10 Tips for Working from Home Without Losing it
As more and more workers are asked to work from home to help quelch the spread of coronavirus, you may find yourself at your kitchen table with your laptop wondering “how” to work from home. I can’t keep your dog quiet or improve your internet speeds, but I can pass on some tips that I’ve picked up over my 8 years of working from home for Microsoft.
Tip #1: Set up your space
Not everyone can have a dedicated workplace, but whenever possible, I recommend you have a room that you set aside for work during working from home. Best case scenario this space is a dedicated office with some soundproofing and a door that closes, but in other circumstances, it might be the kitchen table in the middle of a studio.
Having a dedicated place helps you separate “work hours” from “not work hours”.
When I first started working from home I didn’t have a dedicated office, so I set up a desk in the corner of my bedroom. This was fine during the day, but as I went to bed at night, I would be reminded of all the work that was there for me the next day. This didn’t inspire a good night’s sleep. As I trained myself to better separate my work life from my personal life, I didn’t need the dedicated space as much. However, in the beginning, it was quite helpful.
Make sure your dedicated space has a good comfy chair, good lighting with no screen glare, and if at all possible, and inspiring ambiance. You’ll also likely want to be close to a plug and a network cable.
Tip #2: Get over the FOMO
It’s going to happen. You sit down to work from home for a few days and you start to wonder what’s going on in the “office” that you don’t know about. You’ll start to wonder (and likely obsess) about what you are missing out on. You make take for granted the connection that comes from just sitting across the hall from your teammates. You overhear conversations, you see people heads down and busy and get to hear people complain about how busy they are. When that dynamic changes, it’s natural to wonder if there is something big going on that you don’t know about. There is no real trick for getting over this. You need to trust that your manager and team leads are keeping you in the loop. Trust that out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind.
If you are a manager of employees who are working from home (temporarily or long term), I recommend you put some new habits in place to lessen the likely FOMO that your team will struggle with.
Maybe institute “round tables” when everyone on the team gets a chance to talk about what they are working on, and where they might need assistance. Maybe institute some social calls during the day to mimic the office “drive-bys” that we are used to when we worked in the same location.
As a manager, it’s also your responsibility to make sure your team keeps plugged in while they are remote. If you are a manager who is currently remote, then you’ll need to work a little harder to make sure you know what is going on across the team so you can pass it on.
Pro tip: I’d recommend you try to anticipate the FOMO, and let your remote team members know more often than they are on track and reaching their goals. If you do have a team member who disconnects more as they work remotely, then be upfront with that as well. It’s easier to pull someone back in the loop earlier rather than later.
Tip 3: Prepare for interruptions
You may think your workspace is distraction-free, but when you are working out of your house, it is not. You may have kids, spouses or pets that may be looking for quality time together when you are home or it may be your responsibility to care for others while you are home. Embrace the interruptions for what they are, a break from the day. Manage them as best you can, but know they will be there and know they will be there for other people working from home. Have a bit more empathy for those working from home especially in the beginning as the work to manage their interruptions.
Home interruptions are different than work interruptions. At work, you have the occasional person stopping by to say “hi” or the loud talker at the desk next door. At home, it might be a hungry child or a package delivery. Once you get used to home interruptions, you’ll likely find your productivity skyrocket. I found (and others have shared) that it’s a lot easier to control the home interruptions which allows for more periods of ultra-productive work.
Pro tip: If you have kids or family members who are home during the workday, I recommend setting up some social ques to minimize interruptions. For me, it’s the office door. I have a set of glass laden French doors in my office, and when they are open, my family knows that I’m not on a phone call or deep in work, and when they are closed that I prefer not to be interrupted. I know others who use a status light or the presence of a headset that indicates meetings or heads-down time. In time you’ll develop some social ques in your home as well.
Tip 4: Set working hours
You may find that when you work from home, the “work hours” and “not work hours” tend to run together It’s really easy to fall into the trap of working all the time. After dinner, you may look over and see your workspace, and think about finishing that “one more thing”. After a few weeks of that, you will start to feel like you are living at the office rather than the reverse. We don’t all have set “work hours” but when you work from home, it helps to set some even if it’s just to create some guardrails for yourself. Some days you’ll work late or take off early, but setting work hours helps compartmentalize the job.
It’s also important to honor the work hours of those who work from home. When their entire office is in their home, you may feel like you can reach them at any time but it doesn’t mean you should.
Keep in mind the time zone of the work from home team members, and do your best to keep meetings within the workday.
As a manager I know which of my team members are early risers and which ones have a hard cut off at the end of the day.
For the most part, I try not to schedule any meetings that start before 10 AM or go past 4 PM. If you have team members across time zones and have to schedule outside the regular workday for someone, try to keep it to just one day a week so you don’t force them to work irregular hours. On my team, we have one team meeting a week where everyone is on the call, whether you live in Paris, Austin or Seattle. It’s 9 AM Seattle time, 11 AM in Austin, and 5 PM in Paris.
Pro-tip: I also know that some of my team members prefer to start the day a little later. For some people, 9 AM is a hard meeting to keep. I encourage managers to get to know their team members’ work preferences so you don’t schedule meetings outside their preferred work hours.
Tip #5: Break up the day
When you are at the office, you have natural breaks within your workday. When you get a cup of coffee at work, it’ might be a two-minute walk to the office, two minutes to brew the coffee, two minutes of small talk along the way and two minutes back to the office. When you work at home, your kitchen is probably only a 20-second walk to get that cup of coffee. It may not be as much of a break as it used to be in the office. When I work at the office, I get 4–5000 sets in during the day.
I walk to the kitchen, to the conference rooms, to lunch and to the parking garage at the end of the day. When I work from home, I can go through a whole day with only registering 1500 steps on my fitbit. That’s not good. Maybe schedule in a quick walk outside in the morning, or play with the dog for a few minutes. You’ll likely have more control to schedule the breaks when they work better for you, so plan ahead to get your steps in!
If you sit at your desk and work for 8 hours straight, you’ll likely feel awful at the end of the day. When I first started working from home, I tried to mimic the breaks I would take at the office. If I got up for a bio break, I would stop and talk to my wife or play with the family pet for a few minutes before returning to my desk. Even to this day, I try to eat my lunch away from my desk and even change work locations for a few minutes here and there. Just getting out of the “designated workspace” a few times a day is good for my morale.
Pro Tip: Since I’m in a different time zone from my other team members, I try to schedule my breaks alongside theirs. I take my lunch at 11:30 west cost time, even though I’m in the central time zone. It makes it easier to schedule meetings, and it’s a lot less likely someone will schedule a meeting during your lunch time.
Tip #6: Schedule time to socialize
This was one piece of advice passed on to me by my skip-level manager when I first went remote. You need to force socialization. It’s my opinion that it’s easier to work with your team when you understand them on both a work and personal level. When you are in the office, you naturally go to lunch with your team, pass them in the halls or cross paths in the kitchen. I think it’s important to recreate that in an online space.
The way I look at it is I don’t have a commute like I do when I work in the office, so I try to replace that non-social drive time with social time.
I spend 10 or 20 minutes (usually at the end of my day) to drop in on friends and teammates just to chat. Sometimes it’s just an IM with a bunch of gifs, but often it turns into a video chat. It might feel odd the first few times you do it, but once my teammates caught on, they came to expect it.
Pro Tip: When remote you miss the pre-meeting chit chat that naturally happens before a meeting. Usually, phone calls remain silent until a quorum is met and the meeting begins. I try to break that stigma by engaging socially as soon as I am on with another person. It helps overcome some of the awkwardness of the phone calls.
Tip #7: Make sure your mic and camera work
This might go without saying, but have you ever tested your mic and camera to see how they sound? Most conferencing systems or communication platforms have a test call you can make to hear yourself. Please do this. There seems to always be one person who is using a laptop mic and standing 10 feet from their computer. When it’s hard to hear you, it’s hard to work with you. Make sure your mic isn’t picking up your breathing or keystrokes of your keyboard. Nothing says “I’m not paying attention” like the sound of rapid keystrokes in your mic.
While working from home, I suggest you dress just like you would when you go off to work. I am sure this makes you “feel more professional” or something, but really I just want you to be comfortable turning your camera on. Using a camera instead of just a microphone adds some depth and connection to conversations that bring you closer to that face to face feeling. I also recommend you position your camera in a place where the other end can see your eyes. Seeing the side of your head doesn’t help as much.
Keep in mind not everyone is comfortable with using a camera, so don’t force it on others. I never ask anyone to turn on their camera, but even if they have their camera off, I’ll put mine on. Often it’s reciprocated, but even if not, it at least allows the other parties to reap the benefit of seeing my face.
Pro Tip: Here is a real pro tip for you: don’t use your camera if you are eating. I sometimes have a Teams meeting while I need to eat lunch. I’ve been told it’s really not fun to watch someone eat over Teams. It’s bad enough to hear chewing in a microphone, but to see the food go in seems to add a layer of uncomfortableness. Tell your meeting that you are turning your camera off while you eat and you will turn it on when finished. They will thank you for it!
Tip #8: Not all connections are created equal
You may have a great internet connection on paper, but when it comes time to stream audio and video you’ll find out how stable it truly is. If you notice connection issues, don’t hessite to reach out to your ISP to see how they can help get it fixed. I once though my service provider has really high latency, after dealing with it for about three months I called them only to find out it was an issue with my router. A replacement unit solved the problem and left me wishing I would have called them three months earlier.
Also, keep in mind that others online my not have access to the same network speeds that you do. I recommend an enormous helping of grace when other people start freezing up or have lag that makes conversations awkward. Next week it might be you who is having connection issues.
Note that it’s often assumed that the remote person is the one with the network issue. I’ve found that it’s just as often coming from the conference room or laptop sitting on the company LAN. Many times have the remote attendees been able to hear each other fine, but not the conference room. Whether home or in the office, don’t always assume the connection issue is coming from the other person.
Pro Tip: Be sensitive to latency on the calls. It might make it hard for you or another person to engage in the conversation. You can usually tell it’s happening when people all start talking at the same time. If you notice it, you might want to stop the conversation every once in a while for questions so everyone has a chance to speak up.
Tip #9: Have a backup plan
Lots of things can go wrong when you work from home: network issues, power outages, computer crashes or even disruptive weather.
I strongly recommend you have a backup plan for getting work done. You don’t need a redundant internet connection (although I do, and recommend it if you work from home regularly), but you do need a second way to connect if your system goes down. My go-to backup is the Teams app on my phone. I can plug my headset into the phone, set it up in front of me for the camera, and get just as good of interactions as I do with my computer. And remember, if worse comes to worst, every conference call system has a phone number you can call into with a cell or home phone. It’s better than missing the meeting.
Tip #10: Embrace the Imperfect
I’ve had people tell me that they hate to work from home because they look around the house and see dirty dishes or toys on the floor and just can’t focus on work. Keep in mind that working from home is not every going to be like the office.
But you do need to be able to focus to get your work done, so if you can’t work until the dishes are done, do them! Toys on the floor bothering you? It sounds like a good excuse to get a few extra steps in on your way to morning coffee. You’ll figure out what you need to do to be productive. If you are used to working in an office, don’t expect working from home to feel natural right off the bat. Have patience with yourself, have patience with others, and for goodness sake don’t forget to wash your hands.