You can do a lot from home, if you know what you’re doing

It’s been growing in popularity over recent years, but for obvious reasons working from home has suddenly become even more popular in the last few weeks and after the virus crisis is over, it might even remain very popular. Get used to it because surely we won’t go back to exactly how things were before the virus arrived on our shores.

Confession time - I have worked at home on and off for the past 20 years and I love it. I didn’t choose to do it to begin with, it was forced upon me but you wouldn’t get me back working in an office now on a regular basis without throwing shedloads of money at me! And I mean shedloads.

For starters there’s no commute longer than a trudge across the landing or downstairs and then there’s those irritating work colleagues that you can totally avoid. I love it, but I’ve also come to understand that it’s clearly not for everyone. For instance I’m not trying to combine it with home-schooling young children or caring for a sick family member, although both are possible (at a stretch!)

If you use cameras for video conferencing business calls then be prepared for having your home décor mocked by others, but also try to lock yourself away in a room where your calls will not be interrupted by playful pets or stir crazy children. Nothing ruins your credibility like pictures of yourself trying to maintain a sense of decorum while moggy mayhem breaks out around you. Of course such events can also be turned into light hearted competitions to boost morale!

Some people need the structure of a regular 9 to 5 existence (remember the Dolly Parton song), but with a little thought it is possible to establish a routine at home alongside a number of Do’s and Don’t’s, which can simulate and improve upon office life to a more than passable degree.

Employers as well as employees get huge benefits from home working

Patrick Mooney Patrick Mooney News editor of Housing Management & Maintenance magazine

Groundrules are important

The first task of the day should always be to make tea/coffee/breakfast for yourself and anyone else who needs it, before or immediately after a shower.

If you don’t do this, then you run the risk of missing both of these activities for a good few hours. You will assuredly get sidetracked by a string of pointless emails, text messages and alerts, WhatsApp group conversations etc. And that’s even before you thought about any work!    

But even before you get to this stage, you need to have established with your manager or employer if there are any core hours when you need to be available, or do you have a completely free hand at deciding which 7 or 8 hours you work within a given 24 hour period.

Are there points during the day when time needs to be reserved for telephone contact, for team meetings by conference calls, etc? Or is there a protocol for making and arranging appointments in diaries? Sorting out groundrules for these things could save a lot of angst later on.

Try to establish some simple rules for yourself, which you can keep to or bend ever so slightly. Remember they should be easy for you to keep, or there’s absolutely no point in having them. Don’t set the bar too high.

Start and finish times are normally easy to agree with yourself, but can you stick to them? It’s well known that homeworkers usually work longer hours than office based colleagues, so do not feel guilty if things seem easier and you are less tired unless you really are taking the mickey.

Getting washed and dressed are also good ones to start with. It’s surprising how someone at the other end of a phone can have a good idea that you haven’t combed or brushed your hair, just from your voice. Like how is that even possible? I try to shave at least every other day, otherwise I start feeling like a caveman. And cavemen aren’t very good at working Microsoft packages like Excel spreadsheets or Powerpoint presentations.

Important things

Working in your pyjamas is entirely possible and many people are able to pull it off very successfully. It’s even okay for the occasional half a day, but not if you are working from home on a regular basis. People like home delivery drivers or the postman will come to your door and you don’t always want to be opening your door to strangers while attired in your comfies! Of course some people will go too far the other way and I have sometimes seen colleagues in full business suits and ties, which is completely unnecessary – unless it’s part of an office competition.

Try dividing the day into relatively short blocks of working time (ideally upto 45 minutes, but no more than 90 minutes) around which you have regular breaks, for the following:

  • Getting up to make and drink tea/coffee/water etc
  • Getting rid of the drunk tea/coffee/water etc (but never take your phone with you to the toilet, it’s unhygenic and potentially embarrassing)
  • Stretching and walking around
  • Making personal phone calls, sending messages etc (be disciplined with yourself though, it’s all too easy to spend too long on the phone, when you should be working)
  • Going outside for some fresh air – maybe do a little gardening
  • Eating a snack
  • Listening to the radio or some music tracks
  • Having a short snooze or power nap, but remember to set an alarm

Regular breaks

Believe it or not, but you will probably have at least 8 to 12 short breaks a day, unless you cheat by not counting them! Be realistic and honest with yourself, even Superheroes take breaks. These are similar to those short chats around the office with your mates.

