The do’s and don’ts of working from home

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Many Americans are working from home for the first time, and wondering (1) if it’s all it’s cracked up to be, and (2) how do I make this work? And … there’s the additional pressure of the current situation in the United States and the world.

As someone who has been working from home for the past 15 years, I can tell you it can be a very productive and enjoyable experience; but it can also be very frustrating and sometimes depressing. It definitely requires preparation, discipline and a special set of coping skills.

First some background. I’ve been editor of Aerotech News for over 20 years. For the last 15 of those years, I’ve worked out of my home office in a small city in southeast Alabama. My network of colleagues extends from our corporate headquarters in Lancaster, Calif., to employees in Arizona, Montana, Nevada and Utah, many of whom – you guessed it – also work from home.

I started working from home when my now-ex’s job transferred us to Alabama. I had some time to plan for the transition, unlike many folks in the current situation who have had telecommuting arrangements thrust upon them with little advance notice. And this may not be your preference – at all! So what to do? A group of us at Aerotech were bandying around the pros and cons of working at home, in a bid to assist some of our co-workers who have moved out of the main office in order to maintain ‘social distance’ from other staff. We thought it would be nice to share some of our accumulated ‘wisdom’ and experience with you who have joined our ranks as telecommuters – like it or not.

As you start this new ‘life experience,’ some of you will be trying to work while surrounded by family and small children now out of school; and some of you will be working in a home where you are the only person there (thank goodness I have a dog who has become very adept at conversation!)

One of the first things to remember is that your commute to work just got shorter. A lot shorter! Think of how much money you are saving on gas (and car maintenance). No more driving on the freeway, no more dealing with ‘crazy drivers,’ no more waiting in line to get a coffee on the way to work and hoping they hurry up so you’re not late.

I can wake up, pour a cup of coffee, turn around and I’m at work!

Remember though, if you go to grab a cup of coffee and the pot is empty you only have yourself to blame.

Along those same lines, if you forgot to take something out of the freezer last night for dinner, you can do it right now!

If you forgot to do laundry last night and have no work clothes to wear – it doesn’t matter. Casual Friday is very formal when compared to ‘work from home’ wear. Mind you may be tempted to just wear your PJs ‘to work,’ and we’ll address why that’s a bad idea later on.

And … you can never forget to bring your lunch to work again – and that will save you money eating out.

If you are in a position to do so, I would recommend taking that not-used gas money, and not-used lunch money and setting it aside for a future treat. I’m betting you’ll be surprised how much you spend on gas and eating out.

And if you’re not in a position to ‘save’ that money – use it wisely.

But now for a few things I’ve learned over the years.

Maintain human connection: The first thing I missed when I started working from home was social interaction – actually getting to talk to a real human, face-to-face. There were times I would take a five-minute walk to the corner gas station to buy a soda (knowing I had a case in the fridge), just so I could talk to another person.

1. If you are working alone, turn on the radio or television (preferably in another room). Make sure it’s loud enough that you can tell there are people talking, but not so loud that you hear everything being said and become distracted. I never realized how quiet my house was until I sat trying to work with only the sound of my computer keyboard.

2. If you have people at home (which many of you will under the current circumstances), set boundaries. Let them know that from this time to that time you will be ‘at work,’ and will not be able to ‘entertain’ them.

3. If you are used to working in the office and would normally ask a co-worker a question in person – pick up the phone and call them. It can seem too easy to email them at first, but by calling you will (1) have some human interaction and (2) probably get the answer to your question a lot quicker.

4. If you find yourself getting lonely (and believe me, it can happen) especially when you first start working from home, pick up the phone and call someone. A two-minute phone call can make all the difference in feeling connected to the wider world. This is especially important now, with social distancing and self-isolation – we are in danger of becoming lonely and studies have shown that loneliness is detrimental to our health.

As a friend of mine, and fellow ‘work from homer’ said, “Working in your PJs is awesome starting off, but remember, if you live alone, and have no-one else around, it can become too easy to get into a rut of never really taking care of yourself. If you find yourself still in your PJs in the late afternoon every day, it may be a sign of depression and poor mental health. Get up and get dressed, call someone, or go for a quick walk around your yard. Remember to take care of yourselves mentally as well as physically.”

