I spent most of graduate school and a whole lot of time since (as a university professor) working from home or local coffee shops. I teach most of my courses online and all my research and writing occurs outside my office. Over the years, I’ve developed some strategies for working and being productive from home. If you now find yourself working from home for the first time, here’s some suggestions to help you survive.
At first, you’ll be tempted to roll out of bed and stumble over to your laptop, blurry-eyed but coffee in hand, right before that first Zoom conference of the morning.
Resist that urge. Do it now! I’ll wait. Ok, now that that’s out of your system…
The only way to survive long-term working from home is to create clear — physical and psychological — boundaries between your work and personal life. For many middle-class professionals, that’s hard enough already. Work email on our phones, Slack channels, etc. have blurred the boundaries between the personal and professional.
But when you work from home you need to impose some boundaries, or you won’t survive.
Start with a similar routine to when you left home for work. If you showered, ate breakfast, or worked out before, it’s time to maintain those habits as best you can now. Set your alarm. Go for a run or do your Jazzercise. Take a shower. Eat breakfast and drink some java juice. Change into some semblance of work clothes. All before your official start time. Just because you’re no longer going to the office doesn’t mean it’s time to abandon your morning ritual.
Boundaries between the personal and professional are even more important when you work from home
Same with lunch and quitting time. You’re likely to spend more time sitting down when working from home. Use your lunch break to take a hard break from work. Don’t eat at your desk! Go to the kitchen, fix a real lunch, eat standing up and go outside if you can. Make time for a short walk around the block or up and down the stairs. Whatever. Just eat something and move a little. You need that midday break from work in order to return fresh after lunch and put in a full afternoon of work.
And when work’s over, it’s over.
Whatever time you used to leave work, keep it the same when you work from home. Mute that Slack channel, close your laptop, power down your computer. And walk away. If you used to go to the gym after work, keep that habit. Go for a walk or jog, do some yoga. Lift some weights. Stretch. Whatever. But stop work when your workday is done. And think about using exercise as a way to mark that break and clear your head.
But boundaries aren’t just psychological. They’re also physical.
Designate a physical space at home to be The Office and confine work to that space. Even if it’s a temporary set-up in your dining room or spare bedroom, make it a work-only space that you enter at the start or the workday and leave at lunch and quitting time. If you have to put your laptop away to clear the table for dinner or close the spare bedroom door so you can’t see ‘work,’ do that!
Do whatever it takes to designate a space in your home that’s solely for work — even if you have to set it up and take it down every workday.
Whatever you do: don’t let work creep into every part of your domestic space! By confining work to its own ‘home in your home,’ you’ll be less tempted to play video games or watch Netflix, and can focus on work when it’s time to work. And it’ll make it easier to enjoy the rest of your home — because all the rest of your space isn’t ‘work.’ It’s home.
If you’ve been crunching Excel spreadsheets from the ‘comfort’ of your living room couch or video conferencing from your dining room, you’ve probably realized: home furniture is not work furniture.
Computing from a couch or bean-bag chair won’t cut it in the long run! If you’re working from home for the duration, it’s time to invest in a work-from-home setup that allows you to be comfortable and productive.
Pay attention to expert recommendations for computing ergonomics (some advice here). Keyboards should be on a flat, level surface at a comfortable height that doesn’t strain your wrists, elbows, back, or shoulders. Computer screens need to be at around eye level. This may require some creative stacking of books, elevation of table legs, or purchase of home office chairs and even a new desk.
Setting up a home office — even if temporary — is key to success when working from home
Home furniture like couches, coffee tables, and dining tables and chairs rarely offer the right combination of support and ergonomics for long term work use. If you don’t have the space or money for home office furniture, your best bet is a dining room table with something to elevate your computer screen plus seat and back cushions for your chair.
A lumbar cushion to stabilize your lower back will be appreciated at the end of the day!
Laptop screens require elevation and external keyboards and a mouse. Laptop monitor stands of all kinds and prices abound at online retailers. And you might have to supplement with a pile of thick books or other creative options to bring the screen up to eye level. An external monitor can also make long term laptop use easier — especially if it’s a small laptop. Just start thinking of your laptop as the ‘tower’ of a home PC and plug in all the mice, keyboards, monitors and external hard drives you need to make your home workspace ergonomic.
Don’t forget: working from home provides your employer office space, furniture, wi-fi, phone, utilities, insurance, break rooms, restrooms, and all the other costs associated with maintaining a home office — at your expense.
Consider asking to bring some office equipment home temporarily or ask for reimbursement of costs for necessary equipment. Chair cushions, lumbar supports, external keyboards, monitors, and computer mice, printer/printer paper/printer cartridges, partial costs of home wi-fi and personal cellphones all seem like reasonable reimbursement requests.
And get some clarity on who owns what, and who’s responsible for loss, before purchasing or taking any work equipment home!
Because your work is now in your home, you’re going to be tempted to not take breaks. At the office, you go to meetings, walk to colleagues’ offices, leave the office for lunch, etc. Your workday is broken up into concentrated work interspersed with calls, meetings, conversations, and breaks. And you leave work to go home. When work’s at home, less of that happens — unless you make it happen.
It’s important when working at home to take regular physical breaks from work. Set your phone or smart-watch timer to remind you to stand up, stretch, or go for a short walk. Ideally for 15 minutes mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Desk work really does a number on neck, back, shoulder, and hip flexor muscles — especially if you haven’t taken my advice to set up an ergonomic home workspace. Targeted stretches can help (here and here).
Remember, you may be in this for the long haul and access to your chiropractor, gym, or primary care doctor may be limited. Regular breaks and stretching keep you out of the doctor’s office and help you feel better over the long workday.
You’re going to be tempted to snack on junk food all day because your Home Office is now so close to your kitchen. And you’re bored from seeing the same 4 walls for 8–10 hours at a stretch.
Don’t do that!
Just like you’ve created a schedule for starting work, lunch, stretching, and stopping work, do the same with food. Think about what you used to eat when you went to work.
Grab a banana and protein bar as you ran out the door with coffee? Do the same now. Microwave a frozen dinner for lunch? Do the same. Exercise some control in the face of office donuts? Now’s not the time to let loose. This might require a bit of planning and intentionality to make sure that you’re not eating differently than when you worked at the office.
We’re all under a lot of stress right now, so craving comfort food is understandable. Aim to keep healthy snacks like carrot and celery sticks, fresh fruit, and microwave popcorn on hand, so you snack on them when you get the urge.
On the other hand, your time at home could allow you to do some cooking you couldn’t do when you worked at the office.
Put a roast or stew in the slow cooker before ‘leaving’ for work? Check! Baking some artisanal loaves? Easy! Making a pot of steel-cut oats for the week’s breakfast? Sure!
You’re home all day, so might as well take advantage of it! Besides, cooking gets you up from your chair and away from your desk for a few minutes during the day. And home cooking is lower-cost and often healthier than eating out or ordering delivery.
With less physical activity and close proximity to the kitchen, it’s going to be easy to eat bad food all day, gain weight, and feel lousy. A little forethought and discipline can help you avoid that temptation.
As you transition to working from home, it’s important to recognize that you’re still at work even though you’re physically at home. That means taking your routine, exercise, nutrition, and equipment needs seriously so you can actually work at home and not just warm the couch. But a little planning and a few adjustments can make the transition easier.
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Michael J. Murphy, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019). He tweets @emjaymurphee.