Have you ever tried to explain your technical job to someone that isn’t technical? I hate doing that too, so to every question asking me what I do for a living, my first response is “I telecommute from home“. I suppose that’s wrong, because they aren’t asking me how I get to work, but the whole idea of telecommuting is such a fantastic bike shed that I almost never have to try to explain my actual job. The conversation quickly shifts to how I work, not what I actually do. Ironically, the topic is anything but trivial.
When most people hear the term telecommute, they envision someone wearing pajamas and fuzzy slippers sipping coffee while reading e-mail. Or, they envision me in the club house by our pool soaking up some sun while playing with a computer. They express their envy for my morning commute and make jokes about working while wearing only underwear. Some people do work like that, but they typically don’t keep that up for long. They either get fired for productivity issues or decide that structure was actually a good thing.
I’ve been working from home for just over ten years now, seven of which while also being an at-home parent. Here’s some of the things I learned that anyone new to working from home needs to know.
Get Up, Get Coffee, Get Dressed – Pants Aren’t Overrated
You need to take the word ‘home’ out of your work scenario unless you’re specifically addressing the logistics of not being on-site. You’re still going to work, there’s no reason to change your morning routine. Allow yourself roughly the same amount of time to get to work that you allowed when you worked in an office and make good use of it. You don’t have to wear a suit, but get out of your housecoat and put on something presentable. Tidy up your hair, trim whatever whiskers might need trimming and do all of the morning meditative stuff that you used to do. Why? Two reasons mostly:
It’s meditative, you’re not just prettying yourself up – you’re thinking about the day ahead of you. You’re sketching your playbook, deciding what you’ll hit first, how you might solve some particular problem or deal with some particular coworker.
It’s routine, if you’re at home in familiar, comfortable surroundings, you need to send your scumbag brain (mentioned often in this post) clear signals that today is a work day and you fully intend on getting things done.
There’s some psychology behind the above, but that’s the gist of it. Really, don’t break out the 80′s power suit, but do make yourself presentable.
Your Commute Must Involve ‘Outside’
I can’t stress the importance of getting out of your house for at least a short period of time every morning, even if the weather is really crappy. Is there a bakery or coffee shop nearby? Walk to it. Buying something is optional, but extend your routine outside of the house. You need to see the signs of other people going about their morning commute ritual, a somewhat brisk walk is also a great way to get your juices flowing. Your creative juices, in particular require entropy to be at their peak, going outside is your best bet to get that.
If you don’t leave the house, you run out of entropy pretty quickly.
Spend 15 – 20 minutes out and about unless the weather is just downright dangerous for some reason.
Implement Time Management
There are many tricks people use to manage their time and keep their productivity on par, or at least acceptable. I’m not going to go into them beyond saying you need to identify what works for you and implement it. Ideally, whatever system you use is visible to your boss or client so that you have a clear understanding that other people expect very specific things from you that day.
If you’re in more of a contractor / freelance type of position where your hours aren’t controlled by someone else, this gets even more difficult. The best thing you can do is at the end of every work period, send in a report indicating what you accomplished along with a list of things you intend to accomplish next. Your scumbag brain will realize that you’ve raised someone’s expectations and helpfully remind you of any eminent failure to meet them – after pestering you to read Facebook and Reddit all day. It doesn’t have to be a report, just make sure your brain knows that a lack of productivity would be at best embarrassing.
If you’re basically a full time employee, your company should have something in place to make sure useful things are coming out of you on a fairly consistent basis during the day. If your company has nothing in place, scream until it’s implemented. There is not a human being on Planet Earth that can consistently function in the absence of accountability. If there is, I have yet to meet them.
Make sure you have the structure that you need to thrive put in place. Not too much, not too little, but just enough.
Manage Your Distractions
While you have the ability to control your environment much more at home than you do in an office, a whole new realm of distractions need to be addressed in order for you to remain productive. Sure, you can set the thermostat to your ideal temperature so chattering teeth don’t interfere with your reading, but other occupants of your home and friends aren’t as easily programmed.
I work from home mostly because we want at least one parent somewhat accessible to our kid most of the time. So, I want to be accessible, to the extent that minor parental interruptions mostly remind me that it’s time to take a short break anyway. If you have young, extremely needy children you’ll have to run the numbers realistically – can you get enough uninterrupted time to do your work without constant late nights to fulfill your employer’s expectations? If not, try to make whatever changes make that happen before you settle into working at home. Don’t think you can just deal with it later, ‘as needed or as it happens’.