Ground Rules
It is important to set some ground rules, and to maintain a schedule.

1. Set a schedule. Do the usual things you would in the morning – setting the alarm, waking and getting up, getting ready for work, grabbing breakfast. Then ‘head to work;’ even though your commute just got a lot shorter. Maintaining a schedule will (1) make it easier to work from home, and (2) make it a lot easier to transition back to working in the office when the crisis has passed.

2. Get dressed. Sure – you may not have to ‘dress up’ the way you would when going into the office – but the temptation is there to stay in your PJs all day. This is not only not good for your mental health, it can also affect your productivity. So by all means, leave the suit and tie on the hangar and wear jeans and a t-shirt; but do NOT wear PJs all day!

3. Maintain your schedule. It can be easy to become distracted by (1) children or other loved ones at home, (2) pets wanting attention, and (3) housework – among others. That’s not to say you can’t throw a load of laundry in while on a quick break – freeing up more time in the evening or on the weekend. I’m lucky in that respect, in that the business I am in has set deadlines, and if I don’t meet them then all hell breaks loose. Set yourself daily and weekly ‘to do’ lists and do everything you can to accomplish them.

4. Take your lunch break! Do NOT eat at your desk. When working from home, there is the temptation to grab something for lunch and sit at your computer and continue working. Your body, your brain and your eyes NEED a break!

5. Move around! Again – when working in the office, you would normally walk down the hallway to ask a coworker a question. When working from home, you will pick up the phone, email or instant message. You need to move around to keep the blood flow moving! Take regular breaks – go stand on the back porch and enjoy the garden. Stand on the balcony and enjoy the view for a few minutes.

6. When working, don’t get distracted! Throwing a load of laundry in the machine is okay. Spending 30 minutes ironing and folding is not. Letting the dog out and enjoying the sunshine for a few minutes is okay. Cutting the grass for an hour is not. Throwing dinner in the crockpot is okay. Spending two hours making marinara from scratch is not.

7. Work your hours, then stop! It can be too easy to get wrapped up in something you are working on – and keep working on it. Maintain the boundaries between work and home – even though, at the moment, ‘work’ and ‘home’ are the same place! Just as you have to avoid ‘home’ bleeding into work, you have to avoid ‘work’ bleeding into home! And if you are an hourly employee, check with your boss as to how they want you to clock in and track your hours.

8. Turn off your email! This relates to Number Seven – when you are done working, turn off, log-out or close your work email, especially if you are using your home computer while working from home. It can be so tempting, while checking something personal, to just ‘look’ at your work email. You then run the risk of getting ‘sucked’ into work again! If you actively work as part of a team, let them know that you are disconnecting for the day, or for whatever period of time you need to step away. This will help to establish boundaries for your personal time – and if your whole team will do the same, it can actually help build a culture of respect within your organization for work/ personal life balance.

9. Cell phone use: Many employers have a ‘no cell phone’ policy in the workplace. However, that phone may now be the only way they have to contact you about work-related matters. Just be aware of your phone usage! No – I don’t mean track who you talked to and for how long. I’m saying always answer when the boss calls (preferably on the first or second ring!) Always answer co-workers (you can probably get to them on the third or fourth ring, LOL). And when making or receiving a ‘social welfare’ call, try and keep it to two minutes or less. Use the “do not disturb” function on your personal cell phone, and set exceptions for certain individuals who can be designated to reach you in the event of a true emergency. Also, remember that many cell phone carriers are now offering unlimited high-speed data during the current crisis. The internet has been slow in spots this past week, so if your home internet connection bogs down, try using your phone’s Wi-Fi hotspot if there is no additional cost on your personal cell phone bill.

I’ll be honest – working from home in normal circumstances is not for everyone, and it can be easy to fall into a rut, both mentally and physically. And in these unusual times, it can be even more stressful.

But with some planning, and a few simple steps, you can make it work. And the biggest thing to remember for those working from home for the first time is that this will pass. And when that time does come, think of all the audio books you will have time to catch up on, while traveling to and from work!