Last Updated on 25/06/2022
When the pandemic hit in early 2020, office workers around the globe found themselves suddenly catapulted into a new work situation. Not only was it uncharted water to them, but it was new to many employers who were caught unprepared to equip staff for working from home effectively. In many cases, they had no experience at all in remote management. This meant they were not even prepared to outfit employees with the necessary tools and hardware to work from home.
I leaned back in my chair in the spring of 2020 and listened to the white collar world lament about connectivity issues, VPN problems, childcare and parcel delivery interruptions, uncomfortable kitchen table setups, and dealing with work after work. While the pandemic was as upsetting to me as it was the next person, I felt pretty relaxed at work. I have been working remotely since 1997 and know the ropes as a work-from-home pioneer.
Disclaimer: Some of my posts contain affiliate links through which I may earn a small commission at no cost to you. Please see my disclosure.
Studies have shown that out of an eight-hour workday, the average office worker is productive for less than three hours. Over five hours of the workday are spent socialising, eating, texting, perusing social media, and searching for a better job. Add the number one waste of time into that mix—meetings—and people are likely only working around 90 minutes a day. Kind of makes you wonder why we’re still allowing ourselves to be dictated the absurdity of a 40-hour workweek.
In my experience, working from home is far more effective than sitting in an office. With the right routine and structure, it affords you the quiet solitude necessary to settle into a highly productive, uninterrupted flow in which you can crank out better work in a shorter amount of time.
If you’re a home office newbie, or still struggling with it after your first year in, chances are you need to modify some habits and establish better routines. Here are my 10 best tips for working from home effectively, taken from 24 years of experience as a remote worker.
Structure Your Workday
Some people who were new to home office went a bit crazy last year. They were sleeping in, joining Zoom meetings in their pajamas—or not at all—, and disappearing for hours at a time during working hours.
Let’s get one thing straight. Whether home office or regular office presence, you’ve signed up with your employer to provide certain deliverables for a specified number of hours a week. Just because you’re suddenly working from home does not mean you can pop off at random hours of the workday to watch Netflix or browse the Nordstrom sale when you should be cranking out the monthly metrics John in Finance is waiting on. It also doesn’t mean you can get up five minutes before your first meeting, just because you’re taking that meeting in your dining room. Or that anyone on your Zoom call is amused by your cat or kid bouncing around in the background. They’re honestly not.
Your day was structured before the pandemic-induced home office situation. Adapt that structure for the new work-at-home situation. Stay reliable. Working from home effectively does not mean hanging out on the couch. Know what times you are obligated to show online presence. If your firm wants to see and be able to reach everyone on Slack Mon-Fri from 10-14h, then that’s the core block in your daily schedule you have to plan your actual work and personal life around. If you know you’re a slow poke in the mornings and need time to yourself before you hop onto a Google hangout with colleagues, you’re going to want to be getting up early, not at 9:45.
Get up at the same time every day, and finish work at the same time every day whenever possible. You might not work regular 9–5 hours at all. If you’re working from home though, it’s still best to lock in your core working hours and stay true to them.
Stick to Your Morning Routine
This ties into structuring your workday. Create a routine for your mornings that works for you, and then stick with it. Going through your routine will signal the start of the workday, whether that’s settling into your to-dos with a big cuppa after you’ve walked the dog and gotten dressed, picking up a croissant from the bakery on the corner before your team standup, or writing morning pages before breakfast.
Whether you live alone or not, carving out some time for yourself before work will make you more rested and productive. You might also consider doing a split shift. The early morning is ideal for getting all the tasks out of the way which require concentration and quiet. You can do a heap of actual work before the workday even officially starts. You could then take an extra long lunch and do all your meetings and calls in the second half of the workday.
No matter what your routine is, sticking to it will make working from home effectively much easier.
Get Dressed Every Day
Did you used to go to the office in your pajamas and slippers? Didn’t think so.
You can certainly skip the fancy outfits when you’re in home office. However, it’s vital to your personal well-being and productivity to get dressed every day when working from home. As if you were going to meet people from the office. Take your shower, do your makeup. Put on something you like, and put your shoes on because you’re going to work. Even if it’s just in the next room.
You are the person who is going to see yourself in the mirror on every bathroom break. When you like what you see, will feel good about yourself and ultimately more productive. Plus, having shoes on at your workstation will make you more focused and assertive. Try it out, even if you don’t normally wear shoes in your house. There’s an immediate difference in output, posture, and mindset when you have shoes on. It signalises your body that you’re ready to get cracking and get things done.
Take Charge of Yourself
You alone are responsible for yourself. Since you no longer have anyone breathing down your neck, you might at first feel like you’re on a sort of staycation in home office. Real talk here: you’re not. And while your employer is trying to navigate this whole new circus company-wide, you owe it to them to stay on your toes.
Tom from Marketing isn’t going to casually remind you of tomorrow’s KPI meeting when he passes by your desk. Cindy in Accounting isn’t going to ask where you stand on the monthly vendor payments when she sees you in the break room. You’re at home now. All alone. Staying on top of your own to-dos is crucial for working from home effectively.
At the office, you might have subconsciously relied on your peers to keep you on your toes. Now it’s a good idea to review your to-dos first thing in the morning, and at day’s end. Before closing up shop for the weekend, Fridays should also be devoted to assessing what you have on your plate for the upcoming week.
Taking charge of yourself should include scheduling as well. Make a note of your upcoming meetings. Set up your task lists for whatever you need to prep. Plan your daily calls, and your breaks, too. Personally, I use the cahier notebooks from Moleskine for pretty much everything that doesn’t go directly into my Evernote first. Find the tools that work best for you, and integrate them in your daily home office workflow to take charge.
