According to a 2019 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 25 percent of American workers worked from home at least occasionally. That number includes both employees who have flexible schedules and self-employed people. As more work can be done online, those work-from-home numbers are expected to explode.
On the surface, working from home sounds like a dream come true. No boss breathing down your neck (literally, with coffee breath). No depressing vending machine lunch at your desk. No impromptu conference room meetings to talk about "innovation" and "teamwork."
But the reality is far more complicated. Do you have kids? Can they sit quietly doing puzzles for hours on end? Does the giant flat-screen TV a few feet to your left pose an irresistible threat to your productivity? Does that awesome snack selection pose an irresistible threat to your body mass index?
If you can strike the right work-life balance, working can home can indeed be a dream come true. To help you plan for the real-life challenges, we've assembled a list of 10 real-world tips for avoiding distractions, reassuring the boss and maximizing productivity.
Get Up and Get Dressed
Every job has a uniform. Doctors have their white coats; business executives have their power suits; and freelance writers have their sweatpants (only sort of kidding). Uniforms serve two purposes: First, they communicate to the outside world a person's position, stature and function. And second, they reinforce those same messages to the person wearing the uniform. When a doctor puts on her whites, she puts on the mantle of the knowledgeable and capable healer. Without it, she's just some lady gagging you with a Popsicle stick.
When you work from home, resist the urge to remain in your pajamas. True, no one but the UPS guy is likely to see you in your polar bear-themed sleepwear, but it's hard to take yourself seriously as a worker when you look unemployed. Dressing in your normal work uniform — even if that uniform is a T-shirt and jeans — reinforces the idea that you are actually working. If wearing a tie or pencil skirt really gets your juices flowing, go for it. Just don't expect the cat to be impressed.
Keep a Consistent Schedule
Many of us are more productive when we are working within a prescribed framework. That's why it's so important to set and keep a schedule when working from home. If your job requires a lot of interaction with colleagues in a time zone, you should try your best to align your schedule with their normal business hours. If your work is largely independent, you have the freedom to work earlier or later than the regular workday, or split your day into several shifts.
If you have a spouse and kids, it's even more important to set a firm work schedule. Every week sit down with your spouse to chart upcoming doctor's appointments and soccer practices, and to assess each other's workload. Devise a schedule that shares parental duties while giving each person enough time to realistically get their work done.
Print out the weekly schedule and tape it to your office door. By Tuesday, your toddler will have ripped it down and drawn a 20-legged elephant on it, but a schedule's a schedule. Stick to it.
Post a Sign When You're on Duty
This is a critical tip for parents trying to work from home. Whether you are working in an official-looking home office or at a milk crate desk in the corner of your bedroom, make sure that there is a door between you and your treasured distractions (er, children). If your kids are older, this door is a great place to post your daily work schedule along with a number they can dial to reach customer service, i.e., your spouse's cellphone.
If you have younger children, you need to post a sign that can be easily interpreted by a toddler to mean, "I love you, but please go bother daddy." Try a large "X" or a color-coded system like a construction-paper stoplight — green means "go on in," yellow means "enter only if you are bleeding/vomiting," and red means "there is a monster behind this door." That guy doing an interview with the BBC from his home office a few years ago could have used this system.
This system is also valuable for the adults in your life who maybe don't understand that "at home" doesn't mean "watching Netflix all day and therefore very interruptible with every little thing that crosses my mind." Block out your work hours in your shared calendar, use away messages for texts, and let your mom's calls go to voicemail.
Check in With the Team
Working at home has become commonplace enough that it no longer has the stigma — and suspicion that you're really marathoning a new video game — attached to it.
Your company probably uses a few communication tools, and most of them can be accessed easily from home. Email is still the main way to communicate, but there are also tools like Slack for quick convos. Some teams use shared environments like Google Docs, Google Drive or Dropbox, and some use shared project management tools like Asana and Trello.
You'll also want to get familiar with conference call tech, which often uses video. Skype and Zoom are two common apps. The key here goes back to our earlier tip: get dressed! You do not want to face your co-workers in a ratty old sweatshirt covered in cat hair. At least use what you might call the "work from home mullet": business up top, jammies on the bottom.
Change Your Venue
Even if you have a dedicated home office, you'll probably get antsy. If you can move around the house without inviting distractions, do. Work at the kitchen table for a while, move to the couch with a lap desk, take it to the porch if it's warm out and there's no glare on your screen.
Work from bed at your own risk. Famous authors like Collette, George Orwell and Marcel Proust could pull it off, but you'd better be wholly absorbed by your work. A boring project could easily become a snoring project.
If it's possible, you can always head to a local coffee shop to work. Some people like the sound of people in the background while they work. Research backs them up: A report published in 2012 showed that a moderate amount of background noise can enhance creativity. If you can't visit your favorite barista, however, there are apps to mimic the sounds of a coffee shop or provide whatever kind of noise fires up your brain cells.
