Now I sense this is a subject we will be returning to over the new few weeks but for now I wanted to share a few things that have helped me work from home over the last 20 years with babies, toddlers and now teenagers. Sometimes I had a dedicated space and often I didn’t. It’s not so much about decorating and layout, although that may creep in, and I’m planning a post dedicated to that very soon.
1 You need to make a dedicated work space.
Now this can absolutely be temporary – the kitchen table for example – but I would strongly advise against the coffee table or even working from bed as I have seen some people do. In fact, I can categorically say that I have only worked from bed once in 20 years and that was last November when I had flu and sadly I don’t think it was that flu so I can’t now claim immunity. The problem with the coffee table is that it is inevitably near the telly and it involves a comfy loungey chair and well you can see how that’s going to go because….
2 You need to make it look like a work space
Again, if you are working from the coffee table and having to shove the remote control to one side to make a space this isn’t going to put you in the right frame of mind. I spent 10 years working at the kitchen table and while I know I can (and would rather) write than wash up the breakfast things that really doesn’t work for everyone so try and create a clear space where you can put the laptop, a notebook, a coaster for the water/coffee/tea and even a bunch of flowers or a plant if that helps.
3 Don’t put your office in a tiny unused dark space at the top of the house
I speak from experience (again) on this one. The temptation for most of us is to create a home office in the tiny dark spare room, and share the space with the laundry. Or right at the top of the house under the eaves (or even in that triangle under the stairs) where you will literally bang your head every time you stand up. And I can tell you from experience (yes again) that if you bang your head in the right place you can literally see stars. Although I didn’t get the birds singing.
If you are working from home, for anything more than paying a few bills, or sitting in a fruitless online queue for a supermarket delivery slot, you need to find a space that makes you happy to be in. For most of us, and especially those who don’t have spare rooms, that may well be the kitchen table, or any space that you can find near a window.
4 You need to make your new homeworking space multi-tasking
This can be one of the hardest things to deal with when you work from home and don’t have lots of space in which to do it. Ideally you need to create a space that you can flip from work to home and back again without too much difficulty. I have written about this before in terms of using a spare room that needs to be for guests and workers at the “sort of” flick of a switch. So a table – often a narrow console – with a drawer that can support the laptop and stationery while the dressing table mirror and accessories are put away. Swap them round depending on who needs the space. See the images above and below.
In the kitchen scenario, for many years, I used one of the boys’ empty toy boxes on wheels. I would put all my papers, mug, pens and anything else associated with the working day in there and slide it under the table or in the corner when I was finished. At the start of the day (assuming the breakfast things had been put away!) I would unpack, create a desk environment and work. Then, at the end of the day, it would all go back in the box and the boys would come and eat their tea there. This real life switch between the two spaces also helps with the switch in your head from work to home in the same way that those who commute have physical distance between the two.
5 Get Dressed!
It’s that simple. In 20 years of working from home I have never not got dressed. Too many negatives? I have always dressed for the day. It might not be a suit but it’s day clothes as opposed to evening lounge wear. And I never, ever, wear slippers during the day. If you don’t wear shoes in the house then dedicate a pair of house shoes that means you are feeling awake and dressed and ready to turn your brain on rather than sliding into relax mode. By the same token I always change at the end of the day. Again, as I don’t have a physical commute between home and work I have to make the change in other ways and for me that involves clothes.
6 Structure your day
Writers often tend to write when the mood (or muse) strikes and that may well be at 4am or 11pm and they are quite capable of missing meals and remaining completely in their bubble until the mood (or muse) moves on. For everyone else a little structure is required. And just as many of are now having to plan home schooling sessions for our children you should do the same around a working day. So there is lunch. There is a morning coffee break and perhaps an afternoon tea break. If at all possible instead of congregating round the water cooler try and either take ten minutes in the garden or stick your head out of the window if you don’t have any outside space.
For those with kids, perhaps setting them a task like drawing a picture or a 40 minute silent reading (as it used to be called when I was at school) will allow you to attend an online meeting and then you can all have a ten minute break and a biscuit afterwards before your start the next thing.
7 What if there are two of you?
This will currently be the biggest problem I imagine. And space for everyone is limited. You need to decide who is going where – one in the sitting room and one in the kitchen/bedroom. It’s not ideal of course, but the same rules of creating a proper space apply. If you both need to be at the same table you will have to hammer out your own rules on whether there is to be music or silence? Who makes the coffee and, crucially, who is washing the cups? Remember that the vast majority of us share working spaces in offices all the time and we mostly manage to do it without actual fisticuffs. During this time it helps if you can view your partner as a colleague not a lover and remain polite. Equally, schedule rows about working practices for working hours so you can at least try and salvage a pleasant evening together.
There is one meme going round suggesting you invent an imaginary co-worker (let’s call her Enid) on whom you can blame for workplace transgressions. “Enid never washes her coffee cups.” Enid’s forgotten to fill the printer paper again” etc. Might diffuse things a little?
Alternatively, work out if it’s better that one works in the morning and the other has the kids and you swap in the afternoons. I know it’s not easy but discussion is going to be the key in all of this.
8 Set aside time for social media
The temptation to endlessly scroll through twitter or the news wires constantly pressing refresh has never been greater and yet, if my own three day tension headache last week was anything to go by, more dangerous. Just because you are working from home doesn’t mean you can justify endless hours on instagram. If you can’t bear to be without it then allow yourself 20 minutes at the start and end of the day and use your lunch hour how you wish. Perhaps, if you are getting up at the usual time to work, you can allow yourself what would have been your commuting time to scroll. But turn it off or remove the tabs from your menu bar so it’s harder to absent-mindedly click on them. I have heard that some people only watching the 5pm news briefing or just the 6pm news. Pick one, or two, and factor them into your schedule. Structure is key.
9 Make a List
I love a list. I am that person who writes “get up” on the list after I’ve done it so I can cross it off. But, in all seriousness, a sense of achievement might be hard to find these days, so make a list of things you need and want to do. And do, please, add fresh air breaks into this. Five ten minute breaks of fresh air a day is an achievement. And so is finding time to do the laundry, feed the kids a vegetable and do a meeting. Much more of this and getting your mascara on will also feel like a goal. We are in a smaller environment now, your goals can be smaller. And, I was going to say you can leave saving the world for later although ironically staying at home and managing your own life in a small space for the next weeks totally IS saving the world.
10 Plan about your ideal work space
Because by the end of this you are absolutely, positively, definitely going to know what you do and don’t want from a work space. And as soon as this ends – and it will end – you can start physically building that shed at the bottom of the garden, or saving for that loft conversion, or even just painting that corner of the living room in a corner that makes you feel creative, energised and productive so that working from home (after a little holiday back in the office) becomes something you dream of once again.