How to survive working from home
7 minutes read
I’m currently writing this article in December. That means that the Christmas tree is up, the Christmas decorations are out, and the Christmas tunes are playing. To ensure optimum Christmas anthems at all times I’ve got a trusted Christmas songs playlist. The playlist features classics such as Merry Christmas Everyone by Shakin’ Stevens, Wonderful Christmastime by Paul McCartney (my all-time favourite Christmas song) and I wish it could be Christmas everyday by Wizard. If you’re not familiar with the last one, Wizard was a 1970’s glam rock band who had an unlikely hit singing:
Well I wish it could be Christmas every day
When the kids start singing and the band begins to play
Oh I wish it could be Christmas every day
Let the bells ring out for Christmas
Now, you might wonder what a 1973 Christmas hit has got to do with working from home. Well, even though he sings it with gusto, I don’t think that even Roy Wood, lead singer of Wizard would really want it to be Christmas every day. Imagine, every meal would be Christmas lunch, there would only ever be Christmas specials on TV and you would have to spend every waking hour buying endless presents for friends and family. It would be awful.
Too much of a good thing quickly becomes a bad thing. Christmas is special because it’s so infrequent, just as working from home used to be special to me because it was so infrequent. Working from home used to feel like a treat. An opportunity to have a mini lie-in, to avoid the hassle of the daily commute and to hunker down and get some work done without having to worry about interruptions.
The global Covid pandemic has changed all that. With lockdowns and office closures it really has been working from home day every day, only the kids aren’t singing, and the bells certainly aren’t ringing. What was once an occasional treat, has become an endless, discombobulating chore.
So how can you bring back some of the magic of working from home? How can you not just survive, but thrive when working from home? Here is what I’ve found useful.
Invest in your set-up
Broadband, broadband, broadband. I can’t emphasise how important a good broadband connection is when working from home. I upgraded to high-speed fibre (100Mb) a last year and it was a revelation. No more, blocky video calls, no more dropped connections, no more painfully long downloads and uploads.
It’s also essential to get a good desk set-up. Using your laptop on the kitchen table for hours on end is only good for your chiropractor. Invest in an ergonomic chair (I have a very comfortable Herman Miller chair), good size monitor, proper webcam and good desk. In addition to a large sitting desk I’ve also got a Humbleworks standing desk, which is awesome for standing video calls.
Invest in the right remote tools
To work from home effectively you don’t just need a good set-up, you also need tools that support remote working. Remote first tools such as Miro or Mural for creating digital whiteboards, Figma for creating UI designs and Slack, Basecamp or Microsoft Teams for communication can make a huge difference.
Re-work your schedule
Don’t fall into to the trap of extending your old office working schedule by simply starting and finishing when you’d usually be commuting. Commuting might sometimes be painful, but it provides an important buffer between work life and home life, one that you would do well to maintain. For example, rather than your previous commute you could go for a walk at the start and end of your working day.
You should also think about when you have most energy and how you might re-work your schedule to take advantage of this. For example, perhaps you can start earlier and finish earlier, or have a slightly longer lunch break.
Separate work and home time
It’s all too easy when working from home to blur the lines between home time and work time. I’ve found it to be very important to have a clear separation between the two. This is why I’ll very consciously switch off in the evening (and at weekends) and avoid the temptation of working until I’ve completed my tasks for the day (which let’s be honest, are never done). I’m also in the fortunate position of having a home office in my garden so I can not only mentally separate home time and work time, but physically separate them as well.
Take regular breaks and exercise
It’s easy to get lazy when working from home, really lazy. Whereas breaks come naturally when in the office, walking to a meeting, getting up to get a coffee, walking to chat with a colleague, that’s simply not the case when working from home. It’s therefore important to take regular breaks when working from home, ideally every 20 – 30 mins. I’ve got a nice little app (Recess for the Mac) which reminds me to take a break every 20 mins. A break could be anything from a quick stretch to a short walk around the room.
