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Seven things a married couple who has worked from home for years has done to maintain productivity, health, and happiness

We’re a married couple who own and run a business from our house. We’ve worked from home for five years. As millions of workers now join us in working from home, we share what we’ve learned.

by LACI ROTH & MATT STOKES | MARCH 23, 2020

As more and more governments issue stay-at-home orders because of the coronavirus pandemic, people fortunate enough to have jobs that allow them to work from home are realizing how difficult telecommuting can be. 

We are very lucky to have had a five-year head start on working from home, having run a business together from our home since 2015. Our desks have moved all around our house, our routines have changed dozens of times, and we’ve gone through a number of computers before figuring out what works for us. Here are seven things we’ve learned that we share with you in the hope it helps you maintain your productivity and well being.

But before we share those tips, we want to acknowledge that we are privileged to have the resources and space in our house to be able to work the way we do. We know not everybody has these things. Every situation is different. We just want to get you thinking about how to make the best of working from home. 

1. Get ready in the morning as if you were going to a real office.

It will be tempting to have different start times to the day, to work in your pajamas, to put off taking a shower and putting on makeup until later the afternoon. But don’t let those temptations get the better of you. Stick to a morning routine in which you prepare for the day as if you were leaving the house and going to work. Once you start working, you’ll feel better about yourself and won’t feel distracted by the looming prospect of having to stop and get ready. Remember: Look good, feel good. Just because you aren’t leaving the house doesn’t mean you won’t catch sight of yourself in a mirror throughout the day—nothing like the sight of your trademark bedhead to zap you out of your respected professional headspace. 

As more and more people hunker down at home, our collective need to see other faces will only grow. So don’t be surprised if you start getting unannounced FaceTime calls from your colleagues, bosses, and clients. When those come, you’ll be glad you used a little product and didn’t go with the messy-bun look for a fourth straight day.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you need to dress for a business meeting—you’ve earned the right to be comfortable and casual. But a good rule of thumb is to be dressed and groomed to the extent that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to go to the store or to your kid’s school looking like you do.

2. Don’t be mobile… set up a workstation in one spot and keep it there.

Resist the temptation to move around the house, laptop in tow. No, moving to the back patio is not going to shake out your cobwebs. “Mobile” is the worst of both worlds—you’re never fully at work and never fully not at work. Rather, your workplace is all over the place, which will drain you of your productivity. 

So designate one area of your house for working, and the rest of your house should be, well, your house. This is very important when the workday is over and you are trying to relax or spend time with your family—you don’t want to be drawn over to your computer to fire off a few work emails.

3. Invest in equipment… especially internet and furniture.

Nothing will hurt your productivity like having to stop all the time because of poor internet or technical troubleshooting. You are now your own IT person, so you need to start in a good place—spend money on a good internet plan and a solid modem, and, most importantly, use an ethernet cable to connect to the internet. Don’t rely on WiFi, which can be spotty in homes. If your computer doesn’t have an ethernet port, you can buy an adapter to convert a USB plug into an ethernet port from Amazon for less than $20.

To the best of your ability, try mirroring the workstation you have at the office. If you are used to three monitors and a split keyboard, then this is what you should use at home. 

Companies select their office furniture very thoughtfully, and you should too. This means using an ergonomic desk and chair, if you have the resources. If you can’t get those things, then you should try finding a creative way to get your neck and arms at the proper angle for prolonged work on a computer. Don’t sit at the bar in your kitchen, and don’t pull a TV tray up to the sofa.

Don’t be like Matt and set up a makeshift standing desk. Stick to your work station.

4. Completely separate your work life from home life, if you can.

You will find very quickly how many household chores will call you away from your desk. And doing them will make you feel productive and accomplished, but it’s not what you’re supposed to be doing during work hours.

Unfortunately, you might need to wake up even earlier than you would if you were commuting to work in order to finish all your household chores so that you’re not distracted by them during the work day.

If you’re not able to do this, then you need to stick a schedule, alloting adequate time for work assignments and household tasks.

5. Take breaks. Get a Fitbit, or a dog. Take a nap.

Especially in creative professions, “deep work” (meaning work that requires uninterrupted concentration for long periods of time) is important. But that work can suffer without breaks. And in your house, it’s easy to go stir crazy if you just stick to your desk all day. 

There are diminishing returns on how effective you’ll be if you don’t pause every once in a while. So take breaks, and don’t feel guilty about them. Research suggests that you’re actually helping your productivity rather than hurting it when you take breaks. In fact, one study suggested that you should work for 52 minutes and then break for 17. You don’t have to follow that exact pattern, but you should take breaks more frequently than you probably are currently doing. Fill the break time by getting steps on your Fitbit.

We don’t have a dog, but we hear from others who work at home that they’re great company as you work, and provide a great opportunity to go outside and get some exercise a few times per day.

When it’s time for lunch, you face the same dilemma you would have at your office: Should you be eating at your desk? Absolutely not. Take your lunch in a different part of the house, or, even better, go outside. Eat lunch with your partner or listen to a podcast. Just try not to look at your emails for 20 minutes, and see what wonderful effect it’ll have on your brain.

And, hey, why not turn your house into a Silicon Valley tech company and build in time for a nap? Research shows again and again how 20-30-minute naps can improve your productivity and health. You’ll more than make up the time lost by being more effective at your job. 

6. Find a replacement for the water cooler, and get social(-ish).

We both used to work in offices, and both liked to gripe about socializing colleagues who prevented us from getting any work done. You’ll see very quickly how much you value other humans after about a month of zero chit-chat. So make time to catch up with colleagues and friends by phone or video chat. It’ll give you a burst of energy and remind you of the world outside your house and job. 

Working from home means you lose the unexpected, impromptu connections that come from bumping into people in the hall or breakroom, but you can get some of it back by engaging more deliberately with your friends and co-workers. Schedule calls for catching up, and know that you’re exercising self care.

7. Become a more effective email communicator.

Email is the primary method of communication for most people at work, but away from the office, it becomes pretty much the only way you communicate. What gets lost is the shorthand you have with people you see every day, as well as the facial cues, gestures, tone, and context that comes with being in the same room as somebody else when you’re talking to them. So be aware of how your tone might be perceived in text form, and don’t be afraid to throw in a smiling Emoji to soften what might otherwise seem stern.

When you work in the same office as somebody else, you take for granted that you’ll probably see them later if you need something or have a question, or you can at least dial their extension to talk to them. So your email might be the only chance you get, and you need to be as clear as possible.

We’ve written about effective emails before, and what we said then matters even more now: You should take a holistic approach to emailing. Have headlines, bullet points, and highlights. Make your action items stand out. Preemptively answer questions. Pretend you won’t be able to get ahold of the person you’re emailing after this message, because you probably won’t.

Read every email you receive at least twice before answering. Then read the email again after writing your response, and then read it again. Chances are you missed some pretty important stuff. Which is okay! We’re flawed people and flawed readers. But in these socially isolated times, we can help each other out by being more thoughtful about the way we communicate.

Trying to get back into the groove of things after having a baby in 2016.

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