By Jennifer Graham@grahamtoday Mar 15, 2020, 10:00pm MDT
Everybody who works from home has a horror story.
For Robert Kelly, it was his children barging into a live television broadcast, a video that made him famous in 2017 as the “BBC Dad.” Work at home long enough and you’ll have one, too. This is not to scare all of you who are working from home for the first time, sent there by your employer or common sense as COVID-19 menaces the U.S. Rather, it’s a reminder that remote work isn’t always the nirvana it seems to be, especially if you’re working from home with animals or kids.
Slightly more than 5% of Americans regularly work from home, according to U.S. Census data. And with health and government officials urging social distancing worldwide, that number is expected to soar. Twitter, Amazon, Google and Microsoft are among companies that have told eligible workers to stay home.
Having worked from home for much of the past 15 years, I know well that it’s both a challenge and a privilege. I have a friend who says people who work remotely should consider it a perk equivalent to an extra 20% in salary. There’s a big difference, however, between working remotely in a quiet home or apartment and doing so in household shared with children and pets, who are always prone to show up at the worst possible moment. I thought of Kelly a few months ago when I sat down for my annual review via Google Hangouts, and, as I turned the microphone on, spotted a large, unleashed dog racing past my home office window toward a busy street where no dog would survive.
Summoning all the professionalism I could muster, I excused myself for a moment, sprinted outside, caught the dog and lugged him to my car, the only place where he would be safe and not bark during my videoconference. I then smoothed my hair, hurried back inside, apologized for the delay and continued the review. No one asked where I’d been. No dogs were harmed.
On mornings like this, a remote worker longs for the relative calm and order of an office. But most days, working from home can be terrific, once you’ve figured out the habits that combine for peak efficiency. According to one survey reported by Vox, 99% of remote workers hope to continue to do so for the rest of their careers.
Here are a few tips from my own experience, and that of my colleague Sara Israelsen-Hartley, who has been working mostly remotely since her first child was born nearly 11 years ago.
As much as possible, set hours that correspond with your energy.
An early bird, I sometimes start work when my daughter leaves for school at 6:45 a.m. Along those lines, Israelsen-Hartley says to do the creative stuff first. Don’t clog your morning with emails and brainless administrative stuff if your job doesn’t require it. Get your writing/creating/thinking done in the morning; save the brainless stuff for the post-lunch fog, or when the kids are home from school and more likely to interrupt.
Get out of the pajamas.
Newbies to remote work revel in not having to get dressed for the office. Veterans know that what you wear affects your thinking. Fluffy bunny slippers tell your subconscious to relax. Shower and dress like you would on at least a casual Friday, and don’t forget the power shoes.
Keep a schedule. Make sure it includes movement and water breaks.
Working at home with no interruptions makes it more likely that you’ll enter the state of “flow” that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said results in peak efficiency and happiness. It also makes it more likely that you’ll realize at 3 p.m. that you’ve been hunched over your desk for five hours, which isn’t good for your spine or your health.
If something doesn’t have to be done at a desk, don’t do it at your desk.
If you’re brainstorming or talking on the phone, can you do it sitting outside or taking a walk? Henry David Thoreau wrote that when his legs began to move, his thoughts began to flow. Research has shown that getting up and doing something different for a few minutes can help people move past a creative block. Use the perks of remote work to improve your performance.
Keep track of your hours, even if you don’t punch a clock.
This is for the sake of both you and your employer. Because work hours so easily bleed into family time at home, it’s easy to lose track of how much you’re working. As Israelsen-Hartley says, “Set clear boundaries as to when you’re working and when you’re not, and try to keep the worlds separate. Except when you have to do an interview at your kids’ dentist’s office during their cleanings. Like I did today.”
Be upfront with others about the potential for comedy.
If there’s a chance of a potentially embarrassing distraction, such as a dog barking or a young child wandering in during a phone call or video chat, it’s best to tell people that you’re in a home office, so if a disruption occurs, it’s not as big a calamity.
Find a remote office-spouse and love on them dearly.
Working at home can be isolating. Nurture an office friendship that can help fill that void via text, calls or emails. (Thanks, Lois.)
Be realistic about what you can accomplish.
As in an office, some days you will have the strength of 10 grinches plus two; other days, you’ll feel like you’re getting less done than the water cooler. “Acknowledge you may get less done than you’d like. Working, while also keeping small humans alive, is a pretty big task,” Israelsen-Hartley said. (Also, while keeping large dogs alive, I might add.)
Is the worst day at home still better than the best day at the office? Absolutely not. While some workplaces can be soul-killing, good ones are exhilarating. Think of how colorless the world would be if Michael Scott (“The Office”) or Leslie Knope (“Parks and Rec”) had worked alone at home. That said, 70% of American workers can’t work from home even if they wanted to, according to census data. So if you’re setting up a home office thanks to COVID-19, be grateful that you have a job that you can continue while helping to keep other people safe and healthy.