When I see headlines about UK workplaces banning hot-desking and bosses urging staff to work from home, to try and stop the spread of the coronavirus, I'm reminded of the days I spent hunched over my laptop, slaving away at the kitchen table.
I went freelance when I had my first child in 2010 and worked from home for the following eight years, until 2018. From the outside, it's a jammy set-up: an extra hour in bed, a 30 second commute, the opportunity to work in slightly grubby jeans without judgement. But there are also significant drawbacks, such as loneliness and a lack of motivation.
So with that in mind, here are the dos and don’ts of working from home, should the situation be foisted upon you in the days to come...
How to work from home successfully
Have a shower and do your hair
‘Oh come on, of course I will…’ I hear you sigh. But it won't take long before you’ll begin swapping your jeans for your gym leggings, then your tracksuit bottoms. Before you know it you’ll find yourself wondering what’s so wrong with leaving your comfy pyjama bottoms on all day, so long as you change out of them for the school run?
So while you don’t need full business attire to work from home, do shower, get dressed and do your hair as though you were going to meet a friend. It will wake up you, prevent last minute panics if your boss wants to video chat, and it also sets the tone for the day ahead.
Choose a work area
Whether it’s your study, your local café or your kitchen table, have ‘an area’. Try not to perch at the kitchen breakfast bar in between piles of post (unless your breakfast bar is immaculate and your kitchen stools have back supports). Forget sitting on your sofa (you’ll end up with a sore lower back in no time – take it from someone who learnt this the hard way) and don’t lie on your bed with a laptop.
While F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote most of his best work lying in bed, you're not F. Scott Fitzgerald. And if you're anything like me, you'll just end up napping. Having a specific area is like getting dressed properly – it switches you from home mode to work mode, and keeps your focused.
One last point: if your work exile choose to work part of the day in your local café, don't be like that character in Fleabag who uses the café's plug sockets, WiFi and then orders a tap water. Be really nice to the waiter, order coffee, make it last as long as possible, then order some food, another coffee, and leave a tip. This way, they won't mind when you come back the day next (and the next, and the next...)
- Read more: the best rooms to work from home
Have two to-do lists
One of the biggest challenges I had working from home was trying to ignore all the chores around me that needed to be done. Writing for a living and procrastinating often go hand in hand, and if I was struggling to write a feature there was always the dishwasher to empty, or a dentist appointment to book. This flitting, butterfly approach to work doesn’t make you particularly productive and your working day begins to bleed into your regular one. So I started two to-do lists called ‘Work’ and ‘Home’, and I had set times when I could deal with the latter.
So obvious, but so worth a mention. Like chores, there are plenty of things to distract you at home. For me, it’s social media and WhatsApp conversations, so when I sit down to work I often delete the Instagram app from my phone (before re-installing it later on) and mute a particularly busy WhatsApp chat.
- Read more: how to work from home with kids
Call your boss
After a while, one of the toughest things about working from home is how you can go a whole day without speaking to anybody, which isn't great for your emotional health. So pick up the phone occasionally. A quick phone call to your boss (when you know they're not really busy) can often help you decide on a course of action much quicker than back and forth emails. Or call your other half, or your mum at lunchtime.
If all else fails, put Radio 4 on (or whatever radio station you enjoy). The gentle chatter helps you feel less lonely and makes you feel a bit more connected to the rest of the world.
At least once a day and this is non negotiable. When I worked from home I usually had a school or nursery run to get me out the house a couple of times a day, but on the days I didn’t go out and was purely deskbound, I’d wonder why all my ideas, motivation and concentration were drying up by 4pm. A quick dog walk, a run, or even a five minute potter in the garden during a working day might seem like slacking, but in reality it’s just the equivalent of doing the office tea run or having a water cooler chat with a colleague: it gives your brain a break and helps inspire productivity.