Tips for Working from Home (from More than 15 Years of Being Self-Employed)
Transitioning from an office that you drive to-away from your home and all the distractions it contains-to a work space in your very distracting home can be a challenge. One of the things I like most about working in an office away from home is it provides routine, allows me to focus on my work while I’m there, and when I leave the office I leave the work behind. All the tools, people, and resources I needed to do my job are in the same office when I’m at work, which is a convenience I’ve come to rely upon.
But prior to my current position, I was a self-employed consultant who worked from home much of the time. And while I like the routine of having an office at a work location, there was a lot I really loved about working from home. There are definite advantages to not having to commute to work, to being home with the family for dinner, of taking the dog for a 15 minute walk when on break, and being able to wear comfy clothes in your comfy home while you work.
Moving away from the office to working from home can be a challenge, and it takes a while to get settled into new routines and new ways of doing things. Here is what I learned from all of those years of working from home, and my tips for making working from home as productive and easy as possible.
Find a dedicated space in your home for doing your work.
I know this isn’t always easy, and you may not have the luxury of having a permanent space where you can leave your computer and all of your work related materials. I have suggestions for whether you have space that can be just yours, if you have to share your work space with others, or if your work space has to revert back to the kitchen table at the end of the day.
Let’s start with the most challenging, but still doable, home office situation….
How to Work From Your Kitchen Table When It Still Needs to be a Kitchen Table!
Many of you will have no option but to work from the kitchen table, or counter, or some other similar space that needs to convert back to its original use at some point during the day. After all, the rest of the family needs a place to cook, eat, and possibly do their work as well. This is definitely the most challenging situation, and I did this for a short while when I was first started out in my business.
Dealing with this situation requires a little bit of organization, tote bags or boxes, and plastic containers you probably already have in your kitchen. All of these items are portable and movable, allowing you to quickly pack up your work space and move it out of the way until the next day. And if you use my tips for staying organized below, you will be able to set your work space up in a matter of a few quick moments at the beginning of each new day.
Use plastic containers to organize your desk tools.
This is the equivalent of the trusty pencil box you used to have in elementary school. Find a container in your kitchen, garage, or guest room closet that you can use to hold the items you need to work on your desk. This container should be easily accessible, small enough to fit on your work space, and able to be easily packed away at the end of the day. I find that several small containers instead of one larger one is best for this.
Put your pens, pencils, highlighters, scissors, rulers, and any other similar items into on of the containers. A large cup may even work best for these types of items as it makes the items easy to access and keeps them all in one place.
In another container, put your stapler, staple remover, boxes of paperclips, and binder holders. These are the things you don’t use as often, but they can get spread all over your desk very quickly if you don’t keep them organized. If your paperclips are loose already, use a plastic sandwich bag or a small food container to keep them all in one place.
Your post-it pads can either be in the container with the items above, or you can put them in their own container to keep them organized. I prefer to have them in their own space as I tend to use post-it pads a lot through out the day for jotting down notes.
Organize Your Stacks of Documents
If you have stacks of papers, documents, or books that you need to access for your work, I recommend you organize them into groups and put them in file folders. If you don’t have file folders, then use paperclips or binder clips to keep them organized and together.
If you have file folders, mark the folders clearly on the tabs or the fronts of them with what documents are in each one. If you don’t have file folders, then use paperclips or binder clips to keep them organized, and mark them with post-its so that you can easily identify which stack is for what. If you rotate the post-it pad so that the adhesive is on the bottom edge of the pad instead of the top, you can write your label on it, attach it to your stack, and the title can stick out above the stack of papers.
Take out the folder(s) or clipped bundles for the documents you need to work on at the time. When finished, put all the documents back to together in the folder or clip. This will keep everything together that needs to be together. If you get a phone call and have to switch to a different stack of documents, it’s easy and quick to put what is on your desk back into the folders or clips, grab the folder or stack that you now want (which you can find quickly because it’s labeled), and have everything you need in front of you in a matter of a moment.
Find a box to put all of your files or clipped stacks of paper into when not using so that they are always near and at your fingertips when needed. If you have books or binders that you need to access, I suggest finding a separate box for those to keep them near, easy to access, and portable at the end of the day. Books and binders can be set into boxes with their spines facing up to easily read the titles and find the one you need.
Large Tote Bag or Box to Store Everything When Not Working
At the end of the day, when you need to pack away your work space so that your desk surface can be returned to its originally intended use, such as your dining table or kitchen counter, having everything organized makes it quick and easy to pack it away in either boxes or tote bags.
