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How to work from home like a boss in case coronavirus forces you to


U.S. officials are encouraging employees to work from home due to the spread of the coronavirus. Because most companies are not set up for this, employees might be caught off guard.

I have spent most of my professional career working from home, even before social media and messaging services such as Slack became workplace staples. On paper, I work 9 to 5 for a traditional media outlet in the District. In reality, I work various hours on any given day from my couch or kitchen table or small desk in New York City, where every square foot is a precious commodity. I share my “office” with a play kitchen and a busy 4-year-old.

In other words, I’m a work-from-home pro. For newbies, here are some tips for working remotely without losing your mind.

What you need to know about coronavirus

Wear whatever you want: Some people swear by showering and getting dressed as if you were going into an office. If that puts you in the right head space, more power to you. If it delays your day, just skip it and wear whatever you want. New York’s unofficial dress code is all-black attire, so I have a summer dress and a winter dress I can pull on if I need to go out on an assignment, paired with black boots or black sandals for simplicity. 

Treadmill desk vs. dining room table? Eh, just get your work done: I’ve gone through spurts of investing in my home office, and I do think some people need a dedicated place for work, if you have the space for it. My friend Jeremy Weber gave me tips on how to make a more ergonomic setup so I don’t have neck and back injuries. You can get a Roost stand, a Jarvis desk, a movable arm rest, a standing mat, a trackpad. Beyond specific products, he always tells me, good posture is key! Get up every hour and go outside if you can. 

Maintain a stash of drinks: When you work from home, you don’t face the temptation of the common M&M bowl (not a coronavirus best practice). But you do have your kitchen nearby. To keep things interesting, I try to always have tea, coffee, hot chocolate, sparkling water and fresh lemons. I drink water out of a large Mason jar mug. I try to eat at regular mealtimes, snack on fruits and veggies, and keep food away from my workspace. It helps keep the mice out of my office.

Be flexible, but maintain boundaries: My company has given me geographical flexibility, so I try to offer the same flexibility back when I can. That means I will drop what I’m doing at 10 p.m. or on a weekend to jump on breaking news. That said, you don’t need to answer every Slack message outside your work window. Create an understanding with your manager about when you are on the clock and what hours you might be expected to answer if needed. And, because your office is now your home, try to keep your work computer and cellphone out of the bedroom. I have an alarm clock that shines the time on the ceiling and lets me avoid blue light, which can block the release of melatonin at night.

Allow your mind to wander: Sorry, this part is controversial, so hold on to your hats. My job requires some level of creativity in writing and in generating story ideas, so I let myself get distracted throughout the day. Sometimes I fold laundry (gasp!) on company time, so I can give myself a few minutes to chew on an idea. Sometimes I take a walk or a nap if I don’t have an urgent deadline (no one tell Jeff Bezos, please), because later I’ll be much more energized. I’m very purposeful about this “downtime,” and I make up for it later. I know I’m not fooling anyone if I don’t get my work done. 

Being obsessed with being productive … is unproductive

Want productivity tips? That’s fine, but don’t get bogged down by systems. I read books by people such as David Allen, Gretchen Rubin, Laura Vanderkam and Timothy Ferriss. Friends recommend apps such as Streaks and Toggl. But my to-do list and goals are pretty simple: Stay focused, and get stuff done.

Going on a conference call? Announce yourself and remind people you exist: Then tell everyone you’re going to mute yourself so you can minimize background noise. If you live in an urban environment, no one needs to hear the siren outside your window. Just don’t forget to unmute yourself when you want to weigh in on something.

My friend Kate Shellnutt says to consider how the window lighting makes you look when making video calls. Avoid positioning yourself so you are backlit (bonus: getting some feel-good energy from sunlight).

Need kids to be quiet for a conference call? Consider bluetooth headphones for the TV: Remember that viral BBC video where the two children wandered into the dad’s home office while he was doing an interview? I was recently interviewing the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, over the phone when my 4-year-old bounced into the room to ask me about her Daniel Tiger toothbrush. I know screen time is controversial, but sometimes you do what you gotta do. We have a set of bluetooth headphones connected to the TV to keep my daughter quiet and focused, so I can hop on a call without disruption.

Four challenges work-from-home parents will recognize, and how to keep them in check

Communicate as much as you can: When I met a co-founder of Slack last year, I shook his hand warmly and told him how the messaging service has changed my work-from-home life. It hasn’t replaced being in the newsroom (getting the office gossip takes a lot more work), but I can talk much more casually with colleagues and bounce ideas off them. I can jump in rooms and monitor conversations without being on mass email chains. 

Messaging apps might also be an added challenge that needs to be managed. Take the app off your phone, if you need to, and set away messages that tell people you’re unavailable. Whatever you do, be professional in your typed communication. Whatever you say could easily be forwarded or screenshotted. 

I was home-schooled until college, so I know what it’s like to have to prove myself by proving myself, not just by showing up for class. Whether through email or Slack or text message or DMs, keep your boss and colleagues in the loop. Solicit feedback. Check on your goals and progress. Keep a running doc of ideas and another one for accomplishments. Note your awards and the encouraging feedback you get from people. Your manager might not be able to see you, but he or she can track your work. 

Have a spouse who also has to work from home? This is new territory for me, starting today. My husband, who normally goes to his office in New York every day, was just told he has to work from home this week. We might need to expand our stash of drinks.