5 tips to survive working from home without going coco-corona - and how you'll be more productive than ever
COVID-19 shows we are still a socially dependent species despite globalisation and the impact of the digital economy on our lives.
Indeed, I’ve been surprised that so many people have found working from home quite confronting. Remote working has become increasingly popular in recent years and we rely far less on in-person contact for most daily transactions today, even basic communications.
That it’s been such a shock to the system reinforces that the need for human connection is still as strong as ever.
Five years ago, I began working from home as a communications consultant after decades of working in fast-paced and highly social newsrooms and offices.
In those frantic times gone by, I yearned for a moment of silence to be able to attend to the task at hand without being interrupted.
In the home office, with only the dog for company, I have craved such human interaction.
As a sociable person, it took me some time to adapt to the situation and to find my mojo in the home workspace. But I have.
However, many of the millions of people world-wide who have found themselves in isolation have barely had time to gather their belongings from the office for their new start.
In the blink of an eye, their work and domestic lives have crashed into one.
So, how do you make the most of the situation now? How do you give yourself the best start? How do you deal with distractions? And how can you keep a work mindset?
Here’s five insights from what I’ve learned from working at home:
Make your background for video conferencing clean, simple and office like. Otherwise callers will be constantly distracted by what's on your bookcase.
1. Get your house in order
Don’t kid yourself. Working from your laptop with one eye on Netflix is not working.
Make sure you have a dedicated area that feels like a workplace and that is devoid of the things that will distract you.
I have a stand-up desk, small bookcase, printer and a few other office necessities in a small study area which is part of a modest open living space. That, and wifi, is all I need.
Getting your house in order also means setting boundaries around not being disturbed (not always possible if you have young children and pets to look after).
You might want to consider other practical aspects like what you stock in your fridge. If you find yourself automatically looping to the fridge, ensure you’ve only got healthy food and drink options.
And people, please, consider the backdrop to your office if you are going to do regular video conference calls. Make the background clean, simple and office like. Refer to the BBC contributor’s epic but viral fail.
I know from bitter experience that if you have anything other than a plain backdrop, that video call participants will be distracted. Callers might be on mute but you just know they are discussing what’s on your bookcase.
Some people are more direct. During video meetings, I’ve had comments on my paintings (no, it’s not a Picasso reprint but my kid’s grade three art work), gym gear on the floor (no, not part of an S&M kit), basketball (not mine), guitar (yes mine, no I don’t play flamenco), and football merch (to international caller, Hawthorn is an Aussie Rules team … followed by silence).
I’m smarter now. I use pop-up banners to form a background screen. These can be quickly erected to hide the dirty dishes in the kitchen behind me and turn my space into an office environment that could be anywhere.
2. Get yourself in order
Okay, I admit it. I have occasionally hit the work tools in my Speedos and Ugg boots. Sorry for that mental picture, but there I’ve said it. Yes, I have also lolled around on a lilo in the pool reading the odd technical resource. In winter, when I’m trying to save on power bills, I rug up and look more Michelin man than Wall Street.
Let’s not deny ourselves some of the advantages or idiosyncratic behaviours that come from working from home. But for the most part, let’s keep our work mojo on and be professional.
To that end, it is absolutely imperative to build a routine.
>> BELOW: FREE CHAPTER FROM THE DIY NEWSROOM.
>> HOW EVEN A HOME OFFICE CAN BECOME A COMMS HUB
I briefed myself, out aloud, every morning. The dog thought I was bonkers, but it worked for me.
3. Win the morning, win the day
Because I’ve worked across time zones, especially with the Kiwis, I’ve learned to seize the early part of the day. At the top of the day, my brain is fresh and I’m ready to go, go, go.
By starting early, I’ve completed my best and, usually, most important work by lunch time.
A real danger in working from home are the distractions that can stretch the work day into the night and blur the line between work life and, well, life.
