Working from home is what I do when I’m not travelling all around the world to provide consultancy and training to help in-house PR teams and PR agencies modernise and adopt the latest global best practice in public relations, communications and public affairs. This includes many countries in the European Union as well as India, Ukraine, Australia, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Kenya, Turkey, Lebanon, Russia, Malaysia, Singapore and more.
This means that when I’m not travelling I work from home so over the years I have learnt a lot from experience and picked up some great tips from other people. As Coronavirus (COVID-19) means more people face the possibility of working from home I thought it is worth sharing some of my top tips for home working.
Before I get into my 10 top tips for working from home I want to touch on some of the main advantages and disadvantages.
Advantages of home working
No commute – this is a big one. Even if your commute is only 30 minutes each way then that is five hours a week. If it is an hour each way then that is 10 hours wasted that you could have been either working or using for leisure and relaxation. That is more than an extra working day every week! Or alternatively, it means the elusive four day week is possible and you’ve still got more working hours every week. It is up to you if you use those extra hours for work or leisure. My tip is do both. Some weeks you’ll want to work those extra hours, others you’ll want to relax.
Flexibility – you’re there to look after children when they are on holiday or ill. You can make a dentist, optician or doctor appointment at convenient times. You can do grocery shopping when it is quiet. You can take a late afternoon break to pop tasty, healthy, cheap slow-cooked stews etc in the oven or on the stove. You are in for deliveries (although a downside is that at Christmas you risk becoming the neighbourhood drop off point) The flexibility options are almost limitless.
Money – you save money on the commute and from not buying expensive barista coffee and extortionate lunches. Lunch can be tasty leftovers from last night’s diner you’ve had time to cook because you weren’t commuting. You can also claim some of the expenses of working from home on your tax return (but take advice on this).
Disadvantages of home working
There really aren’t that many disadvantages. The biggest challenge is related to my first tip in that your home needs to be big enough to enable you to work from home.
Lonely – Some people complain that it can be lonely, but if that is you it is not hard to solve. Just make sure you go out every day. It doesn’t need to cost money as it can be for a walk in the local park, volunteering at a local community group, a hobby or interest group. There are lots of ways to get to meet people.
Exercise – this one surprised me. If you work in an office you do a surprising amount of steps just getting there and moving around while you are there. Working from home you don’t. So even if you consciously go for a walk every day you’ll probably find you are doing fewer steps than you did when you were in an office.
Grocery shopping – can be a pain as you never ‘pass’ anywhere to pick up fresh stuff that you are short of. This means you’ve either got to be very disciplined about your weekly shop and meal planning or have to go out just to get missing supplies to cook that night’s dinner.
Top 10 tips for working from home
1) Create the right work environment
This is my single most important tip. Never work slobbing on the sofa, perched on a coffee table or even on the dining room or kitchen table where you’ll need to clear you work environment every day in or order to eat your dinner.
I now have a dedicated home office in the garden. It even has an air hockey table so it feels like a cool tech start-up office… although truthfully it’s my daughter’s and the office was the only place big enough for it.
But in previous incarnations of working from home, I’ve converted a spare bedroom into an office and once even crammed into the box room. If you don’t have space for this then have a dedicated table or desk in the corner of another room and cover it with a nice drape at the close of every work day.
Invest in a proper desk chair. Even a cheap one will be better than using a dining chair. You can get great bargains online or see if there is a second-hand office furniture store near you as it’s possible to strike lucky.
To use the chair you’ll need a dedicated desk or table. I have a desk so it has proper storage space with drawers and cubby holes. This makes it easy to have everything I need easily at hand and keeps the top of my desk clear of clutter which helps me to focus and be more creative.
2) Use the right kit
Just because you’re working at home there is no need to struggle along on a laptop with a tiny keyboard and screen. Using an external monitor, full-size keyboard and mouse make a huge difference to your productivity. It even gives you a dual-screen setup.
I’ve gone even farther and my Surface Laptop 3 is plugged into a Surface Dock connected to two 27″ monitors – one in landscape and one in portrait. With my laptop screen, this gives me three screens to work with and my iPad below the monitors is a fourth. I only really appreciate how amazingly productive this set up is when I’m forced to work from elsewhere. The dock is also connected to an external hard drive for automated backups and external Logitech speakers for surround sound. My Logitech keyboard is solar powered and the mouse is rechargeable so I’m never left hunting for batteries.
3) Act like you are in the office
That means have a routine for starting work every day. Get dressed and be smart enough that if you have to meet someone unexpectedly then you’re acceptably dressed, although probably not perfectly dressed. This definitely means no pyjamas, jogging bottoms with t-shirts etc. It does mean smart casual.
4) Create an action list every day
I use Microsoft To-Do, but there are loads of to-do and task management apps so pick one that works for you. If you’re old school then you can use pen and paper. If you don’t have the discipline of others around you it’s easy to get sidetracked so use the task list to identify the essential tasks each day and to make sure you make progress on some important tasks with longer deadlines and some progress on at least one task of the sort that too often get left to another day.
