Working from home has become much more common over the past few years, even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. But whereas doing so was a choice before, now it is mandatory for many office workers. Working from home can be a challenge, though. Yes, it’s great to work in your pajamas and not have to shave regularly, but it comes with some pitfass as well. In this article I will share some tips I’ve picked up from having spent half of my 25 year career working from home.
Psychological Impact of Working From Home
Don’t underestimate the psychological and emotional challenges of working from home. Humans are social creatures and we need daily interaction with other people, even if it is largely superficial. Working from home can be emotionally as well as physically isolating. It’s easy to start to feel lonely and depression can creep in. It is important to work to maintain human connections as much as possible.
Have a dedicated work space
A dedicated work space – especially one with a door you can close – is essential (it is also required for tax purposes if you are self-employed). Having a dedicated work space has benefits both for work and for your personal time and space. If you have a man cave or she-shed, even better. Being able to physically leave your work space helps protect your personal time and space and helps you disconnect at the end of the day and on weekends. It also helps you focus when you are at work.
Develop a Routine
Develop a routine that allows you to “go into the office” and “leave for the day”. This is really important. Do something to physically break up the day, if you need to. Go for a walk. When you return, you are “at the office”. Do the same to end the day.
Work in Short Sprints
There is actually a name for this one : The Pomodoro Technique. The TLDR; version is that studies show higher productivity and better focus if you break your work day into 25-minute chunks. There are even apps to help you with reminders. Work 25 minutes, break for 5 minutes. I don’t stick to this one as rigidly as I should but I can confirm that it does help me stay focused if I know I have only a limited amount of time for a given task. I will typically work in 30-45 minute sprints.
Take frequent breaks
Work mental health breaks into your day. Take a walk with your significant other, your kids, your dog, or roommate. Getting outside in the fresh air and stretching your legs can help reinvigorate your mind so you can focus and also reduces stress.
Know when to stop
It is also important to separate work time from home/family time. Many people think they will struggle with working too little from home. My experience has been the exact opposite. I find it hard to know when to stop working. Not knowing when to stop not only leads to burn out, but it can negatively impact your relationships as well.
I am a realist, though. Sometimes it is impossible to say “no” to work when there is a new fire drill, a server goes down, an important customer needs extra attention, etc. Sometimes you will have to give more to work than you do to yourself or your loved ones. Try to balance this with trade-offs. If you work a lot more than normal one week, try to take a little extra time for yourself the next week, even taking a personal day if possible.
Don’t worry. In my experience, the work will still be there and never has my business ever burned down because I took an extra hour for lunch or a day off. Or even a week off, for that matter.
Unplug from the office
At the “end of the day” turn your work and email, Slack, and phone off. You have a right to your personal time and space. Customers, bosses, and co-workers should not be able to reach you at all hours – unless you have client SLAs that promise this level of service or if you have agreed to be on-call. Otherwise, protect your personal time.
If you’re working from home along with your spouse, significant other work as a team. Have each others’ backs. Protect their time and space. Keep the kids, dogs, etc. quiet when they have meetings/calls. They should do the same in return. This can be a huge help. I love working from home with my wife. We can take breaks to have lunch together or go for a walk. We also do our best to protect one another’s space so we can each do our best at our jobs.
Life Happens – don’t sweat it
There was no preparation or playbook for the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. Kids are out of school and a lot of us are suddenly working in isolation without any prior experience. We are all in the same boat and we all understand – or should understand – that pets, kids, spouses, etc. are a fact of life. There will be interruptions and distractions. Don’t stress about it and don’t feel the need to overly apologize. Reasonable people will understand and not sweat it.
Keep “water cooler” time
The relationships we build with co-workers, on a personal level, are important for building team cohesion and working well together. Try to keep those short, impromptu chats during the day even when working from home. Not only do they help strengthen trust and personal bonds, but they can also be good stress relievers.
Get out of the house. Get the mail, take a walk, go for a run. I’m not an expert and certainly not a doctor, but there is a ton of literature on the positive health and mental benefits of getting outside and soaking up fresh air and sunshine. Make an effort to get outside regularly, especially during the work day. You will feel better and work better.
When the day is over “Go Home”
When your work day is over, leave your work space and create mental separation as well as physical separation. If your work space has a door, close it. Turn off work phones, email, and chat media (unless you are required not to). It’s personal and/or family time.
I find a great way to disengage from work and re-engage with my wife is to eat meals together. To be honest, most days we will either take a walk together, walk the dogs, or take a nap together immediately after work. We also eat our meals together to have even short connections with one another during the day. Especially during an event as stressful as the pandemic, being connected with my wife has been the most important thing for me.
I hope you find these tips useful. I’m not a mental health or medical professional. But I have spent about half of my 25-year career working from home. It isn’t always easy and it takes effort to develop good habits to be both a good employee and good partner, parent, or just self.
Lastly, stay safe during this pandemic. If you are feeling overwhelmed, please ask for help from friends, family, co-workers, or professionals.