It’s 2020, coronavirus is Intense Af, social distancing is in effect everywhere, and more and more businesses are making the sensible call of “Work From Home!”
So, the thing about working from home, since this is touted as Such Amazing Thing, is that it sucks on numerous levels, and that suck is not obvious at the get go.
My first rule of “work from home” is DON’T, but, these are inescapable times where we cannot apply this first and most important rule.1
My first real job was working from home, for four and a half years. With current consultancy I work from home a lot of time now, so I’m coming at this from a position of having done it, hated it, hated it with a fiery burning sun in my heart, and finally, built some techniques to make it tolerable.
So, here are my suggestions of “How To Work From Home Without Hating Your Life.”
Make a Space
One of the biggest problems for me was not having the mental “gap” of being at work and being not at work. Everything kind of blurs together, and I turn into “Why is it 8pm? Oh well better finish this email” and not taking time for myself.
Having a space that is “work space” is critical to ensuring that gap.
However, “making a space” is often positioned as as carving out some physical space in your home to do the work in.
For a lot of people having the physical capability to do that is wildly unrealistic. Anyone with roommates, or partners, or children, or just a tiny studio apartment will struggle to create and enforce a physical location “for work.”
So, making a space needs to include other options, such as:
- Negotiation with roommates and/or spouses:
- “When I sit at this seat at the dining table, I am at work and should not be bothered.”
- This provides a single physical location for you to be at that is Work Space, that you can leave.
- You need to actually leave work when you leave that space.
- “When I’m wearing headphones, I’m at work and should not be bothered.”
- “When we’re all at the table, we only communicate via our household Discord.”
- “When I sit at this seat at the dining table, I am at work and should not be bothered.”
- Masking tape off a section of your floorplan:
- Don’t have space for an office? You can create an “office zone” with some masking tape.
- When you’re in there, you’re at work. Not in there? Not at work.
- Wearing work clothes during work hours.
- If you don’t normally dress up for work, pick out some clothes that are now designated as your Work Clothes and wear those during work time. Get changed when you “leave work”.
The key to “making space” isn’t the physicality of it as much as creating the “I’m in it or I’m out of it.” Being asked to do house stuff mean you should physically leave the space you’ve designated as “work space.” (And remind with your roommate/spouse/etc that you’re at work and not available for that except at lunchtime or after work).
I used to go for a long, 2-hour walk immediately after work, before I came back home and made dinner. It provided a huge gap of a simulated commute and mental shift away from work, giving me space to decompress and settle down to relax.
Going for a walk may still be possible in your area, and I’d definitely recommend it as a “start” and “end” practice to your work day.
If it’s not, it’s worthwhile to find some other routine to create a similar gap. 30 minutes walking in place each “way”, for instance.
DON’T WORK ON THE WEEKENDS (unless you are on-call and your job is to work on the weekends.)
Focus on Your Ergonomics
You haven’t done work from home seriously before. Your house literally isn’t set up for it. You are going to wreck your back, your wrists, your shoulders, and possibly other parts of your you during this.
Get a good chair. Off-lease and used office equipment stores are a great place for good chairs for much less than new sticker prices.
You absolutely do not want the brand new $30 special from Office Depot, it will wreck you.
Get a desk that’s the right height for you. Get the footstand thing. Make sure your keyboard is in the right place, has the right height. Make sure you have the wrist rests you need.
Ask your company to provide ergonomics guidance and a budget for equipping your home.
If you don’t have the physical space for a desk or good office chair, look into lumbar and other support padding for your existing chairs.
Old boxes make for great footrests and monitor lifts.
Look up stretches that you can do to help prevent any repetitive stress injuries from building up. Make sure to take lots of breaks. Do those stretches during those breaks.
This is part of ergonomics and making a space, but gets its own section because we underestimate the impact good lighting has on our workspace.
Your lighting setup at home is bad, and is going to cause you a lot of extra strain and stress because it’s bad.
This might be because your only space is in an interior room with no natural light, or because your house only has downward-facing ceiling lights, or whatever.
This is part of the problem.
Another part of the problem is that all your lights are the wrong colour.
Most house lights are calibrated to about 3300K, which is a very warm sort of light. It makes our spaces feel cozy, inviting, welcoming. This is great for relaxing after work, but we need to consider the ergonomics of both our attention and our spatial proximity to work.
Instead of lighting your work space with normal warm bulbs, you should look into getting cool bulbs, which will be marketed as “cool white” or 6500K.
These will look a lot more blue than your existing lights, which is exactly the effect we’re trying to create. Instead of reinforcing the visual look of “I’m at home in my relax-y space”, we’re actively creating that made space of working.
Turning off the overhead lamps, fitting 6500K bulbs into your desk lamps, and pointing your desk lamps at the wall creates a beautiful, room-filling cool light that will look and feel remarkably different to how the room normally feels.
Using desk lamps pointed at the walls forces all the light to be much more diffuse bounce, which is much less intense and less likely to bounce into your eyes from above2.
If you have a desk for your work space, pointing a light at the wall behind your screen will give you bias lighting, which can help a lot with eyestrain.
Once you’re done work for the day, turn off the cool lights, turn on the warm lights, and now you’re at home, and you’re in the space where you can relax.
Using lighting like this can be very effective when your only private physical space is your bedroom, because being in your bedroom all day for work and all night for sleep is,
The distinction of lighting will help your brain create a gap and let your bedroom, with its warm and inviting lighting, stay warm and inviting.
Take Breaks, You Fool
You take lots of breaks at the office. You get up. You wander around, you talk to co-workers, go to the kitchen for water, etcetera. This is normal. So do it.
You don’t have to do any work-from-home presenteeism, so, don’t. Really, really, really don’t.
You need to step away, have normal lunch hours, sit on your couch and recharge while watching some TV, the things that help you disconnect and refocus.
Doing those things is stepping out of the made space. You leave the work space, you do the not-work things, you re-enter the work space, and can do work things again.
Active timers are essential for making this work. Set a timer going for your lunch break, when it goes off, return to your work space and resume work. Step away for 15 minutes or so, set a timer to remind you to end that time slot.
Humans can, in general, only maintain active focus for about 75-90 minutes in a single go, before needing a break.
If you’ve wondered why workshops break things into at-most 90 minute stretches, this is why.
Use this knowledge for yourself and your own breaks.
I used to take a break in mid-afternoon to go play Rocksmith for about half an hour, around 3PM. It was a very different activity, in a different room, and forced me to pay attention to something completely different.
2PM is also about when we start to hit the “afternoon slump”, so it’s a good idea to step away and take that break, instead of trying to “push through.”
THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT. GO BACK AND READ IT AGAIN. I PROMISE YOU WILL REGRET NOT DOING THIS SO MUCH.
Have a Dedicated Computer for Work
It’s easy to take this as “Go buy a new computer.”
I don’t mean that.
A lot of people, myself included, have one machine that is our Everything machine. Work and personal get welded together into a single confused computational identity.
This makes it really easy to “just” check work email at 9pm, which is a bad idea.
So, as part of Making A Space, create a new account on your computer. This is now your Work Account, and all your work applications and logins and everything else only exist in that account. Then, when you leave work, you log out of that account, and log back in to your personal account.
This is invaluable for ensuring that you can still use your gear to do your personal stuff, and not develop the resentment of being around your work stuff while you’re trying to do recreational stuff with your computer.
Schedule Video Calls with Friends
You can’t go out in the evening for the next while.
But you can schedule group video chats. So, do that. Make sure you’ve turned on the warm lights, you have your Beverage Of Choice, and, call away.
Don’t make it too long, or it’ll get awkward. Even though I’m a raging extrovert, I can’t manage more than 20 minutes of a video call.
If you live with roommates, negotiate who can use the space that’s appropriate for these calls, and when. You’ll all need to be doing something similar, so, make sure it works out.
If you do online voice game chat stuff, try to do more of that.
Space Away From Your Significant Other(s)
Yes, you love them. Yes, you love being around them.
Yes, you need to explicitly and intentionally create space away from them.
You normally have the entire work day of not being at home, the commute back and forth, these spaces that are yours alone. Having to work from home erases that liminal gap, erases the places where you are for you alone.
This will require a lot of negotation between you and your partner(s), to figure out how to give you normal space-without-them and them space-without-you.
This will require childcare negotiations (if relevant). It will require you going to the bedroom while they use the living room, and not interacting with them, for instance. It will require them entering their made space and you leaving them alone. It will require them doing the same for you.
This one doesn’t seem as obvious, that you need a for-you-only space, but there’s a kind of switching off that only happens when you’re by yourself, like really by yourself, that the prolonged self-isolation of 2020 is going to erase for you. You’re going to miss it.
You may not know what it is that you’re missing.
You can do this.
It’s going to suck.
It’s going to suck a lot, no matter how amazing “work from home” sounds, conceptually.
A lot of these suggestions are geared around putting friction and practices in place, to help resist developing resentment towards your house and relaxation space, towards the people you live with, towards your work, towards the much smaller world that we’re forced to cope with.
Seriously, don’t work on the weekends. You’d think this would be obvious, but, it bears repeating.
Oh and if you have carpet, you’ll want to get one of those plastic carpet protectors for under your desk chair, or you’ll have an unhappy conversation with your landlord about how come the carpet is all worn out now.