Monday, March 09, 2020

How to Work from Home Without Going Crazy

Nationwide self-isolation is probably coming. I've revamped this article in the hope it may help.

I've worked remotely from the UK, in the past - with distant company offices in Stockholm, Alaska and Colorado - for many years. I even worked from home and in a virtual world for eighteen-months. I ran my own web design business from 2001 to 2003 from a tiny cabin on a narrowboat in the middle of the Nottinghamshire countryside.

Compulsory viewing so that everyone understands
the dangers of disturbing people when they are working from home.
Here's some basic advice, in the wake of coronavirus and the sudden move to self-isolation and working from home, so that you don't lose all your social skills and avoid going stark raving bonkers within a month.

Keep scheduled and regular core hours

This really is the key to it all: It seems obvious but our bodies are used to what our bodies are used to.

We need a little order and disciple to stay focused. We need to make sure this isn't going to suck for work/life balance. It's a slippery slope once you start working outside of your agreed hours, whatever they are.

It may be that we're working with a company or agency outside of our time zone. This is fine, but we need to set rigid guidelines for our colleagues and clients as to when we're available and when we're not. If we don't we'll end up working all the damn time, or twenty minutes here and there every evening or chairing client meetings at 3AM. After a while, that's just annoying, so setting out clear hours in advance is key.

Set yourself a working routine: "I walk the dog at 8 and start at 9. I have a break at 11 and lunch at 1. I go outside with a coffee at 3.30. I close the laptop for the day at 5.30." Admittedly, in the paraphrased words of Helmuth van Moltke, "No plan survives contact with the enemy", but you have to set a basic framework as you would if you were working in an office environment with others. A light smattering of casual discipline is key to a healthy workday.

Overtime should be an aberration, not a habit. Keep to those hours if you can. Sometimes you will have to meet up with colleges if they work in different parts of the world, but most working days overlap to some degree. If you're self-isolating then you're probably working with people in the same geographic territory (or at least close to your core hours).

I've had this fail, but I've always been happier when it's worked.

As part of this, try to eat and rest at regular times. We need and receive energy in different ways and at different times. Protein and coffee were my go-to's. Cheese omelette (the power of working from home) and a pot of filter will keep you more alert than carbs.

Working late and not getting enough sleep is the mind-killer. Lack of rest is the little-death that brings total obliteration. Get away from the blue light of your monitor or mobile device at least 2-hours before you plan to hit the sack.

Have a set space in which to work

It could be a spare room, an open roll-top desk, a standing space against shelves in the corner, the exclusive daytime use of the potting shed, or whatever. Having your own workspace means, soon enough, you switch into work-mode when you're there.

Keep distractions to a minimum

Home is full of other shit you could be doing. It's a hotbed of outlets for procrastination. There no harm in hanging up some laundry, or whatever, but do it when you have a scheduled break.

I particularly liked using the slow cooker in the winter. By 4PM the house smells ace and dinner's on the way with the illusion of not having cooked it - which also saves the temptation to start it early.

I know some people who work with a TV on and some who work with music. Some people don't find this a distraction - I don't particularly - but some people do, so just see how you go and, if you do, scarp that and enjoy the focus that comes with peace and quiet. Sometimes I've worked with an open Skype channel between myself and other colleagues, 3 or 4 at a time, with mutual music.

Don't start doing the dishes or folding sheets if you're not on one of your scheduled breaks.

Stay connected: Use face-to-face meeting software

Getting face-to-face with your clients and/or other staff is important. It keeps communication flowing and gives us a reason to put on pants (except on Wednesdays, when it's custom to go without - long story).

Using the likes of Google Hangout, Skype, Skype for Business, Slack Video, Zoom, Facebook Live, YouTube Live and Microsoft Teams all have their merits, limitations and maximum numbers of participants. You'll probably need a decent mic and headset combo (covering both ears, not just one, then you can still stream your tunes and be ready if you get a call) plus a webcam if you don't have one built-in. The investment is well worth it.

Face-to-face means we communicate better. It allows for body language. It's more to-the-point and it seems to humanise people. Screen sharing is possible, so technical points are clearer and more easily explained. They give just enough one-to-one contact to make a real difference in long-term communications and relations.

Keep active

Got a walking machine or exercise bike? Remove the drying laundry from it and blow off the dust - just twenty-minutes a day will make a MASSIVE difference to you well being, mentally as well as physically.

Dogs are ideal, for everything, cos, dogs, but anything that will get you out - even just as far as the garden or patio - will blow some cobwebs away, help you focus on something further away than your monitor and freshen up the fug of not leaving the house.

