Almost every person who works in an office has been told to work from home for at least a few weeks, if not more. Telecommuting is a different experience than working at an office where you have colleagues, structure, amenities, and all of the trappings of the common workplace environment.
How do I know? Well, Content Rules has been a virtual company for 26 years. We were virtual before the internet was a commercially available resource. Long before video conferencing, long before shared applications such as the G-suite, even before cell phones.
As technology has advanced, the mechanics of working from home have gotten far easier. In many ways, there is no difference between working from home and working from the office. Our laptops are connected to our corporate infrastructure. Most of what we do (writing content, working in spreadsheets, email, and more) is exactly the same.
Yet, in many other ways, it is a completely different experience.
I’d venture to say that everything except the mechanics of work is different at home. I have a few tips for making your time at home productive, fulfilling, and as normal as it can be.
Have a morning routine.
For those of us who are home primarily on weekends and days off, the usual home morning routine is either non-existent or quite different from the usual workday morning routine. The first thing I recommend is making sure you have a work-from-home routine. It will likely be a new routine, neither a vacation or a go-to-work day. Some things you might put into your work-from-home morning routine:
- Be sure to set a good wake up time. Even if your new commute is from the kitchen to the guest room, working from home does not include sleeping until five minutes before your first meeting. I like to give myself at least 1.5 hours before my day begins.
- Make your coffee. Unless you have a live-in butler or a very fancy espresso machine, you are going to have to make your own cup of coffee. This is part of what you do in the 1.5 hours before your first meeting. Making a healthy breakfast is also a good idea.
- Shower and get dressed. While we joke about working from home in pajamas, it is really a terrible idea. While you likely do not have to break out your business suit, it is important to get yourself all cleaned up and dressed every day. (This is particularly important if you will be having video calls, though I agree that no one will see your sweatpants if you decide to wear them.) Don’t skip this step.
Before you start work, make sure you have a clean and organized space.
Some of us will be setting up on the kitchen table. Be sure the dirty dishes are cleared. If you are working in an extra bedroom, make sure that it is neat and tidy. That way, you aren’t distracted by all the “stuff” we collect in life. It helps to have some handy office supplies nearby and to set up your desk for work. In my home office, I have a photo of each one of my children on my desk. I have pens, pencils, a calculator (yes, I still use one), and so on.
Make sure you have cables, chargers, and accessories nearby.
You’ll need to charge your phone, plug in your laptop, and keep all of your electronics functioning uninterrupted. Make sure your wireless headset is charged between (or during) calls. It’s not a bad idea to keep a wired headset around as backup, as you’ll likely spend more time on calls than you usually do.
Adjust your home workspace to be as ergonomic as possible.
Use an external keyboard, mouse, and monitor. Pay attention to how high or low you are sitting and the angle of your arms in relation to your keyboard. You can even designate a place to work from a standing position, such as a kitchen counter or table where you can stack boxes or books so your workspace is raised to standing height. A great source of information for making your home environment as comfortable as possible is Performance Based Ergonomics, one of the country’s leading ergonomic companies. You can check out their important tips for working from home here.
When you get to work, find a way to announce that you are at the virtual office.
Here at Content Rules, we log in to Zoom when we arrive at work. That little green button lets everyone know who is at their desk and who is not. You might even set up some get-to-work routine, such as an “I’m here” on a Slack channel, or just a quick IM to your boss. The main thing is to make sure you are not invisible. People know you have arrived, are working, and are ready to help.
When you are at work, do the work.
It is so easy to fall into the “check Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter every 10 minutes” or “look at CNN constantly” trap when you are working from home. This is particularly true right now, when we are all obsessing about COVID-19 and the latest numbers from the stock market. Remember, you are being paid to do your job, not to be on social media. My practice is to check non-work social media three times a day:
- In the morning before I start work
- At lunch
- In the evening after work is done
Rarely, if ever, do I check my personal Facebook page or Instagram account in the middle of my workday. That’s not what I get paid to do.
I really cannot state this enough. When we work remotely, it is easy to feel isolated. It is also easy to be inadvertently overlooked. I combat this by making sure I over communicate. For example, on Mondays, I try to make it a habit to check in with everyone on my team individually. I like to do this using video, so that we are face to face. I try to start the week by asking how someone enjoyed their weekend, asking about their family and pets, and so on. Just because we don’t share the same physical space, doesn’t mean that I am any less interested in my team members as people.
During the work week, from time to time I will reach out to one or more team members with something funny that happened, or some other type of anecdote that allows me to feel more connected and less alone. As a manager, I appreciate it when my reports update me on the status of their projects as frequently as they need.
We don’t realize how much of this type of communication goes on “at the watercooler” when we are physically in an office. Once we are removed from that environment, we have to work harder to provide information and have a sense of camaraderie among the team. It may seem like a lot of effort, but I assure you, it is worth your time.
Not all of us love the video camera. I know that when I’m on video, I see every hair out of place on my head, every red spot on my face. I’m a great self-critic. In a telecommuting environment, we all need to get over our shyness. Video is the next best thing to being there. Truly. Video provides all of the social cues that we miss when we communicate only using text or even audio.
This is particularly true for important pieces of information. One of my rules: Never give bad news (or even really good news) to someone via email or text. At minimum, pick up the phone. But really, even that is not enough. Embrace your video camera and use it widely for important and not-so important things.
Use the mute button.
We have probably all seen some of the hilarious videos about what it’s like to work from home when you are on a conference call. The dog barks, the FedEx driver rings the doorbell (causing the dog to bark more), a child runs in with a question (or a mud pie), the garbage truck stops in front of your house – you get the idea. Knowing where the mute button is and using it religiously will keep you from interrupting a meeting and also from a potentially embarrassing situation.
It is easy (at least for me) to sit down at my desk in the morning and never stand up until it is getting dark outside. This is a very bad habit. Taking breaks when you are home is just as important as taking breaks when you are at the office. The difference is there is no one to “drag” you away from your desk at home. No one to come over and say, “Hey, let’s go get a latte downstairs,” or even, “Let’s go to lunch.” Set a timer if you need to, or use one of the “take a break” apps that are widely available. Get up, pet the dog, flip the laundry, walk around the block – whatever you need to do to make sure you are taking care of yourself.
There will be technology glitches. There will be conference calls that seem to go sideways because you cannot see people and read their body language. People will talk over each other, until we figure out that we need to wait for a space to speak. With schools closed and some jobs on hold, you or your coworkers are likely to be interrupted by children, roommates, or partners who temporarily forget that you’re at work. Some people will adapt more quickly than others. Everyone is doing the very best they can, particularly in these trying times. Laugh. A lot.
When you leave for the day, actually leave.
If you are working in a dedicated office room, leave for the day and close the door behind you. If not, shut down your computer. If you can’t do that, turn off your external monitor. It is so easy to end up working every hour that you are awake when you work from home. It is important that you stop working when the day is done and put it all away. When I leave for the day, I usually turn off the light to my office and turn off my monitor. And even though I still check email on my phone, I try to have a separation between my work day and the rest of my time. And I try to have a separation between my work space and the rest of my home.
I hope that working from home will soon be an option and not a mandate. Until then, let’s remember that we are all in this together. A lot of it is uncharted territory and it is difficult. So, do what you can to be comfortable and productive in your home environment. Who knows? You may decide you prefer telecommuting after all.