Over the coming weeks, as the coronavirus continues to spread and authorities take measures to protect communities, it’s likely more and more people—maybe even you—are going to be asked to work from home. As someone who has done it for 13 years, I thought I’d share some tips on how to make the best of it.
The first thing to remember before we even get to those tips is that working from home isn’t some paradise scenario at the best of times, let alone under circumstances such as these. While it has its perks—wear what you want; no transport!—it also presents its own unique set of challenges, which grow tougher the longer you’re stuck working from the same place you sleep.
It gets lonely. Time can blow right by you. It’s potentially terrible for your health, both physical and mental. Your personal care might suffer.
These tips, then, will be about minimising the effects of those challenges, while at the same time keeping you happy (or at least sane) enough to continue pretending/fooling others that you’re a functional human being.
One last thing: I’m not a doctor, or an occupational therapist. While some of these tips (like exercise times) are using hard scientific evidence, a lot of it is anecdotal, and should be taken more as me just sharing what’s worked for me and some of my colleagues, not something that will definitely be applicable to you or your employment situation.
Sounds crazy that you’d need to be reminded to not work, but a physical office/workplace environment is constantly interrupting you, calling you to everything from meetings to free cake. At home, nearly all of those distractions are removed. It’s surprisingly easy to find yourself staring at a monitor for hours on end without having moved.
This is terrible for your body in all kinds of ways, from blood circulation to muscular health. So every once in a while, get away from the screen. Stand up, walk around, get your arms and legs moving. Set a timer on your phone if you have to, just make sure that once an hour or so you’ve left your chair/bed for at least a few minutes.
One of the first things people ask about when I tell them I work from home, and one of the first things you’ll probably think of if you’re ordered to do likewise, is “oh hell yeah I’m going to spend all day in my pyjamas”. Don’t do it. At least beyond the first day. While I understand the novelty, pyjamas are made for sleeping, not daily wear, and they’ll start to stink real quick. They’re also surprisingly uncomfortable for sitting around in.
Nobody is asking you to wear a suit and tie in your living room, but try to remember to at least put some kind of regular, daytime clothes on. I personally prefer athletic wear (a good tracksuit like Nike Tech Fleece in winter, or soft sweat-wicking materials like running/soccer gear in summer), which tends to be the most comfortable stuff to be sitting around in for hours on end.
Beyond the self respect aspect of this, it also ties into some routine stuff I’ll get into in a minute.
Here, weirdly, is one of the easiest things to forget about when you don’t ever have to leave the house. So many of our personal grooming activities, from showering to brushing our teeth to shaving, are built around the fact we have to get ready at a specific time to leave the house for work (or school). When that routine is gone, it can be surprisingly easy to slip into a vacuum of inactivity. That’s super gross, so please don’t do it. Even if you’re not allowed to go into work for a week or two, when it comes to personal hygiene, pretend that you are. That includes brushing your hair.
Many of the above points have their genesis in the same thing: working from home gets rid of so much of our daily routine that it can be a struggle adapting your life to cope without it. If that happens, it’s time to create your own. Set your alarm for a specific wake-up time. If you don’t have a pre-determined start time for work (I, for example, start at 8am Mon-Fri), make one yourself and stick to it.
As for all the stuff that happens during the day, remember to eat and refresh yourself at normal times. I make sure I eat breakfast before 7:30 so I’m ready for work. I make freshly-ground coffee every day at 10:30am, partly because I need the caffeine by then, but mostly because the ritual of making the coffee itself gets me away from my desk, focused on something not related to work and specifically leads to a nice 15-20 minute break.
I have lunch at 1pm, which is also when I get outside and do some exercise (more on that in a minute), then I have coffee again at 3pm, and at 5pm I’m done. These may sound like pathetic little milestones if you’ve never worked from home, but they’re vital to avoid time becoming a thick, soupy fog that you get lost in.
Tied to the idea of creating your own routine is determining when it starts and when it ends. If your job allows you to do it, please try to stick to a defined start and end to your working day. I know in my early days at Kotaku I was sometimes unofficially working 12-14 hours a day, unable to drift between time on the clock and off it, and it had devastating effects on both my personal health and social life.
I’ve found the best way to approach these boundaries is to tie the idea of “work” to a specific thing or place. For me now that’s my office, but for you for the next few weeks it might just be your laptop, or even specific apps on your phone. Don’t use them until it’s time to start work, and when the clock strikes 5 (or whenever!) shut them down and walk away.
It sounds trivial, but the boundaries between you and those devices or platforms needs to be as defined as the physical ones between your home and your office or place of work. Otherwise your work will always be buzzing around you in the background, and that has all kinds of shitty consequences.
When I said move around in tip #1, I meant it in the most basic sense. Stand up, wave your arms a little, walk to the kitchen and back. But you’re going to need some actual exercise too if you’re going to stay sane while working from home.
I, for example, walk my dog twice a day, ride my bike five days a week, and go to the gym for weights training three days a week. I also play semi-competitive football for a local club, which involves its own fitness programs. Kotaku’s own Brian Ashcraft, who has also worked from home for over a decade, has his own regimen, going for walks in the morning followed by squats and push-ups every half an hour while working, then jumping jacks every hour.
This sounds like a lot, but it’s the absolute minimum he and I need to stay healthy, because almost every other moment you’re not exercising while working from home, you’re sitting on your ass in the house. And the longer you’re sitting on your ass, the more likely you are to gain weight (and develop issues with your posture/muscles).
Exercising while working from home isn’t just about staying physically healthy, either. Cut off from a lot of traditional social contact, working from home can get you really down sometimes, so exercising helps release enough endorphins to keep you functional.
Just be sure to be safe while doing so, depending on your fitness level and the level of lockdown or quarantine you may be living under at the time of posting. If you’re allowed outside to run or ride, perfect. If you’re living somewhere densely-populated and would rather exercise inside, that’s less perfect, but in that case YouTube is full of home exercise videos that should get you by.
Video calls can be a pain in the ass while you’re at the office, but if you’re stuck at home for a week or longer you might find yourself actually looking forward to them. Not only is it a lot easier (and faster) to discuss something with someone in person, rather than over email or a service like Slack, but it’s just nice getting some human contact if you’ve been short on it.
I’ve found over the last decade that working from home tends to make me miss all forms of social contact, not just the good ones, because without them you start to get a bit foggy, and reliant on online communication, and as we all know, online communication is the worst.
And no, your cat doesn’t count as human contact.
This last tip is also the most important. These aren’t normal circumstances we’re going through right now, and almost nobody has living experience on how to deal with a situation like this. So while these are all tips on how to stay on top of things while doing something as mundane as working from home, every single one of them takes a backseat to the more general advice of making sure you heed local governmental and health department advice on how to minimise the risk of contracting COVID-19, which you’ll find linked below.