(& five changes that will help…)
As a freelance consultant, I have been fortunate enough to work from home for the past three years. Here are my seven top tips for effective working at home and some of the changes that I am implementing due to the Coronavirus outbreak.
- Define, and stick to, a routine
When I left the corporate sector, I was used to the 9-5(ish) routine, so when I set up on my own I simply stuck to the same working pattern. Having this sense of routine has helped me to:
Establish boundaries – my clients know when I am working and when I am not. I have been able to explain to friends and neighbours who would see that I am home and pop in for coffee and chat, that I have defined working hours, just as if I was in an office.
My family know too that I am working, but they also know when I take my breaks and this is when we can catch up.
Having said this, it is important that you stick to your boundaries. This will encourage people, both family and friends, to understand that these are important and should be respected.
- Have a dedicated space for work
And don’t work in front of the TV. Just as office furniture is important in an office, it is equally as important at home. I have a desk in a defined space, in a separate room. This means that I can be away from the family, which helps me to focus and manage distractions when the children are home. I can also leave my desk and shut the office door to symbolize the end of the working day. As part of my self-discipline and self-care (which I will come onto), I try not to go back to my desk when the working day is finished. This helps me to maintain the distinction between work time and home time (although, admittedly, this can sometimes be quite tricky).
- Design your workspace
If you are like me, you will spend anything up to eight hours a day, five days a week at your desk. But remember, it is not your desk at the office, it is a workspace in your home. Consider how you can make it an inspiring space, somewhere where you love to be, whether you are working or not. I have pictures from the children on the wall, motivational postcards, good luck cards from when I first went freelance and thank-you cards from happy clients, as well as pictures of places where I would like to travel to in the future.
I love scented candles and flowers too. These are often on my desk, because every time I look at them, I smile. I also have my playlists and I relish the opportunity to listen to the music I like, whatever my mood.
- Plan and stay organised
You are in charge of your own time when you work from home. And whilst this may seem a luxury (and it is), it comes with a need to be disciplined. Planning helps, particularly in two key areas:
- Procrastination – a plan will help you to make the most your time and prevent you from thinking “I will do that tomorrow” when you know that you need to do it today, or potentially putting off that task which you don’t want to do.
- Productivity – without the structure of a team, or a boss looking over your shoulder, it can be tricky to remember all the things that you need to do. And it is equally easy to lose sight of priorities, deadlines and all the little things.
I use the project-management tool Teamwork, a paper diary and a to-do list. All these ensure that I keep track of deadlines, appointments and meetings. Recently, I have amalgamated my home and personal to-do lists into one big list. Whilst this combined task list seemed overwhelming to begin with, over time it has helped me to build a better work-life balance and be more productive overall.
Planning will help you to stay focused, disciplined and build healthy working from home habits, such as letting the loading of the washing machine wait until lunchtime.
- Take breaks and move
Very quickly, I realised that I was sitting at my desk for two-to-three, sometimes four, hours at a time. This was affecting my neck, shoulder and posture. A visit to an osteopath was a wake-up call for me.
I now have breaks scheduled into my routine and I wear a fitness watch, which reminds me to move every hour.
I take a proper lunch break and walk the dog. The walking gives me much-needed fresh air, time for creative thinking and a chance to enjoy nature. I have deliberately chosen not to use this time to listen to podcasts. I will often leave my phone at home for a one-hour detox, to make sure that I notice the flowers around me, the enjoyment of my dog chasing her stick and listen to the birds sing.
This leaves me rejuvenated and refreshed for the afternoon’s activities.
- Get dressed
Working in my pyjamas has never appealed to me and every day I get dressed. I may not put on my make-up if I am not seeing anyone but, although I have occasionally been caught out by a short-notice Zoom conference call, there are days when I like to give my skin a rest from make-up.
- Stay connected
Working from home can be lonely, so networking has become a strategy for me. It helps me to stay connected with people. I am a firm advocate of using the phone and face-to face-contact, whether that is in-person or online. Zoom was one of the first programmes I learned to use as a freelancer, and I am still learning Facebook Live. I have found that I talk more to strangers; fellow dog walkers, shop assistants and the postman!
Five changes I am making
As I write this, we are probably in the first full week of Coronavirus, with many of us staying at home and avoiding social contact. So what am I changing?
It is hard to control my anxiety – I will be honest here. There is so much information about a virus which we know very little about. I worry for my family, my elderly neighbours, local businesses, cafés, music venues and restaurants which have been a key part of my life. I know that my anxiety is not healthy, so I am taking steps to actively reduce it, by focussing on my client work projects and learning projects such as my diploma, which I started at the beginning of this month.
Also, I am limiting my time on social media – strange, you might think, for a communications professional. But I can effectively weed through the content I don’t want to see and find the news sources which I do want to read.
Find the opportunity
When you are freelance, you have an acute sense of the value of time. I am trying to take advantage of the additional time I have, now that so many appointments have been cancelled. My aforementioned to-do list has been filled with books I want to read – business and pleasure, skills I would like to improve upon, including Canva and Facebook Live. When I start to feel anxious, I look at my to-do list and get stuck in, learning something new, or de-cluttering the house.
Connecting and checking in
I am consciously reaching out and speaking to friends, family and work colleagues. Whereas in the past, I may have gone for a few days without catching up with some people, now I am embracing technology; Zoom, which I have previously mentioned, Facebook, WhatsApp, Facetime and the phone. Loneliness is going to become a key factor, especially for those living alone.
Defining an exercise routine
Now that my martial arts and yoga studio has closed, I have designed an exercise routine to help ensure that I don’t slip into bad habits and lose the fitness which I have been so determined to build up. I am excited that both my martial arts and yoga teachers are embracing technology to deliver online programmes.
Being more flexible with my work routine
At the moment, the children are still at school, but I am being more flexible in my routines, and my working hours, so that I can be with them when they come in from school, yet still remain productive. I can imagine that when the schools do close and the children are also working at home every day, the need to find quiet time to myself will become an important aspect of my self-care.
I believe that there will be a legacy from this virus which will include many things, including embracing technology a little more openly. I also believe that it will remind us of the true value of human-to-human contact, face-to-face conversations and, above all, being caring, empathetic and supportive to our fellow man.