over needy clients.

Leave the house

This is especially important for the introverts out there, like me. If you’re not the sort of person with a lively social calendar that will regularly have you leaving the house, you’re going to have to push yourself to, well, go outside. When things get really busy at my job, and especially if crappy weather is keeping me from going out with friends, there are weeks when I only leave the house to go grocery shopping. It’s depressing.

To combat becoming a complete shut-in, I started volunteering on Saturdays at a used bookstore run by the local library, and I try to say yes to more invites and commit to actually showing up rather than flaking out. If nothing else, take your lunch outside to eat, or go for a walk around your neighborhood to make sure you don’t go stir-crazy indoors.

You may be overjoyed at the idea of working from home because people can’t see your yoga pants on conference calls. Or maybe you’re afraid you’ll start making weird paper doll friends after two days without human interaction. Whichever is true for you, it’s a good idea to be prepared and find an approach that fits your life and your job in case working from home is in your future.


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