It’s about to get very busy at home during the coronavirus pandemic.
Companies are shutting down offices and telling employees to work from home. Colleges have put their students on extended spring breaks or sent them home for the rest of the semester to finish classes virtually. School districts across the country are giving kids extended spring breaks, closing or discussing virtual learning.
How is a family supposed to get anything done if everyone is trying to work from home?
Austin’s Maura Nevel Thomas, a productivity coach and author of "Attention Management" and "Work Without Walls," works from home, often in her pajamas.
"Really, it’s not about where you work," she says. "It’s about how you work. The same rules apply at home as they do in the office."
Create separate spaces for work, if you can. If you have a room with a door, that works best.
If you don’t have a separate room with a door, you really can work from anywhere in the house, but you want to give yourself and others visible clues of when it’s work time and when it’s not work time. That means when it’s work time, the laptop is open. When it’s not, the laptop is closed and put away. Thomas does not suggest you work in a bedroom. It makes sleeping hard, she says, because you’re always thinking about work if you can see the laptop right there.
If more than one person is working/studying from home, treat it like the open office format that so many companies have. That means if you have to make a sensitive call or a call that requires quiet, you might need to find a room in the house where no one else is (don’t underestimate the closet or bathroom) to make those calls.
Create a visible signal that you are not to be disturbed when you need to concentrate. You can literally make a do-not-disturb sign and put it on your desk or table. You can have a special scarf or wear headphones. Don’t misuse this tool, though. If the kids or a partner always see you wearing the scarf or putting out the sign, they won’t take it seriously.
Allow for engagement with the household between tasks. Let kids or your partner know after you’ve completed something that you have 10 minutes for them to ask you questions or get them a snack or help with a homework problem, before you need to get back to work.
Take frequent breaks. Our brains need breaks, and we often don’t take enough of them. Thomas suggests taking a break every 50 to 90 minutes. Do something physically active such as putting in a load of laundry or unloading the dishwasher. It’s a good mental cleanse.
Give yourself a break from the house. The walls could begin to feel like they are closing in. Use breaks to walk a dog or go for a walk outside, or just get fresh air. March and April is the best time in Austin for weather, so why not set up your work space outside? (Take your allergy meds first, though).
Create communication with the office. Make it very clear how and when to reach you. Let them know that if it’s not urgent, there will be times when you won’t be answering email because you don’t want to get into the trap of always working now that work is conveniently located at home. If it is urgent, then they can text you, but it needs to be urgent. Use do not disturb on apps such as Slack to avoid work spilling into personal time.
Set up structure and rewards. Some people need to wake up, shower and get ready for work like normal to be in the work mindset. Some people are great at working in their pajamas. If you’re having trouble concentrating or getting into work mode, create a routine.
Create a task list that has tasks in bite-size pieces. If you’re one who wants to avoid work by getting a snack, playing video games or watching a TV series, create a task list and check it off. You can use snacks or a short TV or video game break as a reward for getting the tasks done.
Don’t turn on the TV or radio. If you need sound because the home office is quieter than you’re used to, listen to white noise sounds like nature, a train or the ocean, listen to instrumental music, or listen to binaural beats (you can find them on YouTube or through apps such as Focus At Will).
Figure out when your best work time is. If you have the flexibility now, you might figure out that early morning is easier than mid-day, or that late at night you’re more productive than 10 a.m. What works best for you and for the family without short-changing the work?
Create community. We are not in a phase of the coronavirus pandemic where we are being told we cannot gather in small groups. Sometimes, like in exercise, we need a work partner to hold us to task. Perhaps you might work better at a coffee shop than at home.
Get your household on a schedule. You might need a schedule of work/school time vs. play time. If it’s not going to work with everyone on the same schedule, have an understanding of when each person’s working time is so that others do not play the TV too loudly or have friends over during that time.
Make sure you have the right technology. You might need to check your internet connection and up your service with your provider. You might need to buy a hot spot or create a hot spot on your phone if you know everyone is trying to get on the same Wi-Fi network at the same time. If your laptop doesn’t have a camera and you are expected to do video conferencing, you might need to get a camera. Check with your office about what you need and what resources it might have to help you.
Thomas has suggestions for more resources and tools for working at home (including her own book, "Work Without Walls"):
• Thomas offers a time management assessment with personalized tips to help at her website: maurathomas.com/assessment.
• "Remote: Office Not Required" by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
• "The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership" by Kevin Eikenberry and Wayne Turmel
• The website todoist.com offers a remote workplace manifesto.