Working from home is sort of fun when you do it once in a while. Snow days, or just work-from-home days now and then, are a nice break in the routine if you’re used to being in the office all the time.
But when working from home becomes a full-time thing, it can go quickly from being a welcome break to a full-time drag. If you like live, in-person interaction, you may get lonely. If you like the ease of wandering down the hall to run an idea by a colleague, that’s harder to do. (Though is he ever at his desk when you stop by?) If you like having coffee ready to pour from the break room, now you have to make your own.
A lot of us are expected to be online for work now from the confines of our own living spaces. Here are some ways to make the experience more productive and more sustainable.
- Get up, get dressed, get organized — just as you would if you were about to jump in the car and head into traffic. Start your workday at a similar time each day. Get yourself ready to go before that time. You’ll get off to a more energized start if you’re dressed and ready at a time you set for yourself than if you crawl over to your dining room table wearing your pajamas.
- Take breaks — and that doesn’t mean a quick walk to the fridge to grab an apple. A break is walking away from virtual meetings, emails, deliverables you’re in the middle of creating, or anything else, and taking some time to decompress. If you weren’t already taking breaks back when you were physically in the office, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start now. It’s even more important to give your eyes and brain a rest because constant work-from-home can get monotonous, and that draws down energy. Try it and see if you don’t feel at least a little revived afterwards.
- Respect your own quitting time. When you’re done with what you committed to do, or you’re as done as you can be, stop. Close your laptop. Unplug your earphones. Bid everyone good-bye until tomorrow. Tell them to leave a message about whatever and you’ll get to it first thing. But if you let yourself keep checking for messages, or if you let yourself keep drafting that statement of work or tinkering with that project plan, the next thing you know it’ll be midnight and you’ll have been working all day and all night and you’ll resent it. There may be nights you have to work, but letting that become a regular thing isn’t sustainable.
One of my colleagues and I have an agreement — that we let each other know when we’re done for the day or taking a break by declaring “airplane mode.” I text a picture of a plane taking off. When I’m ready to reconnect, I text: “Landed.” We respect each other’s airplane modes.
- Converse more than usual when you do connect. Communication is always a challenge. You say one thing, people hear something else. And now it’s just become even less optimal because no one is anywhere near anyone else. We’re depending on messaging, Skype calls, meeting software, or ordinary conference calls when we may be used to at least supplementing the technical communications with in-person conversations. You may not realize how much facial expression, the subtleties of vocal intonation, and body language contribute to meaning. When we strip in-person communication down to just the words, minimal nonverbals, we’re left without important parts of the message.
Knowing that, we can compensate somewhat for the missing pieces by allowing time to check in with people we’re talking to. Maybe during in-person meetings you’ve checked in with people and have thought that check-ins are awkward or touchy-feely. But when communication is exclusively virtual, we need to ask “How are you?” and listen for an answer more informative than “Fine, you?” How they are is not irrelevant to the work at hand any more than how you are. And since we’re all working from home because there’s a virus spreading, the question becomes even more meaningful.
- Keep the news OFF when you’re working. Check in on events if you want for a minute or two while you’re taking a break. Otherwise, you can easily lose focus if you let “breaking” news (it’s rarely breaking) and pundits hum all day in the background. Worse, the relentless barrage of bad news coming at us right now only increases agitation. There’s nothing we can do beyond what we’re doing, and agitation is a useless state of mind. Don’t cultivate it.
- Avoid procrastinating. We procrastinate when we put off undertaking something that we think is in some way or another unpleasant, according to procrastination expert Dr. Timothy Pichyl at Carleton University. The task will be boring, not fun, messy, or too big. Or we put it off because we’re too optimistic, thinking it’ll be easy and why start now? Only to find when we do dig in that it was bigger than we expected.
The remedy for procrastinating is being realistic and, I hate to say it, mature. Kids don’t like doing unpleasant jobs, and they don’t do them. Adults don’t like doing unpleasant jobs, and they do them.
For some people there may be less accountability when working from home. If you’re used to waiting for a deadline at work to be imminent before you really get cracking, that sense of pressure may be less intense when you’re not surrounded by your teammates and managers. That can reinforce bad habits, like putting things off until tomorrow, the next day, or whenever.
So just be aware of that, if you have a tendency to put things off. Working from home may make it seem like it’s easier to push things to a back burner, but don’t leave them there for long.
What about when work is over? You may have kids standing by — or maybe they haven’t been waiting at all! — to fill up your after-work time. In this new world order, with everyone at home, blurring the lines between time, space and function is entirely likely. (Case in point from 2017: “BBC Dad,” whose kids burst into his home studio while he was broadcasting live on the BBC, sharing his expert opinion on events in South Korea.)
But say you don’t have a household of people waiting for you. What if, after you observe your own quitting time, you’re not quite sure what to do with yourself? The gym is closed. So are bars and restaurants and movie theaters and just about anything else you can think of. Well, there’s always checking in on social media, repeatedly, or a little online shopping. But that too wears thin after a while.
What’s something you’ve always wanted to learn? How to speak Japanese? To play the guitar? All the elements in the periodic table? What’s something you wanted to read but never had time for? Farenheit 451? A Brief History of Time? The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? What’s something you never got the hang of but always wanted to? Crossword puzzles? Learning to draw? Meditation?
We’re fortunate to have at our disposal online resources to make all those things possible. For some of us, we have not only resources but also time, time away from social activities. What we do with ourselves while sheltering in place depends, at least in part, on our own resourcefulness.
(And as I wrote these words, I received this email: “When Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote ‘King Lear.’” Who knows what you have in you?)
I wish you well.
Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals. Find more of her Cogent Communicator columns here.