If you’ve never done it before, the idea of working from home can be daunting. How will you focus? What’s to prevent you from just binging Netflix all day? Will you be lonely? All of these are legitimate worries. But they’re also all worries that you can plan for.
With over a decade of experience working from home, I thought I’d share some of my practices for making it work well. I’ve run my user experience and web design business from my home since 2012. We have 4 employees, 5 people we partner with on a regular basis, and multiple clients. The business is run as a 100% virtual office. Before that I worked from home as a web designer all the way back to 2002.
Personally, I love it. If you already work from home most of the time much of this may not be new. This is provided for people who now must work from home for the very first time, or who have only worked from home part time before. Keep in mind, my situation is different than yours. Ultimately you need to find the solutions that best suit your needs. But hopefully this can help you make a plan.
The psychology of being “at home” versus being “at work”
This is the most important aspect to working at home successfully. When you get this right, you can truly feel like you’re at work even while sitting in your living room. And it’s important to get this right. If not, and being “at home” and being “at work” blend into a blurred experience, it can be very stressful.
If you don’t feel like you’re “at work” your mind can easily wander to homey things like the laundry that’s not done yet, the dentist appointment you’ve been putting off, or how you’re going to prank your partner on April Fools. And then you’re not focusing on your job. You become less efficient. And that can be frustrating.
Conversely, if you never feel like you’re “at home” that can be challenging for you as well and also for your family. When you keep thinking about, or working on, work the entire time you’re home, you’ve lost your haven away from work.
Create physical and psychological boundaries that clearly delineate when you are “at work” and when you are “at home.” These should be clear to you of course, but also to the people who live with you.
Create a dedicated work station.
Create a space at home that you can use only for work. Don’t pay your bills there. Don’t eat there. Don’t watch TV from that chair. And conversely, don’t work at other places in your home. If at all possible, try to make it so that you can’t see your laptop, work notebook, etc during times you are “at home.” Depending on the space you have available, there’s a few different ways to approach this.
- For very small spaces, create a live/work space that you swap out. Claim the dining room table, but only during your work hours. Every morning, put your laptop, phone, notebook, or other work needs on the table. Maybe even go so far as to invest in a nameplate with your name and title on it, Remove anything else (napkins, candles, centerpiece, etc). At the end of the day, put all of your work items away and ideally out of sight in a drawer or closet. Put the household items back.
- For spaces with an extra corner or nook, set up a dedicated work station. Get a desk or table and set it up in the corner of your bedroom, living room, or basement. Put all of your work items on it and leave them there. Only use this desk for work. Don’t pay your bills there, don’t scroll through Facebook at night there, and don’t let other people sit there either. This is your office. If possible, use a bookcase or room divider to hide this as best you can so you don’t have to look at it when you’re no longer at work. Or consider putting everything into drawers or even boxes.
- If you do have an extra room — perhaps there’s a guest room in your home — that’s ideal. If you’re so fortunate as to have a room with a door that can only be your office, that’s ideal. Shut the door when you’re not at work. Simple. Or maybe you’re going to take over part of the guest room. Set up a dedicated work station in that room and keep the door shut when you’re not at work. Again, you should only do work in that room, and not anything else.
The idea is to have a specific location in which you work at home, and in which you do nothing else (as best you can). In the first example the dining table is a shared space for work and eating. But by exchanging work and household items on the table, and putting the work items out of sight at the end of the day, you can achieve the desired psychological separation.
Adjust all of this to your taste and situation. These are ground rules for people new to this. Some people have no problem working on their couch, then later watching a movie there too. You need to find what works best for you.
Have a specific work schedule
It’s very easy, working at home, to just work all day and all night. Don’t! Set official work hours and stick to them. You can schedule breaks too if you want to make time throughout the day to interact with others who may be at home, or just to take a brief walk outside to clear your head. This will also go a long way to helping you maintain rules and boundaries (and peace!) with other people who live with you.
It’s also easy to just not work at all. That laundry isn’t going to do itself after all. Again, a schedule can help with this. You may also need to clean up clutter or put household things away before you start work for the day. An uncluttered space helps you maintain focus on the task at hand rather than thinking about cleaning up. Or maybe that’s just me.
Work schedule triggers
Create specific triggers to indicate when you have arrived at work, and when you are leaving work. These should be clear for you and the people who live with you. For example, some people get up, shower, put on a suit, go out to the local coffee shop, get a coffee, bring it home, sit at their dedicated work station, and thus have arrived at the office.
