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Today, a third of Americans are working from home. This number has risen dramatically, up from 3-4% prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, according to a recent episode of NPR’s podcast Morning Edition. A similar pattern has emerged in other industrial countries affected by the pandemic. Fortunately, those new to telecommuting can easily find advice for remote-work success. As someone who has worked remotely part- or full-time for decades, I find myself reading articles with work-at-home pointers and thinking, “Yes, that’s good advice, but…”
The tips, designed to mitigate the potential downsides of working remotely, fall into three categories: workspace, schedule and technology.
The advice usually starts with “establish a designated workspace.” This is great advice, says Tom Ownbey, who manages proposals for Teladoc Health, Inc. and has worked in his home office for years. “My computers and monitors, keyboard and files are all where I want them. The only disturbance during the day is a pet wandering through. At the end of the day, I shut my door and I’m ‘out of the office.’ When I return the next morning, everything is right where I left it.”
Priscilla Swain, a director of sales and marketing at Casenet LLC, agrees. “My husband and I are both now working at home full-time. I need a room with a door to minimize distractions when I have a client call.”
Sometimes carving out a dedicated workspace simply isn’t possible. Since COVID-19 has grounded her, Margo Brenner, senior proposal writer at Change Healthcare, finds herself working in a “relatively small house,” alongside her husband and her three daughters of high school and college age. In this case, communication is critical. “In the morning and sometimes throughout the day, we negotiate who needs what space. The key is to be flexible.”
The model they follow isn’t an office with assigned workspaces but an open seating office, where space is claimed on a first come, first serve basis, and quiet rooms are reserved as needed.
It’s also critical to be intentional about moving around, even when you have a dedicated office. “I can go from early morning to dinner time without leaving my desk, except to grab a sandwich mid-day. That’s not good,” Ownbey says. Workers in an office sometimes go to a coworker’s desk, meet in a conference room or take a walk. You can do the same when working at home.
Swain says that as much as she appreciates having a home office, she often works in a different part of the house for a while. “A change of scenery does me good.”
A second piece of advice is to “work on a set schedule.” Ownbey, Swain and Brenner all agree this is important. Swain’s routine means she and her husband can share meals, get their work done and still have time to train for a marathon in the evening.
Ownbey stresses that a schedule not only helps you remain productive but also helps you stop working. He says, “A routine for getting into work mode is important, but so is a routine for ending the workday.”
During the pandemic, many at-home workers must also care for small children or check on older parents. Flexibility and communication are critical to make it work.
Although Swain sticks to a generally consistent schedule, she and her husband discuss their days each morning to determine who can walk the dogs. “This investment in planning ensures the rest of the day goes smoothly,” she says.
It’s OK to take advantage of being home, Brenner says. Having everyone in one house day and night means more laundry to be washed and more meals to be prepared, but, “I appreciate that between meetings, I can move laundry from the washer to dryer or preheat the oven.”
The final recommendation we often see is to “use technology to create face-to-face time.” At Ownbey’s company, the use of video meetings has significantly grown since everyone started working at home. “I like it,” he says. “It helps me build relationships.”
Brenner appreciates the glimpse into other people’s worlds. “I enjoy seeing my coworkers’ pets or children. It’s a good reminder that we are all dealing with something, and we need to be forgiving of others and of ourselves.”
It can be awkward when your home workspace is a guest bedroom with bunkbeds over your left shoulder or when you’re presenting from your kitchen and a family member chooses that moment to open a bag of chips. And sometimes — if you’re working on a pressing RFP deadline, for example — there is simply no time for make-up and blow drying. Swain says that while her company has frequent video meetings, she often notices one or more colleagues opting out of using their cameras “and that’s OK.”
The bottom line is this: Consider all the advice, but adapt it to your circumstances and work style. Find a work location that works for you, even if it is not dedicated, and get up and move around sometimes. Create a default schedule, even if it’s non-traditional, but allow yourself flexibility to meet today’s challenges. Finally, while you try to replicate the benefits of working at the office, remember to also embrace the benefits of working at home. Linger over morning coffee instead of commuting, replace the business suit with a baseball cap, enjoy lunch in your garden with your housemate and hug your kids between conference calls.
Tracy Warren, CF APMP, is the director of proposal development at Teladoc Health, Inc. and an experienced proposal leader. She is passionate about building and developing proposal teams, creating processes that drive excellence, promoting strategic focus, developing proposal intelligence and helping team members build rewarding careers.