The reason I like Microsoft To-Do is it starts each day with a blank canvas and clicking the light bulb on My Day prompts it to suggest tasks for you to do that day. I usually spend about three to four minutes doing this. I always check my email first as any emails I flag in Outlook get synced with To-Do so it then prompts me to add them to My Day, or nags me on subsequent days if I haven’t done them.
5) Exploit the benefits of working from home
This means if you are an early morning person then start work as early as possible and finish earlier. Take a break to make yourself a tasty snack. Pop-out to walk the dog, go for a jog, read a book or even have half an hour on your favourite video game. But make sure you manage that time. If you’ve allocated 30 minutes then that’s all you’ve got. Time your lunch so you can watch the lunchtime news or catch-up on your favourite TV show.
6) Set clear boundaries for other people in your home
Once again there is no ‘best’ way to do this. Do what works for you. But make sure everyone knows what your ‘work rules’ are. Just because you’re at home, doesn’t mean you are available to do chores, wait in for deliveries, walk the dog or play with the children etc. However, it doesn’t mean you aren’t available to do these things either as one of the benefits of working from home is you can choose to do these things during the ‘working day’, just as long as the work still gets done when it needs to be done by.
7) Make video calls instead of phone calls
This has multiple benefits. Firstly, it helps ensure you are presentable every day. Now many offices are smart casual it doesn’t mean you have to dress in a suit at home, but it does mean the pyjamas are out. It also motivates you to keep your desk and the area around it tidy. It’s also a lot more social and it’s a lot easier to have a little bit of social banter when you can see someone.
8) Use the best technology solutions
First and foremost ensure you’ve got a fast and reliable internet connection with a fallback. If my Virgin fibre connection goes down I can share the internet from my Android mobile. I’ve tested all my important devices in advance so can switch seamlessly if I need to. At home you can’t call on an IT support person to come to your desk and solve your PICNIC problem so learn how to do some stuff yourself. There is no alternative to ramping up your own technology skills. There’s really no excuse not to as the internet is awash with how-to guides and videos.
Another part of my technology set up is a Mesh network which provides robust internet all around the house and makes it really easy to create a guest network should I have visitors. This keeps my work data safe and secure from friends and family.
Make sure you use the cloud as your primary file storage so you can easily access your files from wherever you happen to be. I use Microsoft Office 365 which comes with ample space on SharePoint and OneDrive. I’ve also got free Google Drive, Dropbox and Box accounts for the occasional client who works with one of them.
If I’m using subcontractors, partners or freelances I tend to get them to use my Office 365 tools unless there is a compelling reason not to (there usually isn’t and ‘don’t like it’ isn’t a good reason). It’s much more effective to stick to your own systems than struggle along with ones you aren’t as familiar with. One big benefit of Office 365 is it doesn’t get blocked by big corporates as often as some of the trendier tools do.
For coordinating remote teams then Teams and Planner are two of the most useful tools in Office 365. Teams is similar to Slack and Planner is similar to Trello. One of the main advantages is the learning curve for both set-up and using them is faster and easier than two separate tools. The fact they are already integrated makes collaboration much faster and easier.
One of my favourite aspects of Planner is that all of the tasks that are assigned to me automatically sync with my Microsoft To-Do app. This makes planning every day a cinch as I see my private tasks and team tasks in one place. It even helpfully prompts me as to what it thinks needs doing each day.
Another useful tool is Toggl. I use it to keep track of my time and helps with self-discipline to make sure I’m spending my time on the right things. At the time of writing this blog post has taken 31 minutes. Based on previous blog posts I’m estimating it will be about two hours in total, including finding images, doing some SEO on the post and then promoting it via social media.
PICNIC – Problem In Chair Not In Computer.
9) Sort the legals and finance
Before you start working from home make sure you’ve researched the legal and financial implications. In most countries (certainly in the UK and USA) there are tax allowances for expenses associated with working from home. There are lots of websites giving advice on this or if you have one then ask your accountant (don’t assume they will tell you).
You also need to check that any business equipment you use at home is covered under your home insurance policy, or take out a dedicated business policy. If you are using your employers’ equipment then make sure you’ve checked with the employer that you are adequately covered and won’t be responsible for any loss, damage or theft.
Take great care if you have work-related visitors at home as then you’re into the thorny issue of public liability insurance. If you have an employer make sure the employer has sorted it. If you work for yourself make sure you are covered.
10) Create your own rules
These are tips and rules that work for me, based on more than 15 years’ experience of working from home (in two separate periods, then running a company in an office in the intervening period). What I am certain about is the need for structure, routines and rules or whatever you want to call them. The biggest dangers of working from home are distraction and lack of motivation. You need to create a system for yourself that keeps you focused on what’s important to you.