Working from home (WFH) can be a big shift for many companies and employees. Instead of a dedicated desk and your 24” 4K monitor, you’ll be working from the kitchen table on a 13” laptop. Rather than commuting for hours each day, you can roll out of bed and start working. No longer can you turn to your office mate for a quick question, you now need to message through slack, send an email, or worse, set up a meeting.
When you work closely with your team, you get the benefit of hallway conversations, non-verbal cues, and whiteboard meetings. You can observe office dynamics first hand. You can also build friendships that extend beyond work.
As a full-time work-from-home employee for the past 11 years at four different companies, I’d like to offer some of my tips for those of you who are new to the “sport”.
(Of note: Dual monitors for productivity. Ikea shelf found in many offices. Interesting, personal, yet tidy background for video calls. Ukelele for breaks and to inspire creativity. Dressed for comfort and appropriate for video audience. Ergonomic chair—under the blanket—and comfortable position to the keyboard. Natural light from a large window in front of me. )
1. Establish a routine
Exercise, shower, eat breakfast. Set a lunch hour. Take a break for dinner with the family. Whatever your routine, set it and do your best to follow it. Your workload will vary but keeping a schedule that approximates a work office schedule will help you set boundaries and keep your sanity.
2. Pick a comfortable and suitable work station
I realize that not everyone can afford a separate office, especially in places where real estate is at a premium. However, you don’t need a huge space. A small desk in the corner can create a psychological feeling of being at work. Add an ergonomic chair and your body will thank you for getting off the couch or away from the dining room table. Don’t be afraid to ask your employer for an item that might make you more productive, comfortable, or happy.
3. Set ground rules for engaging with your housemates
As I mentioned, I’ve been working from home for over a decade. My wife has not. This year, she decided to quit her job of 20 years and start a business from home. Even though I’m at home, during working hours, I’m all business. It’s how I set virtual boundaries. My wife was used to popping into offices and having unscheduled work chats with her team. We had to come up with a plan that allowed her to interrupt me, yet didn’t take me out of my flow. We decided to try our own slack channel. She could ask a question at any time, and because Slack is how I communicate with my team at work it didn’t feel disruptive. Slack might not be right for you, but setting some ground rules will provide the boundaries that can help prevent unrealistic expectations.
While “at work”
4. Dress up, or don’t
I’ve heard differing opinions on this topic from, “dress like you are going to a meeting” to “business up top, pajamas on the bottom.” If getting dressed up for work flips your psychological work switch, then go for it. If being comfortable is a bonus of WFM, then bring out those SpongeBob jammie bottoms. That said if you expect to be on video, dress appropriately for your audience. If you are in sales and your prospects are business casual, then so should you. If you are a developer and the in-office norm is shorts and t-shirts, then, by all means, dress casual. Be smart. Working from home doesn’t grant permission to bring out your NSFW t-shirts, club-wear, or workout gear.
5. Stay connected
Just because you are out-of-sight, doesn’t mean that you are out-of-mind. It’s tempting to sleep an extra hour, to look at cats on youtube, or to simply be quiet. Working from home requires extra effort to stay connected. Respond to group Slack messages, weigh in on a GitHub issue, retweet a company post. Allow a couple of minutes at the beginning or end of a video meeting for water cooler chit-chat.
6. Use video conferencing and turn the video on
Before we had affordable video conferencing, we had audio-only conference calls. They were horrible. Most questions were answered first with, “Can you repeat the question? I was distracted.” Video calls increase attentiveness and personal accountability while providing non-verbal cues that are important to effective communication. We want to see your smiling faces!
7. Be heard
If you are at a meeting, you have a responsibility to participate. Ask questions. State your opinion. You don’t have to weigh in on every topic, but be engaged, and ready to participate. You don’t have the luxury of clarifying a topic in the hallway, you need to do it then.
8. If you are a manager, care personally
If you manage a remote team or are remote yourself, you need to be more diligent about checking in. But, don’t just ask for the status of their most pressing project—it can feel robotic or micro-managing. In Kim Scott’s book on management, Radical Candor, she talks about how caring personally and challenging directly leads to radical candor and profound change. Use the time to check in personally, to ask how someone is feeling rather than how their project is doing—then pause and listen.
Boost your productivity
I could write a book about this alone—I’m kind of obsessed. I won’t prescribe a workout routine, but do recommend that you get some exercise – at least 30 minutes a day. For those of you in the city, shifting from a walking commute to working from home means you need to replace that activity. If you can, get outside and walk, run, or bike while maintaining social distancing. Here are a couple of great (free) fitness apps that you should check out:
- fitnessblender.com – Select workout videos based on type, duration, intensity, etc.
- Mapmyrun.com – Track your runs, walks, or bike rides by GPS. Syncs with your smartwatch.
- Nike training club app – Free workouts designed by experts, on your phone.
- Youtube – Bodyweight workouts. Stationary bike workouts. Everything you can imagine, really.
10. Take breaks
When you work from home, you won’t have colleagues popping-in to say “Hi”, or to call you over to their desk to review something on their computer. You need to insert these breaks yourself. Stand up and stretch. Eat lunch from a different spot, without your computer. Whatever your process, if it works, stick to it, if not, change.
11. Stay connected to your creative side
For many people, the interplay with teammates inspires creativity. Different perspectives and ideas help change how you look at problems and can lead to breakthrough solutions. Working remotely can mean you need to find a new muse. An online class that’s outside of your comfort zone can awaken your brain’s creativity. Learn a new language, take a cooking class or research a topic of interest to purposefully trigger your innovation zones.
(Candy drawer stash. I have a sweet tooth.)
12. Eat a vegetable
We should all eat more vegetables. Okay, maybe this tip is just a self-reminder not to eat the same sandwich every day. Use your newly acquired cooking skills to whip up a salad. All joking aside, when you work from home, you have constant access to food. And most of this food is stuff you like to eat because it’s in your house. You will want to monitor your diet, especially during stressful transitions, to ensure you’re not overeating or creating undesirable habits that are hard to break.
I’m grateful to have been a remote employee for years. It’s given me the opportunity to flex my work schedule to be there for my son with special needs. Working from home hasn’t always been easy. At times I felt disconnected, bored, or distracted. But the routines I’ve established have helped me to build the virtual boundaries and psychological work zone that I now embrace. For some of you, it’s a temporary situation. Experiment and discover what works for you. Use the time you would normally spend commuting for mindfulness, to tackle a home project, or to establish a desirable new personal habit. There is only one “now” so embrace it.