With the Coronavirus pandemic now in full swing, more and more people are being advised or even instructed to work from home. For most, this is a huge change to their routine and a big challenge. But this has been my normal working life for 20 years as a freelance translator, so I thought I would share a few tips that might help people who are new to this.
Most of people’s concerns seem to be around motivating themselves to do a full day’s work, avoiding distractions, not spending the whole day eating, and avoiding the temptation to commit acts of violence on members of their family. I totally understand all of these, as they are things I have had to deal with to a greater or lesser extent, especially in the early days.
A lot of what I’ve got to say may be obvious, but if one thing helps someone get through this difficult period, then I haven’t wasted my time posting this. One caveat – we don’t have kids, so if you need strategies to balance home working with home education you will need to look elsewhere for advice. My only tip would be to book my wife to provide some online tuition to your children while they are off school. Anyway, working at home…
Stick to your morning routine
This is probably the most crucial thing, as getting off to a good start is vital. It’s easier to maintain a good beginning than try to claw back a bad one after all. For some reason, there is a perception that for a home worker to follow a morning routine requires the kind of discipline normally associated with the more severe monastic orders. But essentially, all you need to do is what you have been doing for years anyway. Sticking to the same routine means you notice less of a change and will put you in work mode rather than weekend or holiday mode. Set your alarm for the same time as usual, have breakfast, get showered and get dressed – as though you were heading into the office. Of course, you don’t have to do your hair or dress smartly to work at home but we are trying to get into work mode so don’t be tempted to stumble straight from bed to kettle to computer in your pyjamas.
When I first started to work at home, I used to go to my desk at the same time I previously left the house to get the bus. That had two benefits – one, it continued my established routine and helped me get into the work mindset, and two, I could already have completed an hour’s work when I would previously have still been travelling to the office. That meant I could work more hours in a day and still finish earlier than I used to, and gave me flexibility if I had other commitments later on (this is one thing that could be relevant if children are involved). Think of the hours you spend commuting each week – this is time you can spend productively and/or doing things you enjoy. Another possible technique for mornings is to “walk to work”. At the time you normally leave, go and have a short walk – say 15 to 20 minutes. This gets you a bit of exercise and fresh air, keeps the concept of “going to work” and still means you can start while you’d normally still be stuck in traffic. If part of your routine is going to the gym, for a run or whatever every morning, then that’s fine. Still do it. The key is that you keep things as close to your normal day as possible and get yourself in the work mindset.
Have defined working hours
So we’ve got you up, dressed, fed and in front of your computer. So far so good. But it’s important that you have a clear idea about how long you’re there for and when you’ll be done. Counting down the hours is not something only those of you in an office do, trust me on that. We all watch the clock to see when it’s lunchtime and home time. If at all possible, set your working hours in advance and stick to them. This won’t be possible in all jobs and flexibility is needed but if you usually work 9-5 then work 9-5 (or 8 hours starting from whenever you would normally leave the house). If you run over a while because something comes up, or you get an urgent call from a client at 4.58 pm that’s fine. But don’t make the working day open-ended – that’s when you will start to resent it and lose motivation. Likewise, decide what time you’re going to take breaks and stick to them as closely as possible. We are trying to reproduce a “normal” working day as best we can in these different circumstances.
Make time for breaks
Many people worry that they will constantly be snacking if they work at home. There is no easy solution to this – when you go to work you either take snacks with you or have to make the effort to go out and get them. But at home you have the fridge and all your kitchen cupboards in easy reach. This does require discipline and that is up to each individual – there are no shortcuts here I’m afraid. It helps me to decide on times for snacks and lunch. When it comes to breaks, I try to get away from my desk, especially at lunchtime. Again, replicate your normal routine. If you have half an hour for lunch, take half an hour at home. Even if you do it at work, try not to fall into the habit of eating at your desk. Working at home is, by definition, more sedentary than an office and moving around regularly is important for physical health. If the weather’s right, have a short walk or wander up and down the garden, or do some stretching exercises inside if it’s raining. Make sure your breaks refresh you.
