The realization that tens of millions of people who had never or rarely telecommuted would suddenly be asked or told to work from home led author Glenn Fleishman to write Take Control of Working from Home Temporarily, a 66-page book that he and his publisher, Take Control Books, are giving away. You can download a free copy from the publisher’s site. Here’s an excerpt.
With the sudden imposition of remote work, coupled with the potential for partners, housemates, children, and parents to also be in isolation, you need to be able to set the same kind of boundaries that home workers have defined for decades.
If we learned anything from the best video of a few years ago, when a man Skyping in to the BBC to speak on important international issues had his young daughter dance in behind him—followed by a baby . . . followed by his partner . . . followed by their chaotic exit—it’s that you need to figure out how to retain an air of professionalism, even if everything is in shambles around you.
People generally understand if you’re working from home, things can go wrong—especially at the moment, when so many people have never been regular telecommuters before.
In this excerpt, consider how to set a working “mode,” think about dealing with interruptions and family or housemate needs, and working alongside others who have already been working from home or are likewise thrust into that role with you.
And your employer or coworkers may want a certain level of formality and professionalism to provide clearer communication and for efficiency. You can make that happen, even when toddlers lurk nearby ready to photobomb.
Indicate you’re at work
When starting fresh with telecommuting, creating barriers between you and other people in the place you’re working can be key. Make your expectations known:
- Have a conversation: Sit down with roommates or family members to talk about how you plan to work. This can help them understand what you need, and they may raise reasonable objections or have positive advice that improves your plan.
- Set working hours: Having a routine set of time that you’re at work—hours that could even be posted—makes it easier for everyone around you to know when you’re on or off the clock.
- Use signage or signals: An “at work” or “do not disturb” sign that you put on a door or near you makes your status clear. If you have a door, close it. Wearing headphones, especially noise-canceling ones, can also be an excellent signifier.
The author of The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal, has a downloadable PDF containing a sign you can print out and attach to a laptop with a clothespin. The sign can be rotated to read “Writing,” “Other Work,” and “Goofing Off.” It’s a low-tech way to indicate clearly what your work status is.
Jason Snell, the producer of The Incomparable podcast network and creator of the Six Colors tech news site, switched a few years ago from a daily commute to full-time home-based entrepreneurship. He said his biggest suggestion was to “set rules”:
“My family is aware what it means when the door to my office is open, when it’s closed, and when it’s closed and I’ve put a do-not-disturb on the door. Initially we had a lot of awkward social interactions about when I’m available to be interrupted, and it’s taken some working out.”
He notes that his wife texts him if she’s at home and the door is closed. “If the door is open, she walks in but doesn’t start talking, so I can finish what I’m doing. It takes time, but it’s very useful if you talk about what different signals mean and when you’re interruptible.”
(Also worth noting: Kerri Hicks, a university library web services manager, suggested that the kitchen can be a looming temptation for the new home worker. She advised, “With a fully stocked fridge and pantry, it can be tempting to run to the fridge for a snack at intervals that wouldn’t be appropriate in an office. Avoid all-day grazing by prepping a snack or two in the morning, and scheduling them throughout the day.”)
You may also want to set up a check-in system with your office or coworkers that lets them know when you “arrive” and “leave” the office, and when you’re on break.
In some cases, that’s as simple as setting an “away” status to “available” in a chat or group messaging program. In others, you might be asked or want to text or otherwise check in.
Some companies and work groups like to do a quick check-in, often with a timer set, in which everyone is standing and they just do a fast go-round before starting the day. That might now migrate to video.
Finally, remember to take breaks and also take full advantage of noting when you’re not at work and keeping that time distinct. A lot of the time in a workplace, you give yourself or are offered downtime that you might think you don’t deserve at home.
Set a business standard
As a freelancer, I haven’t needed to wear trousers for most of the last 25 years. However, in more practical terms, I like getting up, showering, and getting dressed in something I would feel comfortable leaving the house in.
I heard from many, many office workers and long-time freelancers alike that clothes can make the person—or profession! In fact, the most frequent advice I received was like this from technology journalist Dwight Silverman: “I think it’s really important to get dressed. Wear pants, a shirt, socks, and some kind of shoes. (Bedroom slippers if you don’t wear shoes in the house.) Gets you in a more disciplined mind-set than if you sit around in your PJs.”
That doesn’t, however, require wearing a three-piece suit.
The flip side is, however, also valid, when you consider your mental health and general well-being:
- Do you need to be comfortable when being out of the office to assuage your fears? Great, wear sweatpants.
- You don’t need to wear pants or a skirt unless you’re doing video conferencing where your entire body is visible.
More generally, the more you can simulate your work experience at home, the better for preserving a routine and potentially meeting expectations. The last thing you need is for a boss to question your ability to function from home when you have no choice but to do so.
Work alongside others at home
For many people, the decision or requirement to work from home for a job normally handled at a place of business has an impact beyond themselves. You may have a spouse, partner, roommates, children, or extended family. Some or all of them may have already been working from home or at home during the day—as with young children, people on nonstandard shifts/workdays, and retired people.
Adding yourself to the mix can be stressful on top of the health circumstances that have led to it.
Jeff Carlson, author of Take Control of Your Digital Photos, advises that you’re going to have boundary scuffles and that’s okay. “You may not be used to being around someone for so much time all week, and it’s fine if you don’t talk all day, or you check in once in a while.
“We work in the same upstairs office, our backs to each other—it’s a small converted attic, and our desks face opposite walls—so we do a pretty good job of ignoring each other and doing our own work. We also chat on Slack or Messenger, even though we’re four feet apart. And for me, headphones are a must.”
Brittney Bush Bollay, an urban environmental advocate, and her partner work from home full time. She said they had to establish clear expectations about each person’s need for space and time during the day to avoid disrupting each other’s concentration and work flow.
Some additional tips:
- Consider the aural impact and the line of sight for distraction when setting up workspaces. Planning is great, but flexibility in making changes is key.
- If you can stagger some working hours with a flexible employer, you may be able to avoid conflicting needs in the same workspace.
- Figure out a protocol, especially with non-romantic cohabitants, about resolving differences ahead of time. “That’s the way I do it!” or “I’m not making very much noise” will very quickly wear thin.
Cope with the vagaries of home life
Home life will intrude on work, especially in homes with children off school. Dogs will bark, cats will jump on the keyboard while you’re away and send “j12h3ldbn09 80983n4a;” to coworkers, and, yes, toddlers may burst through a door during important client meetings.
Businesses are going to have to cope with this as much as you do. Bosses that expect that you can lock the rest of the household away—some of whom will also be working from home—so that they don’t interrupt your work day will be in a state of constant apoplexy.
As Natalie Nagele noted on Twitter, “Managers: please give your folks permission to be unproductive. This isn’t normal. The extra cognitive load is not easily pushed back.”
Let’s finish with a smart thought from Tiffany Baxendell Bridge, a technical account engineer: “When your coworker’s curious child comes to peek at the camera, be sure to smile and wave. Parents feel like they have to hide their kids when their childcare falls through, so be welcoming and watch the parents on your team exhale.”