I have puppers which need walking flu or not, and I live out in the middle of nowhere. Obviously, dogs will have to learn to use the garden or be walked at night for a few days in the advent of self-isolation. Dogs are ideal motivators and also give one that tiny bit of interaction that separates one from those languishing at Her Majesty's pleasure in solitary confinement.

Brush your hair and get out of the bathrobe and slippers

Keep your self-respect. It's easy to just potter about in leisure pants (or no pants - see Wednesdays) and a hoodie avec breakfast stains, but that's not going to help motivate you, keep you productive or encourage you to keep a working and efficient order in what you do.

Just because others may not see you doesn't mean this isn't important. Clean clothes - clean leisurewear if you must - but make sure you're crumb-free, shaved (if appropriate) and change daily, including after exercise.

As an aside, however, done properly this is the perfect time to grow that novelty facial hair you've always wanted to experiment with.

Getting in to the pattern from day one is a great practice that means your always ready for an impromptu client meeting and stay fresher and more awake just by keeping your standards up. I'm not suggesting a suit and tie, but personal grooming is all about self-respect and positive attitude. Let it go and it's a slippery slope - before you know it your sat in your underwear and a bathrobe at 5PM and "Can't see the point in getting change now cos it's nearly bedtime..." I found a morning shower, before a stroll with the pooch, was a natural and normal excuse to put on clean clothes and have a shave. Just like my normal office-bound work day. Maybe this is something you'd prefer to do later on, to separate the workday and evening?

You might think "That's kinds disgusting and it won't happen to me" but seriously, the next thing you know you've not had a haircut for 8-months and you have toenail fungus - I've honestly seen it happen to perfectly respectable former colleagues and others (especially when we worked remotely in virtual worlds).

Set targets for yourself. Get results

Regardless of professional targets like deadlines, set some personal goals. I once decided to walk across America, while stood at my desk. This is, admittedly, a bit extreme but I was well on my way from Delaware to California (having completed some 480 miles in 3-months on my walking machine) before my job changed and my standing/walking desk was no longer a practical factor.

I also learnt PPC when it was in its infancy, got pretty damn good at Premiere Pro, learn the basics of 3D Studio Max, rediscovered painting D&D miniatures, built a Meet-Up community for digital marketers, started podcasting for myself (see the now dormant Dirty WHOers and Yank & Limey) and wrote a lot of articles in the online press on digital marketing and networking online.

Personal projects, done in personal time, expand the mind and skillsets. It's essential when we don't have as much external motivation from colleagues/clients etc., that we still keep an active interest in learning and in personal project-driven activities.

It's conceivable this could be something more immediate, like building foundations for a new greenhouse or repairing an old motorbike, but I found that anything motivational that separates work from playtime is important for our mental well being when we're 'locked-in' to one location. Also, your not gonna wanna get too physical with flu symptoms.

Keep out of the way of your partner

Does your housemate or partner already work from home or do they have a day off mid-week?

Approach with caution. They're used to having this time and space and you're about to come crashing into like The Dukes of Hazard. They probably don't want you disturbing their routine, despite how nice they may say it'll be a first, so just go softly. I get it, and when I'm working I'm concentrating. All the best will in the world and love in the heavens doesn't mean I want my train of thought breaking to be given a kiss or told about something the cat just did.

If you're both suddenly quarantined then make sure you have your own working spaces. Hot desking or sharing the kitchen table will just get annoying - trust me. Also, it's much nicer to get back together and value your time after work's done and dusted.

Online ordering is your friend

You're gonna need tissues, food, plenty of fluids, take Paracetamol (if they're not panic bought out of existence) to treat aches and pains and lower your temperature.

Amazon usually provides, but give those smaller local companies a call and they might deliver - a lot of the bigger supermarkets will deliver a week's worth of chicken nuggets and beans or quinoa and whatever the hell goes with quinoa for a fiver these days.

Make sure, if you live as remotely as I do, to order more fuel oil and pre-cut wood as you'll be using more fuel by staying at home.

One idea might be to print out a note that says "Self Isolating. Please knock loudly and leave parcels by the door." A biohazard symbol makes for a nice extra flourish.

Also, occasionally, treat yourself - even if it's just to a posh takeaway. For a while you're your own HR dept., make the most of it.

Hope that's a help to someone. Keep a structured day and you should be grand. Don't annoy your housemates and keep active. It should only be for a few weeks, not years, so you should be fine.

I do wonder how many self-styled ‘digital gurus’ will suddenly have ‘remote working expert’ appear, as if by magic, on their LinkedIn profile in the coming weeks.

Good luck and get well soon 😉