Use Household Chores as Mini Breaks
Let's be honest, when you are stuck on a frustrating work problem, bored with an assignment or procrastinating a deadline, just about anything qualifies as a distraction. This is where working from home can get downright dangerous. With a project deadline looming, you might feel it's the perfect time to reorganize your vacation photos from the past 10 years. Instead of finishing a financial report, you might decide to iron all of your daughter's doll clothes.
The smarter tactic is to recognize the human need for a quick break and pair it with a household chore that can be finished in 10 minutes or less. Before you sit down to work for the day, make a list of a few quick chores that need to get done: two loads of laundry, washing and chopping vegetables for dinner, dusting and vacuuming the basement, etc. When you need to stand up and get your blood moving, check off a chore from the list then get back to work.
Grant yourself some bonus points for taking that chore list outside. Maybe weed the garden for 15 minutes, or mow just the front lawn. It not only crosses more tasks of your to-do list, but it can help rest your eyes after staring at a screen all day.
Devise a Snack Resistance Plan
Snacking in the office is its own minefield — doughnuts every Friday, a microwave that smells like tuna-flavored popcorn — but snacking at home is even worse. Your kitchen, with all of its delectable choices, is just a few steps away. There is a constant temptation to wander there every time you're bored, anxious or frustrated with an assignment, which is pretty much all the time. To avoid putting on 20 pounds (9 kilograms) in two weeks, you need a snack resistance plan.
If you have excellent self-control, confine your eating to scheduled meals. For example, lunch is every day at 12:30 and dinner is at 7. Aside from caffeine breaks, vow to avoid the kitchen outside of those prescribed mealtimes.
But if you're like the rest of us, working without snacking is like working without breathing. In that case, the best game plan is to stock your shelves with lots of healthy snacks. Fresh fruit, carrots, celery, unsalted nuts and dried fruit are all great options. If you've got a dedicated workplace set up, bring a bowl of apple slices and a cheese stick to your desk. When you get snacky, the good stuff is right in front of you.
Be Flexible With Your Family Time
This is a good tip for folks trying to work from home with school-age kids. Instead of working a straight daytime schedule of 9 to 5, divide the workday into two sections, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., then from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Some longtime freelancers call this the "Spanish method." In Spain, the traditional work schedule includes a midday siesta in which families return home at 2 p.m. for a long lunch and even a short nap before returning to work at 5 p.m. and continuing late into the evening.
Although siesta culture is fading in southern Europe, it's a useful schedule for parents trying to juggle working from home with taking care of school-age children. With this schedule, you can be with the kids for a few hours when they get home from school, make dinner and eat together, then go back to the office for a few more hours in the evening. If both parents work from home, you'll want to swap duties every night so that one parent can help get the kids to bed while the other works.
Get Out and Get Social
Working from home poses different challenges to different personality types. Introverted types could go months without communicating with co-workers beyond email and Slack. But if you are a social butterfly, you might find that you miss the face-to-face feedback and water cooler conversation of office life. To avoid feeling isolated and stifled, you need to devise strategies to get your social fix away from the office.
The technological reality is that you can continue to communicate with the standard office tools — email, Skype, phone and videoconferencing — from home. But if you really miss the personal interaction and you don't need to be home all the time, try to schedule a lunch or two a week with a work colleague or another work-from-home friend.
There are also organizations in most major cities that offer shared office space for rent on a monthly or weekly basis. Coworking spaces can be a good option if you need access to fax machines, copiers and other equipment you may not have at home. Even a coffee machine.
Have a Backup Plan
When you work from home, you need a plan B for the inevitable interruptions to your well-planned workflow. There are any number of mini-crises that can erupt at home: loss of power or internet service, unscheduled playdates or a neighbor chopping down a tree a few feet from your office window.
You need an alternative workspace. It should be someplace close to your home with a reliable internet connection where you can work in peace. It can be a friend's apartment, a library or even the backseat of your car parked within Wi-Fi range of a coffee shop (useful for after-hours emergencies).
For lots more tips about working from home and striking a healthy work-life balance, see the related articles below.
Last editorial update on Mar 13, 2020 01:26:50 pm.
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- Bloom, Nicholas et al. "Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment." Stanford University. Feb. 22, 2013. (Sept. 13, 2013) http://www.stanford.edu/~nbloom/WFH.pdf
- Noonan, Mary C.; Glass, Jennifer L. "The hard truth about telecommuting." Monthly Labor Review. June 2012. (Sept. 13, 2013) http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2012/06/art3full.pdf
- Orsini, Patricia. "The Great Shrinking Office? More Companies Hire Remote Workers: Survey." CNBC. June 14, 2012. (Sept. 13, 2013) http://www.cnbc.com/id/47815587
- Wilcox, Ryan. "The Beginner's Guide to Working from Home." Lifehacker. July 10, 2013. (Sept. 13, 2013) http://lifehacker.com/the-beginners-guide-to-working-from-home-733412770