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How on Earth do I WFH?

So I figured it’d be best since we’re all apparently shut-ins for the immediate future to give my friends some words of wisdom.

With the most recent guidance from the CDC regarding the COVID-19 virus, many of my friends and relatives are finding themselves being asked to work from home. Most of them for the first time ever in their lives. This is scary, and this is new… but as someone who’s being doing this for years let me give you some pointers and advice that I have learned about how to effectively work from home.

Remember that you’re working

First and probably the most important aspect of working from home is to remember that you’re working. Working from home means that you are in a comfortable space that you’re used to using to escape from work and provide a respite from the business day. Once you’re working from home, you are no longer escaping, but embracing business into your home. There are a number of ways you can make this easier on yourself;

  1. Create a set space for working
  2. Set a routine for your working day
  3. Keep your regular routine as much as feasible
  4. Embrace the positive aspects of working from home

All of these are easy to do in theory, but much harder than you might think in practice. And like anything worthwhile it’s going to take discipline on your part, and sometimes going against your own gut feelings.

Let’s dive deeper into these shall we?

Create a Work Space

If you already have a home office then fantastic! However, most people starting out in WFH actually don’t or haven’t actually thought about it. There are ways we can work around that though.

If you have a desk then you need to locate it in a space where you intend to work. Bedrooms are a common place for a desk but might actually be a bad place to put it. Seeing it at night might remind you of work and therefore make you think about work before bed, sometimes leading to restlessness. If possible, find another place in the house to put a desk and move it there.

In the event you lack a desk, or you have no place to move it then a kitchen or dining room table will often be just as good if not better. Particularly with a decent-sized table you might actually have more room to spread out your “stuff” than you will in a cubicle or office. I will re-state that I don’t recommend working in your bedroom even if you already have a desk in there for whatever reason. Practice “space dedication” as much as possible. Dining room tables are often decent places to use because you don’t use them often otherwise.

While the idea of working from the couch sounds appealing, it’s really not. You’ll have bad posture and will find your back and neck hurting in pretty short order… and it’s easy to distract yourself while simultaneously VERY difficult to work.

Set a Routine

This is often the hardest, but the most critical aspect of working from home. Set yourself a schedule every day.

For my example, I get up at 6:30am and make tea or coffee. From there I go to my office and am basically logged in and working by 7am every morning. This is my own personal set “start time” and is usually a good time to catch up on my email from the night before.

Around 9:30 or 10am every day I make myself a second cup of tea or coffee.

11:30 every morning I break for lunch. Sometimes a few minutes later but I always endeavour to be back at my desk no later than 1pm. Critically, I never take lunch at my desk!! This mid-day break is critical to maintain your rhythm for the afternoon. You can read, watch TV while you eat… whatever. Just do something that’ll keep you away from work for that time.

Around 2:30pm to 3pm every day, my afternoon tea also at my desk.

4pm or thereabouts as long as nothing’s critically “on-fire” at work is time for me to take my dog for a walk. And though this is technically my “off-time” since I’ve worked my schedule for the day, I take my phone and a headset with me so I can answer calls, and usually when I get home again around 4:30-4:45 I check email one more time to make sure nothing needs my attention and then I’m off the clock.

Of course, all of this is highly flexible and depends greatly on your work schedule, conference calls and so on. However, if you set yourself a basic framework for your working day it makes it much easier to make that separation from work a real thing.

Now, there are probably the observant among you who have noticed that this is awfully similar to a normal work day. The only exceptions is that it lacks the “commute” at each end. It is; I pretty much maintain the same breaks during the day that I would take if I were in an office, and I take a full hour (or thereabouts) for lunch every day. Keeping this routine makes it much easier to get into a rhythm of working and personal time.

This is what I meant by point 3 above; that you should keep to your normal routine as much as possible. It’ll also make it easier for you to adjust back to a normal working day when you do.

Embrace the Positive

Working from home at first can be scary. You don’t know how you’re going to get your work done, and you don’t know how to deal with the lack of human interaction. Well don’t.

I have worked from home for 5 years. My role requires human interaction so I get that fix… but you know what? Remote meetings aren’t as bad as they used to be either. Tools like Teams, Skype, Zoom, Webex… name your poison. They all work incredibly well. For the last couple of weeks I have been isolating myself and not going to meet customers… but instead have been creating Zoom meetings (as that’s our standard tool).

And you know what else? I use my camera. Yes, I let people see my mug when I’m talking to my customers because some people like to be able to see that people are paying attention. And you know what I’ve noticed? As I’ve started doing it, so have others. I have gone in 2 weeks from being the only guy on the call to being one of half of the attendees all using their webcams.

Yes, this means that you have to dress for work… nobody wants to see your bed-head and dressing gown, but that’s all fine. You can wear sweatpants because nobody’s going to see that! But dress like you’re going to work or at least trying to look somewhat professional. I’m not saying shirt and tie. As I sit here I am wearing a comfy blue polo shirt that wouldn’t be out of place in a meeting on a Friday or at a golf course. It means basically every day is Casual Friday, but that’s the new normal at least for now. And it’s a good thing; you can be more comfortable.