Work out time is a great trigger for either arriving or leaving. You can get up early and get in some yoga (or maybe try meditation), shower, have breakfast with the family, and then open up the home office. After work, close up your home office, then go out for a bike ride or a run before sunset. When you get home, you’re “at home” again … not “at work.”
What works for me is getting up early, around 6 am. I do about 20 minutes of stretching, shower and dress (my home office attire is “home casual” which means comfortable, but not sweats), make coffee and breakfast, read some news. Then I clean up from breakfast, putting all the dishes away. I open up the home office which currently means taking over the dining room table. At the end of the day, I close the home office, putting all of the office tools away. Then go for a 30 minute walk, or go to the gym. When I get home it’s time to make dinner.
Figure out what works for you and those you share living space with, communicate it clearly to them, and then practice it every day.
Brush up on your communications skills.
Communicating with people at home
The people you live with absolutely WILL find it difficult to understand that you are at work (at least at first). They will talk to you, interrupt you, ask you to join them in activities, ask if you want something to eat, and otherwise make it difficult for you to focus and be professional. This is to be expected. They like you and want to spend time with you. They’re not used to you working from home. Appreciate them … but you must also set some ground rules.
Talk to them early. Set some ground rules together around your work schedule and the daily life schedule at home. Decide which takes precedence and when. Put some rules in place for when it’s ok to communicate with you, when it’s ok to interrupt, and when not.
Have clear signals for when you really need quiet. Quite literally, put up a “do not disturb” sign or in some way indicate that for the next hour you need silence. But also be aware that others can not just be totally silent all day. So use this when needed, but not all the time.
Talk about noise levels at home and decide up front how to manage that. Establish rules for when you are on a video conference call where clients or colleagues might see or hear your people. It has become more common for work-at-homers to introduce their children briefly in one-on-one or small groups calls, or to just acknowledge that the baby is screaming in the other room and that the spouse or nanny is caring for them. But you may also have calls where it’s important to appear very professional.
Take breaks and use that time to interact with your people. A few short, ten minute or so breaks throughout the day can help perk you up, give you some time to talk and deal with whatever else is going on at home, and let your people know you’re there for them.
Communicating with your colleagues, clients, and partners at work:
Text, Slack, email … all typed communications tend to suffer from lack of emotional context. Emojis can help but sometimes they’re not appropriate for a work setting (although that “headbang” emoji sure does come in handy at times). Lack of facial, body, or even tone of voice cues in much written business communications makes misinterpretation of tone or intent very easy. Misinterpretation typically goes to the negative, not the positive.
It’s important to guard against the tendency to interpret negative tones in typed messages. Try to always assume a positive intent and if you really think there’s a problem, ask. Being more open, transparent, and proactive about your communications will help maintain goodwill and open communications on both sides.
When you work alone at home, no one can see what you’re doing. They don’t know that you’ve been head down for the last two 10-hour days, working on an especially thorny problem. They just know they have not heard from you in two days. This makes people anxious.
A good strategy is to communicate more than you might if you were working in person. Send regular updates. “Hey all, just letting you this is where I’m at and when I expect to be done.” This relieves the anxiety of the unknown your colleagues may be experiencing and makes you look sharp and on top of it all too. Slack (or a similar instant messaging app) is a great tool for this. Updates can be quick one-liners that the team can see and that only take you a second.
If possible, use Slack or something similar to let the entire team be visible. When you are “at work” you are also visible and active on Slack. This is the equivalent of people being able to see you sitting at your desk. Your colleagues know you’re there, working. They can ask you a quick question if they need to. This builds confidence and trust even if you can’t see each other.
Organizational best practices:
At my company we have a daily check-in meeting via video conference. I strongly recommend this for small teams. It’s a short meeting … scheduled for 15–30 minutes max. The purpose of it is simple. Each person is to let the others know if there’s anything they need from someone that day that if they don’t get it, will prevent them from completing their most important task that day. Be strict about the purpose of this meeting or it will get derailed and go on too long, losing its effectiveness.
This practice of having daily face time helps people stay connected and in tune with each other. It also helps business keep moving forward by proactively preventing bottlenecks. Who attends these meetings depends on your business structure. But generally people who are working on the same projects together or who have interdependencies should be present.
Use video for quick, ad hoc discussions. Typing back and forth can get tedious because often times you must sit and wait for the other person to finish typing. When you see a typed conversation is taking too long, try to get on a video call instead. It’s often faster, and seeing the person face-to-face has the benefit of creating a stronger feeling of being connected.
Establish virtual meeting protocols
Best practices for video conferencing: When video conferencing with one or more people using a tool like Zoom or Google Hangouts Meet, there are some best practices that will help you shine. Video conferencing is the next-best-thing to in-person meetings. But everyone will be in a different environment, often in different time zones, and with different background distractions. Here’s how to do it right.
Have a strict time frame and an agenda. Set the meeting to start and stop at specific times. The meeting leader should not allow it to run over unless all participants agree. Even so this should be a rare occurrence. Have a clear agenda. This will help you to stay on time. If someone goes off on a tangent, the meeting leader can refer to the agenda and table that line of conversation for later. The agenda gives you control.
Be on time — within 60 seconds of the exact minute of the meeting start time. This is not an exaggeration. There is nothing more irritating than sitting on a dead video call waiting for 3 people to get their sound working. Show up a few minutes early, log in, check your systems (sound and video) and then be ready to start on the dot. This helps maintain professionalism and also, if everyone does this, makes it a better overall experience.
Your video environment — lighting, framing, and background:
Take some time to examine how your background looks on video. Can people see your bathroom through the open door? Is your laundry visible? Your child’s toys on the floor? How about your bed?
Set up a professional looking background. Some good ideas are a bookcase, framed art, a room divider, a window with a decent view, a shelf with plants, or even just a blank wall if that’s all you have to work with (though consider hanging something on it). The frame of your background helps other people understand that you’re at work, not just lounging on the couch.
Make sure your face is well lit, you don’t have weird shadows on it, and people can see you clearly. Avoid backlighting as that tends to cast you in silhouette. And make sure there’s enough light on the background so it doesn’t look like you’re sitting in a dark cave. There are fancy lights you can buy or you could just temporarily move a table lamp to strategically light your face at home when you’re “at work.”
Framing with the camera makes a difference too. Avoid camera angles that show a lot of the ceiling, that are shot from very far below or above your face, or that are too far away (making you look very small). Try to frame it so your head and shoulders are present in frame and overall you take up about a third of the screen.
We’ve all heard about the glories of working in pj’s, or without pants, or in your tutu. Do that if you must. But in most cases, people feel differently when wearing work clothes versus comfort clothes. Wear what you want, but choose clothes that help you feel that you are now “at work” and not “at home”.
If you’re going to be on video, make sure you look professional. In some cases your video might be up on a massive screen in someone’s conference room. So brush your hair and teeth, put on a grown-up shirt, add some polish with jewelry or makeup or glasses or maybe a pocket square, and, if you may need to stand up at any point of your video call, be sure you’re wearing pants.
Don’t echo! One of the most annoying parts of a video call is when someone’s sound system creates an echo, static, or otherwise has poor quality. It’s extremely distracting. Check your sound system. If you’re creating an echo, you must get headphones. Headphones can also help your people at home understand that you’re at work now.
Check for what happens if the dog barks, the baby cries, or the garbage truck shows up when your windows are open. Can people on the call hear this? Can you concentrate? Some people just own that they’re at home and the dog barked or the baby cried (so sorry!). If for some reason it’s unacceptable to have this happen, then think about when to schedule your calls, and how to relocate or somehow prevent the sources of noise reaching your microphone.
In this time of social distancing that may be more of a challenge. But there are still things you can do. While you’re at work, take advantage of video and use face to face video chat rather then the phone or text messaging. But also use text messaging for quick contact with colleagues. Take time to participate in a webinar, and in general be sure to interact in some way with other humans throughout the day.
Do get out of the house, even if you go alone. Just seeing other people out and about can help prevent feelings of loneliness. Go for a walk. Sit on your deck. Visit your back yard. Go work from a coffee shop or meet people for lunch at a restaurant (if they’re still open). Do not just hole up in your house for days on end. It’s important to literally get a different view and also to move your body. In my experience this helps to relieve stress and tension, and provides a much needed break from thinking about work.
If you must stay inside your home most of the time, then schedule more video calls with friends and family. Have lunch together via video. Set up a group video chat happy hour. Create a book club and meet by video. Or call people on the phone, the old fashioned way.
Working from home can be a great experience. Many people report being more productive because of less interruptions from colleagues. They appreciate the greater schedule flexibility it often affords. And you no longer have a commute which saves you money and gives you back some time in your day that you could use to spend more time with family, learn something new, or practice and really improve a specific skill.
Take the time to understand the challenges, and then take a little more time to set up a good environment and system for yourself at home. Have patience to ensure some trial and error at the beginning. Eventually you’ll find the right combination of solutions and have a positive work-at-home experience.
You can do this.
If you have any questions about how you can stay productive and work efficiently from home, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We’d be happy to answer your questions. Lets Chat!