I preferred a box for my desktop items, such as the cup of pens, the box of paperclips and stapler, and the post-it notes. All of the smaller containers I used to organize these items will fit neatly into another larger box to be set aside until the next workday. Banker’s boxes work great for this because they are a manageable size, have handles to carry them easily, and include lids if needed, and are easily stacked. (If you are looking for the specific items I recommend for your home office, such as banker’s boxes, see my article Must Have Tools for Working from Home).
If your computer is a laptop, then it can easily fit into a tote bag or another box, along with your mouse, extra keyboard, files or clipped papers. If you have a desktop computer that needs to be moved daily, then a bankers box or other large box will be helpful to store all the components and move them easily. Bankers boxes also work great for storing your books and binders.
I found that I was able to contain my computer, desk tools, documents and books in two bankers boxes and a computer tote bag for quite a while. These three containers were easily moved and able to store neatly in a corner until I needed them again. And because the boxes had lids and the tote had a zipper, I was able to close them up and keep my curious (at that time) toddler out of my work materials.
How to Work in a Shared Space
As mentioned above, staying organized will make it easier for you to keep what you need at your fingertips. Using containers to organize your tools, and files or clips to organize your documents will keep them from getting spread across your work surface, and possibly into the realm of space others are using. Keeping everything organized prevents your items from getting mixed in or lost because someone else was sharing the space and grabbed it by mistake.
If your house is noisy, but you are not required to monitor the activity in your home, then headphones can be a lifesaver. Using them to listen music is a great way to drowned out the noise distractions that may be happening around you. If you are not a fan of music or you find yourself singing along more than working, then playing instrumental music on low or even white-noise recordings such as waves or forest sounds on low may be a better option. Headphones are also great for listening to meetings, webinars, or podcasts without having to blare them to the entire household just so you can hear over their noise.
Make Your Family or Housemates Aware of Your Work Space and the Importance of Leaving It Alone
Don’t expect others to understand the importance of your new work space at home, or assume they will know to stay clear. It’s important to tell the members of your family or your roommates that the space dedicated to your work is off limits, and stress the importance of not using or playing with anything in that area.
This is especially important if you have kids. I found it helped when my son was young to show him specifically the space and items that were mine and for my work, and that he was not allowed to play with. Believe me, I know this won’t work with all children, but I do think it is important to tell kids the rules around your work space and not to make the mistake of assuming they already understand.
Explaining that your work space is off limits can be important even with teenage kids or roommates, especially if the tools and materials in your work space are paid for by your employer. Teenagers or roommates may not see the harm in grabbing a pack of post-it notes because they need it for their own work, or taking your highlighters, or anything else they need. Often teenagers or roommates have every intent of returning the items, but may forget, which will cause you frustration when you are trying to get your own work done and your tools are missing.
How to Make the Most of a Private Dedicated Space in Your Home
If you are fortunate enough to have space in your house to dedicate an area as your new home office, you have the ideal situation and should take advantage of this! That space may be in an extra room, a nook, a corner of the garage, or a currently unused guest bedroom. Where ever that space is, make it as comfortable as possible so you can focus on the work that needs to be done when you are there. This space is dedicated to your work are, and since you don’t have to share it with others or clear it off every night so the family can eat dinner, you can set this space up to suit your needs.
Setup All The Tools You Need
I suggest you put in the time and effort to set up your new work space with everything you need. Rearrange the furniture in your new office area, if needed. If it’s in a guest room, move the bed against the wall to give you more room for the time being (since you probably won’t be having guests until this pandemic is over anyway!). If it’s in the garage, move the boxes, tools, sporting equipment, or whatever else you have nearby to another location in the garage. Where ever it is, make your work space as comfortable and easy to access as possible.
Find a Good Chair
A good chair is really important to have, especially if you sit for a long time without getting up to stretch. (I tend to do this when I get focused on a task and lose track of time.) Having a comfortable chair will help keep your body healthy, and will also help you to focus on your work. Being uncomfortable can distract you from getting your work done, so put some time into finding the right chair for your office. It may not be the first chair you think of putting in your new home office. A folding chair or plastic chair from the garage might be comfortable for a picnic, but it may not be so comfortable when sitting in it of 6 or 8 hours a day.
