I’ve been working from home since June of 2010, so the current COVID-19 “lockdown” is, in most ways, business as usual for me. But here in the hot zone of Western Washington, a lot of my neighbors—most of my neighbors, even—are experiencing working from home, for the first time as many local business that can have moved employees to remote work.
This week I’d like to offer a little advice to all of you reading this while working from home for the first time, struggling to figure out how to do this.
To start, I’ll have to assume that you have the requisite technology. It might have been provided by your employer, even. You do need a computer that’s connected to the internet. You will need some kind of telephone. You will need some suite of apps that help you do your work and communicate. Many of these things, like Google Drive, Skype, and Slack, can be had for free—at least in their basic versions. So yes—gather your tools, test them to make sure they work, and work with whoever you need to work with to get yourself online.
That handled, I’d like to concentrate on the human side of it.
Get Up, Get Outta Bed, Drag a Comb Across Your Head
When we have to get up in the morning and go to an office for our workday, there are certain rituals we all go through. Hopefully you want to present a clean, reasonably acceptable personal appearance. You take a shower, you brush your teeth, you shave, you put on clean clothes in accordance with whatever dress code (or lack thereof—a coworker of mine at Wizards of the Coast would routinely show up for work wearing a t-shirt that read: DON’T SUCK CORPORATE COCK, but that might not fly at the law firm), then put on your shoes, and you’re off.
Keep doing that.
Don’t sleep in. Get up at your normal time, even if you wake up early because you normally have a long commute. Stay in as much of the groove as you can. Get out of bed, have a cup of coffee… whatever you normally do. Don’t stop showering, don’t stop shaving, don’t stop brushing your teeth.
I have joked about how in the last ten years or so I’ve become my neighborhood’s sweatpants guy. And unfortunately, it hasn’t always been a joke. I’ve gone through periods of depression, especially during a long, almost five-year stretch of living with chronic pain, and I lost a lot of this basic stuff. My sleep patterns went all haywire. I hardly ever shaved, showers became… less predictable… and things like a morning routine started to slip away. Unlike the chicken or the egg, in my case I know which came first: it was the depression that led to me not really taking care of myself. But that can go the other way just as easily. Don’t take this pandemic as some kind of flop time. Get up, clean up, and get dressed.
We’re Going to Pump You Up
I have gone through periods in my life where I exercise, and periods where I don’t. Like everyone, I know I should do some reasonable daily exercise, but I don’t always. Don’t be like me. If you had a daily exercise routine before you started working from home, keep to that routine. Depending on where you live and other factors you may not have access to the gym you’re used to going to—may not have access to any gym at all. I don’t know anything about your specific medical/physical needs—maybe you do need some kind of specific apparatus to keep you healthy. Work with whoever you need to work with to continue doing that. Physical therapists are likely still open for business, health clubs probably aren’t. Can’t run because you don’t have a treadmill? Are there no sidewalks where you live? Adapt how and where you exercise to your new reality, but don’t stop exercising.
On the Air
If you’re working remotely as part of your normal team, some supervisor or manager surely has scheduled online meetings of one form or another and communicated that schedule to you. Show up on time. Make sure that, if you’re on video, the background behind you is tidy and free of distractions. If you’re on a “shelter in place” order like me, your kids are home, too. My kids are older (25 and 19) so they (probably) won’t be crying in the background. If you have a baby, I bet your coworkers already know that, and won’t get too bent out of shape if the baby is crying in the background, or you have to bow out to tend to a child. Stay on schedule but adapt, and allow your coworkers to adapt.
But take down the weird posters or photos that are funny to your friends but you but might get you in trouble with coworkers. Wear the same clothes you would have worn to work. Shave, wear makeup, etc.—as you would on a normal workday, because it is a normal workday. You might be in your bedroom, but for the length of that Skype meeting, you’re at work. Act as if.
It’s the Work-a-day World
Have a work day.
This is something I honestly still struggle with. For instance, I started writing this then my brother called me from Chicago. I ended up talking to him for an hour and fifty minutes, from 3:00 to 4:50 pm. That’s not good. That’s a tough almost two hours to pull out of my working afternoon. I can and will make up for that, but still, I should have told him I’d call him back in a couple hours.
If you’re working from home and have scheduled meetings, those are easy to keep track of and be available for. If you then go do some work that has a deadline, the temptation to push that off for a special two hour lunch to watch a movie on Netflix, can you, will you really make up that hour? Unless you are some kind of weird alien lifeform the answer is no, you won’t make up that time. That two hour lunch took an hour out of your day.
This is actually the absolutely hardest part. An alarm clock (or alarm app) will wake you up at normal time. Most people would prefer being clean to being dirty. Most people will show up on time to a scheduled meeting. But self-policing your work day when the boss isn’t standing at your desk, when no one else on the team knows exactly when you started your lunch break and how long it’s taken you… it’s the easiest thing in the world to fall into being “off.” If you’re working from home for some period of time, work from home. If you want to take a staycation, take a staycation.
Realistically, you will start taking longer lunches,. You will talk to your brother for almost two hours in the middle of the afternoon. Hopefully you work in an environment with clear expectations, clear and reasonable deadlines. However you get to those deadlines, get there. The best way to do that, honestly, is to stay on track, stay on working hours. The “bonus time” you get from this will be your commute time. The time you’d normally spend in the car or on the bus or train will now come back to you in the form of an episode of Better Call Saul or an afternoon chat with your brother.
But if you stay on your normal version of “nine-to-five” you may be able to avoid the home worker’s worst trap of all, which is working every day, including weekends and holidays.
Good luck out there!
Maybe spend the extra time you get from no longer having to drive to work taking my two-week online Writers Digest University course Horror Writing Intensive: Analyzing the Work of Genre Master Stephen King.
Starting Thursday, April 2!