Basics of the Six-Meter Commute

16 March, 2020

Now that the coronavirus is all over the news, I’m hearing a lot about companies and employees setting up their telecommuting strategies. A lot of it sounds as though they are trying to reinvent the wheel. Here’s some unsolicited advice from a work-at-home veteran. In 2013, I started doing freelance writing and editing, joining a small army of kindred souls who work remotely as a matter of routine. None of what I’m telling you here is new—it’s all basic stuff that you need to know if you’re new at working from home.

First off, attitude matters. Work is work, and wherever you’re working from, you still need to keep up the quality and deliver things on time. If you have a separate room that you can use as an office, so much the better, but it’s not an absolute requirement. Avoid setting your workspace up in your bedroom if possible, because you don’t want to be looking at a pile of unfinished work when you’re trying to fall asleep at the end of a long day. I work from a corner of my living room, and when I’m at my desk, my mind says, “you’re at work now.”

Setting Up Your Space

Figure out in advance what office supplies you’re going to need. Unless your employer specifically says it’s OK to raid the supply room, you’re better off stocking up from the local office supply store. Depending on the type of work you do, you’re likely to need pens, printer paper, and printer ink (in a form that fits your home printer, of course). It’s better to have those things in advance so you’re not running around town trying to find that one specific printer cartridge half an hour before that signed contract is due.

A decent chair is a must for preventing back and neck problems. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but don’t just power through that lower back pain. Pay attention to what your body is telling you, and if it’s griping, get up and walk around for a bit. Even if your body isn’t griping, get your eyes off that screen and get your legs and arms moving several times a day as a matter of routine. If you spend hours at a stretch slouching on a saggy couch with your eyes glued to your laptop or tablet, it’s going to come back and bite you in the long run.

You’re going to need a decent internet connection, so get that set up in advance, before you have to rely on it. Make sure that whatever computer or tablet you’re going to be using will run the software you need to get the job done. If you’re bringing your work laptop home with you, make sure you have room to set that up on your desk, along with all the other stuff that’s already there.

Depending on the nature of the work you do, you might also need a reliable phone connection. That can be an internet service like VOIP or an actual land line phone. Don’t rely on your cell phone unless you have really amazing, reliable reception in your work area and your phone is charged up at all times. My work often involves recording interviews for articles I’m writing, and I use an AI service to transcribe the recordings afterwards. I have a 1980s-vintage Princess phone plugged into a FIOS line. The sound quality is great, and it never cuts out on me.

If you’re going to be doing conference calls or video conferences, set things up well in advance—don’t wait until the last minute. Do a test run with a friend or colleague to make sure that you know how to use the software and your connection actually works. For a video conference, make sure that the part of you that appears on screen looks professional. Hair combed, no R-rated T-shirts. Check yourself out on the monitor to make sure the lighting is OK. You don’t want to look like something from a horror movie, but you also don’t want so much sunshine coming through the window that it wipes out your face.

 Even if you’re just doing audio, try to keep the background noise at a minimum. No vacuum cleaners, noisy dishwashers, or blasting stereos. Plan to send the kids and pets to another room instead of trusting that they can contain themselves for the duration of the call.

Navigating Your Day

Now that your workspace is all set up, let’s get back to the attitude. It really helps to get dressed to go to work every day. You don’t necessarily need the business suit (unless you have a really important video call), but somehow, staying in my jammies or sweatpants all day doesn’t trigger the “I’m at work” message in my mind. The morning shower, clean jeans and a knit top, and a healthy breakfast all help me get into the groove when I sit down at my desk.

Time management is especially important, especially when you’re not surrounded by busy co-workers. Finding the right balance between grinding yourself to a nub and goofing off all day takes a bit of practice. Your remote schedule probably won’t be exactly the same as your office schedule, but once you hit your groove, you can get a lot of things done.

In one article I read, a manager went on and on about how much time his remote employees spent playing online games and checking their social media accounts. Apparently, he spent much of his day tracking their every move, which doesn’t strike me as a particularly productive use of his time. Obviously, you don’t want to turn into a total slacker at home, but I’m guessing that even when you’re in the office, you take a break now and then. Making the transition to remote working requires a bit of an adjustment period where you try things out to see what works and what doesn’t. 

I keep a small whiteboard with a list of projects and deadlines—it feels great to put a big red check mark through items as I finish them. Also, I keep a work diary (it’s an ordinary spiral-bound notebook) where I jot down things that I need to remember to tell my clients, issues to resolve, and anything else I need to deal with each day. I write down the time I start and stop on each project, even for clients who aren’t paying me by the hour. Not only does this give me a realistic sense of the level of effort a particular type of project requires, it keeps me from going down a rabbit hole and spending too much time on a task that really doesn’t require that level of effort.

Now that I’ve been at this for a while, my schedule is more customized toward helping me get things done. It takes me a while to get up to speed in the morning, so I start the day doing small, but necessary things like checking email, billing clients, and reviewing what I need to work on that day. Once I have some momentum going, I launch into the more demanding tasks. I always take a lunch break, but the timing varies depending on what I’m doing (and when my stomach tells me it’s time). I deal with the mid-afternoon slump by going out for a walk, getting my shopping done (the stores are never crowded then), or doing a bit of housework—anything that gets me moving around and away from the screen. Then I come back and work some more. The schedule varies—there’s one particular 4:30 PM yoga class I especially like—but I do have a schedule. If I’m still going strong at 8PM, that makes up for the long walk I took at 3PM. The main point is to get things done when they need to be done.

Keep Calm and Carry On

If you’re not used to working from home, you can expect to hit a few glitches. You can reach out to your more experienced telecommuter friends for advice, but just know that you can’t anticipate everything. You might need to postpone certain things until you’re back in the office, or you might need to find a less than perfect work-around. It’s not the end of the world if your cat hacks up a fur ball on the rug while you’re in the middle of a conference call with a client.

Stay in contact with your friends and co-workers. Chances are, they are also getting used to this new, more socially isolated situation we’re dealing with right now, and luckily, the virus doesn’t spread through internet connections. Whatever happens, we will all find a way to get through this.

Nancy McGuire is a freelance science and engineering writer in the Washington, DC metro area. Visit her website at https://www.wordchemist.com.

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