The lack of a commute can also significantly reduce your daily activity. When you’re no longer walking to the office, getting the train, or (as I used to do) cycling to work you’re not going to be doing as much physical activity. It’s therefore important to find time for exercise when working from home. This doesn’t need to be a hardcore workout, it could simply be a 20 min walk at some point during the day.
Re-evaluate your working practices
A video call is not the same as a face-to-face conversation. A remote workshop is not the same as getting everyone together in the same room. Working from home is simply not the same as working in the office.
Don’t make the mistake of working from home the way you used to work from the office. Think about what changes you should make to your working practices. Do you need to cut back on meetings? Document decisions more? Set-up a regular catch-up with colleagues? Try things out and take inspiration from remote first companies such as Gitlab, ThoughtWorks and Basecamp who have published extensive remote working guides (links to these can be found at the end of this article).
Balance online and offline collaboration
Part of re-evaluating working practices when working from home should be to find the right balance of online (synchronous) and offline (asynchronous) collaboration. Whilst it’s tempting to book a video call for everything, in practice it might be better to collaborate offline instead. For example, by posting updates or by adding comments to a document.
Over communicate (but don’t go crazy)
Communication happens very naturally in an office. We notice someone working on something and ask if we can help. We chat with a colleague about their work. We see some designs pinned up on the wall and stop to ask about them. Communication doesn’t happen naturally when working from home. You’re never going to bump into a colleague when making a coffee in your kitchen, or stumble across someone else’s work pinned to your living room walls.
This is why it’s so important to ramp up the amount of communication when working from home. Don’t bombard your colleagues with constant messages, but it’s a good idea to check in regularly, to post more updates than you usually would and to clarify messages. After all, messages and meanings can easily get misinterpreted when they are not delivered face-to-face.
Regular blog posts can work well to share information and provide updates across a wider group. Tools like Loom are great for creating short videos which allow colleagues to catch up in their own time, rather than having to fit their schedules around an endless stream of video meetings.
Working from home can be isolating, especially for those who live alone. It’s therefore important to make time for meeting up with colleagues online. Unlike in the office when you will naturally chat with people, you need to proactively make time for socialising when working from home.
It’s a good idea to set-up regular catch-ups with colleagues and to carve out time for online team building activities. It’s not just ok to have some fun with colleagues when working from home, it’s important for everyone’s wellbeing (see my article Well-being isn’t just for your users for more about the importance of well-being). My team will bond online by playing Smash Karts (an online multi-player driving game) or drawing games like Drawasaurus and Gartic Phone.
Working from home is something that many of us have had to adjust to, whether we like it or not. Bring back some of the magic of working from home by:
- Investing in your set-up – I can’t emphasise enough how important a good broadband connection, desk, chair, webcam and monitor are when working from home.
- Investing in the right remote tools – Utilise remote first tools such as Miro, Mural, Figma and Slack.
- Re-work your schedule – Don’t fall into the trap of following your old office schedule.
- Separate work and home time – Create a clear separation between home time and work time.
- Take regular breaks and exercise – Take breaks every 20 – 30 mins. Find time for exercise to increase your activity during the day.
- Re-evaluate your working practices – Think about what changes you need to make to your working practices. Don’t make the mistake of working from home the way you used to work from the office.
- Balance online and offline collaboration – Find the right balance of online (synchronous) and offline (asynchronous) collaboration.
- Over communicate – Ramp up the level of communication when working from home to compensate for the lack of face-to-face contact.
- Proactively socialise – Make time to meetup with colleagues online and find time for fun activities.
Working from home everyday isn’t something that all of us would wish for, but as the well-known saying goes, when life gives you lemons, better make lemonade.
- Toptal’s The Suddenly Remote Playbook
- Work from home, the Basecamp way.
- GitLab’s complete Remote Playbook
- thoughtworks remote playbook