Many of us are facing the new reality of working from home and it doesn’t seem all that bad. No more traffic jams, more time with the family, time for exercise and leisure; fewer interruptions, meetings and pressure. Although it seems great at this stage, eventually we will find the reality is very different. We can become less focused on what we have to do; more accessible to family and friends; less disciplined in getting started, taking breaks and completing work tasks. Working from home can therefore be very positive or become a nightmare. The difference between the two is often a function of our attitude, understanding of the issues involved and ability to make guidelines that will work for us and our individual needs. Let’s look at some factors that make a huge difference between success and failure when working from home:
Key Perspective 1: Understand the Need for Discipline
The traditional office imposes a set of disciplines which we tend to take for granted: times to arrive, leave, take lunch; dress code; possible limitations on what we do, watch and talk about; standards on the use of the telephone and e-mail; meetings to attend, the list is endless. Most, if not all, of these will disappear when we start to work from home. Losing these disciplines can seem like freedom at first but the truth is that most of us need to set boundaries and rules for ourselves or risk being totally ineffective. The beauty of working from home is that we can now prepare ourselves to test which disciplines we need and which we do not.
Key Perspective 2: Be Aware of the Need to Socialize
The number one reason people go to work is to interact with other people. We may think that getting away from everyone in the office is a bonus. However, most of us find the lack of contact with others is the biggest loss when we work from home. It can be lonely, it can be too quiet, and it can limit the creativity we get when we interact with others. Unless we like to be hermits, and few of us do, we will need to build in social interaction time in another way. Otherwise we will find we use the telephone, the TV, Internet or other distractions to fill the void at times, when we had planned to be working.
Key Perspective 3: Beware of Neighbours, Family and Visitors
Neighbours seem to have a homing beacon at times. They just know when we are working from home. They and other casual visitors arrive, with their problems and stories just when we planned to be working. Other times it is our own family that may stop us from working: children with the latest happenings; our partner with a tale of woe or the urgent shopping trip they want us to make; the relative that phones for a chat. Understand that all these people equate us working from home with us being available to them. They will want to interrupt us unless we set boundaries for them.
Key Perspective 4: Beware of Household Chores
It’s not just people who seem to know we are at home. Domestic jobs such as grocery shopping, washing-up, acting as taxi driver for children at times, fixing things around the house, dealing with the dripping tap may not have worried us at the office but when working from home they can seem to almost “leap out” at us and demand our attention. We need to set boundaries and rules for dealing with these too, or risk constant distraction.
Key Perspective 5: Plan the Working Week
Working from home can be very effective provided the work is planned. The first step is to work out just how long we need to spend working. We no longer have to fit into the rigidity of the office but we probably do need to plan highly productive sessions of time. We may need longer to complete tasks than in the office, where we may have had others to do some of the work, or it may take less time without the office distractions. Estimating our overall work time needs over a typical week is a good first step. We can always adjust the time as we get more practice.
Key Perspective 6: Lock in any Core Work Time
Colleagues or “the office” may have times when it is essential for us to be available for them. When planning our week it is essential that we know when these periods are. We can then plan to be working at those times. It is also a good idea to limit these core times. Otherwise these people may think we are always “on call” for them just because we are at home (and the working day can elongate well into the evening for some).
Key Perspective 7: Identify any Core Family Time
Working from home does allow us to be more flexible and, if managed effectively, spend extra time with friends or the family. If we note down the key times we want to be available for family matters such as walking the dog, afternoon tea with the kids, coffee with our partner, for instance, we can then make sure these are catered for in our planning.
Key Perspective 8: Now Plan the Working Day and Week in Detail
We have now identified the length of time we need to work, the core time when we must be working, or available to work, and the key times we want to spend with the family and even friends. We can now add in any special time requirements such as gym times, meal or other breaks. Using all this information, and bearing in mind we are no longer constrained by normal office routine, we can map out a timetable that suits our lifestyle. We should then test the timetable and make sure that it works for us in real life.
Key Perspective 9: Set Guidelines for Friends, Family and Business People
Once we have set our working timetable, and tested that it works for us in practice, we can now tell everyone important to us what our “working schedule” is. We may need to be assertive in letting them know we are not available to them during certain times. We may need to set some house rules. What we must do is create a clear understanding that we are no more available to them at home than we would be in a formal office environment during these times. Remember, these guidelines are just as much for us as they are for others. They will allow us to mentally separate work from family and home.
Key Perspective 10: Create an Office Space
This is possibly the most important step of all. In our home, we probably have separate spaces for cooking, sleeping, washing and relaxing. We must now make a completely separate space for working – our own office space. This may be an unused bedroom, a study, a converted garage. Preferably it should be a separate space with a door, a space that is not used for any other purpose but work. We can make this space our very own, create the most pleasant working environment we can, but make it into a defined work area: a place where we say “this is where I work”, the moment we walk through the door. If there is no separate room, we must create our own working area as best we can and make it feel like an office.
Key Perspective 11: Invest in Office Equipment
We must now equip our office to make our working time as easy, effective and pleasurable as possible. A separate telephone number and voicemail work well. Computers (with fast internet access), printers (combined with copier and scanner) and mobile phones can all make our working environment better if we have the need for them. Our time is money so it pays to use labour saving devices whenever they are cost-effective.
Key Perspective 12: Mentally Separate Home and Office
We are now faced with the biggest problem in working from home – our own mind. For most of us, home is where we eat, sleep and play. When we leave our home to commute to an office, factory or warehouse there are many mental triggers that condition us to get ready for work. The closing of the front door, getting into the car, waiting for the bus or train, getting into the office elevator, even the clothes we are wearing. Mentally, they all prepare us for work. At home, they will all be missing. At least half of us will have difficulty making the transition in our thinking from family space to work space. We will find “home” things to do and let “work” things slip. Each one of us is different and will need to find what works for us. To overcome these issues some of the techniques that other people have used have been:
- Wearing work clothes in the home office
- Putting an “Office” sign on the home office door
- Banning computer games from the office computer
- Using a separate office phone and not giving these numbers to friends, family or neighbours
- Using a PO Box and collecting the mail as an early morning routine
- Adopting strict office hours (e.g. “If it’s 9.00 am, I must be working”)
- Prioritising work for the next day that must be done before taking any time for anything else (in other words, find your own mental switch between home and work!)
Author: John Radclyffe is a facilitator, trainer and consultant who has in-depth and hands-on experience in a broad range of leadership skills.