Look around your house and test out different chairs. Maybe it’s a dining room chair, maybe it’s a stool from your bar area, or a cushioned chair from your living room. Grab a firm pillow to put behind you if the chair is too deep, or put a box under your feet if the chair is too high. Two different chairs that you switch between during the day might be the key to not getting still and sore. Be Goldilocks — test your options and keep trying new things until you get it right.
And if you might be working from home for a long while, then consider investing in a new office chair. There are affordable option available and it’s a small price to pay to ensure you don’t end up with a long term strain injury.
Get the Right Tools for Comfort
Pay attention to your body and notice if you start to have little twinges or aches because of the position you are in while working, or the way your work space is set up. Changes can often be made quickly and affordably that will make a huge difference on your long-term health.
I had my keyboard about 2 or 3 inches higher than was comfortable for awhile, but I didn’t realize this until after several months of using it this way, I developed an ache in the middle of my shoulder blade, which steadily grew until it was an aggravating burn that wouldn’t go away. By adjusting my chair slightly higher and moving my keyboard closer to me, the problem went away in a week or so.
If your wrists are bothering you, then an ergonomic keyboard or mouse might be what you need. I have carpel tunnel, so I use a mouse that is shaped more like a large ball so that my wrist and hand are turned slightly sideways when I use it instead of more flat with a regular mouse. This took strain off my hand and wrist and helps to keep my carpel tunnel pain manageable.
The height of your screens can also make a difference in how your neck feels at the end of the day. If they are too low, then find some books, or a couple bricks and a board, to set the monitor on to lift it. If the monitor is in more of a straight line with your vision, then your neck won’t be constantly craned in one direction or another to see the screen.
Many of the fixes for comfort can be done without having to buy ergonomic items. Moving the placement of your screens, keyboard, and mouse can make a big difference on you are aligning your body when you sit down to work. Adjusting your chair up or down can also make a difference in how you reach for your keyboard or tilt your neck to see the screens. If your chair isn’t adjustable, try using a firm pillow underneath your or a folded blanket to add a few inches of height.
If your home office might become more of a long-term work area (with any luck, more employers will see the benefit of allowing employees to work remotely, even if just part of the week), then I suggest considering in some ergonomic tools that will make your work space more comfortable. A good chair, a sit/stand computer tray that sits on top of your desk, a real desk — all of these things can be found for reasonable prices and will make your at home office a much healthier place to work.
Set a Routine for Working to Stay Focused
Set a routine for working at home. This will make it easier to stay focused and get your work done. Be careful about getting caught in the habit of doing some work, getting pulled away for personal matters, coming back to do a little more work, then stopping to play with the kids for a while, coming back to do a little more work, then discussing your next vacation with the spouse, coming back to do a little more work, and so on. Before you know it, your day has flown by and you don’t have the work done that you needed to get done.
It’s easy to be distracted while at home, but even little distractions can eat into your work time and prevent you from getting much done. Throwing in a load of laundry, filling the dishwasher to start it, putting muffins in the oven to bake — all of these things seem like they only take a few minutes of your time, but before you know it, your time is gone.
When I first started working from home, it seemed like I should be able to do laundry, clean the house a little, get the cupcakes baked and do a plethora of other “little” tasks that don’t take very long. What I found is those “little” tasks kept me from getting as much work done as I needed. I ended spending all day going back and forth between my home duties and my work duties. The result was that I felt like I never got away from my work and that it took all day to get it done.
Set Your Work Hours
It didn’t take me long to realize that I needed to set a schedule and when I was working, that was all I was doing. There are many studies that show multitasking is not as effective as people think, and I believe this based on my experience. When I have my set hours that I am at my desk, doing my work, and not being a wife, mom, or homemaker, then I get a lot more done.
Set break times as well as working hours. I take a lunch break, and also a 15 minute break in the afternoon. If I need to put in a load of laundry, I put it in the washer before I start my workday. Then I can put it in the dryer during my lunch break. I take the dog for a quick walk during my 15 minute break.
Create a Before Work Routine
Sometimes your brain and your body need a routine to know that it’s time to focus on work. When I go to work at an office, I have a morning routine and my drive to work that let’s my body and my mind prepare for being in work-mode. When I work from home, I find that having a consistent routine helps me to shift in to work-mode. I get up at the same time each day, go for my morning run, take a shower, get my coffee, then go to my office.
For some people, getting into work-mode might mean they need to put on their “work clothes.” Other people I know who work from home will still put on their suit or the professional clothes even when not leaving the house or meting with any clients just because it helps to put them in the right mindset to do their best work.
