How to Survive Working From Home

Image courtesy of Doug McCaughan

I can’t believe, when I looked at the post history, that it’s been over a year since I put something up here. In all honesty, this hasn’t been in my mind much, I’ve mostly been focusing on other things: photography, travel, living. I’ve always meant to write some new posts but there are always other distractions. But no more! Thanks to the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, the world is sheltering at home. Social Distancing is the new buzz-word and normal. People look at anyone with a sniffle or cough with alarm and concern and in many cases, fear. TP is flying off the shelves, and across the world businesses, stores, restaurants, bars and other entities are closed.

Many people are having to work from home now, perhaps for only a few days or a few weeks, but possibly a few months. And this can be quite a shock to someone who is used to working in an office environment, surrounded by coworkers and colleagues. Suddenly so many people find that they are being told they MUST telecommute for the foreseeable future as nations struggle to slow the rate of infection. So here, then, are some tips I have from over a decade of working from home full time.

Dont Be Overwhelmed

This is harder than it seems, especially if you’re gregarious or used to just having people around, and are not an introvert like me. If you’re not used to it, working from home can feel overwhelming. You feel disconnected. You feel removed from your work friends. The absence of familiar office sounds can play a number on your psyche. All I can suggest here is to periodically take a deep breath, let it out slowly and just center yourself. Practice meditative breathing to help those feelings.

Avoid Facebook

This one is easy. Facebook is a distraction anyway. But there is SO MUCH doom and gloom in the echo chamber that you will be bombarded by the apocalyptic foreboding everyone is amplifying to fever pitch. So I’d suggest avoiding Facebook and social media, and even the news, at least for most of the day. My manager has said he’s now “mentally distancing” himself from social media and news outlets for his own sanity, limiting each to no more than 30 minutes a day. Give it a try. You’ll find that it helps reduce the anxiety, and reduced anxiety helps also alleviate those feelings of being overwhelmed mentioned above.

Work From a Spare Room

If you are fortunate enough to have a small home office, spare bedroom, or any sort of separate space, work there. There’s a nice disconnect each day when you leave the office and begin the commute home, leaving work behind. That disconnect is more difficult to find when your work is right down the hall, or worse, when it’s right there next to the couch you also sit on to watch Netflix at night. I have a small home office I use that is a converted spare bedroom. In that I have my work computer, and I spend most of my day in this room working, and as soon as my work day is done, I step out of this room, turn off all the lights and close the door behind me.

Those steps help me “turn off” my “work mode” to a certain degree. Of course, it’s not like “turning off” by leaving the office and enjoying a 45 – 60 minute drive through the countryside, but it’s the best I can get as a remote worker.

If you can’t allocate an actual room, then try to set up a workstation in a far corner. Or in a living room, if you spend social time in the Den. Or in a formal dining room, if you take meals in an eat-in kitchen. Or course, not everyone will have that kind of space, but for those that do, this can really help you separate “work” from “home” and help you let go of work at the end of the day.

Take a Breather

Just like working in an office, you need to take breaks when working at home. In an office, it’s a lot easier because you’ve got co-workers who want to go for a walk with you, or go to the break room for a quick snack and daily gossip, or a quick trip to the coffee shop / stand to get a coffee. But when you’re working from home, you’re alone. You have no one to remind you, so you have to be cognizant of the need to, periodically, just stand up and walk away. Go make yourself a coffee. Go stand outside in the sunshine and breathe in the fresh air. Go for a short walk (keeping in mind the social distancing, of course). But the important thing is to remember that you NEED to take small breaks and avoid sitting in front of your computer for a full 8 – 10 hours or more.

Get a Good Keyboard

This is more a Gear suggestion, but while laptops are nice, in my opinion, working from one long term is not so great. I hate the keyboards. I find them clumsy, hard to use accurately for long periods, and not as comfortable for my wrists. Get a good, quality, external keyboard if you’re using a laptop. My favorites are those with solid, mechanical switches. The ones with the Cherry MX switches, and similar, that are sold to Gamers are nice. They have a good tactile feel, satisfying mechanical click with each key press, and feel solid and much better than the cheap membrane keyboards you can get.

My personal daily keyboard, however, is a vintage IBM Model M that was built in 1994. This is a beast of a keyboard. It’s got a solid metal frame, heavy duty buckling spring keys that make a melodic and satisfying sound when pressed, and they’re well up to the challenge of heavy typing. My first Model M was a daily driver for me for nearly 15 years before it finally died, and that was AFTER I had bought it used at the company used equipment surplus shop when I worked at IBM in RTP.

There are also Model Ms made by Unicomp which bought the designs from Lexmark who made the keyboards in the late 80s to 90s. The Unicomp Ms are serviceable, but not as well constructed, so be aware of that.

