(Bloomberg Opinion) — Good, you’re working from home. That’s the right way to do your bit to help slow the spread of the coronavirus that’s rampaging across the world.
If you’re not used to working from home, though, you might be feeling lonely, distracted, unproductive or just plain weird. It’s one thing to work from home occasionally, and quite another to be exiled from the office for who knows how long.
Allow me to offer some tips. In 2018, I left a job where I was a Monday-through-Thursday office worker, with Fridays at home for deep work, and shifted to a new job where I’d be working from home almost all the time. I thought it would be heavenly to have five days a week binge-editing at home. I was wrong. Until I learned to set boundaries between work and leisure, it was dislocating and disorienting.
My first piece of advice: Get dressed in real clothes. I thought it would be fun to wear yoga pants and sweatshirts every day, but I quickly learned it was a great way to feel like a depressed hermit. When you’re working from your guest bedroom, you don’t need to put on a three-piece suit (although don’t let me stop you!) but you should at least wear real pants and a proper shirt. Save your sweats for the weekend to help create a boundary between work and life.
It’s also important to stick to a schedule. It may seem silly to have a designated start and stop time when working at home; after all, lots of us — especially those with the ability to work from home — are constantly tethered to work by our digital devices, regardless of whether we’re in the office, at home or on some remote mountaintop. But when you’re working from home, it’s paramount to have a schedule. Without one, days and weeks can too easily bleed into each other, and you’ll find yourself snacking your way through two weeks of tortilla chips in two days. Decide on specific times when your workday will begin and end, and when you’ll break for lunch and snacks. You might still attend to some important tasks outside of your normal hours, but at least try to have normal hours.
You can reinforce the sense of routine by having a ritual that starts and ends your workday to take the place of the commuting ritual. Perhaps the only virtue of having a commute is that it creates a buffer around the workday — it helps you ease into, and then out of, the mental space you need to be in to work. When your “commute” is from the bedroom to the kitchen counter, though, the line separating work from life starts to fade. So come up with something to mark the beginning and the end of the day. For me, it’s listening to podcasts — the same daily podcasts herald the start and finish of my workday, only now instead of listening to them on the train I do so while washing dishes. (It’s amazing how many dirty dishes one generates when stuck at home.)
Choose a place to be your work spot. In a house, this might be a spare room. In a studio apartment, it might be a chair. When you’re working, work from this spot. When you’re not working, avoid it. Have designated areas where you avoid ever working — like your bed.
Try setting a timer to fence off the digital distractions that are louder at home than in an office. Until the bell rings at 20 minutes, promise yourself not to check the coronavirus map or scroll through anxious tweets.
Some people react to working from home by trying to prove how productive they’re being — sending emails, picking up the phone, clogging Slack channels. You may find you’re actually hearing more from your colleagues when you can’t see them than when you were all sitting together. If you’re having trouble focusing because of this surge in chatter, try a team effort to schedule communication time (like a morning team check-in) and quiet time (like a “library period” when you’re all expected to stop emailing).
Finally, fence in your guilt. I’ve already heard from some people — particularly those caring for young children while trying to work remotely — that they’re struggling to feel productive, and that they feel guilty about the amount of work they’re (not) able to do. Take a step back. The coronavirus pandemic is a bizarre and exceptional crisis, hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. You’re entitled to find it disturbing. So don’t beat yourself up if you’re not working at your usual 110% best. Just do what you can. Ask your boss to help you set priorities. And when it’s time to go “home” for the day, shut down your guilt along with your laptop.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.
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