The Blessings and Curses of Working From Home

Extending the home office into the backyard.
Extending the home office into the backyard. Photo by Margaret Downing
As most parents who have less than perfect children know, a student ordered home on suspension can usually cover the homework assignments sent with him in less than half the time they would take in school. Rid of distractions and downtime, it’s remarkable how any student’s productivity can increase.

If you’re one of the many workers who for the first time will be working at home because of the coronavirus scare then you can look forward to getting a lot more done – that’s if you can be disciplined and plan for it. In unused travel time alone you may pick up anywhere from an extra 30 minutes to a couple hours a day.

On Tuesday, longtime telecommuter Dwight Silverman of the Houston Chronicle, republished some more than helpful tips for those of you who may be moving your base of operations away from the watchful eye of employers and co-workers.

My experience since early November 2017 has been similar, but not exactly the same. So I thought I’d weigh in from the perspective of someone who for more than two years has worked at home most of the time, but goes in to the office anywhere from one to three days a week as well.

Rule No. 1: Make sure everyone knows you are home to work. That includes your boss, co-workers, family and friends. Especially if you are female, make it clear that yes, you can probably toss in a load of laundry before you get started on the day but no, you’re not going to have any more time than you had before to grocery shop, pick up dry cleaning or run any of a thousand other possible errands during the day. If your workday is on a set schedule then stick to it — put down your pencil, close your test booklet and stop working when your hours are up.

However if you have an extremely flexible workday and workweek and are willing to/have to work into the late night hours and on weekends, then when you can/if you can, take off some time during the day to compensate. Take a walk. Jump in the shower. Go out for lunch.

Make sure co-workers really understand your situation and can communicate that as well, including providing contact information for you. Although that may not always be enough. Recently a reader was desperate to reach me and tracked down someone else in my organization. The woman was told I was not in the office that day and to contact me by email which was provided. Unfortunately to her that translated to: Does not work on Tuesdays which is what she told me when she eventually emailed me.

Clearly the public is going to have to start to understand that not being in the office does not mean someone is not working. And if you are willing to have your cell or home phone number given out, make sure that others you work with know that. Being out of the office should not mean a drop in internal or external communications.

Clearly the public is going to have to start to understand that not being in the office does not mean someone is not working.

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As Silverman notes, you need to be prepared and disciplined. Make sure you have all the paper, batteries and writing equipment you’ll need at home. Try to establish a dedicated space to work in. Mine is a rarely used dining room we converted into an office with computers, files and a supply cabinet. Absent from the command center are the books and magazines I might get sidetracked by. But any place you can set up – preferably where you can separate yourself from the rest of your household and concentrate — is essential for your sanity.

Speaking of computers, make sure they’re in working order and as Silverman says make sure your Wi-Fi is working at its best capacity. It will not only mean you’ll be more efficient, but it will save you the stress of your work world crashing around you when everything you’ve worked on disappears in a computer blip.

Being able to work uninterrupted is both blessing and curse. Sitting in the same position for too long turns your brain and body to mush. Get up from your computer from time to time and don’t make a path to the refrigerator when you do so. You’re there to work better and healthier, not bigger. If the weather is nice and you can move outside to work, do that.

If you have to come into the office for something, be sure you bring everything you need with you and vice versa when you leave. There’s nothing like a rushed departure to increase the odds that some crucial notes are left behind, necessitating another trip. If you don’t have a steel trap mind then consider a checklist.

Of course, all these resolutions are a hundred times tougher if you have young children at home. Presumably if you were already working, you have childcare. If it's in the home, then everyone needs to understand that you're there but not available. Which is again why you need to set up a separate space for yourself.

My experience differs from Silverman in two regards. He dresses up to start the work day and he sounds like he's better at controlling his pets than I am.

One, I do not suit up and get dressed before I start work. The computer doesn’t care if I am still in my bathrobe at whatever time in the morning when I start and for the love of God, one of the true joys of working at home is to not to have to dress up for the experience (as long as I'm not Skyping my way into a business meeting). I save getting dressed up for the outside world on an as-needed basis – usually when I take one of my dogs for a walk later in the morning or to meet with someone.

And two, speaking of animals, my dogs are not sequestered in a far away room. They aren’t in the office with me (talk about a non-starter) but even behind closed doors, their barking and howling response to sirens and the local coyote pack’s yips has a carrying quality that with the certainty of bad timing, often occurs when I’m on the phone interviewing someone.

Which, while annoying, isn’t all bad when the person on the other end hears them and turns out to be animal lover. “Oh, you’re a dog person,” one said to me happily the other day. And the interview proceeded famously from there. Something that would never have happened quite in the same manner from my office on McGowen. 
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing