Working from home can produce heights of ecstasy and depths of agony. Anyone who has experienced the liberation of a pajama-clad workday can identify with those heights of ecstasy. And anyone who has succumbed to wallowing in a weak-willed Netflix binge-watch can relate to the depths of agony. We love the concept of working from home, but the execution can be challenging.
For all its glories, working from home has risks.
What are the three biggest risks?
- Not getting anything done. Like nothing. At all.
- Getting upset with family members, or having them get upset with you.
- Becoming a de facto hermit with absolutely no social skills.
Those are all pretty scary. In summary, you risk becoming an unproductive social freak with family problems.
I’m going to explain how to avoid those customary bugaboos of working from home.
It may seem a bit pretentious for me to solve the universe’s three biggest work-from-home challenges in a single flash of literary insight, but hear me out.
As a seven-year veteran of remote work, I’ve had my fair share of frustrations, including one or more of the ones mentioned above. In addition, I’ve experimented with solutions. Some of these solutions have worked. Others have failed miserably.
I’m sharing only the ones that have worked.
Here’s the thing, though. You’re never going to satisfactorily eliminate all the problems and risks of remote work. But if you use a few of these choice techniques, you may improve your productivity, cling to peace with your family, and remain socially functional.
1. Lay the boundaries between home and office.
This is the most important point of all.
In a recent TeamGantt article, I explained that finding a dedicated spot to work creates boundaries between home and work.
It doesn’t need to be quite that swank.
This idea of boundaries can sound provincial and petty, but it is actually a smart move. When you allow your working space to be for work, and your living space for living, you can effectively separate the two in your mind and in your daily practice.
The idea is rooted in human psychology, particularly the habit loop. According to habit researchers, we form habits in a cyclical way.
- First, we are reminded.
- Then, we engage in the routine — the habit itself.
- Finally, we receive a reward.
Then the process starts all over again.
Here’s what it looks like.
The habit loop works nefariously to our disadvantage when we crave, say, a Snickers bar every day at 3pm. (Sorry if that triggered something.)
The habit loop also works advantageously as we build and strengthen a habit of running on the treadmill to counteract the damage of said Snickers bar.
In the context of a separate office, the habit loop works like this:
- Reminder: It’s Monday morning, 9am. Time to work!
- Routine: You step into your office. It is a separate room of the house, and has a desk, your computer, and a door that you can close. This is your daily routine.
- Reward: You get stuff done. This feels good, and your brain celebrates by shooting some dopamine into the bloodstream, which is always nice.
Essentially, you are creating a habit loop by having a separate place to work. The effectiveness of the habit loop is built on your presence in that office space that you have set apart.
There’s a much more practical advantage to having a separate office. You are out of your family’s hair, and they are out of yours. You can work, and they can live, and the two are not in conflict.
The best way to avoid the potential distractions of working at home is to create a boundary between home and work.
I realize that not everyone who works at home has the luxury of an extra room. Here are some ideas.
- A detached office on your property
- A rented office space
- A coffee shop
- Any room that has a door
- A renovated basement or garage space
- A corner of the family room, bedroom, etc.
- The kitchen table, and a little routine for clearing it off and starting your work
A dedicated work space is ideal. But if this is impossible, try to at least create a routine around the beginning of your work that will signal to your brain that it’s time for action.
2. Set working hours.
Some people just don’t get the work-from-home thing.
When I first started working from home, a lot of my friends and acquaintances couldn’t quite wrap their minds around the concept.
Even if they did understand, they thought that my schedule was eminently flexible as to accommodate their social whims.
Here’s how it worked in a not-so-hypothetical situation.
It’s Tuesday morning, and friend Joe needs to move a piano. He could call Bob, but Bob works at the bank. He could call Tim, but Tim owns a lawn business. He can call...Daniel! Yeah, Daniel works from home! (i.e., “He must not work at all!”)
I obliged myself to the random coffee shop trips, drop-in visits, extended lunches, and piano-moving efforts, until I realized that I needed to set some boundaries.
My job is as real as anyone else’s, whether I’m working from home or from a cubicle farm.