You will also find more time for personal stuff. You will find that your evenings in particular feel weird because you’re off work and you don’t need to sit in traffic for half an hour just to get home and start cooking dinner. You can take a break, walk the dog, work in the garden for a bit. Or you can start cooking dinner… but either way I recommend finding something do with the “commute time” that’s not work related and not necessarily home related. A hobby. Mine is often playing half an hour of a video game (which I actively deny myself during the day) before I settle into my evening… but you find what suits you best.

Other thoughts

Of course, there are other things that you need to consider when WFH. Here are a random smattering of thoughts I have had while typing this as advice to my friends out there working from home for the first time;

No Chores!

Do not do laundry. Do not vacuum. Do not paint. Do not do anything that would be considered part of your normal personal time because that will distract you from your work. Once you start, it’s awfully easy to get into a habit of getting distracted with other related chores. If you need to put away dishes while your lunch is heating in the microwave, that’s probably fine… but keep on your scheduled lunch hour!

Learn your Remote Work Tools

This cannot be understated in importance. Learn all you can about the telework tools you decide to use. If your company hasn’t provided training on these tools, then take it upon yourself to train yourself. Watch YouTube videos for example… there’s loads on best practices with WebEx, Zoom etc.

Once you think you’ve got it down, invite one of your friends to join you on a meeting that you are hosting. Practice… try different functions. Share desktops, share cameras, play with whiteboards. Trade places and the other person become the host. This can actually be pretty fun with your coworkers who remember are ALSO stuck at home.

Your pets have routines, too

For those of us with pets, WFH can seem like a great opportunity to spend more time with your fuzzy friend. Don’t. It might seem cruel at first because you’re RIGHT THERE… but remember they have a routine already where you are not expected to be home. They do stuff during the day even if all it is, is to sleep. Don’t ignore them, but don’t go out of your way to spend time with them either. First of all, it’ll distract you from your work… and second they will start getting into a “new normal” routine and when you return to your “old normal” routine you might cause them issues like separation anxiety. This might lead to destructive behaviours… and you don’t want that!

Yes, I take time at 4pm to walk Loki… but that’s because that’s really the end of my working day. However, I keep myself on-call because I know most of my colleagues actually work to 5pm or later… but at 5pm I am completely out and unavailable. This is my “commute time” quite often.

Be Diligent about your Schedule

While WFH, you are expected to be available during your working hours. That’s why I take such specific breaks during the day and most of my colleagues know when I won’t be around.

But that also means that if you miss or are late for one of your virtual meetings, you’d better have a really good explanation. I know my management expects me to be on every conference I have scheduled at least a couple of minutes early… and they have every right to expect that.

Assume your manager is watching your calendar and your meetings like a hawk. Be professional and don’t be late. If you’re five minutes late it might be better not to show up at all because you can’t blame traffic.

Digital Separation

This is not a requirement, but it does make the transition easier.

If you can, practice digital separation as well. I have two phones; a work phone and a personal phone. During the working day I do bring my personal phone with me, but most of the time when I’m out and traveling around customers and the like, it stays in my bag or even in my car. From the hours of 7am to 5pm I use my work phone almost exclusively (except for a time I allow myself at lunch)

In doing so I set an expectation in my own head that when I am on my work phone, I am working… and when I’m on my personal phone I’m at home. I don’t answer my work phone during my personal time except in very rare circumstances… and I make sure the people who might need to contact me out of hours are (a) a very short list and (b) have my personal cell.

This aids work-from-home because at least at first you are going to have a very hard time separating your work life from your home life. But it does get easier with experience.

Set realistic expectations

This is key as well. Set realistic expectations of yourself and others. The first couple of weeks are going to be hard on you but they’re going to be equally as bad on your colleagues. Be willing to give a little leniency at least at first, but also be willing to jump in to help.

You’re also going to screw up. You’re going to start a load of laundry because “Well, I have 10 minutes before my next call” and before you know it you’ve missed the first five minutes of said call because you decided to “just quickly vacuum out the lint trap in the dryer”. Just admonish yourself, and try to figure out what got you there and try to resolve that situation.

After the first week or two though things should start getting into a rhythm. You can do this.

Also… have realistic expectations of your tools, too! Zoom and WebEx? Sure, they’re great… but they will be in higher demand for the next couple of months than they have ever been before and they may or may not have scaled properly for this. Remember, the people behind them are people too.

Closing Thoughts

We as a society are fortunate to live in a time when so much business CAN be accomplished remotely. I suspect we’re going to see a boon in telework in the next few years as some companies realize that telework is possible, useful and even profitable. I have often commented that I am more productive at home than I can ever be at the office, and I’m actually completely truthful.

Lack of human interaction could be a problem for some, but we have the tools to resolve that today. If you know someone’s having a hard time with isolation, fire up a video-call to them and chat. They may or may not fire up their camera but still go ahead with it… they will appreciate seeing another human face even if they don’t say it.

We are all dealing with an unprecedented impact to our lives right now at least in our lifetime. Thankfully we are mostly equipped to cope with this better than we ever have been before. Stay well, everyone… follow guidelines. Wash your hands! We will get through this.

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