Here’s the deal: I give you my tips about working from home, gleaned over 35 years of doing so, and you give me any tips for how suddenly to share that precious working space with a new co-worker… Of course, I jest: I’m delighted to have my husband working at home, too. I just need to write him a memo to explain that my making soup on the first day was a one-off, not-to-be-repeated coincidence.
Choose the tips that will work for you
Some of you will be working alone but very many of you won’t be. Working with partners whose workspace you’ve never shared before, or with children in the house, is going to require some different systems. Some of the advice that follows will be something you can’t follow. Don’t raise your hackles and criticise me for lack of empathy: just see which advice you can follow and how you can adapt. Adaptability is going to be what allows you to survive this.
My advice doesn’t specifically incorporate dealing with children at home because I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to tell you how to handle this.
And I apologise if any items on this list sound patronising and simplistic. Everyone is different in what they know so just because something is obvious to you doesn’t mean it is to everyone. As I say, I’ve worked at home for 35 years but I can still learn new things. And for some people, working at home will seem very strange and different. Though some of you may never want to go back to an office!
Work space separation
I’ve seen people giving such advice be criticised for assuming that everyone has a big enough home to create a separate work-space. I’m sorry but it’s still valid advice and lateral and flexible thinking can almost always find a way. I am by no means assuming that everyone has a spare room but psychologically and practically, creating a space which for certain times is for work only is going to be really important. This doesn’t have to be a whole room. Ideally, it will be at least a desk but even that isn’t essential. Here are some tips and ideas:
- As I say, a desk or table is ideal. If it can be only for work, that’s great. If so, make it a firm rule that you only sit at it during your designated work hours.
- BUT if this desk has to be used for other things at certain times of day, make sure that at your work times it looks different. So, remove other items (such as social clutter, anything not work-related) and have the desk or table set up differently for work.
- Even a lap desk would be fine: so you can be sitting on the sofa or an armchair with the lap desk on your lap.
- If your workspace has to be your bedroom be extra careful to find ways to separate how your room looks for sleep and how it looks for work. You should not look at – or, worse, be on – your bed for working. The risk otherwise is that you can’t sleep because your mind is in work mode. Avoid this at all costs.
- See the next point.
This is a powerful way our brains work: repeated stimuli around us help us generate habits. So, certain physical and sensual triggers that we always have when we are working (for example) help us get into the mindset for work.
- Use trigger items to signal that this is now work time/space: for example, a candle, a specific mug, table cloth, cushion, in-tray, a sign saying ‘I am working’ – as many things as possible which you only put there during work time. Anything to signify to your brain that you are working.
- Having a separate space if possible is a strong part of this but, if you can’t, turning the place you’ll work into a work-space for those hours of work is the next best thing. Make it as different as possible from when you’ll use it socially. For example, if it’s the kitchen table, change everything on it for the work hours.
- You can use music for this, too: specific music for work will help trigger mental work mode.
- Even smell helps: a scented candle can signal ‘work mode’ if you light it each time.
Time-table discipline – routine helps
- If you are working for a company, you will presumably have work hours that you’re supposed to keep to. Do.
- If you are working for yourself, you’ll need a bit more self-discipline – writing a plan for the day is something I find necessary. (Having said that, I personally find that the deadline brings the ‘discipline’. People who look as though they have self-discipline have just done sensible things to make it easier.)
- You are likely to find you get things done more quickly working from home – enjoy giving yourself a break, in that case!
- Be adaptable – this is going to take a while to work out. Don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t go right at the start.
Health and well-being
- Move around often – maybe set your alarm for every hour and take a 5 minute exercise break.
- Get fresh air.
- Get exercise.
- Take breaks and spend them well – eat, chat, relax.
- Notice the lovely things about working from home: flexibility, the chance of sitting in the sunshine.
- Eat chocolate – it’s pretty much a rule.
Be a good line manager
- In other words, look after you!
- Be flexible – working at home is not the same as working in an office: in some ways it’s easier and in some ways it’s harder. Don’t expect to get the hang of it straightaway. Go easy on yourself.
- Have you tried Zoom for meetings? It’s free for many uses, including meetings of up to 100 people for up to 40 minutes.
- And keep in touch with colleagues and friends, by having breaks each time you’ve completed a task or achieved something you set out to do.
Control social media use
One of the problems with working at home is that there’s no one to stop us going onto social media and messing around.
- There’s nothing wrong with messing around sometimes – in fact, it’s good for you and can make you work better.
- But it can get out of control so try these methods of restriction:
- Make it difficult by only having social media on your phone (eg) and not having that device switched on while you’re working.
Help your attention
Notice what things spoil your attention and take steps to remove them. Eg:
- Don’t have your phone in your office if you can avoid it.
- Have all computer windows that you don’t need switched off.
- Have the Internet off when you’re not using it.
- Have noise-cancelling headphones and play music.
Signal to others
Who might interrupt you? Partner? Neighbours? Anyone else coming to the house?
- You might need a sign on the door – or on your desk if the potential interrupter is in the house already…
- Once when my husband was at home for a few months, we had a system whereby if a tied a certain scarf to the door handle this meant ‘Under no circumstances may you interrupt’.
- Tell anyone who needs to know that this is work, not a holiday.
A special tip tip: sow some seeds and nurture them
This might seem nothing to do with working from home but here’s why I think it’s good:
- It’s very simple and cheap and not time-consuming.
- It gets you outside if you sow into an outdoor pot or the garden.
- And moves you to a different bit of the house if you’re sowing on a windowsill.
- It’s positive and forward-looking: you’re projecting your mind ahead, away from today.
- It’s practical: growing herbs or veg, salad, whatever, at the moment will give you gorgeous healthy things to eat in a few weeks.
- It’s a little thing to focus on each day as you check progress – and once they start germinating (which in some cases takes only a few days) it’s fascinating to watch the growth.
Working at home can be difficult and it can be wonderful. I hope it works well for you. Stay safe, be well and be strong.
Any extra tips for dealing with partners suddenly both working from home? I’m happy to learn!