If your kids are old enough to reason with, create a criteria or even a flow chart that clearly establishes what sorts of problems warrant interrupting your work. It’s also helpful to set up a reward system, if you manage to get some work done then give your child(ren) some ownership in that accomplishment with praise.
You also need some kind of visual indicator on your door, which by the way needs a working lock, that indicates how interrupt-able you are at any given time. It could just be green / yellow / red sticky notes, or you could get more elaborate. The thing to take away is get something in place and update it faithfully.
As for the lock? You’ll be grateful for the few seconds it buys you from the initial pounding at your door to you actually opening it. You save off, put a cursor somewhere, scribble a word that leads you back to a thought, whatever – give yourself that small buffer.
- Spouses And Everyone Else
I would pay good money for a shirt that says the following on the front:
Would you call me at work to talk about this?
.. and this on the back:
Then why are you calling me now?
Make everyone completely aware that you don’t stay home during the day and just ‘play with computers’ or ‘talk on the phone’. Adults are often worse when it comes to understanding this and keeping it in mind than children. Imagine that you’re in the office, would you take that call, answer that text or click that link someone just PM’ed you? If not, then don’t do it at home while you’re working.
Do not hesitate to remind people that they could get you into trouble by bothering you at work for matters that aren’t really serious.
Get Your Feedback
We like being told that we did something well. We often don’t like being told that we did something not so well, but people serious about learning and getting better at what they do value good criticism just as much as praise. You need this during your day, and it’s up to you to make sure that you get it. While our bosses give us feedback from time to time, the majority of the feedback that you receive in any normal day will be from customers, coworkers or colleagues. Make sure you have some way of saying “I did this, I think it’s pretty awesome, what do you think?” and receive feedback by the next day at the latest. Instant feedback is always good, but you can thrive on daily or even weekly. The point is, don’t get in a position where you only hear complaints at random intervals – even introverts need and (perhaps unwittingly) crave positive feedback on at least a semi frequent basis.
There are other things that are important, like actual face time with your coworkers, but I’m aiming to write a more generalized list.
Don’t Give Too Much
If your office is just a few steps down the hall and you’re passionate about what you do for a living, it can be amazingly hard to .. well .. stop doing it at the end of the day. It’s no big deal if you check in on things if something important is going on, but before you consider doing so ask yourself if you would drive to the office in order to do it. If you say ‘yes’, then it’s either that important, or you have some serious workaholic issues.
It’s fine to give what you’re comfortable giving, but don’t let the convenience of doing so lead you to giving too much. You help avoid burnout by being conscious of this, and more importantly your family will really appreciate it.
Put Your Toys Away After Playing With Them
When I complained of trouble sleeping to my doctor, he asked me what else I did in the bedroom. Did I watch television, answer e-mail on my phone, eat or do other stuff? The answer was yes to all of the above. Our scumbag brains associate certain activities with the places in which we commonly do them. Apparently, I wasn’t sleeping enough in the bedroom. Wait, isn’t that why I went to see him?
If you’re working from home, you obviously do personal things in your home office as well. You pay your bills, work on personal projects, build models, whatever. Put that stuff away before you go to bed, you want a neutral work environment to greet the next day. This means close your editor, spreadsheet program, game or whatever else you were doing that isn’t work.
You Are Your Office Manager
At an office, there’s usually a person tasked with managing the life cycle of the stuff that workers use every day. Chairs, desks, computers, phones, paper, pens – all of this stuff has a life cycle and eventually needs to be replaced or replenished. When you work from home, this becomes interesting.
In an ideal world, the mother ship re-stocks and supplies everyone. Need a new computer? One shows up at your door in a few days. Often times, though, you’re more or less expected to provide the tools that you need to do your job, and you need to have a budget for replacing and upgrading them as needed. You also need some petty cash to handle miscellaneous expenses that gets logged and (hopefully) deducted from your tax returns. You need to yell at yourself if you forget a receipt.
Make sure you take stock of what you have, what you need immediately and what you’ll need in the near future and make the appropriate requests or provisions. If you weren’t able to do your job because your office manager didn’t order something, they’d get an ear full. Working from home, that ear full is headed your way if you don’t keep your office organized and well stocked.
In conclusion, this little list isn’t nearly complete, and every situation can be different. This is just a brain dump of things that a decade of experience has taught me and I thought others might find it helpful.