More and more people are telecommuting to work, trading their cubicle for a home office or kitchen table. Thanks to advancing technology, tasks like accessing work software via VPN, completing projects, and even meeting with team members face-to-face is easier now than ever. For companies or contractors with the tech to make it happen, many can do just about everything remotely that they once did at the office.
But change is hard, especially for people depending on routine or in-office conversation to be on their A-game and feel normal. Altering your routine can be unsettling, and adapting to working from home can be jarring.
Members of the Crucial web team have mastered the art of working from home for years. Since I’m new to the WFH lifestyle, I asked John Egan, Crucial.com web manager, and Christy Rezaii, AEM lead developer, for tips for staying productive and sane. Here’s three ways they get the most out of their workday while clocking in from home.
1. Segregate your workstation from the rest of your home
Working at home blurs your personal and professional life. It’s tough to focus when the laundry and dishes are piling up, or if you have a cat who sits on your open laptop and stares at you. Those distractions are inevitable, so Egan says it’s important to designate space for your workstation to A) have everything you need in one place, and B) mentally separate work time from home time.
Egan keeps his pre-work routine even when he’s working at home, including dressing as if he were going to the office. “Otherwise, I fear I’d go completely feral in several days,” he says.
For Egan, segregating work from personal time is like separating church and state.
“I’m fortunate to have a dedicated work-from-home space, and when I’m there, it is work time only,” he says. “When the workday is done, I shut the door and spend time in the rest of my home.”
While separating your work from the rest of your life is a helpful concept, most can’t pull it off 100 percent of the time. That’s ok. Maybe the kids need a snack. Maybe the delivery guy delivers a package. Maybe you need to make a doctor’s appointment. Those things are important. The idea, then, is to try to do work at your workstation and to live the rest of your life in the rest of your home. Try to build some of those everyday life tasks into a routine that doesn’t take you out of your work zone any more than it has to.
- Set up a single, dedicated workstation in your home to help delineate work tasks from personal time and activities.
- A makeshift workstation using whatever furniture is already in your home might not be designed for long-term work success. Do what you can to make your desk, chair, and the rest of your space comfortable.
- Try to build the personal tasks that need doing each day into your regular routine.
2. Communication is the key
Working from home would have been all but impossible in the not-too-distant past. Even 20 years ago, team members in separate locations had no collaboration tools beyond email, old-school chat applications, and a landline.
Fortunately, today’s workforce has plenty of tools that empower team members working remotely to share ideas, work through problems, or even maintain some degree of office camaraderie.
While working at home, the Crucial web team uses video conferencing programs such as Skype and Zoom to easily schedule and conduct meetings that would happen in-person at the office. Those programs and others enable recording, which can be handy, and also allow team members to see each other, which can alleviate the isolation some experience while working at home.
Rezaii works on an Agile team with members distributed across several time zones. She says they successfully use JIRA to track their progress on projects as well as workload priorities.
“Everyone on our team can see what each person is working on, and we have an individual responsibility to provide updates to the rest of the team,” Rezaii says. “Open and frequent communication channels between team members is essential.”
In addition, Crucial team members use a chat function – in this case Microsoft Teams – to replicate the kind of over-the-cubicle wall questions, comments, and (in my team’s case) jokes they’d usually get at the office.
These are just a couple of examples of collaborative software. There’re tons of programs performing various functions, many of which are completely free. If you or your team members are working from home for the first time, establishing an easy way to stay in touch can go a long way toward keeping projects on track and boosting morale.
However, it’s important to remember that the intended tone of emails or chats can be lost in translation. I’m sure we’ve all sent or received messages where sarcasm was mistaken for an unsensitive comment, or where a benign statement came across as snarky. Jokes can land poorly. Rezaii says she’s learned to be more thoughtful about her written correspondence, as well as to not jump to conclusions if she reads an awkward message.
“It’s easy to mistake someone’s brevity as indifference or crankiness without their facial or vocal cues,” she says.
- Stay in touch with your coworkers. Videoconferencing and other collaborative software can help teams be productive and combat team members from feeling isolated.
- Keep in mind that tone can get lost in emails. Ask for clarification if a coworker is unclear in correspondence or seems off in tone.
- Set up regular one-one-one videoconferencing meetings with coworkers to make sure you are on the same page.
3. Figure out what routine works for you
Rezaii says she takes short walks or jogs while working from home to clear her head and to return to her workstation with fresh ideas. Research suggests that short breaks increase productivity no matter where you work, and that exercise is even more beneficial.
Rezaii sometimes misses the banter and impromptu brainstorming that happens at the office, but she enjoys the freedom that comes from working at home.
“I have fewer interruptions during the day with more schedule flexibility,” she says. “I can refocus by taking my dog for a quick run. I can take my shoes off or have ice cream for lunch without getting funny looks.”
Egan is all about the routine. In addition to keeping his normal work dress and schedule, he relishes the chance to jump straight into work in the morning – when he feels most productive – during hours he’d normally be commuting to the office.
He says he’s able to blot out distractions… at least until the cat interferes.
“I try to keep the door to my office closed, but I also have a very neurotic cat who insists on entering and leaving every 15 to 18 minutes it seems,” he says. “At least I’m getting my steps in by having to get up to close the door behind her.”
Rezaii says on conference calls she often hears unhappy children or ornery pets in the background. That’s fine, she says.
“To me, it’s humanizing to be reminded that my colleagues across the world have dynamic personal lives, just as I do,” she says.
Tips for finding your routine
- Take breaks during the workday to refocus. That’s especially important during moments of frustration.
- Try different approaches. If keeping the same routine as you would if commuting to an office helps you be productive, do that.
- On the other hand, if ditching the office routine for an entirely different pattern helps you get in your work zone, embrace it. Be cognizant of what works and what doesn’t and build a routine around your successes.
WFH is what you make it
Since I started working at home, I’ve enjoyed some of my most productive days in recent years when I’ve stuck to a routine, holed up in my home office, and focused on short-term goals. I’ve also had had days where, between a meeting or two, and making lunch, and doing household chores, and checking the news, the workday came and went before I accomplished much.
That’s the real challenge of working from home: It’s up to each of us to figure out a process to get things done. Following the tips listed above can help, but nothing beats being a self-starter. With my coworkers as examples, I’m finding that I can thrive while working at home, too.
Here’s a few additional and free resources for working at home: