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A COVID-19 guide to working at home (from someone who did it for 6 years)

A version of this story was first published by HRM Online. Read the original.

With COVID-19 quarantines happening all over the world, a lot of people are experiencing extended periods of working from home for the first time. If we treat it right, this could be a good thing.

I have had an atypical career. Right out of university I began working freelance. It would be years before I spent any more than a couple hours in an office. I remember visiting them and feeling I was in a foreign land I’d heard about, but never experienced. It awoke my inner anthropologist.

Where is that watercooler where people speak about ‘gossip’ and ‘last night’s sports results’? 

Ah, the communal refrigerator. I’ve heard it said people store their food in it, even though it is filled with mould.

So as we head into a situation where more of the world is going to be working from home than ever before, I feel weirdly prepared. Because there are negative experiences endemic to working from home which require careful navigation, three of which I’d like to talk about here.

  1. Feelings of guilt
  2. Cabin fever
  3. Hermit brain

Now, there are very serious reasons for some to dread working from home. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a home life they enjoy. For them, work is a refuge. But for those who do have a nice home life, and are worried work will ruin it, this is for you.

Guiding principle

Several of my colleagues are taking to the growing calls for self-isolation, social distancing and remote work with trepidation. And it makes sense. A pandemic is scary, but the part where you get to work from home can be wonderful.

My reaction to hearing my office is ready for a complete shift to remote work was not so much “I am going to be isolated” it was “I get to lie in my bed during breaks!”

The principle guiding my WFH philosophy is the following: You shouldn’t try and trick yourself into thinking you’re at your workplace, and instead embrace the fact that you are at home. 

A lot of the tips out there focus on how you can make home more like work. The motivation behind these tips – wellbeing – is the correct one. And if these work for you then by all means continue using them.

But in my opinion, and I feel crazy for having to say this, home is great. It might not be ideal that it’s also where you work now, but the trick is to make sure you don’t lose sight of the fact that you are in an environment that’s under your control, filled with people you (hopefully) like and that also has all your stuff in it. Your commute is zero seconds and you can shower at lunchtime!

Also, it’s a really great change of pace from work. Unless, of course, one of the following happens to you.

1. Feelings of guilt

A bunch of readers probably read the above comments about showers and lying in bed and thought they were jokes. But I am not joking.

We were all brought up to believe that there is something illegitimate about a person that works at home. Unless you’re a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates type in a garage, there is an assumption that working from home is not really work. It’s more ‘work lite’. It makes people think of someone writing a screenplay that will never get finished, not a salaried job. I remember how eyes glazed over when I told people I was a freelance writer who worked at home.

Because of this cultural belief, people who work from home are prone to guilt. This is bad. A study has found links between guilt proneness, job satisfaction and absenteeism. The particular guilt of working from home manifests in different ways, but usually centres around perceptions of laziness and, from experience, results in three different behaviours.

What all these strategies have in common is that the personal risk is high and the benefit relies on colleagues noticing something they cannot see – because you’re at home and they are not there.

Worse still, these behaviours can spiral. Because nobody assuages your guilt and says you’re clearly working hard, you often redouble your efforts to overcome your guilt, which just makes the negative effects worse.

The way to overcome this is to realise the guilt for what it is. Your workplace has changed but you haven’t. You are the same worker in the office as you are at home. Your feelings of guilt aren’t helping colleagues, or you. It’s okay that you are less visible to others. Your contributions will still be valued in the same way.

The next step is to make the fact that you are at home a feature of your day, not a bug. Consider doing chores in your lunch break so you don’t have to do them after you log off. Make a nice lunch for everyone you live with. Do fun stuff that can only be done at home – lie down on your bed, check in with your significant other, do some gardening, watch a quick TV show, or have a coffee on your balcony. You obviously can’t veg out and do nothing, but you can do things you like.

Once you realise enjoying being at home doesn’t make the sky fall, it will help you see the benefits. The biggest being that you are now the owner of the world’s best corner office.

Especially if you normally work in an open plan office, you now have the ability to triage your interactions with other people. You’ll still have scheduled catch ups, but no longer can people just come by your desk and demand things. What’s more, you can instantly go from a stressful work task to a relaxing home activity. Nobody can judge you for this, and your productivity will likely improve.

2. Cabin fever

This might be a little on the nose during a time of COVID-19, but it really is just referring to the concern that your home will feel like a prison. You eat, sleep, work and relax all within the same four walls.

