This post owes its existence to Atlin Merrick, acquisitions editor of Improbable Press. She made a plea via twitter last week asking for tips about working from home, in light of the action all of us need to take to limit the reach and damage of the Coronavirus pandemic. I had already had a few rough thoughts about writing something along those lines because, as someone who spent years doing their office job from home for part of every week and is now their own master and does all their writing from home, I do actually have experience which may be of help. Her request was the prompt I needed to get it out of my head and onto the page.
I put together a 600 word article for Improbable Press’s newsletter Spark!, aimed at everyone who normally works in an office and wants some tips on how to keep themselves functioning until they get back into the office again. You can find the article in the current issue of the newsletter here. It has lots of other people’s good advice on the joys and pitfalls of working from home as well as mine so I’d urge you to go and have a look (and sign up for future editions if you like it).
This post is an expanded version of that article so you’ve come here from the link in the newsletter, Welcome! You’ll recognise some of this but hopefully the expanded parts will be useful for you too. I also promised additional suggestions if you found yourself struggling with either working too much or not getting enough done and I can indeed deliver on that promise. Please check out either Working from Home Part 2: Help! How do I stop working? or Working from Home Part 3: Whoops! Was I supposed to be working? depending on which issue you have.
Oh, and a quick caveat for this whole thing; I’m writing purely from my own experience here as an able-bodied professional woman who initially lived alone with only a dog to think about and now only has her elderly and incredibly considerate parents in the house. If you have a partner and/or children and they are also going to be at home with you then this advice may not be particularly helpful because I have not factored them into this. There is a lot of advice out there from people who have to work in that situation and I urge you to go find their wisdom instead.
But enough of the waffling, let’s talk about how you can make working at home work for you.
Firstly, keep your routine.
I suspect this not going be what you wanted to hear but I’m going to say it anyway; get up at your normal time.
I know it’s tempting to stay in bed until the last possible moment and then leap out in your pyjamas and log on but trust me, keeping to your usual routine will make everything so much easier in the long run. So set your alarm for the usual time and get up, get dressed, do whatever you normally do before you leave for work at the same time you normally do it. This will help you get both your body and your brain into its normal work mode and ensure that although your work location has changed, your body clock doesn’t have to shift as well. Plus when you do return to the office the flip back to getting up early won’t be to horrifically jarring.
Please note that this advice still holds if you have a significant commute time. Instead of sitting in traffic/making cosy with someone else’s armpit on your preferred mode of public transport (delete as appropriate) you get to do something just for you. It also makes keeping to your routine more bearable since you get a moment of joy quite early on in the day. For me it was an hour of either writing or reading (I already had walking in my schedule), for you … who knows? Pick something that’ll make you happy and revel in the extra time. Absolutely do not be tempted to log on early, that way lies madness and unpaid overtime! Just enjoy your “commute” then open your laptop and get to work at the time you would if you were in the office.
Work your hours then log off at your normal time. Thinking “It’s only just gone 5, I’ll just do this one last thing” is how you end up still working at midnight and exhaust yourself. If you’re finding yourself working into the evening because you’re spent the day doing non-work things then do not fret, there are some suggestions at the end.
Once you’ve logged off clear your workspace of work things (or shut the door on them if you’re lucky enough to be able to do that) and turn your work phone to do not disturb. Boundaries are incredibly important when you’re working where you’re living and you need to set them. Your boss does not own your down time so do whatever you need to do to hold the line.
Spend the time you would have used for your homeward commute switching yourself from work mode to home mode. Again, do this in whatever way benefits you most. Get that load of washing through if you want to. Go for a walk if you can get somewhere green without having to break your self isolation. Make a nice dinner. Meditate. Make it work for you!
You don’t need to wear your office clothes but you do need to be wearing something you can take an impromptu video call in. This advice is very much based on the day I rolled out of bed minutes before I needed to log on and discovered I needed to front a video conference call in five minutes. Conference calls are bad enough without worrying if everyone’s judging your appearance or can tell you were asleep ten minutes ago!
At work I normally wore tailored dresses but my “work from home wardrobe” consisted of leggings or yoga pants with a smart top. That ensured I was comfortable, not wearing anything that needed dry cleaning in the vicinity of the dog for long periods, and ensured what was visible to others in the computer camera looked like the person they’d met if we were ever in the office together.
I also put make up on despite normally going bare faced at home. This was because I always wore it for work and found I was uncomfortable on video call without it. There’s definitely a conversation and a lot of thoughts to be had about whether I should have felt like that but this is not the post for it. This is purely about making working from home as easy and comfortable as possible for you, so you make the choice as to what works.
Thirdly, your workspace.
If your home is big enough that you can claim a room that you only use for your job then please do it. Being able to step inside and shut the door behind you at the start of the day, and shut it off at the end, will be immeasurably helpful to keeping work and home compartmentalised.
This, I realise, is a pipe dream for so many people however if there is even a corner where you can pop a table and keep all your work that you don’t have to use for other things please do so. It will help at least help limit the blurring of the line between home and work and prevent your brain starting to associate where you relax and unwind and create with work, thus poisoning it for you.
