Working from Home in the Age of COVID-19

While there are plenty of internet memes that make light of how difficult it is to stay home and sit on the couch, the reality is much more complex. People are getting sick. There’s plenty of acrimony to go around. We’re cut off in many ways from family and friends. Many of the things that we took for granted have changed, possibly forever. We may be dealing with sick loved ones or terrifying financial concerns. Depression, loneliness, substance abuse or other issues may be affecting your life right now.

As someone who has worked from home for the better part of 20 years and who has also written a lot about productivity and work life, I know a thing or two about how to get things done when you work where you live. I’ve worked from home since 2002. That timeline included the birth of my daughter, the Great Recession, breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, and various other ups and downs. I’ve worked through periods of grief, exhaustion, financial difficulties, illness and worry. While none of us have worked from home through a pandemic before, the coping mechanisms and solutions I’ve picked up from these other experiences have helped me through this time, so I’d like to share them with you.

Take stock of where you are
Not everyone is playing on the same field now. The challenges of single people who lost most of their income and are dealing with isolation, fear and loneliness are different than those who are in a scramble to meet deadlines in crowded houses where children need homeschool help and attention. Take an honest look at your challenges now and acknowledge them. You must understand your obstacles before you can deal with them.

Figure out your MIMGDT
Every day—preferably the night before—make a list of the “minimum I must get done today.” This is a to-do list whittled down to its most essential tasks. What must get done today to keep your work and other obligations on track? Try to keep it to three to five tasks, but it may need to be more. (e.g., Do interview, outline piece, help Janie with homework, pay electric bill.) If you accomplish your MIMGDT, you’ve won the day. Anything else you do is a choice. This will help with feelings of being overwhelmed and not knowing where to start. Be as kind to yourself as possible here. It’s fine if you’re not at your most productive.

Keep a weekday (or workday) routine
If the days are starting the blend together in a disconcerting way, take back some control. Get up—maybe not as early as you usually do, but pick a reasonable time—shower, and carry out the morning routine that works for you. Keep set work hours if you can. Even if the work has dried up, spend a couple of hours each day networking and marketing yourself online. You’re trained to do certain things at certain times now. Take advantage of that.

Pay attention to your energy
We all have different times of day when our energy is better suited for different tasks. You know those productive “sweet spots” where you just get more done. You may write faster and better in the morning than any other time of day but crash by 3 p.m. You may be better on the phone after 10 a.m. or before 4 p.m. Try to schedule the tasks you have in alignment with the best time to do them. Do your writing or focus work when you’re at your best. If the kids need help with homework or you need to fit in a call to an elderly relative, choose times when you’ll still be engaged, and your mind won’t wander. Schedule rote work like paying bills or sending invoices for low-energy times.  

Also, think about when others will be at their desks or available to you. If you’re homeschooling, what hours are the teachers accessible? If you have questions for a client, what hours are best to reach them?

I often use time-blocking to manage my days. This helps me plan out my day without overscheduling. Now, more than ever, it’s important to build some open time and “slack” into your day.

Set yourself up for success
If you’re lucky enough to have a home office, make sure you have the supplies you need—pens, notepad, laptop, printer ink, etc. If you’ve been having connectivity trouble, it may be worthwhile to boost your broadband connection temporarily while everyone is at home. If you have children, create a space for them to do their work and make sure they have the equipment and supplies they need to do so.

Minimize distractions by putting your devices on “do not disturb” or turning off push notifications. Turn off the TV and don’t turn it on again until after work or school is done. Don’t run out to the store or do other errands during work or school hours unless it’s necessary. Treat those hours as sacred. Use blocking software like Freedom if you find that social media or certain websites are a distraction.

Keep a touchstone list
The constant worry about the physical, mental and financial fallout of the pandemic can be overwhelming. It’s easy to spiral into negative emotions. One way to keep yourself grounded is to write out your fears and the actions you would take and resources you could access to deal with them if the worst comes to pass. Keeping a written list gives you something to consult when you’re feeling panicky or fearful. For example, if you’re worried about finances, think about the options you have, including:

  • Looking for a part-time job in industries that are hiring.
  • Accessing savings, if possible
  • Taking a loan from a bank or credit union
  • Deferring payments or entering a forbearance program

And, then add relevant reminders, too. For example, many people are experiencing financial hardship now. You are not alone. There will likely be other measures put in place to help people recover financially, similar to after the Great Recession. Remind yourself that you are far more than your financial challenges.

Beware of overwork
Just as it’s easy to fritter the day away with errands or distractions when you live where you work, there is also a real temptation to work all the time. Instead of hanging out with your family, you can just do one more thing. Pick a time of day when you close the door on your work (metaphorically or literally) until the next day.

Also, keep in mind that the typical person can focus for a maximum of about 90 minutes before needing a break. So, periodically get up. Stretch. Drink a glass of water or grab a cup of tea or coffee. Check in with a friend. If it has been 24 hours and you have not been outdoors, you need to step out and get some fresh air.

Keep tabs on behavior changes
You know yourself better than anyone. Extroverts may need regular contact with others to stay energized. More introverted types may be fine with more time alone but can still get lonely and depressed if isolated for too long. Think about the amount of contact with others you need in your life and work on arranging phone calls and video chats to get the connection you need.

If you find yourself avoiding contact with others, feeling sad or depressed, using alcohol or other substances to excess, or are experiencing mood or behavior changes, let someone know. In fact, if you are prone to depression or anxiety, you might want to let a friend know in advance and ask that they check on you. Getting help when you’re feeling bad can be difficult. Free and low-cost online therapy is available. Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous have online meetings.

No approach will work equally for everyone, and there are many styles of working from home. But these are some basic best practices to get you started. Pay attention to how you’re feeling and where
you’re struggling at first, then adapt.

Good luck to each of you. And thanks for doing your part for all of us.