COVID-19 and Working from Home

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Ruminations from a work-from-home veteran.

Editor’s note: Our country first went into lockdown in March. Now winter approaches, and the changes we thought would be temporary remain. We’re running this article again because the points made in it are still relevant.  

This is it. The new normal.

We’ve all heard that statement over and over for the last few weeks, but what does it really mean? Regular updates from politicians and health department personnel. Constant news media coverage. Minimal movement away from your residence. Social/physical distancing. Working from home.

The last one is something I can help you with.

I’ve been a home worker for a few years now. I started doing it part-time when my company’s head office moved 45 minutes away. Since I started with iTech Solutions, I’ve been at home full-time unless I’m traveling for sales meetings, technical installs, and speaking engagements. I have everything I need (just about) in the comfort of my house.

When COVID-19 exploded, I put together some tips on Twitter, and I think it really helped a few people. I’ve had a chance to reflect and adjust my thoughts a little bit, so I’m going to impart some of those tips here.

Working Area Management

Create a defined work area. This segregates your home from your “office.” It’s tempting to work from your couch or even your bed. And I’m certainly guilty of it. The problem is nearly 100 percent mental. If you work on your couch and watch TV on your couch and spend family time on your couch, your work life and home life get far too intertwined. Your family won’t know if you’re working or just mucking about on Facebook. That alone will cause tension in the household. If you live alone, this is less of a concern. However, I’d strongly suggest delineating where you work from where you play. Home workers need boundaries; otherwise, they never shut off the “work” part of the brain.

Ergonomically speaking, have you ever spent a week working from your couch or bed? If you suffer from a bad back like I do, you’ll never make that mistake again. If you don’t have a decent chair, you’d best order one. You’ll want to ensure that you’re comfortable yet protecting your back. This is not the time you want to head to a doctor because of something you could have prevented by sitting up straight in an ergonomic chair.

From a space-management perspective, if you do have kids at home, get them used to your office being your work area. Set boundaries and rules for them. “If you hear mommy or daddy on the phone while in their work area, don’t knock on the door unless it’s an emergency.”

Technical Connectivity

Ensure you’re working via Virtual Private Network (VPN) if at all possible. That’ll allow access to your work network and all digital resources. IBM’s Access Client Solutions (ACS) is a real winner here too. You don’t need to install it. It’s a quick download and config. So to mobilize a home workforce, you should highly consider using ACS from a simplicity standpoint alone.

Yes, you can run a NAT rule on your corporate firewall to allow direct access to systems. That’s a last-case resort. And if you do anything like that, you need to encrypt it.

Time Management

Keep track of your time. In case your boss doesn’t measure production by actual productivity, it’s good to have something to show what you’re up to all day.

Also, set defined working hours. Nobody can stop a late-night emergency call, but you shouldn’t be working much outside of working hours. Working from home is seductive. You can get caught up in your increased productivity pretty easily. Years ago, I used to think, “If you give your employees a smartphone, you get a 24-hour employee.” It’s still true today to some extent. I find my productivity has increased by a substantial margin. Nobody is at my desk or hovering in my office door wanting to chat. Nobody stops me on my way to the washroom or kitchen, other than the kids. But nobody wants to interrupt my work with more work.

Kids Management

I mentioned kids regarding space. Since school is canceled in many places, you have to also worry about what to do with the children. They need structure. If they don’t have structure, you can forget about your structure. If my kids don’t have structure, my house is like The Lord of the Flies.

It’s important for them to have play time, study time, reading time, backyard time, whatever. Have a schedule for them so you can be involved every so often to guide and direct, rather than throwing a fit when they get idle and run amok on your usually clean household.

Also, if they do come into your “office” with a question, you need to put down what you’re doing, give them 100 percent of your attention and answer the question. If you don’t, they will be back interrupting you over and over again. Do your best to satisfy their questions and desire for attention.

Home Behavior and Keeping Connected

Yes, it’s easy to now roll out of bed and onto a conference call. You may have the urge to sleep in due to the lack of commuting and get to work before you even put your pants on.

That’s a massive mistake. Get up and do your regular routine. Breakfast, shower, exercise. In an age of uncertainty and fear, you need to keep a sense of normalcy and control within the house. It’s good for your physical and mental health. It’s also good for your overall state of mind. After I get a shower, run the dog, and make breakfast for the kids, I go into “work mode.” A routine sets the expectation for yourself and anyone else you’re sharing space with.

Also, you need to go outside. See the sunlight. Breathe fresh air. Get those mental and physical health breaks.

With regards to keeping connected, you really need to use video conferencing. Seeing friends, family, and the people you work with every day needs to continue. It helps everyone feel connected and relatively normal. It helps satisfy your social requirements as a human being. At the time of this writing, I’ve been isolated already for about 14 days. I’ve done a couple of grocery runs, and I took the snowblower out and did five or six of my neighbors’ driveways. Talking to people from 20 feet away never felt so bittersweet. Biologically, we are social animals. You need that face-to-face contact with your work mates, and technology can help.

Meal Planning and Chores

That’s right. Meals and chores. You have a great opportunity to do right by your housemates. Everyone is eating at home more than usual. That means more dishes. More toilet paper. And so on and so forth. Set aside time to put a roast in the oven or fold a load of laundry. That way, you’re not rolling out of the “office” at the end or your workday, wondering why dinner isn’t done or the house is a mess. Do your part. It’ll pay off. And it’ll help keep you safer.

Set aside five minutes to sanitize the doorknobs. Set ten minutes to give the floor a quick vacuum. A clean house allows me to both relax and work successfully. It’s a control thing too. If you keep the things you can control under control, you’ll feel a little better while the world is falling apart outside.

This Too Shall Pass

Stay safe. Stay inside. Stay strong.

I’ll see you on the other side of this.