Work in the right place
Where the magic happens – the heart of the Braisby business empire, aka my desk.
Everyone’s home is different so the places available for working will vary greatly but I would always advise having a designated working location if humanly possible. That could be a proper desk or even a fold-up table in a bedroom or the living room. Working at the dining table makes it harder to separate meal breaks from working time, puts over-eating temptation even closer and may make it more difficult to avoid distractions. I am lucky now in that I was already a freelancer when we bought the house so we made sure one of the bedrooms could be made into an office. But when I first started I was renting a room in a house share and I worked at an old dressing table in a corner of my room. I only used that table for work, so it kept everything as separate as possible. I repeat, you have to work within your circumstances but as with almost every point the key is to create a framework that makes home working feel as much like normal working as we can. At your designated end of work time, close your computer, tidy up your working area and move away from it. That helps to create a distinction between work and domestic. If you can work in a separate office, you can physically close the door, like shutting up shop for the night. And if the work phone rings after that time, you have an answerphone.
Compromise with your partner
This is the most difficult part. Many people having to work at home do not live alone. They may well have a partner who is in the same situation. Being at home with our partner is usually something that is completely separate from work and suddenly we are with them all day, every day and expected to do our work with them around. It can definitely be harder to get into work mode and adopt our “work persona” when our partner in is the room. I have heard a few friends already saying they have had difficulties with this in just the first few days. Thankfully, this is also an area I have quite a bit of experience with. My wife is a freelance teacher and tutor, so she does all her planning and admin work at home. When she moved into her current career, my office suddenly became our office. We spend many hours each week both working in here and generally things go well because we follow a few basic guidelines.
One of the things I have heard people say is that they are struggling with interrupting one another to chat about some family news, a money issue or something during working time. So how can you get around this? Well, nobody expects you to work without speaking to anyone all day. When you’re in the office you interact with colleagues throughout the day and the same can apply at home with your partner. But it’s important to have boundaries here and I see two aspects to this. The first is that in working time, your partner is essentially your colleague and your interactions should be more like those you’d have at work. So you can have a bit of a chat and a joke, show them a funny video you saw online, all the things that help us get through the day. But the personal stuff – family, medical, financial or whatever – should be dealt with when neither of you are working. At lunchtime or after work. Like it normally is. The second point is that you have to treat your partner with the same respect you would a colleague when they are working – be aware of when is a good time to talk to them. Don’t try and tell them a joke you just saw when they are clearly engrossed in something important or about to make a call. You wouldn’t do it at work, so don’t do it when you’re working at home. I mentioned that my wife and I work in the same office, but our desks face opposite walls so we sit back to back. That helps keep the distance. In general, trying to work in separate rooms or spaces can be a big help, rather than sitting opposite one another at the dining room table as you do when you’re eating in the evening. Again, it depends on your circumstances and the size of your house. Flexibility is also needed – if you are working in the same room and one of you needs to make a confidential call, the other one can take a break or go and work somewhere else for a while. Like everything else in a relationship, it is all about compromise. Remember that your partner will be feeling the same stresses as you are so talk about it and work together to come up with a system that works best for you.
So those are my pieces of advice for efficient home working and keeping your sanity and your relationship while doing so. It’s not always easy, even after two decades. And while this post might make me sound like the most disciplined home worker ever, I know I’m not. I freely admit that I have often hit snooze a few times, eaten lunch at my desk more times than I care to think about, finished work late in the evening with a beer or wine for refreshment, even taken important client phone calls in just my underpants! But by keeping to a basic structure as much as I can, and especially in the years since we became a two freelancer household, I like to think that I have made a decent job of it overall. Twenty years of successful business suggests that too, and I cannot even contemplate how horrible it would be to go back to working in an office.
So to all those who have to work at home for the moment – you can do it. You won’t go mad, you won’t be a pyjama-wearing, unwashed mess swigging neat spirits at your desk within a fortnight. Just take a deep breath, work out what will be best for you and stick to it. Stay healthy, stay safe and happy home working.