to validate the best work-from-home recommendations and tips, and to debunk those which are simply cliches with no substance.
My work-from-home, or more precisely: my work-from-the-porch-or-the-basement, career began in the year 2000, at the relative dawn of the internet-era; the era of ebay, DIY-websites, google, instant communication and sharing of digital content, and access to high-speed internet for the masses. It was a time of possibility, and I was ready and willing to take risks to establish a new type of career defined on my own terms.
While some – especially in the Covid-19 context – are forced into this new reality, I was fortunate enough to do so by choice. Over a period of 20 years I founded and sustained 2 successful businesses (both provided a salary sufficient to support my family), based on ecommerce and the digital platforms that have transformed the way business is done throughout the world, today. These two businesses are vastly dichotomous to each other: designing, importing and selling wholesale jewelry; and providing services as a grant writer to higher education and healthcare institutions, nonprofits, and scientists/ researchers working in various sectors. The commonalities? Both of these ventures were enabled by modern technology and communication systems in often less-than-modern settings; both enabled me to work at my own pace, set my own rules, and; the success of both were based on my own initiative and my ability to sustain productivity with limited structure and external-accountability .
Over the past two decades I have figured-out a system that works – at least for me. And this experience has provided a unique perspective that can help others who may be struggling in their work-from-the-office to-home transition, whether it be temporary or permanent. Rest assured – you don’t need to reorganize your life to make it work; I have thrived working in unheated porches and basements while co-locating with multiple children between the ages of 3 months and 6 years of age (fear not, they always had access to heat) as the sole caregiver. And, you don’t need a hard separation between work and the rest of your life; how many people have that now?
There are a lot of opinions out there – in some cases, idiotic – about how to effectively work from home. I have reviewed 11 such articles from reputable publishers including CNN, NPR, and the New York Times. I categorized the primary recommendations of each below, along with my own evaluation of these tips. In addition – not that I know anymore than anyone else – I provide specific strategies which I successfully employ in my daily life. These processes and approaches have led to a relatively happy and stable life for my family and I.
Below, I have ranked each tip as “Right on!”, “Right on, with a caveat.” “Depends.” or “BS.” All assessments are based on my personal experience and opinion.
Top-tips, categorized, from reviewed articles (recommended by at least 3 articles)
Tip 1) Take a break – take frequent breaks during your work day. BS.
Assessment: This seems kind of obvious – if you’re tired, stressed or in a rut, sure take a break. If you have some autonomy, you may prefer, like me, to keep working when you’re on a roll. I’d rather finish my day early then take scheduled breaks and destroy my flow.
Tip 2) Establish structure at home, but not too much – set some parameters like a schedule, a space to work, work-customs, etc. But, don’t go too crazy and leave yourself flexibility to adapt your work practices. Right on!
Assessment: Maybe it’s because I am kind of hyperactive – I have always liked the fluidity of working in space of my choosing, at my own direction. And because the environment is largely uncontrollable – especially when there are young children around – establishing a rigid structure at home can be counterproductive and deflating.
Tip 3) Repurpose your commute – Use the time that you would normally spend commuting for something productive or restorative – for example, read the paper, play your instrument, go for a run, bond with your kids, etc. Depends.
Assessment: Ok, if this works for you. Alternatively, I LOVE to start making headway as early as possible because once afternoon hits, and I know the kids are coming home from school, I generally feel rushed. On busy days, I’ll be at my computer at 7am. If my schedule is light or I need to pre-de-stress, I’ll go for an early run.
Tip 4) Set clear boundaries – Let your kids and other interrupters (i.e. parents who may think you don’t have a real job cuz you work from home) know you are off-limits during work-hours, and when you are in the office. Right on! With a caveat.
Assessment: If I need to get stuff done, calls from family members go straight to voicemail, and my kids know to stay away. On the other hand, one of the great things about your newfound flexibility – if your situation allows – is to welcome “mindfulness” into your life. Don’t miss the important moments (which may seem small at the time) because you are caught up in your own, arbitrary, boundary-rules. When my kids were really young and doing something new and cool everyday – no way was I going to miss that! I’d take 15 minutes out of my day to encourage my 2-year old to keep trying to throw the ball for the first time, no question. Even now, if my 14-year old wants to play basketball afterschool, I’m all in. Life goes by fast, and I don’t want to miss the important moments that I could have engaged in.
