Working From Home or Being at Home? That is the big question.
I have held off writing a “tips for working at home” article for a good few months.
At the time of writing this, there is a global COVID-19 pandemic. Many people are being forced to work from home who previously made the daily commute. Some love it, some hate it, but everybody has an opinion, that is human nature.
The reason I held off was because of that word “opinion”, everybody is different, and everybody has different circumstances. Eg. I have children at home, so why would my advice about being at home affect somebody who has none?
Also, I am not the first, this type of article popped up from day 1, and they are very welcome too.
Why is today different? Well, 2 main reasons.
First, I feel I am in a good position to write this, since I already worked from home before it was forced upon us, so I can see it from both sides. I have had a little longer to go through the ‘ups and downs’.
Second, if my tips can help even one person, that is enough for me. Also fuelled by a regular stream of Twitter DM’s asking for tips.
I am not going to throw out a huge list of things to follow, I don’t think religiously following somebody else’s pattern is productive either.
I also don’t want to write a “10 tips when working from home” kind of post, there is many great ones out there. Instead, I will share some of my experiences.
So, here goes…
For me this was a big one. but also double edged. I have never been big into social media for personal use, I am quite a private person generally. At the beginning of the year I decided I was going to dedicate more time into social media for my work. An increased following seemed a good choice for my business, networking, and it turns out I have also met some great people along the way too.
This also comes at a cost. Although I use social media for “work”, it was so easy to always keep a browser tab open. Yes growing my social media presence is important, and still a goal I am focused on, it was also beginning to eat into my regular work too much.
Concentration on regular work tasks was reduced once I noticed the a notification in the browsers tab, clearly put there to entice a click to satisfy human curiosity.
Close that tab, schedule a set amount of time or visits for social media, and stick to them. The notifications can be dealt with in “batches”, we don’t need to catch them as they come in.
Which leads nicely onto this one! The big distraction for many, I am not going to tell you to put your phone away when working, or turn off alerts, you already know that.
Quick side note, we have all seen the messages when visiting a social media site on our phones “Please download the app for a better experience” or something along those lines. Why do you think social media companies encourage you to download the app rather than use the phone browser?
Yes the app is optimised for touch etc, but they can also use push notifications to get you back browsing. Social media companies are good at getting users back and retaining them. There is usually a team of people employed dedicated to this. For them, visits equal numbers, which equals higher advertising revenue.
It also eats away at your time, possibly more that we want to be made aware of.
Yes, you may now have an extra hour in your day from not commuting, but 1 hour can easily slide away when scrolling notifications.
Just be more aware of the habits we get into. How many of us, possibly subconsciously, reach for the phone when nobody is even calling? We check things even if there is nothing to check.
If we are being honest, how many of us close social media on a computer, and open it on the phone when we walk away?
For me personally, already working from home, the phone blurred the line between being at home and working at home. When I finished work, closed the office door, the phone was the only link back to work. We carry it around, also carrying the temptation.
I am guilty of answering student questions and checking social media on my phone late on an evening during busy periods. Is this giving my brain a break? Not at all. But I am getting better at being more aware of this and saying no.
Just like the phone situation, I am not going to tell you the obvious. Drink water, exercise, take breaks, yeah we all know this. Do your best.
Working from home seems to go hand in hand with a computer screen. As a web developer, I work at a screen all day. It is well known in my industry that when we hit a coding problem we are struggling with, a break from the screen gives us time to reflect. The problem always seems easier when returning with a fresh mind.
I don’t get enough exercise. Probably because I don’t enjoy it unless it is disguised by playing some form of sport. I do have a dog and I find that a daily dog walk gives me the exercise and also the break from the screen. I time it in the middle of the day, then have lunch, to get a proper break. Remember, you don’t need a dog to go on a walk though!
Having this routine also gives my work structure. I can focus on a task in the morning, and also a different one in the afternoon, depending on what I am working on.