Used IBM M’s can be found on eBay. Mine was a 1994 vintage Lexmark Model M that was New Old Stock (had never been used). I purchased that, and a custom USB cable for it (they are old enough to only come with PS/2 or AT plugs) and this keyboard will likely last until well after I retire.

Communicate

Your company likely already has set up means for you to stay in touch with colleagues, but if they do not, then I’ll stress that you need to be vigilant about staying in touch with the people you work with. Since they’re no longer just down the hall, or just on the other side of the cubical, staying in constant contact is key. If your employer doesn’t have anything in place, perhaps you can organize some real-time communications means for your co-workers, or team.

We use IRC (Internet Relay Chat) for communications heavily. My company, however, runs their own IRC server for the company to use. I do not suggest using public IRC like Freenode for work conversations if you’re discussing things that cannot be shared publicly. There is no encryption, no privacy and no protection on IRC.

Telegram is, however, pretty good (though there are others that may provide better protection from a privacy standpoint). Telegram provides encrypted communications and you can set up group chats as well. Telegram also provides a way to do voice calls.

We also use Google Meet / Hangouts for video conferences. These are pretty much free to use, and I’d suggest using something like this and doing periodic video chats with your team. It’s great for keeping faces to names and for conducting meetings, but sometimes its a good replacement for the water cooler as well. Just spin up a hangout, everyone join in and you can have lunch together virutally, or after work drinks, even.

Of course there are more video conferencing tools out there than you can shake a stick at, and it’s very likely you already have one recommended or required by your company, so take advantage of that.

Don’t get lost in email, try to do your communication by voice, or video, unless it’s a complex discussion, or something you would normally handle via email anyway. But as you would when working from an office, don’t get lost in a sea of email.

Take a Lunch

When you’re working at home, it’s really easy to skip breaks (as mentioned above) and REALLY easy to keep working through lunch. Don’t do this. You NEED to take those breaks, and a good solid lunch break is crucial. It’s a great way to get some fresh air, eat (of course!) and more importantly, focus on something other than working for a while. This has the effect of also helping you not feel like you’re trapped at work for the next several weeks. I always try to take a full hour lunch, even if it doesn’t take me that long to make lunch and eat it. It breaks the day up nicely and helps me also recharge from my typical morning full of meetings and fires.

Tell Your Loved Ones to Leave You Alone

Sadly, this is probably the hardest, and most important, tip. You’ll find that being home means everyone will think it’s OK to come talk to you, show you cat videos on YouTube, try to get you to play with them, or do house work, or who knows what else. I know it took me a LONG time to get my wife to realize that when I’m working, I often do not have time to focus on things outside of work (except for during breaks). But we eventually worked it out and this many years on, we’re still going strong.

If you’re home with kids, who are ALSO now being forced to stay home, of course you shouldn’t neglect them, but you’ll also need to figure out how to keep them occupied and out of your hair, otherwise, you’ll never get any work done.

If you have pets, it’s a little easier. Except for cats. My dogs are happy to just curl up in their beds under my desk and sleep all day. They get up when I get up, and they come back to the office when I do after breaks and lunch. My cats, however, are another story. Those jerks just walk in whenever they feel like it, raise a ruckus, jump in my lap and walk all over my desk and keyboard, forcing me to constantly guard and keep them away from my workspace.

Eventually, you’ll be heading back to your office, but for now, this is probably the most difficult thing you’ll need to work out.

Wear Clothes

It sounds silly, but it’s very easy to fall into a trap of not dressing up each day. Keeping your routine will help you re-adjust to office life, and will also help you adjust to working at home. When you get up, and get dressed just as you would any normal day, you’re putting yourself into the mental state of preparing to enter “work mode”. Without this, productivity and motivation can take a real hit. Dressing as you normally would for a day in the office (whatever that would be) keeps you in the routine that you’re used to and keeps you mentally in that frame of mind of “I’m at work”.

But for full disclosure, after a decade of working from home, my typical work attire is very, very casual, but for the first few years, I still dressed up every day.

Final Thoughts

Working from home, for the uninitiated has a lot of challenges. The biggest of them, which I’ve not specifically mentioned, is the need for self-discipline. It takes a lot of self-discipline to not just screw around all day when you’re not actually in the office you’re used to being in. But each of the things I mentioned above can certainly help you achieve that self-discipline.

But beyond the self-discipline part, working from home, if you’re not used to it is a major shift in how you work and can be very difficult to acclimate to. But with patience, with my tips (and countless others you can find elsewhere) you will do just fine. So relax, it’s not as bad as it seems.

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