As I write this, I’m sitting in my home office in the South End neighborhood of Boston. Since I’m self-employed, this is where I report to work every morning—usually around 8 a.m., or a little later, if I decide to treat myself with something from Starbucks, a short two-minute walk from my apartment. Though work-from-home professionals like myself only make up an estimated 3.4% of the workforce, that figure is about to change dramatically. As the world reacts to the spread of coronavirus, many companies are shifting to remote work.
While this is my normal routine, remaining effective away from colleagues (and your boss) isn’t an easy task for everyone—including my boyfriend, who is currently sitting upstairs at our dining room table. Typically tidy, our apartment looks a little wild: computer screens, laptops, notebooks and power chords scattered everywhere. He usually travels weekly for work but he’s been grounded, and now is figuring out how to meet deadlines, manage others, and host meetings, sans office.
There are many unknowns with COVID-19—from a health to an economical perspective—but if you are stuck inside and still need to do your job, it’s important to set up a productive shop. As someone who has built a lucrative career remotely for the past three years (and counting), I’ve learned a few tricks of the trade. Here, my advice, along with that of other telecommuters and career experts:
Put your bra on
Or, your pants. Or whatever you’d like to wear for the day. Though most of the Instagram memes will praise the ability to answer emails in your robe all day, being overly comfortable will tempt you back into your bed, or to your couch. Today, only a handful of people have seen me, but I’m still fully dressed (albeit in leggings), I brushed my teeth, I put on face moisturizer and even ran a comb through my hair.
It’s important to still do your morning routine as you usually would if you were commuting into the office, since it signals to your brain that it’s time to work—not to lounge. Of all of the lessons I’ve learned as a freelancer, this one is probably the most important and has made the biggest impact on my ability to work effectively.
Create a dedicated work space
Though some people are woefully unaware of their surroundings, others are inherently sensitive to dirty dishes, unfolded laundry, and those Amazon boxes that need to be broken down. When your space has to double as home and office, Amanda Augustine, career expert for TopResume and part-time remote worker, says a dedicated work space is essential.
Ideally, this should be a separate room where you can close the door, since Augustine says this signals to your roommate or partner or kids that you’re on the clock. If that’s not an option, map out an area that can be clear of clutter . . . or at least allows it to be out of sight. This may mean sitting at a specific chair in your dining room, so you don’t see the chaos in the kitchen, or pulling out a folding table in your bedroom, if it’s the cleanest spot in the house.
Set and maintain your normal hours
The first morning my boyfriend and I were working together from our apartment, we overslept by an hour, since it wasn’t our usual Monday-morning tango. Though we both made up for lost time and worked longer into the night, this is an all-too-easy habit to adopt when you’re new to remote work. After all, if you technically don’t have to be up by 7 a.m. and out the door by 8:30 a.m., why not get a few more zzzs?
The issue is the tone it sets for the day, and thus, your productivity. As leadership development and career expert Elizabeth Whittaker-Walker explains, when you’re away from the office, it’s more important than ever to set specific hours—and stick to them. One way to ensure you stay on track is to create time blocks. Whittaker-Walker says this could look something like this: checking email during the first and last blocks of the day, only holding calls between certain windows, and managing the hours when you feel the most alert. “If your freshest thinking is before noon, save meetings or intense work periods for the first part of the day. Cross off the day’s objectives as you complete them for an intrinsic motivation boost,” she says.
Focus on your output
There’s a big difference in working from home randomly one week because you weren’t feeling 100 percent—and being asked to perform away from the office for a few weeks, or more. As Kari DePhillips, the fully remote CEO of The Content Factory and cohost of the Workationing podcast explains, many people will try to hide from their deliverables since they don’t feel accountable in the same way. But, she says, it’s not enough just to “be at work” with a body warming up a seat. “In a remote work environment you’re entirely judged by the volume, quality, and timeliness of your output. In this way, remote work is a great equalizer, and you may find it gives you an opportunity to shine—and snag that next raise or promotion,” she says.
Every morning, DePhillips suggests creating a list of what you will deliver by the end of the day. If it’s helpful, scribble these down the night before so you can dive straight into work in the morning. Everyone functions differently, but I’ve found it helpful to outline the upcoming week every Friday afternoon and Monday morning. I go through everything that needs my attention, schedule time to complete it, and even set reminders that keep me focused.
Eat healthy lunches
During the coronavirus panic that’s wiped out certain supermarkets, you may find yourself stockpiling junk food. Unfortunately, the sugar highs followed by inevitable crashes aren’t exactly the best for keeping your brain focused. Career expert and remote worker Wendi Weiner says if you’re eating healthy at the office, don’t suddenly start eating bowls of chips or ice cream at home, just because you can. Not only do unhealthy food choices impact your energy and mood, but they can also compromise your immune system. “Plan your healthy snacks and lunches at home the same way you would plan for them at the office. Stick to a routine of keeping healthy even if you’re able to wear stretchy pants at home,” she says. “Ask one of your work colleagues to be an accountability partner and keep each other motivated.”
Schedule more check-ins with your team
One of the hardest parts of being a leader—whether face-to-face or not—is managing your team. But there is an added layer of difficulty when you can’t walk over to their desk to check in on a project, ask a question, or assign a task. In theory, technology should make this easier—thanks to Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp, etc. However, according to career coach Colene Elridge, it can sometimes be an uphill battle to capture and keep the attention of your direct reports. “It can be a big adjustment to not be in close proximity, so make sure that you’re checking in,” she says. “Not to be confused with micromanaging, checking in is really just making sure progress is being made and everyone has the resources they need.”
As a writer, any sort of interruption can cause me to lose my train of thought and disrupt my creative flow. That’s why I turn off the Wi-Fi when I’m putting together an article. I collect all of my research and interview notes, and then flick off the signal on my computer and phone. This means I can’t check on my latest Facebook post or respond to my friend’s text messages. This tactic is effective, since it sort of creates an imaginary boss looking over me. Michael Dermer, the founder of The Lonely Entrepreneur, encourages a similar practice by turning off devices, shutting down email when you don’t need it open, and resisting social media platforms. “You have to bring the discipline to keep these distractions away from you at home just like you would in the office,” he says.