The prospect that swathes of the global population may soon get to experience the joys and challenges of working from home (WFH) seems to be causing a little bit of alarm in some circles.
Admittedly, those circles are mostly confined to social media, where people can be somewhat eccentric. There are threads proliferating all over Twitter proffering earnest, useful advice on “surviving WFH”.
Really, though, what is there to “survive” about working from home? What could be easier than spending all day wandering around the house in your pyjamas, and only interrupting your Murder, She Wrote binges to get more snacks or send the occasional busy-sounding email to work?
Stop right there. Despite all the excitable memes, WFH is not an excuse to eat biscuits and watch nostalgic crime television all day. The good news for both you and your employer is that, with practice, it can be both efficient and rewarding. I only get to work from home occasionally these days but when I do, after several years’ effort, I am now at peak productivity.
This is because I have a tough, uncompromising supervisor who doesn’t tolerate slacking, and has laid down some strict rules. That boss is me, and these are her rules.
1. Wear clothes
Even if I am confident I’m not going to see another human all day – sadly, a more likely prospect than ever now – I get up, have a shower and don actual clothing. I’m talking about jeans, not fancy clothes; I’m not Victoria Beckham. The advice on social media is that you should always put your shoes on too, but in my own extensive experience, shoes have zero impact on your productivity. The arguments for getting dressed aren’t just psychological.
At one point in my career, I worked in a cool Silicon Valley tech company. One of the perks it offered was a WFH day every Friday, which always involved a team meeting by Skype. A new colleague – let’s call her Zoe – joined us for her first such meeting, but didn’t turn enable her video function. “Turn on the video, Zoe,” my boss commanded. “We always use video during this call.”
Zoe pleaded that she’d rather not; that she didn’t know how; that her wifi wasn’t great. When she eventually ran out of excuses, it was apparent she had fallen prey to the popular belief that there are quotation marks around the “working” in WFH. She was sitting up in bed in her pyjamas, exactly like someone settled in for a Murder, She Wrote marathon. Zoe didn’t last long at the cool Silicon Valley tech company. Don’t be like Zoe. Get dressed when you’re working from home.
2. Create a dedicated workspace
Ideally, it should be a corner of the house that is free of children, washing up and your bed. That may not be practical. But try to carve out some space, however small; even better if you can close the door on it later. I took a built-in wardrobe out of a bedroom upstairs, and set a desk up in the alcove there.
3. Stay put
Don’t migrate with your laptop around the house too much, especially in the early days. Signal to your brain that you’re at work. “This is where we work, brain,” is a message perhaps not best conveyed from a position prone on your back on the sofa.
4. Set some boundaries
Make sure your partner, children and/or housemates know when you’re at work. A story did the rounds at another Silicon Valley tech firm about a fearsome leader whose preferred WFH spot was in the dressing room just off his master suite (that’s Valley speak for bedroom.) One day, he was on a Skype call to his team when his team were treated to the sight of his freshly-showered, and entirely buck-naked, wife strolling in and out of view behind him. With heroic self-control/breathtaking cruelty (I can’t quite decide which), nobody said a word, she didn’t seem to realise he was on a call, and he didn’t see her. As far as I know, to this day, they’re both blissfully unaware. The moral is: let your housemates know you’re on a work call.
5. Employ a childminder
If your children are too young to do their homework unsupervised and make their own snacks, the key to WFH is to simulate your absence. Have someone else to mind them, send them to daycare, or, in an emergency, Netflix and bribe.
6. Manage your time
For the inexperienced homeworker, the prospect of a day free of endless meetings, colleagues popping by your desk for "a brief word", and desolate minutes spent wrestling with the photocopier, can create the illusion that you have infinite quantities of space and time at your disposal. You'd be amazed how quickly throwing on a quick wash, checking Facebook or trying out that cool thing with hair tongs you spotted on Instagram will eat up those infinite quantities of space and time.
7. Clock on, clock off
This one is boring but essential: start and finish at the same time you normally do. Break your day into hourly appointments with yourself, and even if a piece of work isn’t finished, move on. You need to create a sense of urgency for yourself, since there’s no one else around to create a sense of urgency for you.
8. Take a set lunch break
I’m terrible at this, but if you can, take that hour-long lunch, put on a some headphones and a podcast, and stride around the block or the park. There is some suggestion coronavirus may not like UV rays, so it should still be safe to walk outside. This is also your one permissible opportunity to tackle that laundry mountain/hoover the stairs/try the Instagram hair thing.
9. Don’t get a cat
Ignore all the advice on Twitter to get a cat. And I speak as someone who has two. If you’re really worried about being lonely, get an imaginary friend. They won’t need to be fed, sit on your keyboard or demand that you get up to let them in or out the window once every seven minutes, and you’ll get just as much feedback from them as you would from a cat.
10. Say No
Make it clear to your friends and loved ones that working from home does not make you the neighbourhood’s designated on-call emergency childcare solution, counselling service, taxi, parcel depot or person who will wait around for the plumber. This applies pre-lockdown, of course. Should we find ourselves in actual lockdown, you’ll be dying for unwelcome intrusions that never come.
Those caveats aside, the key is to make it work for you. The joy of working from home is that it can flex to your needs in the way that a scheduled day in an office can’t. You’re allowed to make the most of that flexibility from time to time. But do get your work done. Don’t ruin it for the rest of us. And encourage your loved ones to wear a bathrobe.