A lot of people try to overcome this by partitioning their home so there is a dedicated space for work. Once you’re done with work, you leave it and enjoy the rest of your home. For me this never felt right. It was like constructing a smaller prison within a larger one, and goes against the guiding principle that you should maximise the value of being at home.

I think a better tactic is to have rituals; little activities that reset your mind as you enter and exit the work-focused headspace. For me it was walking. Before I started work I left my building and went for a ten minute stroll where I thought about everything I had to accomplish when I returned. Then at the end of the day I walked and decompressed by thinking about what I was planning on doing next. (If a total shutdown due to COVID-19 happens, you might still be able to walk, just be careful to keep an appropriate distance between you and others.)

You could try other methods. You could exercise, meditate, do yoga, have a shower, debrief with someone you live with, or just drink or eat something specific to the ritual. Crucially, the activity must in and of itself change your state of mind. Because the most important part of a commute is not the physical distancing from work, it’s the mental distancing. And if your commute is the few seconds it takes to get from your office to your TV that mental distancing isn’t going to happen.

The other advantage rituals have over partitions is that you can move about your home during the day and not feel as though you’re breaking any rules.

I would not recommend relying on a video call with your team to be that ritual, as I tried during one project. It’s good for bonding but it’s not reliable. I can’t tell you the number of times I had the call that was supposed to wrap things up, but during it I knew I had to put in at least another hour of work.

Which brings me to the next nasty aspect of cabin fever: the lack of human contact (or contact with only the same few humans over and over). More of an issue for those who live alone, after a while it can really weigh on you. The answer is of course to schedule social chats with colleagues.

I’d go further too. If you live alone, consider scheduling conversations with friends who aren’t colleagues, and even keeping a group chat with them open (if it’s not too distracting). Organise a video conference with a few of them over lunch. You can all whinge together (sounds bad, is actually therapeutic). It really helps to vent about what you’re going through to people that won’t gossip or think it reflects on your diligence. This is especially a good idea if you’re not normally that close to work friends.

A final tip that I’ve never tried myself. One way to make your four walls feel less like a prison is to regularly redecorate them. Change your environment based on the kind of work you’re doing. HRM has written recently about new trends in office spaces – take notes on what architects and neuroscientists are saying about the effect of space on wellbeing and consider how to apply them at home. (If you live with other people, probably check with them that they’re on board.)

3. Hermit brain

You’re kind of lucky if you get to this point. This is when you love working at home so much that your whole way of thinking starts to change. The signs usually only crop up when talking to others, and include:

  • Being too casual on professional calls
  • Talking in a frenzied sort of way (because you haven’t been talking to anyone and it feels amazing to unload)
  • Finding it difficult to express yourself (because you haven’t been talking to anyone and it feels weird to try)
  • Resenting meetings, phone calls, digital chats, etc

I was working for a hip new company that shall not be named. Regularly doing freelance work for them while at home, I began to feel breezy about taking calls without thinking. Then one time I answered a video call while I was wearing a professional shirt on top, but just my underpants below the belt. After an initial panic, I thought, “Just act calm and don’t get up. They won’t notice.”

You can see what’s coming. The call went twenty minutes, I forgot I was compromised, and on the video chat reached over to grab my cup of coffee. It wasn’t as bad as it couldn’t have been. It’s not like my underpants had love hearts on them or anything.

The key to avoiding hermit brain is simple: don’t get too comfortable. Home is great but the rest of the world still exists. By all means indulge a little, but keep a mental post-it that says “I am still on the clock”. And, if there is any chance you might answer a video call, make sure you’re wearing something that wouldn’t embarrass you at work. Pants are a solid choice.

Okay, quick final lightning round of random tips I picked up over the years.

  • Important meetings can feel like going from zero to 100 in terms of social interaction. So if you’re feeling lethargic or stressed before a call, do a quick 2 minutes of exercise (whatever suits you) 10-20 minutes before the meeting. You want to simultaneously be more energised and relaxed, but not panting.
  • Jokes aside, wear something a bit nicer for important meetings. It will feel silly initially, but you’ll feel more confident. And do a video test before you go live (Photo Booth for Mac, Windows Camera for Windows). You want to see if you have anything in your teeth, if your hair is right, and that the lighting doesn’t make you look like a pixelated vampire.
  • The biggest risk of work bleeding into your life isn’t at the end or beginning of a day, it’s at lunchtime. Put your lunch break in your calendar, and tell people about it if they try to talk to you in it. This is so important if you’re working from home long term.