If you don’t have that option (as I didn’t when I started working from home, I used the space I’d dedicated to my writing and crafting) then you need to become zealous about only having your work stuff out during work hours. My office had a clear desk policy so I was used to clearing all my stuff away at the end of the day. Once I realised that leaving my work computer and notes out on the desk I was attempting to use to unwind and create was stifling me I began keeping clear desk policy at home too. It made such a difference to my sanity and really helped keep the work/home boundary clear.
If you’re not normally working from home you’re not likely to have a fully ergonomic set up just waiting to go, nor are you going to want to spend money on a fancy chair or new desk when you’re not intending to keep doing it once the coronavirus precautions are over. That said, you do need to try and make sure that you’re working somewhere you can sit comfortable for the length of your working day and not end up with aching shoulders/arms/back. So use a book to prop your laptop up at a good angle. Sit on cushions. Try different chairs in the house. Play about with you set up the minute you notice something is making you uncomfortable.
One of the things that I loved (and still do, actually) about working from home was the fact that I was no longer prohibited from listening to music whilst I worked. I created a few playlists for myself – mostly soothing classical music without lyrics because I get caught up in words if I’m hearing them – and used them when I was working. Not only did having music on limit my being distracted by noises in the house but I found, after a while, that I associated those particular pieces of music with working and it helped me focus. You’ll need to experiment with what works best for you but if you’re used to the hustle and bustle of an open plan office then having some sort of background noise is going to help ease the transition. If you don’t want music then there are plenty of ambient noise generates on the internet that you could use instead. I quite like this one here.
Finally, keeping yourself healthy.
Physically, apart from trying to make your workspace as comfortable as you can, there are several things you can do at home to keep yourself well (some of which you should already be doing in the office):
1. Get up off your butt every hour and move yourself around! Walk around the room. Do some stretches (this set from BUPA is helpful if you don’t already have a routine you do). Go make yourself a drink. If pets are present give them a stroke and tell them they are best dog/cat/budgie in the world.
2. Speaking of drinks, please drink the drinks you make yourself. Not only will your brain, body and mode thank you for keeping yourself properly hydrated, the need for the loo will make you move if nothing else does!
3. Take your full lunch hour at a sensible time. Flip on your out of office or ping a message to your manager saying you’ll be offline for your break and get away from your workspace. Take the time to prepare and eat something both nutritious and enjoyable and then do something fun that will give your body a break. Have a sing. Dance around the kitchen. Go for a quick walk if you can. If the necessity of working from home at the moment wasn’t because we’re all trying to be responsible and practice social distancing I’d suggest going to a coffee shop either by yourself or with a friend at some point in the week. Instead schedule a virtual meet up with someone (doesn’t have to be a colleague, it can be your Mum if you like) for after you’ve finished eating. Do it by phone or on whatever messaging service works for you. You can gossip or compare notes on how your working from home experience is going or talk about what you watched last night. Doesn’t matter, as long as it reminds you both that there is more to life than the four walls you’re currently within.
And this segues nicely into how to keep yourself mentally healthy.
When you’re used to working with people all around you suddenly sitting on your own in front of a computer all day can really mess with your head. This was the kicker for me as I lived alone and the majority of my social interactions during the week were tied to being in the office. I realised, pretty quickly, that I was going to need to be proactive about it so, once I’d got over the concern that I was going to interrupt people at an inconvenient moments, I started using the office messenger system to chat to my colleagues. Just small messages saying things like “checking in for the day to see how you are, reply when convenient”. Or after a particularly noteworthy meeting or email exchange I’d send a message in a similar vein to something I’d have said if I were to face to face “well glad that’s done” or “you handled that well”. Soon I was getting “unsolicited” check ins from my colleagues and my working from home days felt a bit more connected. Given that most of your office will probably also be working from home at the moment, this may not be as difficult to get started as it can be with just one person being away from the team.
However, the majority of my virtual contact whilst I was working from home wasn’t with colleagues. I don’t live within walking or easy meet up distance of 80%of my closest friends so I was ahead of the curve on this side of things. Text chats with my bestie, WhatsApp and Discord groups to talk about hobbies and books and shows, chatting with friends and strangers alike on a variety of social media platforms all already formed vital parts of my social life on the weekends I wasn’t zooming around the country to visit someone. These are brilliant tools for the isolated home worker and you should definitely utilise them in your breaks and when you’re off the clock. Organise a film viewing with your friends where you chat via WhatsApp whilst watching. Get a group of you onto one of the online board game or cards against humanity sites and play. Have a heart to heart over the text. Reach out to those you love and care about, they’ll be more than happy you did!
I should add that the presence of Marmite Dog – who enjoyed snoozing under my desk during work hours (only waking up for phone calls so she could wuff loudly enough that she had to be partly included in the conversation) and demanding cuddles and walks the rest of the time – was really helpful in keeping the loneliness at bay. Clearly buying a pet just because you’re working from home for several weeks is not a realistic option but the internet has so many cute pet videos you are spoilt for choice and that can lift your mood almost as much as doggie kisses do. And there is also the possibility, if you have elderly neighbours with a dog, that they might need some help to walk their doggie. If you could spare the odd lunch hour or some of your “commute” time it may be worth offering. If they’re in isolation too then saying hello at the front door a couple of time a week might lift their spirits as much as it could lift yours!
And that’s it for Working from Home Part 1! I hope it’s been useful for you. Please do comment with your own experiences, advice, thoughts and questions, I’d love it if this could be a hub to help us all build better routines and make the current situation just a little bit more bearable.