Give thought to what a routine at home looks like for you. How does it fit around domestic priorities? Schedule work into small chunks and you’ll find that day-by-day you’ll become more mentally focused, efficient and better able to adapt to your new life.
When I started working from home, I held a daily morning stand-up - by myself, in front of a whiteboard where I would list my priorities and repeat them out aloud.
Okay, the dog thought I was bonkers, but it worked for me.
A whiteboard is old school. You might find any one of a host of online options work better for you - tools like Trello or project management software. I use Google Keep, for instance, a little-known simple to do list.
The point: planning is essential if you want to succeed in working from home.
And speaking of digital tools ...
4. Get tech savvy
Working in communications, I assumed everyone was tech-savvy. Holding meetings by video conference has become second nature for me over the years, and many of my clients and associates are accustomed to it as well.
But not everyone is, and it’s not just pre-millennials who can struggle with the tech. I’ve found many so-called digital natives still rely on the IT desk at work to handle the basics that those of us who work from home have had to handle ourselves.
A key skill is being able to master the video conference. Whether you work for a big digitally connected corporation or you are a sole trader you should be able to easily and cheaply access digital meeting and call facilities.
Google Hangout, Microsoft Skype, Zoom, and GoToMeeting can keep you connected to professional circles. There’s plenty of social and mobile platforms too, such as FaceTime and Android options, which can work just as well for work teams as they do for putting you in touch with friends and family.
Most tech and software is intuitive. But you may need to invest time to master your chosen platform for communicating with colleagues and customers.
In no time, you’ll embrace such connectivity - and, who knows, this might carry over into your post-corona life.
Remember that normal office etiquette should apply to video conferencing at home, like arriving at meetings on time and being prepared.
Be tech ready. You may need to share your computer screen to a group meeting.
Before this, turn notifications off, close tabs and make sure you have nothing on your desktop that could cause embarrassment. Have presentations or documents loaded and ready to rock. Keep pets at bay. Be aware that you are on video the whole time.
If you are naturally easily distracted, you are going to have to put in a PB working from home.
5. You’ll be more productive than ever
If you are working from home and still trying to run a household full-time it can be tough to do both justice.
Distractions are never far away, particularly in the comfort of your own digs. Many people find working from home, at least initially, more stressful than liberating.
I’ve found myself ruing lost time after falling into the inevitable internet vortex - online browsing (then shopping), asking Google lots of questions about kangaroos (ask me another time), getting involved in Twitter rants, and forever checking email, expecting an instant response to that email I just sent.
The fridge is only steps away - that’s a danger. Given I spend so much time at home, I feel compelled to keep cleaning the place, the kitchen in particular.
If you are easily distracted in the workplace you’re going to have to put in a PB at home. You’ll need to be extremely self-disciplined. But, day-by-day you will develop a new groove.
The positives are many.
Since working from home, I’ve become more productive than ever.
I’ve always considered myself as being motivated, but I’ve ratcheted that up. And I have thoroughly enjoyed the flexibility of a decidedly non-corporate, modern lifestyle.
I haven’t even mentioned the hours saved commuting. Rather than waste three or even four hours on the road to get to meetings and the like, all I have to do now is roll out of bed and walk down the stairs.
I’ve managed to work full-time as a consultant, travelled extensively, attended to family needs, got fitter than I’ve ever been, enjoyed lots of walks with the dog, and maintained social connections. Oh, and I wrote and published a book.
Maybe your home stay will only be for a short crazy corona-induced period. And you probably find nothing appealing about working in budgie smugglers.
But you may learn new stuff about the world outside the office. New stuff about technology. Why community is important. And a heck of a lot about yourself and the true value of human interaction.
* Stuart Howie is the executive director of Flame Tree Media and author of the The DIY Newsroom, which was named Social Media and Technology Book of the Year at the 2019 Australian Business Book Awards.
Stuart Howie is a communications and media consultant. He runs Flame Tree Media and is the author of The DIY Newsroom. Stuart has worked in media and publishing for more than 30 years as an executive, editor and strategist.