Essentially you need to get up, get away from your desk or work station, rest your eyes and do something wholly unconnected to work for at least 10 to15 minutes. Two or three times in the day the breaks probably need to be longer (at least 25 to 30 minutes) and the alternative activities need to be more disassociated from work.

This helps to refresh and reload your brain. Without these breaks your brain gets very tired even if you don’t notice it and you become more prone to making mistakes, you have fewer fresh ideas and your efficiency drops through the floor.

Unless there’s an Atlantic storm blowing a hooley at your windows, you should try to get outside into the fresh air and to switch off your brain. A short but vigorous walk or a quick trip to the local food shops are both acceptable non-work activities. Combine the two if you can, or learn a new skill such as mastering a foreign language.

A personal case study

Very recently my youngest son moved back in with his very understanding parents, so he could escape the biological laboratory that used to be called London. I have discovered that we are even more different in personality and behaviours than I thought. But we are both working from the same home, so we are learning to adapt and soften our elbows.

I like silence or having Radio 4 on in the background. He likes his music, not mine, his. I don’t mind interruptions, he hates them. If I need to focus on something I will turn my phone onto silent, he refuses to. I could go on, but the differences between us are too numerous to list.

I am better at stopping work to make lunch, tea or dinner. He will only stop when he is about to get ‘hangry’ from lack of nourishment even though it is only two or three hours since he last ate.

He needs the formality of a work desk, I don’t. So he’s taken over my usual work space while I move about the house from kitchen table, to dinner table, to settee, etc. His work colleagues (particularly those in New York) routinely joke about the look of ‘Dad’s office’, but it’s a small price to pay for enjoying other home comforts.

Over the last couple of weeks we have learnt to muddle through and to work around each other. In some of my 15 minute breaks I will put on the dishwasher or the washing machine, or I’ll empty them. He doesn’t. This is clearly my domain!

At some point in the afternoon – when everyone has a slump in energy levels – one of us will go for a bike ride, while the other does another form of physical exercise either in the back garden, or in the nearby park. Whoever returns to their work station first is ‘the loser’ and is somehow a lesser person in the other’s eyes. Other people will take their dog out for a walk mid afternoon as the nation’s pooches enjoy unparalleled levels of attention.

Combating isolation

We also need to ensure every day, or two or three times every week that we touch base with our work colleagues or team members, no matter how busy we are. Countering the effects of social isolation are important and should not be under-estimated. You do not have to be working together on a project in order to want to share some gossip, essentially you need to reproduce the watercooler moments but in a virtual way.

In the early evening I will nearly always stop work first. This is either because I am more disciplined, or maybe it’s because I am older and have less energy. Either way one of us needs to get the evening meal started and to sort out questions to ask the other about how was their day! Work phones and computers are switched off and generally they are left off until the following morning.

There have been many times when I started work very early and was able to take a few hours out during the day (to attend an event, or a medical appointment) before returning to work later in the day. So long as the work gets done, most employers do not care whether you did the work in eight consecutive hours, or in six hours spread throughout the day.

There are very few people I know who do not welcome the flexibility of deciding when to start and stop work. The vast majority of people are also very conscientious and as a manager of home working teams in the past, I have to say I usually found it harder to get them to restrict or limit their working hours.

Employers as well as employees get huge benefits from home working, so I imagine when the Corona virus pandemic is over it’s probable that many office workers will remain working from home. It might be that they share their working week between the office and their home, but the numbers working from home will increase.

It is in all of our interests to get used to this and to make the best of it sooner rather than later.

Patrick Mooney is news editor of Housing Management & Maintenance magazine