With the sudden need for “social distancing” in response to the coronavirus outbreak, many people have to work from home who never did before. It’s not an easy transition, especially for a natural extrovert (which as a novelist I am not, or I would spend fewer hours alone in my office communing with imaginary people). Not knowing whether the new situation will last for weeks or months only makes the adjustment harder. But it can be done.
I know. I started working from a home office in 1994, and I love it. At the time, it was a practical decision: my son had just turned six, and we’d come through an entire month’s worth of ice storms. The schools closed day after day, and when they did open, they started two hours late, which for morning kindergarten was the same as not opening at all. I’d given up a teaching job because the scheduling didn’t work, and being unemployed made that January possible for my family. But when I saw the ad for an editorial position in my specialty that let me work remotely, I wasted no time in submitting an application. I’ve never looked back.
So for those of you facing this reality for the first time, I thought I’d use this post to offer a few suggestions for making teleworking feasible. I hope you’ll find them useful—and by all means share your own tips in the comments. There are many more things I could say, but I’ll focus on these five.
Be dedicated. Sure, one advantage of working from home is that you can monitor food bubbling in the slow cooker and run the laundry in the background, but those distractions can grow until they eat up the workday. It’s important to keep them in their place. You made it through the day without cleaning the bathroom before, and you can do it now. To paraphrase an advice book I read back in the 1990s, “If you can complete the chore in 90 seconds, do it. Otherwise wait till the workday is done.”
Of course, a particular hurdle right now is that so many schools and child care centers are closed, which further complicates life for working parents, even teleworking parents. But if you can swap time with another parent (preferably a co-parent) or find an older child or relative to babysit or, with kids over the age of eight or so, get the young ones involved in projects or caught up in a good book, you can clear enough individual hours to keep domestic life from overwhelming the time available for work. This is a good time to loosen restrictions on TV watching and similar activities, so long as the kids understand that it won’t always be that way.
Stay connected. Exactly how this happens depends in part on your job and your personality, but it’s an essential element of making teleworking less burdensome. When I started, I had all my editors on speed-dial and talked to them several times a day. Now it’s e-mail that keeps me in touch. Others rely on video-conferencing or Messenger. It’s not the same as hanging around the water cooler, and working from home may mean you don’t get the latest gossip or updates on company policies, but it will help you avoid stir-craziness and a sense of isolation.
Be flexible. It’s not going to be perfect. It never is, but the domestic sphere has its own special challenges. The cat barfing on the rug in the middle of the video conference, the kid having a meltdown right when you’re humming on that memo, the spouse walking around chatting just when you picked up the phone to call your boss—these are all examples of what P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster described as life sneaking up on us with a sock filled with sand. Good news: the person on the other end of the call probably has similar issues—or will soon. Laugh, if possible, and share the silly story, then move on.
Separate work from life. The nice thing about an office elsewhere is that you can walk out and lock it at the end of the workday. Home offices don’t come with that perk. But you can create it. Keep your office e-mail off your phone and tablet; change your clothes; pour a glass of wine (in moderation!); pick up a book, which can’t interrupt you with demands for answers to work-related questions. Even starting the same domestic chore—cooking, for example—that threatened to distract you at 10 AM can signal to your brain that the workday is over and relaxation can begin. And last but not least,
Enjoy the upside. For as long as you’re teleworking, you can’t get stuck in traffic. You don’t need to dress up for work. There’s no charge for lunch, and you can eat whatever you have on hand. You can start the coffee pot whenever you want, play the music you like in the background, have a cup of tea when the fancy strikes. Instead of spending time at staff meetings, you can monitor what’s going on with your kids. And you still have a job. With so many people losing their sources of income due to the shuttering of businesses, that may be the biggest benefit of all.
Who knows? By the time the crisis ends, you may be just a bit sorry to get back in the car or on the train and leave that cozy home office behind.
Images of home offices purchased by subscription from Clipart.com, nos. 37476468 and 110224490.