A Little Advice from a Work From Home Veteran
March 25, 2020
By Contessa Kellogg-Winters
Over my nearly five years of working with ASC, more than half of which has been done over an ocean away from most of my team, I feel that I’ve become a bit of a pro at the working from home (WFH) game.
Just a note that you can also scroll to the bottom if you want a quicker read and you’ll find the recap in a list. We may all be sat at home, but time is still precious!
Set a few rules and organise your work space
When you work from home and your partner or roommate does too, not hearing them when they ask those questions can be stressful. For them, even if it’s maybe not so much for you.
Over the years when my partner has worked from home we’ve made agreements regarding (or learned, really, from past hilarious examples) where each of us would work in our shared space, how to interrupt during the day, and how to take calls, when things like the TV could be turned on or the table could be made ready for dinner. It will be important now that so many of us are in our homes during business hours to have these conversations, and to be as considerate as possible to reduce friction or stress. In my home, the rule is that interruptions that start with the other offering a mug of tea are allowed as long as one of us is not on a call. After 6pm, the interruptions must include a better social lubricant, but never, never prosecco. We also agree that if we’ve got too much on or are on a deadline, things can be parked until the other person has completed their tasks. We understand that business is the priority during those hours. And this upfront agreement on prioritisation saves a lot of hurt feelings over the course of a shared WFH situation. Another important aid is earphones. Look, AirPods and the like are great for the gym or moving through an airport, but when you’re working from home you need a signal that also cuts out the noise. That’s why I fully advocate those massive things like a set of Bose or Beats—a proper set of actual headphones can be the most useful bit of kit when more than one of you is working from home.
Remember to take breaks
And yes, I do mean scheduled— I put things like exercise and a break/lunch into my daily schedule. I learned the hard way that if I didn’t put it in, I’d end up working until my husband or one of the dogs demands that I stop. (I’m not joking about the dogs setting limits, the eldest will get fed up and make maneuverers to separate me from the keyboard when she feels the work day is going on too long. I have one dead iPad due to her having sat on it and can provide photo evidence of some of her other numerous and well-honed tactics.) During those breaks I stretch, go for a walk with the dogs or practice my other little indulgences. These include picking up one of the many magazines I still subscribe to—generally the New Yorker or the Economist— and then stopping by a few websites to get my pop culture fix (oh, the rabbit holes I’ve gone down with Vulture.com!) just to you know, bring the silly. I will admit that I do not always eat lunch, but I do make a point to step away from my desk every 1.5 to 2 hours do some stretches. It’s not nearly often enough, I know, but it’s better than nothing. This habit had become engrained after many years of working with (read that as being lectured to by) my physio. At different times of the day I will do Child’s Pose, a knee-to-chest, seated spinal twists, and a good old-fashioned toe touches, amongst other stretches. It keeps me from getting too sedentary and reinforces good posture as well. When I’m being really virtuous, I will take one of my calls in the car as I drive to the gym and use what would be a lunch break for a spin class or do a good 45 minutes or so on the treadmill. Please, no one ask how many times I’ve been virtuous over these years. But more on that later…
Outfit tip: be professionally comfortable
And what to wear when you WFH? Some of my fellow home-based workers commit to the body mullet. For those that don’t know what that term refers to, it’s that classic 80’s haircut which was short in the front (the business) and then long in the back (the party). You too can practice this divide on your actual person with the old nice top/ pearls/ tie/ collared shirt/ blazer on top and yoga pants/ sweats/ boxers/ lower half of your high school chipmunk mascot costume on bottom. Because no one’s gonna see your bottoms if you choreograph your call correctly. So why not secretly go maximum comfort while still looking the business for the camera? As for me, I don’t truck with that. I get dressed after that shower, full business. It makes me feel less bad about some of the internet shopping…which I will admit is another one of the things I also do on those breaks in my day. Hey, at least it means that more days than not I see other people who are also working. They just work for UPS, FedEx and DHL. And boy, they along with the doctors, nurses, carers, food prep and delivery drivers, warehouse workers and farmers, are right near the top of list of people we need to be thanking right now!
No, luckily you are not alone!
That brings me to another thing I’ve learned over my time working from home— talking to other people is key. If I have a quick question, I like to take it out of email and get on the phone or an app. When I notice an email chain with one other colleague is getting too long, I give them a ring. Whenever I can make these calls a video call, and the other party agrees as well, then I do. Nothing is quite like meeting in person, but getting to see a person’s face when you’re having a conversation goes a long way to making you feel less alone when you’re WFH—and it adds a layer of warmth and friendliness to your work. I also love seeing other people’s paint colours, art, refrigerator magnets and the children and pets that pop into the background. I’m glad to say that I’ve even had virtual happy hours with my colleagues and it really is much more fun than you’d think it could be.
Music always saves us
I also think it’s important to have a soundtrack for your work. When I’m not on a call I’ve got music going in the background. And it tends to vary by mood and task (nearly always chamber music when I have a lot to write). I’m not sure what it says about me that over the last week my heavy rotation on Spotify is Gorillaz, The Cars, Supertramp, Kendrick Lamar (I mean, who doesn’t need to hear “Alright” every couple of hours right now?), Van Morrison (because, always, and also “Jackie Wilson Said” also needs to be listened to on repeat right now), The Pixies and Thundercat? I think it mostly says that I’m old and looking for comfort.
Flexibility: a little treasure
Comfort and being nice to yourself, especially right now, are key to working from home. When I asked you not to ask me how many times I’d made it to the gym during my years WFH it’s because it both matters and doesn’t that I did or didn’t make it. One of the best things about this setup is the flexibility it offers. And I think a lot about definitions of work-life balance across different cultures. I try to keep my breaks. I intend to take a shower at the same time every day. I promise myself that I will set parameters for a “work day”. Sometimes all of those things happen and other times some or none of them do. Sometimes I just work full-steam all day because that’s what needs to be done. And that’s OK. Tomorrow’s a new day and we try again. Amongst the skills I’ve learned is that it’s important to be understanding not just with others, but also yourself. And taking care of yourself looks different on different days. Reducing unnecessary pressures—and that includes any pressure you might feel because you don’t follow every best WFH practice— can also be considered self-care.
So, if you’re want the tl;dr version of my top tips they are:
- Define a work space.
- Agree with others sharing your space how you’ll navigate WFH alongside each other.
- Practice basic hygiene and find your personal dress code.
- Take a few breaks.
- Try to get a little activity in throughout your day.
- Eat if you’re a person who likes doing that kind of thing during the day. If you’re not, still take some kind of break at roughly midday and indulge in some way.
- Get off email and talk and video call with others whenever you can.
- Be nice to yourself—it makes it even easier to be nice to others.
While this is how I’ve been able to make sense of my life WFH, I also know that very little makes sense to many of us right now. But we will get through this together by supporting each other and sharing what we can even as we stay behind our own doors. I hope these tips contain one or two pieces of advice that provide some comfort or helpful insight as we all do our best to protect those that we love, and promote good health and well-being as much as possible, by keeping ourselves to ourselves.
And don’t forget to wash your hands and your keyboard!