My working hours are now actual, honest-to-goodness working hours. The burden is on me to set my schedule and protect it. I can’t expect others to understand and accommodate something that doesn’t totally make sense to them.
Make sure your family and friends understand what it means for you to work from home. You’ll save yourself and them a lot of frustration and misunderstanding.
3. Wear headphones.
You might be surprised at the astonishing impact of noise-cancelling headphones.
A good headset costs less than a separate office but can have nearly the same positive impact.
Pro tip: Play music with no lyrics. In one Stanford study, researchers learned that music helped the brain to “pay attention.” The music used in the study was from the 18th century English baroque composer William Boyce. Lyrics: none.
He’s definitely paying attention.
Music can also be a distraction, causing you to focus more on the music than you actually should. Even your personality type — the typical introvert and extrovert divide — affects the impact of music on behavior.
If music inhibits your work performance, you can still go ahead and buy those headphones. Put them on, but instead of cranking up some tunes, play some white noise. White noise actually improves one’s memory.
Put them on, turn on something, and you can snap into the zone of ultra-focused, productive, ninja style gettin’ stuff done!
4. Do things together as a family away from the house and among other people.
When you work from home, it can be easy to slip into a situation where you feel like you’re with your family, even though you’re not being present with them.
I alternate between working at a rented office space and working at home. When I’m at home, I have a self-deceived perception of “spending time” with my family, when in reality, I’m just doing the same thing I would be doing if I were away from home, at a corporate office.
It becomes important to intentionally do things together as a family. Sometimes, the best way to do this is by getting out of the house.
Go to church, eat out, go to the store together, run around at a park — just do something that gets you out and about.
5. Get creative with your schedule.
The 40-hour workweek is an outmoded concept.
Why 40 hours? Why 8 hours a day?
Ever since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, project managers have been figuring out how to get a lot of people to get a lot of stuff done in an organized way.
The modern workweek with its five days and forty hours is probably a hangover from good ol’ Henry Ford and his uber-industrial Model-T factories.
Without exploring all the facets of its history, it’s helpful to realize that the traditional 9 to 5 and the proverbial 40-hour workweek is simply a construct — a theoretical imposition created by people of long ago who worked in factories.
It’s served us pretty well over the past century or so.
But my, how times have changed.
Most work-from-homers have some autonomy over their working hours. If you do, then you are free to create a schedule that works for you and your family.
Don’t allow the workweek tradition force you to adopt a mold that doesn’t work for your family. There are so many life variables, and the 9 to 5 isn’t flexible enough to accommodate all of them. Do what you want to do with your schedule as a family.
6. Involve your family in your business.
Scary thought, huh?
At first glance, it's obviously difficult to involve the family in our work.
Your 5-year-old probably isn’t ready to create pivot tables in Excel or write a file in Node.js.
Much of my work involves SEO strategization, content creation, and creating marketing funnels. My 3-year-old son is capable of deleting apps from my iPhone, but he still doesn’t know how to run a report in Moz.
How does this work? With a bit of creativity.
Here’s an example from my recent past. I hired a designer to create three logos for a new business. I showed all the logo options to my kids, and asked them to pick which one they preferred.
Yep, user testing and feedback from my 7-year-old, 6-year-old, and 3-year-old. (My 1-year-old was sleeping at the time.)
Every family’s work-from-home situation is different. You may have a teenager who loves coding. Your 6-year-old might be eligible for taking out your office trash. One child could be hired to shred paper. Perhaps you need envelopes licked or stamps stamped.
Even if the family’s involvement is small and occasional, it can still make a remarkable difference in the way that you appreciate and engage in your work activities.
Choose what works for you
I love working from home. I also love working from my remote office.
What works for you? What it comes down to is just that — finding out what works for you.
Your family is unique. Besides, things are always changing. Your work situation, the demands of the job, the ages of the kids, school, a spouse’s job, etc.
Staying adaptive, keeping creative, and making your work-from-home situation work for you — that’s what it’s all about.
On to you:What are your secrets for working from home and still preserving family peace, productivity, and social skills?