Take Proper Breaks
Working from home harbours the potential to overwork and forget to step away from the desk. It’s vital to take real breaks though. Not sad lunch breaks. Not breaks to put the next load of laundry in. Take an actual proper lunch break every day. Go outside to pick up your sandwich, or take a walk around a few blocks if you’ve cooked at home. Schedule two coffee breaks during the day. Real breaks where you stand up and move away from the desk and actually get some air are refreshing and can significantly increase your productivity when you return to your computer.
Remember to stretch throughout the day, too! Even if you’re already working from home effectively, you’re bound to become more sedentary because you no longer have the commute, and are no longer walking to and from in a big office. So stand up and stretch at least once an hour to compensate for the lack of movement in your home office.
Shout When You Need Help
Raise your hand when you need a hand, especially if your employer is new to all of this as well. You can help your company navigate the situation! Provide constructive criticism and ideas for improvement or tools the entire team might find helpful. Tell your superiors what you need in terms of hardware, access and connectivity, and an ergonomic workspace. If it’s not in the budget, take the initiative to work with them to find a compromise or interim solution.
It’s also advisable to say YES to anything offered to you. Extra training, courses, equipment, perks: if it’s on offer, say yes! When in doubt, always say yes. The remorse over having had said no when in doubt will always outweigh any risk of a yes. Being open minded to change and new ideas can open up many new opportunities for you.
Separate Your Work Life from Your Personal Life
Strictly separating your work from your personal life is a fundamental key to effectively working from home. Neglecting to separate the two will lead to a fail-fail on both fronts. You will not be able to work efficiently and you will not be able to fully relax after work. Both scenarios suck.
Ideally, you should be equipped with a separate laptop and phone exclusively for work purposes. This is the easiest way to keep both realms separate from another. If your employer hasn’t yet outfitted you with the appropriate hardware to work from home, you can partition your hard drive to create a work-only disk, and you can use a dedicated VoIP service to keep work calls separate from your regular phone number.
Keep in mind that if you’re logged onto your firm’s VPN, everything you do should be for work only. In all probability, your employer is monitoring everything you visit and connect to.
At the end of the workday, you’re already home. This means you need to make a decisive effort to really divide work from your personal life by actually ceasing to work at the end of the workday. Unless your name is Elon Musk or the future of the free world depends on you, you probably don’t need to be checking emails or taking calls after work. Put the laptop away for the night, and turn off the corporate mobile until the morning. Giving your mind and soul the opportunity to re-fuel overnight will boost your productivity at work.
Separate Your Work Space from Personal Space
Your physical workspace should ideally also be separate from your living space. Many of us are not lucky enough to have an extra room we can turn into a home office, however. There are still lots of options for you though! You can set up a comfortable little workstation in the corner of a bedroom, pull up an ergonomic chair to the kitchen or dining room table, or use a shelf extender to convert a bookcase to a desk.
No matter what niche of your home you choose to set up shop in, you’ll want to be sure to tidy things up right after work. Because you’re working from home now, you are missing a physical division of professional and personal. Again, this means that it’s up to you to create that separation so that your mind can wind down after work every day. You don’t want to be leaving your entire setup out on the dining room table where you see it every time you walk by, for example. So close up the laptop, tidy up your notes, and stash everything in a drawer until the morning. If you don’t have an extra drawer or shelf for your work gear, a rolling cart is great to store your kit at the end of the day. You can wheel it into the corner or even completely out of sight.
Check out my post about How I Organise a Desk Without Drawers if you’d like more tips and tricks for keeping your workstation tidy and organised.
Set Your Boundaries
If you live together with someone, keeping them out of your workspace will allow you to work from home more effectively. You’ll want to establish rules as to when you can and cannot be interrupted. Setting physical boundaries is important, too, especially if you’re sharing the same room to work in. Knowing when you each have meetings and calls allows you to plan your breaks accordingly and know when you need to get out of their way or vice-versa.
Pets also have to understand that when you sit down to work, the monkey business needs to stop. Make sure they’ve had their time with you before work to cuddle, run, play, and eat. Then they will recognise rather quickly that it’s nap time for them when you’re at the computer.
If you live alone, you might need to set other boundaries. Maybe the neighbour’s rambunctious kids upstairs are too loud, or telemarketers always ring your landline. When our neighbourhood’s DHL guy realised that I was always in home office, he quickly got into the habit of ringing my bell every single day right when I was in the middle of something, and asking me to take in parcels for neighbours. It got to the point where he wouldn’t even check first if the neighbours were even home! He’d just dump all their parcels with me as if it were my job to play mailman after work. I had to lay down the law with him and ask him to stop. When he didn’t, I unplugged my doorbell during my working hours unless I was expecting a delivery myself. 💁🏻♀️
Ergo: don’t be afraid to stand up for what you need to work from home effectively.
Keep Your Social Skills Sharp
It’s easy to feel lonely and cut off from the outside world when you’re in home office, especially if you live alone. The good news is that there are so many ways to combat the isolation thanks to the very same technologies that enable us to work from home so effectively. You can join virtual hangouts or happy hours with colleagues after work, have a virtual 1:1 lunch break with your BFF from Engineering, or even incite your HR team to launch new social connectivity programmes for the entire company with tools such as Donut. Yes, there are ways to replace the watercooler situation from the office when you’re remote!
Outside of work, don’t forget to nurture your friendships and connections, either. Ask your former colleagues what they’re up to. Ring your old pal who’s now married with a kid and see how she’s holding up. Check in regularly with your closest friends to support each other. After all, most of us are going through exactly the same things in home office right now. So stay in touch and don’t be shy about connecting with old contacts.
How have you been working from home effectively? Was it new to you or your employer? I’d love to hear what your experience has been like. Leave a comment below!