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Work-at-Home Tips from a Seasoned Telecommuter

Work-at-Home Tips from a Seasoned Telecommuter

The coronavirus pandemic has many APQC members departing the office and embarking on a full-time, work-from-home journey. In this blog post, I am sharing practices that have worked for me over many years of full-time telecommuting. Because every personality, home situation, and job is different and because we are in unprecedented circumstances (for example, many will be working from home while kids are also at home), I invite you to share your work from home tips and ideas by responding to this post. I look forward to compiling and sharing your suggestions in a follow-up post.

When I started working from home it was a novel thing. I would mention my full-time telecommuter status in response to the common meeting icebreaker: “What’s one thing no one knows about you?” Heads would turn, eyes would open wide, and “how did you get to do this?” questions would flow.

The truth is, I worked for a progressive, human resources consulting company that had a formal telecommuting program. To get approval to work from home, I had to make and present a plan to my manager and HR for how I would be able to work seamlessly from home: technology to be used, home office set up, set work hours, and how I would be accessible to my coworkers—these were some of the things I had to work through.

As a researcher focused on HR and human capital management, I also did my fair share of research into telecommuting best practices. There wasn’t a lot of information available back then, but I did find a number of experience- and research-backed success factors for working from home. So, here are some tips which I try to heed to this day.

Designate a consistent workspace. Even if you pack up your home office at the end of each workday, it’s important to have a consistent place that you go to start your work. Pick a place that will be your primary home office. It may be a spare bedroom, it might be a desk in your bedroom, perhaps it will be the kitchen counter. You may still choose to work in other places in your home throughout the day, but starting your workday in a consistent “home office” will signal to yourself—and those around you—that you have “gone to work.” Leaving or packing up this space at the end of each day then becomes the signal that you have “left the office” and are transitioning to your personal home life.   

Set ground rules with the people around you. This may be the best advice that I found when conducting research before I began telecommuting. Communicate with those who are in your home, and with those who visit your home, about when you will and will not be available. Let them know when its ok to interrupt you and when they should not interrupt unless it’s an emergency. If you have kids at home, it can help to talk over what will be considered an emergency. You may also want to discuss expectations in terms of background noise. Maybe its ok for the kids to be loud as long as you are not on a call or in a meeting. Given the current circumstances, the ground rules you set may not be perfect but having an agreed upon plan (even if it needs to be adjusted over time) can help reduce household stress and make it easier for you to focus on work.

Set ground rules for yourself. Leaving your office means leaving the routines that get you through the workday—the routines that guide when you work, when you take a break, and when you refuel. As you begin working from home, decide what your new routine will be. When will you start work each day? When will you take breaks and what will you do on your breaks (socialize virtually with your coworkers, go for a walk outside, make a cup of coffee)? When will you have lunch? When will you stop working each day? A routine will help you focus on work when needed and help you stop working when it’s time for lunch.

If your job allows, consider building into your routine, times when you will check email, voicemail, and internal social networks. Putting limits around checking email and social networks is a practice that many use when working in the office, but it can be especially valuable when working from home. Working from home can be a lonely experience, especially if you are not used to it. It can be tempting and disruptive to check email and social every time you hear a ping. I have found, however, that establishing guidelines and doing my best to stick to them (it’s hard), helps productivity.

Set ground rules with your team. Working from home changes the dynamics of teamwork. Teams that are effective in an office environment, may not automatically translate into teams that work well when all parties are remote. Agreeing on ground rules that will govern how the team works when it’s no longer co-located can help maintain effective dynamics. Things to discuss and decide on as a team include: work schedules, preferred methods of communication, expectations for responsiveness, standards for dress and appearance (if you will use video chat), how meetings will be led so that everyone has a chance to talk, etc.  

It is also helpful to revisit the frequency with which team meetings should be held. More frequent meetings, especially at the start of virtual work, may be beneficial. You can set aside time on the agenda to discuss and work through any challenges that remote working is posing for the team. There will likely be unforeseen challenges, that if addressed in a timely way, will be much less disruptive overall.

Communicate your schedule. When you work from home, your coworkers can’t see if you are “at work” or not. They can’t see that you are sitting at your desk, not on a phone call, and therefore interruptible. So, it is especially important to keep your calendar up-to-date, reflecting when you are starting work, taking a break, and ending work. If you use an internal social network that allows you to signal your availability, keep your status here current too. Many coworkers will find it harder to interrupt you when you are working at home. Having your calendar and social network status up-to-date lets them know if/when you are available to connect. Because resistance to interrupting people at home is strong, it’s also a good practice to regularly tell your coworkers that you welcome interruptions—if you do. Reassurances go a long way in making sure valuable coworker interactions still take place.

Get ready for work each day. For many, one positive aspect of working from home will be the opportunity to spend less time on one’s appearance and to wear super comfortable clothes such as sweats or pajamas. But, when working from home for an extended period, having a consistent morning routine and appearance standards can be helpful. Along with having a designated work space that you go to each morning, having a consistent “get ready for work” routine and a clean, put-together work appearance, can take the place of the office in signaling for you—and others—that it is time to work.

I came across this “get ready for work” guidance when I first researched telecommuting. I tried following the advice and have found that getting ready for work each day helps me distinguish between work and home. Having a “put together” yet still casual and comfortable appearance helps me mentally make the switch between home and work.

Work a to-do-list. Just like routines, to-do-lists help you move through the workday without having to stop and think about what you should do next. They narrow the opportunity for distraction and thus help you stay on track with your goals. When working from home, where you lack the backdrop of busy coworkers and watchful managers—a to-do list can help you stay motivated. Over the years, I have found it helpful to have both a weekly and daily to-do list. Not only does it feel good and motivating to check things off as I accomplish them, but I also find having these lists helps me keep distractions and procrastination at bay. Working a to-do-list, moving from one task to the next, can be a small substitute for the office, coworkers, and your manager in terms of building a climate of focus and accountability.

Check-in with your manager regularly. When you work from home, your manager will likely have less visibility into what you are working on and how well it’s going. This makes it important to schedule regularly occurring check-in meetings with your manager. The number of people your manager is responsible for and the pace at which your work changes will determine the frequency of these meetings. For most of my years as a telecommuter, I had a standing, weekly meeting with my manger. For my work, this proved to be enough time between meetings that there were new things to talk about but not so much time that my work could have veered far off track.

Weekly check-in meetings do not mean that you only talk to your manager once each week. Instead, these meetings have a specific focus. They are a time to tell your manager what you have accomplished, a time to make sure you and your manager are in agreement about what you will be working on in the near-term future, and a time to discuss any challenges that you are encountering. Having these regular check-in meetings ensures you won’t go more than a week or so without the opportunity to get recognition, feedback, and coaching from your manager.

What are you planning to do to make working from home work for you? How will you stay connected to your coworkers, combat feelings of isolation, and try to have some fun or optimism in this difficult time? Respond to share your ideas and experiences with others in the APQC community. Thank you in advance.