Tip 5) Use your webcam, like all the time – Your co-workers and/ or clients want a personal connection and so you should take every chance you get to face-time with each other. BS.
Assessment: Over the past 20 years I have probably used my webcam 25 times – and I work with 50-60 new institutional clients each year. The webcam is definitely a nice tool to have available, but I have never found it to be indispensable.
Tip 6) Socialize with your co-workers or just get out and about regularly – Your coworkers want to interact with you on a more personal level and you might need or want the socialization yourself. Depends.
Assessment: If you were suddenly forced to work from home, not by choice, you and your colleagues may enjoy occasional social events to maintain that connection/ friendship. Alternatively, you may be a non-social person or just not want to hang out with your co-workers. You might be fine doing your thing all day without feeling the need to run out to a coffee shop (which of course is not even possible now) to be around other humans. Personally, I have never felt the need. I enjoy the solitude; when I need to work, I want to be productive for long as possible. Then, I’ll hang out with my family, call a friend and go for a ride, or whatever.
Tip 7) Establish a routine and stick to it – Set a schedule, take a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, work 9-5, have three 15-minute breaks during the day, etc. BS.
Assessment: If you get a chance to work from home – either because you have your own business or your job allows you some flexibility, embrace it. It’s one thing if your boss requires you to keep a schedule, clock in and out, etc. If you have some degree of autonomy, work when you are most productive and build flexibility into your schedule. Most adults are responsible- and aware-enough to know how to manage their responsibilities.
Other tips (less occurrences than those noted above) parsed from articles:
– Don’t work in your pjs. BS
– Setup a dedicated workspace with appropriate tech. Right on!
– Learn to multitask. Right on!
– Pay attention to ergonomics. Right on!
– Get dressed. BS
– Stay away from the kitchen. BS
– Use the Cloud. Right on!
– Start early. Right on!
– Limit social media during work hours. BS
– No bedroom office. Right on!
– Work when most productive. Right on!
– Don’t be too hard on yourself. Right on!
– Plan for your kids. Right on!
– Listen to music. Right on!
Below are some specific strategies which I have employed at various points over the past 20 years to help me work more effectively, efficiently, and with more joy.
A) Stand up. After frequent discomfort, soreness and cramps in my hamstrings and back (despite being in very good physical shape) I switched to a standup desk. This was about 6 years ago and I have not sat down since, unless I was forced to because of injury.
B) Hydrate. One of my few rituals is to prepare a 2- liter thermos of green tea (2 bags per thermos) each morning and drink throughout the day. Supposedly green tea is quite healthy and I find this habit to be comforting. You can get 2 packs of 100 tea bags for $10 on Amazon.
3) Wear your pjs if you want. Getting dressed is overrated, and I’m pretty sure it has never affected my productivity.
4) Go outside. I like to take the dog for a short walk or eat my lunch outside on a nice day.
5) Carpe diem. As with most entrepreneurs,my work comes in waves. I may have a day or two each month without much to do. Instead of doing ‘busy work’ I have learned to accomplish other important life-tasks during this downtime; maybe I’ll spend the afternoon splitting wood for my stove, repairing something in the house, or go for a long run. If you have that type of flexibility, why not take advantage?
It is shocking to me that two+ decades after establishing the infrastructure (broadband access and high-performance computers, smart phones, video conferencing technology, etc.), working remotely is not the norm for those jobs which it is appropriate. Does corporate America not trust its skilled workforce? Are humans too social? Are they too irresponsible to be trusted to self-govern at least a portion of their own worklife? Are the masses incapable of performing at a high-level without direct in-person supervision?
If there is potential for anything good to manifest from this virus-nightmare, perhaps it is greater opportunity for workers to perform their job functions with prioritization of outcomes rather than the process. Imagine the positive implications – to the environment (less commuting), to quality of life (more time with family) and to productivity (happier, more motivated, more efficient workers). How would this not be a win for all of society?