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You’re Working At Home During The Pandemic. Here’s How To Do It (And Keep The Peace)

A couple kiss,  at the Barcelona airport, Spain, Thursday, March 12, 2020. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)
A couple kiss, at the Barcelona airport, Spain, Thursday, March 12, 2020. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

I was coaching a client via Skype earlier this week. As she logged in, I saw trees and grass, and could hear the birds chirping in the background.

“Sorry about the noise and the odd setting,” she said, rolling her eyes. “My husband’s whole company is working from home and he’s been on non-stop calls all day.”

The backyard was the quietest place she could find. Thankfully, she lives in sunny California. Where would she have gone if she lived in Nebraska?

You, too, may soon be working from home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic (tens of thousands of people already are). To manage the weeks ahead, you and your partner will need to take a structured approach. Here’s how.

Don’t Start From Scratch

You know what a workday feels like. (And your kids know what it means to be in school.) Now is the time to rely on those existing models to set up your own temporary — and likely, totally imperfect — structures at home.

Designate Clear Work Spaces

Establish two separate and specific workspaces, ideally each with a door so you can control your own work environment and limit distractions and interruptions.

If space is limited and you cannot create two independent working areas (or if you prefer the pleasure of working side by side) take a cue from co-working spaces: Establish one shared space for quiet work (think library), and use a different space where you can close the door to take phone calls.

Each space needs strong internet access, a clear work surface and a good folder or bin system for organizing work projects. Designating three separate trays to divvy up the work — “to-do;” “in-progress;” “done-bring to office” — could do the trick, and make quick cleanup easy.

A semblance of structure, however imperfect, will offer some sense of normalcy, and we could all use some of that

When possible, avoid everyday family areas, such as the kitchen, living room or bedroom. It’s best if those spaces can remain dedicated to relaxation during your time-off.

Structure Your Day 

Just because you can work anytime, doesn’t mean you should.

You must create a clear structure with a start time, lunchtime and end time to put edges on your workday. To the degree that you and your partner can eat lunch and/or end your day at the same time, go for it. (That’s one of the nice things about working from home.)

As a general rule for ensuring your own productivity, consider subdividing and balancing your day between three distinct types of activity: quiet time to work on deep-thinking projects, meetings, and response time to colleagues/clients.

Separate Work From Home

One way to make the mental shift in and out of your workday is to simulate a daily commute. Get dressed, take a walk around the block and arrive back at work. When work is over, change into your loungewear, take a walk around the block and arrive home. (It’s a lot of walking around the block, but the signal it sends to your brain, and to others, works!)

Likewise, use the huge chunk of time you gain by not commuting, thoughtfully. Don’t simply extend the workday or mindlessly turn to extra housework. Seize that time for the work-life balance activities you don't usually have time for: health, wellness, and family time.

When life dictates that you live and work in the same place, it can also be hard to find a place to relax. Designate two to three areas as purely “home” spaces, where you create a calm oasis for rest and relaxation; and as a general rule, don’t work in those spots.

Also, be sure to keep daily household chores contained. Resist the urge to reorganize the pantry or load the dishwasher when you go to grab a second cup of coffee.

What About The Kids?

Thousands of parents are now facing the very real possibility of working from home, while their kids are out of school. Many won’t have child care.

If you can stay organized, you needn’t panic that you are getting so much less done. 

Before you think attempting to work from home and parent is a lost cause, remember that you are probably gaining two to three hours a day (that might otherwise be spent commuting), and perhaps a couple of hours more, in time freed from the constant interruptions that come from colleagues in open work environments. If you can stay organized, you needn’t panic that you are getting so much less done.

For the sanity of you (and your entire family), your kids need a plan. Try to keep your kids’ schedule as consistent as possible, by transferring the structure of the school day to home, doing your best to include blocks of activity that mirror the learning and play they usually do. Have reading time. Art time. Dance time. Recess. Even kindergartners can help their parents recreate the rhythm of their school day at home.

If you have a two-parent home, consider a two-hours on, two-hours off schedule with your partner — one person is in charge (and fielding all the kid-related interruptions), while the other person gets some work done. Then swap.

Sir Ernest Shackleton, noted British explorer and writer, is shown as he arrived in New York on the Aquitania, on a trip to Canada, Jan. 30, 1921. (AP)
Sir Ernest Shackleton, noted British explorer and writer, is shown as he arrived in New York on the Aquitania, on a trip to Canada, Jan. 30, 1921. (AP)

Perhaps you’ve heard of Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer, whose ship, The Endurance, became trapped in the sea ice in 1914. He kept every single member of his crew alive for two years on the ice, and another year sailing them to Elephant Island in small boats, before they were rescued in 1917. There’s so much more to the story, but what struck me most about Shackleton’s heroic leadership is how he used the power of structure as one of the tools to their survival.

He created a predictable rhythm to each day — wake time, mealtime, work time, playtime — which kept Shackleton and his crew sane, calm and tethered to reality, and each other, during extraordinary times.

This disruption in our day to day lives has come on in dramatic fashion. But a semblance of structure, however imperfect, will offer some sense of normalcy, and we could all use some of that. Amidst all the uncertainty and anxiety you may be feeling, this might be just the time to tackle some of the personal and professional projects you’ve been putting off for years.

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Julie Morgenstern Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Morgenstern is the author of six best-selling books, and a leading expert on organization, business productivity and time management.

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