Also, many of us are productive at different times of the day. Personally, my brain functions better in the morning after a good sleep, I set aside time in the morning to write this article to give it my best.
Therefore, I schedule the most difficult tasks into the morning.
(On another side note from above, my sleep is definitely affected if I am working on my phone late at night before bed, my brain does not seem to want to switch off)
Find your productive hours too. Not everybody has the luxury of having a full work day available at home. We all have busy lives. 3 dedicated hours in your productive “zone” is better than a distracted 6 hours in my opinion.
I worked from home before the COVID-19 lockdown and had a nice routine. I had no checklist, I was pretty motivated and knew in my head what I was working on most days. Once i found myself at home with 2 kids, and my wife off work too, I got distracted. Not because they were all loud and going crazy, it was just different. It felt different.
My productivity went down. Some days were good, some days were bad. I run my own business so when I work, I like to make the most of these hours.
I turned to the checklist. Checklists are great, and give many people structure to their days. I believe even Richard Branson lives by them. So, I tried this for a few weeks.
They did work well, I got more done and I would recommend writing one. Especially writing one when you finish work for the following day. This means you can wake up, get a coffee, head into the “office” and jump straight in.
After a few weeks though, personally I felt as though these checklists were putting too much pressure on. Let me explain. I am aware this may be because I was overloading them, but I felt the day was turning into a constant battle to get through the list. Sometimes working later to get the last one ticked off.
Recently I have tried a different approach. I still create a checklist of things I need to do, but not a daily list. This means I can start the day, choose what I feel like starting with, and work through things at my own pace, in my order.
Obviously this may not work for everybody, especially for employed people who have a more rigid structure, but it worked for me and I feel happier this way.
So important, but not always possible I understand.
For my first year working from home, I worked at a desk in the corner of my bedroom. I was so happy to start working from home on my business full time, that I didn’t care I had no dedicated space.
As time passed, it did get harder. All of the little distractions added up. And also, there was very little separation between home and work. If you don’t have a dedicated space to escape to, you can only do your best with what you have.
But, if there is somewhere you can take a little time to set up, you wont regret it.
We recently extended our house and I now have the dedicated space, this has seen the biggest mind shift between being at home, and working at home.
This one is important for me in 2 ways.
First, when working during normal times I often have ideas and thoughts pop into my head. I may see a design idea which inspires me, I may think of a better way to code something, but I may be working on something else.
Get it out of your head and write it down. No more worry about forgetting, no more distractions.
Secondly, it can also equally apply to out of work times too. Back to what I said earlier about evening distractions, inevitably work sometimes pops into your head, or an idea may suddenly appear. The temptation is to jump on it there and then, write it down, and it will still be there in the morning. I find this especially important when going to bed. If I don’t write it down and forget about it, you can guarantee it will cost me sleep.
The idea for this article actually came to me when I went to bed, so what did I do? Wrote it down and forgot about it until the next morning. Keep a notepad by your bed, or use your phone to make a quick note if you need to.
I can not take full credit for this one, but unfortunately I can not remember the source. But this is a big help to clear your mind so it is not always in work mode.
If anybody knows and informs me, i will gladly credit it here.
This is of course only scratching the surface of working from home, but I wanted to focus on some of the main things which can make a big difference.
Lastly if you have children at home like I do, I am not going to tell you what is best. Everybody’s situation is different. I am fortunate that currently my wife is off work, so I have help, and they are also old enough to be left to themselves too. Yes, they distract me occasionally, but I love them and know the current circumstances are temporary. Understandably not everybody has this luxury. We have to make the best of our own personal situation.
Once the COVID-19 situation is over, when my wife returns to work and the kids return to school, the house may then seem lonely place, who knows?
Just like the “real” workplace, working from home brings it’s own challenges, you have good days and bad days. Some days I also need to take my own advice, and surely writing down this article will help with that too. But, if any of the lessons I have learned can help even one of you, then that can only be a good thing.