I asked my extended team for their top tips for working at home. (Notice – ‘Working at Home’ not ‘Working from Home’ – at the moment there’s no ‘from’!) All of my team have offices at home and for many of us it’s part of our way of life. Some people have decades of experience, others are newer to working at home. I was going to distil all the contributions into a ‘top ten’ or something but having read them, I decided I wanted to keep each person’s individual voice.
In no particular order…
To my mind, there are the following considerations:
Have a designated space where you do work, that separates it from the rest of the home
Make it comfortable as an environment
Set some time periods and limits for working
Take breaks to think/drink/stretch/move
Relating to others:
Be clear with other house dwellers about your availability/unavailability and how they can ask if you are ok with being interrupted
Be empathetic without taking responsibility for how others are
Establish an entry to work – getting yourself in an effective frame of mind
Get some routines
Neil is semi-retired and lives with his wife Pauline who also recently retired. He loves to cook and also grows his own produce in the back garden.
I would certainly echo Neil’s points. I would extend the workspace point to include making it a pleasurable place to work, as well as comfortable. To explain, I make working from home a pleasure – I light a scented candle, make a lovely drink, have some music in the background that doesn’t interrupt me too much (I am very auditory), or I work in silence.
I would add that getting outside for a period of time during lunch or during short breaks, however that continues to be possible in the current climate, is important. Get out in the garden if you have one or take a local walk.
Know your work style – understand the time of day when you are typically at your most productive/creative and plan your day accordingly. Save tasks that don’t require a lot of effort/thought for when you typically have your lulls.
Have an up-front conversation with your partner/whoever you might now find that you are sharing your home working space with and understand their work patterns and work preferences. If childcare is involved, look at the day holistically and see how you can carve out time between you so that you share childcare and time away from the children when you can be dedicated to work.
Vicki has two young children and juggles her online coaching work with childcare.
In the past and under ‘normal circumstances some of the things I found useful were as follows:
- Structure your day, have a plan, build a routine – separate work time from other personal or domestic time, establish some boundaries around this.
- Agree some ground rules with family or people who live with you – make sure they understand what your work intentions and responsibilities are and establish some way for them to know when you are working and when you are available for conversation or other things.
- Create a good physical space – make it comfortable, warm and free from distractions – if possible keep this space separate from other home activities and spaces, eg. using a spare bedroom or dining room. Set up the space so that you can become ‘anchored’ to this as a working space and ideally in a way that you can enter and leave it as you would for example in an office at work. Make sure that other people understand where your ‘work space’ is and ideally are able to leave it undisturbed.
- Allow for interruptions and distractions – be prepared for them but establish ground rules so as to minimise these or at least make them fit into predictable time windows away from your ‘concentrating or focus time’.
- Give yourself some ‘break time’ and use it wisely – take proper breaks (at least five minutes), move away from your work area, take refreshments, ideally move around, maybe take some fresh air outside, but avoid getting involved in other domestic or family activities.
However, under these rather extraordinary and restricted circumstances we find ourselves in right now, lots of other factors come into play.
Having worked in the areas of personal resilience, wellbeing and stress management for 20 years, the one really important thing I would add under the current restrictions is to really give time and priority to getting outside, exercise, fresh air and change of scenery. Going for a walk, run or cycle ride in a ‘natural environment’ is ideal. These things really help us to keep in touch with the long-term bigger perspective and are really important to build resilience, maintain mental and physical health…and most of all right now…they strengthen the immune system. Go well!
Peter started working from home over 20 years ago when his two sons were still in school and his wife Kim was also working at home. By 2020 he was more used to having the home to himself during the day… Until Covid19 came along.
- Realistic expectations – for yourself and of your line manager
- Carve out a space, if possible, where you can leave everything
- Parameters for relatives/friends on when you are contactable – working from home doesn’t mean that you’re free for a chat when they feel like it
- Take breaks and get some fresh air, if possible
- Keep off social media – it sucks time
- Try to keep work and home life separate – it can be great to have the opportunity to put on a load of washing/empty the dishwasher etc but this all distracts from your concentration and makes it difficult to keep focus
- Arrange a catch-up call with colleagues, maybe each morning, as you would normally do face to face while making a coffee in the kitchen
- Use the time freed up by not having to commute to do something different – not work! Take the dog for a walk (if you’re not in lock down) or a play in the garden. Or spend some quality time with your spouse/children.
