Welcome to my world – Work from home tips from a veteran

With “shelter in place” orders here in the Bay Area, companies are scrambling to support and enable employees working from home. If you’ve never done it before, or only work from home occasionally, it is a lot different when it’s the primary, or in this case, the only way to work. Since the kids aren’t going to school during this either, some of this can also be turned around into distance learning too, or “school from home.”

I’ve been doing this since before the Internet and browsers, back when we had to dial-in to work directly, using something called a modem (Google that, youngsters) and work in text-only mode. My son grew up with daddy in this mode.

At Home vs. At Work

When we travel to our place of work from home, there is a very clear and physical separation between the two, literally miles apart. When we work from home we need to create a similar delineation, physical to the extent possible, but psychological especially. It’s best to set aside some space somewhere for “work”, a room if possible, a desk, or even just a corner of a table, something. When we’re in that space “mommy is working” and the same rules apply in terms of interruptions as if mommy was miles away at work.

Barriers and Discipline

What we’re talking about here is Barriers and Discipline. We must establish barriers. This means educating the whole family about “At Home” vs. “At Work.” With kids at home, this is especially challenging. But it’s not just kids. Some of the worst offenders are family and friends who just can’t get their heads around the idea that even though I’m home, I’m not home. I’m right there. I must want to engage in their hilarious shenanigans, right? Setting aside a space helps but it will still take time to educate the family that “At work” means the same thing whether you’re physically proximate or not.

The other side of it is discipline. There are a million distractions when you’re working at home. There’s a TV right over there. I know that tree needs pruning. One thing that helps is to make a work from home routine that is similar to if you were traveling into work. Get up, shower, get dressed for work, and start work at the same time you’d start if you were traveling to work. Likewise, stop working when you would normally otherwise leave the office.

One of the big potential advantages of working from home is that you don’t need to get dressed for work, and yes I sometimes work in my PJs (don’t tell my clients), but it’s the exception. Another advantage is flexible hours, depending on your job and employer policies. These advantages can be a blessing and a curse. I encourage you to stick to as normal a routine as possible. Sure, it’s great that you can step out for quick errand or chore around the house, if the necessity should arise, but it’s easy to let that become a problem.

Just as we set boundaries in terms of our availability for family at home when we’re “At Work,” it’s also important to set boundaries around your availability to work when you’re “At Home.” This is true of course even if you’re not working from home, but it can be harder for all involved when everyone knows you have all the tools to work from home, so you could work any time, including 3am on Sunday.

If you don’t have the discipline to separate your “At Work” from your “At Home” time, you can’t expect anyone else to honor those boundaries.

Social Isolation

When we work at the office, we benefit from the office chat around the water cooler and other work social engagement. When most members of a team work in the office and you’re one of the few working from home, it’s easy for the rest of the team to leave you behind and forget to include you in things. This occurs less when the team is distributed, with a lot of team members working in disparate locations. But in any case, it requires effort by the whole team to use tools to facilitate the kinds of social interactions that occur in a physical office to the extent possible. Whether that’s Slack, or Hangouts, or email, or all of the above, get a suite of tools that help to foster group cohesion and make it common practice for the entire team to use them. This of course only works when the team actually wants to work together, but using these tools to achieve interpersonal interaction as a part of normal routines will help to keep the team giving each other the benefit of the doubt, which is all we can ask.

Attitude Is Critical

With this “shelter in place” situation, everyone is in the same boat. For many people, working from home will be new to them, and to many employers too. It takes a commitment from everyone on all sides to make it work. It can fail miserably if you want it to. It requires effort to use tools like Slack and Zoom or whatever, regularly and effectively. It’s easy to get frustrated and go into hiding. Be prepared to put in some extra effort. There is no perfect software tool here, so I’m not going to give any recommendations. I simultaneously work with many clients in many environments using many different apps and tools and they all have their strengths and weaknesses and sometimes one fits better into an environment than another. You may find you try one and it just isn’t working. First, step back and ask if it’s really the tool, but if it is, then fine, move on and try another. But don’t give up on the team or the entire work from home experiment.