Have a New Year's resolution to work from home more this year — maybe to spend more time with your children or save some gas money? Thanks to the flexible world of the Internet, I've been able to work away from The Post's D.C. office for about a year and a half now — joining an estimated 37 percent of Americans who say they've telecommuted. Working from home can have its own charms and challenges. Here's what I've learned about teleworking in my time away, including some tech tips to make sure that your office of one keeps chugging along.
Make your own space. This is important. Without some separation, you can feel like you’re always halfway between working and not, and that’s a recipe for a bad work-from-home experience. In my case, I claimed a room as my home office so I could close the door on my work at the end of the day. If a separate room with a door isn't possible, you could try a folding room divider. Even having a work table of your own may help.
You should also try to keep a separate phone or computer for work — your company may thank you for not keeping work files on a personal machine for security reasons anyway. Basically, anything that can help physically separate your work life from your personal life is a plus.
Set a schedule. Setting a basic schedule can be one of the best things you can do to keep a basic structure to your day. The wonderful world of time management apps has been my best friend in this regard. I use an app called 30/30 to roughly block out the day based on what has to get done. I like that app because it lets you schedule several tasks at once and has a timer — but also lets you be flexible with the blocks in your schedule so that you don't get too stressed out if you run over on a particular task.
Figuring out how long a task actually takes can be tricky, but tech can help you there, too. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to do a better job of understanding of how I actually work, and I’ve started using time management software in my browser to help track that. Right now, I’m testing out Toggl, an online tracker with a button I hit when I start a task and hit again when I end it. That has given me a lot of information about when I’m working my best and how I should schedule my day.
Work like you’re at the office. Try not to schedule doctors’ appointments in the middle of the day, or agree to take a shopping trip with a friend in the middle of day. If you’re worried about the appearance of slacking off just because you work from home, this will do you no favors.
I've found the same rules have to apply to my personal tech. I generally don't check personal email address during work hours or my nonwork smartphone when I’m not on a “break.” Essentially, it's the same rule I followed in the office. Anything that would have made me minimize the screen when my boss walked by — vacation planning, online shopping, etc. -- is still off-limits if I want to have a productive day.
But make sure you stop working. The flip side of making sure your nose is to the grindstone is ensuring that you aren’t always holding it there. In the early days of working from home, I was so worried about seeming distant that I worked even more hours than I did at the office and put myself on the road to burnout. Without the cues of your co-workers leaving one by one, it’s easy to lose track of time as you try to wrap everything up. Plus, the fact that you’re not leaving a physical location for a different one can also help those work hours drag on and on.
Personally, I had to set a recurring alarm on my phone to signal to myself that I should wrap things up in the next half-hour. Obviously, there are days when you may not hit your end of the day deadline, but having a finish line in mind can help you better manage your time.
Get up every once in a while. At a normal office, you take breaks — grab a cup of coffee with co-workers, take the occasional walk, maybe even eat away from your desk some days, to break up the day. Here again, my phone has become one of my best tools for keeping my sanity. I’ve scheduled breaks into my day, and I use my phone to remind me to take them. Sure, sometimes I’m in the middle of something and can’t take my break exactly at the time that I want to, but it’s a good reminder for me to stretch my legs, take a jaunt around the block or sip a cup of coffee on the patio.
Fitness trackers can also be helpful here, because they often buzz to remind you to stand or stretch. I’m also a fan of the Pomodoro method — or at least a variant of it — which tells you to schedule in short and long breaks throughout the day. All you need for that is your phone, or — using the original tool of the method — a kitchen timer.
Invest in good headphones for calls and teleconferences. Yes, part of the beauty of working from home is that you don’t have to wear headphones if you want to listen to Black Sabbath all day while you’re working. But it’s still a good idea to invest in a good pair of headphones to attach to your phone for calls. That makes whatever distractions may be going in the background — in my case, my cat knocking over everything he possibly can — less noticeable to the people with whom you’re speaking.
Whether it’s your kids playing, the dog barking or the doorbell, it’s good to minimize what those on the other side of the phone hear.
Upgrade your WiFi. When you work from home, your Internet connection becomes your lifeline even more than it is at the office. Whether you’re working on group documents
edited in the cloud or communicating over chat software, if your Internet goes down you’ll probably find yourself scrambling for a nearby coffee shop to keep your day from screeching to a complete halt. If you have an older router — three years or more, generally — and are having speed problems of any kind, you may want to consider getting a new one.
Also, be sure that the spot you’ve chosen to work is conducive to connection before you put all your heavy furniture in; it’s no fun to set up your whole home office and then realize it’s in a dead zone.
Schedule time to connect to the home base. This is another “no, duh!” tip, but it’s actually harder than it sounds. If possible, see if your team will join you on some sort of online chat program such as Slack or Google Chat if you need to collaborate throughout the day. (Even better if your company already does this.) If not, try to schedule a daily or weekly check-in with your boss or closest co-workers and stick to it. It can be easy to let these things fall by the wayside, but those regular meetings are essential for avoiding the “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome.
I’ve also found that it’s best to make sure that you’re actually talking — on the phone or in video — rather than solely in email. It can be hard to read the tone of a message in text, for one, but it’s also just a better personal connection to have a conversation. Yes, even with all the emoji options now available.
Find your noise level. The relative silence of home helps me think — plus I feel less silly talking to myself as I work through a problem. But there have been days where having only the soundtrack of my keyboard clacking to listen to has driven me batty.
I like to use streaming music services — Pandora’s classical guitar station is my go-to, because I won't sing along while I'm trying to write. But you could also use podcasts or the radio if that’s more your speed. I've also found that long, looping YouTube videos of white noise can be helpful for having just enough noise in the room to ignore. It can be lonely working from home — really lonely. But it can also be very nice, if you embrace it.
Change into real clothes. Okay, there's nothing techy about this tip, but it's the best teleworking tip I ever got. As my friend told me, “Always put on pants." (I do sometimes opt for skirts.) The idea, though, is that you dress to work. You don’t have to be in business casual, but it’s probably best to change out of those pajama pants. It helps you get in the right mind-set, plus you'll be prepared for that surprise teleconference.