- Aim for the work-life balance everybody craves
Sharon works as a virtual PA, supporting multiple clients from her home office in the barn beside her home. Her two German Shepherds are her constant companions.
To be honest, and as someone who normally works from home, I am not finding this an easy transition. Isolation from loved ones is difficult. Especially if those loved ones are vulnerable.
In theory, I know that this is a time to focus on the important things but, in these times, what are they? I think the goal posts have changed. I saw a post on Facebook aimed at parents encouraging them not to over schedule their child’s day and to recognise that they, as well as ourselves, will be experiencing higher levels of anxiety than normal. Alongside the standard tips for working from home therefore (structure your day, create a working environments, take regular breaks etc.) I would emphasise the need to self care and attend to your important relationships.
There is no one size fits all. We are all different, are energised and stressed by different things. So number one for me is – Know yourself.
Maybe it’s time to dust off those personality profiles you have done in the past – be it LAB, Insights, MBTI – what did they tell you about how you best work and your likely stress triggers? For introverts working from home, the presence of others, interruptions and distractions will be stressors. For extroverts, it will be the isolation. Do you need to go for a walk on your own? Or do you need to find ways to reach out and connect with others?
What is important to you? Jeremy talked about how making a difference is important to him and is finding creative ways to do this. I can resonate with this and will be spending time thinking about how I can meet this need in me, regardless of financial recompense.
Finally, stay in the present, look for the good things in each day, focus on the things you can control and influence (your own actions and mindset) and, think holistically. Alongside the intellectual, we are spiritual, emotional and relational beings. All aspects are important when it comes to self-care.
Denise lives with her husband Richard, who is retired and busy ‘doing up’ their home. Until recently, she was not a fan of virtual technology, but is now leading the way for us on all things Zoom!
Having had my work base from home since 1999, and having coached since then, here are a few tips for effective home working, especially for people who may not be used to it.
Space / environment:
- Have a clean, tidy and ordered working space
- Keep a clear desk as far as possible
Time & energy:
- Even if you have children / a family, have sufficient time when you are working without interruption
- Take breaks
- Eat and drink healthily to maintain your energy
- Set targets to achieve specific tasks, so that you can look back at this period without work-related regrets
- Be mindful that we will get back to ‘normal’ once the Covid-19 situation has passed, and we want to use this time wisely. It is not a holiday!
- Consider doing tasks that you have been putting off. (My office is tidier than it has been for ages, and I have thrown out a load of papers (more to do). I’m sorting out my Inbox too!)
- Set daily goals/tasks.
- Consider having a ‘buddy’, so that you can both tell each other your respective daily / weekly / monthly goals, and hold each other to account
- Create tomorrow’s To Do list at the end of each working day. If helpful, not only list the tasks but do a timed schedule.
Know yourself and your family:
- Take time to reflect / discuss what would work for you (e.g. do you need lots of people interaction, do you prefer quiet time, do you need to move frequently, do you prefer to communicate by phone or see the person etc etc). Organise your working routines to take this into account.
- Agree with people living with you, especially your partner if he/she is also working from home, how you can respectively support each other while getting done what you need to do.
- Stay positive. This situation will end.
- Take the opportunity to re-evaluate your work and your life.
- Ask for help / support if you need it.
- Take time to help others, which paradoxically helps us too.
Jeremy has been working – and coaching – from home for over 20 years. He says he’s missing his active social life and the opportunity to participate in a form of exercise other than running.
Debbie had already put together her 21 top tips for working at home. There’s a bit of duplication here, but I thought it would be best to keep it all together.
Debbie’s 21 Top Tips for Working from Home
- Make sure you can use your employer’s chosen means of virtual communication effectively/stress free. Sign up for/ask for a tutorial if you’re not sure of some of its little quirks or added benefits. One of the biggest stresses in my last job was getting to grips with this – one casual conversation with a guy from IT later and everything fell into place.
- Remember to smile if you’re on camera.
- Again, if you’re on a video call, think about the background – if you don’t want your clients or your colleagues to see those family pictures on the wall or cringe at your choice of wallpaper, check whether your software has an option to blur the background.
- Body language and tone of voice as just as important when you’re on video – talk to the camera lens as you would do to the people in the room.
- Be sensitive about time zones when scheduling online meetings.
- Remember that we’re all human with real lives going on and that this may be an alien situation for your colleagues and your clients too. It’s OK to be transparent about your home situation and that you might be juggling work, children, pets and negotiating with a family member about the use of the home office/kitchen table.
- Schedule time for social chat with your colleagues using technology to help you. Try posing a question or a topic for a quick informal discussion. Access online calendars where possible and schedule a coffee break for you and a few colleagues via a video call.
- Use technology to ‘see’ people as well as hear them. You might not want to use video for every conversation but it aids communication and helps to maintain relationships.
- It can also be helpful to create a spreadsheet with your manager and the rest of your team, where you each outline your emergency contact information and your availability for virtual meetings.
- As a team talk about what’s going to work best for everyone. This might mean more frequent, but casual meetings, or it might mean fewer meetings altogether.
- Schedule – what works for you? Talk to your manager about working hours to fit around your family, or when you find your energy levels are at their best.
- Share your schedule with other people sharing your space so that they know that today’s the day you have that crucial conversation with the boss or someone significant at work.
- Remember to take regular breaks and a proper lunch break. Fresh air is also great but difficult if you’re confined to the house. If you’re sharing the space with a loved one, can you coordinate breaks? Either to eat lunch together or work around each other’s meetings to give each other privacy.
- If your IT has such a function, remember to set “Away from the desk” “In a meeting” etc as appropriate so that you’re not disturbed on a break and/or colleague aren’t frustrated because they can’t reach you.
- Try to maintain normal work hours or a new routine that works for you and your family and enables you to step away from work.
- Get up, shower and get dressed as if you’re going to the office. Wherever possible, set up a work area at a table. Working on your laptop whilst sitting on the sofa dressed in your pyjamas won’t be good for your posture and working in a defined ‘office’ space will help you to avoid distractions and be more productive.
- If it would be good to have some thinking time on a project, walk the dog, empty the dishwasher, sort laundry, etc, but make sure you set a time limit for such activities.
- When you’re working from home, it’s easy to skip lunch or fill up on unhealthy snacks. How can you prepare ahead? Can you make a packed lunch the night before or ensure that there are appetising leftovers from yesterday’s dinner? If there’s any food left in the supermarket, buy fruit, pots of yoghurt, and healthy snacks to keep you going for those times when someone schedules a conference call that coincides with your hunger pangs.
- Have plenty of quiet activities kids can do alone, if they are at the age where this is possible – books and puzzles, without over-reliance on technology – save your bandwidth for the important stuff! Try new activities. Fun toys and games that kids haven’t played with before will keep them entertained longer. Time-consuming projects, like crafts, stickers, puzzles, and Lego, are sure to buy you some time.
- Mix up your hours. If your job allows for it – especially with companies being more lenient around COVID-19 – try to squeeze in work when your baby or toddler is asleep, like early morning, nap times, and at night. It’s not ideal, but you’ll be more productive if you have quiet time to yourself.
- Set boundaries with the children – how will they know when it’s OK to disturb you and when it’s not? Especially if you have to work from the kitchen or a bedroom because you don’t have a designated office space or you’re sharing the one you do have. Stop/go signs or thumbs up/down.
Debbie lives in Zürich with her partner, Pete. He’s also working at home now, so those tips about co-ordinating with your partner are based on real experience.
Words of wisdom from my team! One thing I would add, is to be realistic. As Denise said, there’s no ‘one size fits all’. I’m not a ‘routine’ sort of person – that’s why I love consulting work – so having a daily routine during lockdown isn’t going to work for me any more than it did before. So, don’t expect yourself to develop a whole new personality for working at home. Focus on the ways you can make it easy for you to do what you do best for a few hours every day. Three hours of really concentrated, focused application is better than ten hours of pretending to work and interrupting yourself to deal with household matters.
It really doesn’t matter how you organise yourself as long as you deliver what your employer expects and you keep your sanity.
It seems to me that this experience will change us and it will change our behaviour. The question we can’t answer right now is HOW it will change us. There has never been a more important time to remember that we have choice about how we think, what we think, what we do and what habits we cultivate.
Now that we’re over the first shock of the changes to our lifestyles, it’s time to plan what we do with this opportunity.