Putting on professional clothes may be a bit extreme. If you really love the fact that you can stay in your pajamas all day or wear your casual, comfy clothes because you are working from home, then at least put on a fresh set of comfy clothes in the morning so that your brain and body know it’s time to wake up and focus. If pajamas really are your thing, then at least change from your nighttime pajamas into your daytime pajamas so that your brain gets the signal that it’s time to work!
Inform Others You Are Working During Your Working Hours
It can be difficult and uncomfortable at first, but it’s very important that you are clear with people that you are working, even though you are at home. When I first started working at home, I had friends that would drop by just to say hi, or call during the day expecting me answer, or invite me to go shopping or to lunch. Many people think that because you are working from home, that means you can do whatever you want whenever you want. I felt rude not answering my door or the phone or accepting their invitations, but I had a job to do and obligations to fulfill.
Most people understand if you tell them politely that you are not available during certain hours as you are working. Let them know when you are available for their phone calls or visits or invitations, then stick to that rule. Don’t answer the phone calls that are not work related. Let them leave a message and call back when you are done working.
Explain to your family that you have to be working during your work hours and that you won’t be available to talk, or to do household chores, or tend to their needs during your work hours. I found it really helped (especially with my own personal guilt) when I explained to my family that the house wasn’t going to be cleaned by the end of the day, the laundry wasn’t going to be done, and dinner wasn’t going to be prepped and ready any sooner just because I was working from home. I might be home, but since I’m working they needed to have the same expectations as if I was away from home at work. All those other things can wait until after work, or for the weekend, just as they always did before working home.
If you have kids, you may need to schedule in more breaks to tend to their needs, answer their questions, get them snacks, and just be their mom or dad. That’s OK. The important thing is to schedule those times into your day instead of letting it happen haphazardly and in an unplanned way. Let your kids know that if they want a snack, have a question, or want to tell you something that they have to wait until your break time, and tell them when that break time is. This way, they know they have to wait to talk to you, but they don’t have to wait too long.
Flex Your Work Schedule (If Allowed)
One of the best things about working from home can be the ability to flex your schedule if needed. If you don’t have to work specific hours (due to your employer’s requirements, or availability of others you need to work with), then consider flexing your work hours to a more non-traditional schedule, especially if you have kids.
When my son was young, I worked during his nap-times, when he was at daycare, and again after he went to bed. I was more most productive from 8:00 pm to midnight because he was sound asleep in his crib and I could focus on my work. Now that he’s older and I’m older, I find that early mornings are the most productive time for me.
If you and your partner are both trying to work from home while managing young children, setting up an alternating schedule may be helpful. For example, one of you might work from 4:00 am — 8:00 am, then again from noon — 4:00 pm, while the other works from 8:00 am — noon and 4:00 pm — 8:00 pm, that will allow for one of you to always be with your child while the other person is working.
Leave the Work Behind at the End of the Day
One of the challenges of having your office at home is that your work and your office are never far away. This can make it very difficult to step away from your work and focus on the rest of your life. For some people, the convenience of having work near can make it too temping to just finish one more thing, or get through a few more emails, or get ahead on a new project, or…the list goes on and on. And sometimes, just the fact that your work is only a few steps away from you at all times makes it difficult to stop thinking about it even if you don’t want to think about it.
It’s important for your own well-being, and for your relationships with your family, that when you step away from your work you also stop thinking about it. Don’t keep sneaking back to the office to do more, or only half-listen to conversations because your thinking about work. You focused on work when you were at your desk but now that you are away from it, you need to focus on the other parts of your life, such as your partner or family.
Having set hours can make it easier to step away from your work. I don’t feel guilty about stepping away from my work, even when there is more that I could do if I wanted to (which there ALWAYS is!), because I stick to my set working hours. At the end of the day, I know I have put in the hours I needed to and focused on my work during those hours, so when it’s time to quit I can quit without feeling guilty. I turn off my computer, turn out the lights in my office, and leave my office for the day. Now I can focus on dinner, time with my family, the dog, my own personal emails, and anything else that balances my mind and my life.
Give Yourself Time to Adjust
Don’t feel bad if your new work location and new schedule don’t work perfectly right away. And don’t feel guilty if your plans go astray the first few days or even weeks while you and your family adjust to your new routine. Be gentle with yourself, re-adjust, and try again. Before you know it, you (and those you live with) will become accustomed to your new routine and your productivity will come back to the level you expect. You might even find that you love working from home!
Originally published at https://www.travelingwritingblogging.com on April 5, 2020.