Your Digital Self: A work-from-home strategy from a 15-year veteran: Act like a boss, set strict limits, buy technology (including headphones)

Some of the most frequently asked questions I get from friends and acquaintances nowadays spring from the COVID-19-imposed stay-at-home orders.

How do I cope with social distancing and staying at home? How do I manage to do anything work-related now that both my wife and I work from home? My answer is always the same: Our routine has changed little.

We’re used to ordering things online and buying groceries in bulk because we don’t have time to go shopping every day. We work the same way we have been working since 2005 — from our home office.

Among my clients, I’m known as a contractor who can be counted on to get the job done without worrying that life will get in the way — especially now that the circumstances for many have changed.

The reason I’m writing this piece isn’t to talk about me, but rather to give you an insight into how to I managed to remain successful and productive for 15 years, and how you can too, now that your new office may be in your study or even your living room.

Home office space

Whether a desk in the study or a kitchen table, this is now the place where you do your work. The size of your home doesn’t matter. It also doesn’t matter if you need to clear the desk after you’re done. What matters is that, if possible, you always do your work from there. This will help you differentiate workplace from home, and will give you a sense of “leaving the office” once you’re done. Ideally, your home office should be in a separate room, far from noise and other family members, so you can more easily concentrate on the task at hand.

Routine

Working at the office means punching in and out at a certain time every day. There are coffee breaks, lunch breaks and meetings. There are deadlines and daily to-do lists. This environment-imposed routine is so embedded in our company culture, we rarely even think about it. When you work from home, you need the same type of schedule.

Nobody is going to provide oversight in your home environment except you, so start being your own boss: Write down your daily, weekly and even monthly schedule. In it, you should include your short-, medium- and long-term projects. If you’re familiar with gantt charts, you can use them to visualize your work load. If not, estimate the amount of time needed to complete each project and the number of hours per day you are able to allocate to each of these. This will be the backbone of your daily routine.

Put in as many hours as you need to finish all your tasks on time, but don’t forget to dedicate a part of your day to your partner and children. You will also need time for yourself, as well as several breaks throughout the day.

Now think carefully about those and add them to your schedule. If you did this part correctly, you should have a weekly routine, with a visual representation of short-, medium- and long-term project completion date, which can be useful not only to you, but also to your manager or boss. They will appreciate the insight into your daily schedule, as it will give them the sense of control and oversight they need to manage the company’s efforts.

Availability

Speaking of bosses, many of them have never had an employee working from home. They may get stressed out because they can no longer micromanage, or they may become particularly unpleasant because the worry of broken deadlines is eating at them at night, so they want to be able to talk to you as often as possible. Some will even ask you to be available 24/7.

You need to be resolute about not working outside your working hours, as the opposite can and will put your entire productivity at risk. Frequent interruptions will mess with your routine, ruin your wind-down time, put your life-work ratio out of balance and increase your stress.

You do not want your stress levels to rise while self-isolating at home with your family. Your boss should be aware that she needs to respect your time the same way she did while you worked in the office. You should communicate this directly, taking your daily schedule into account, so your boss knows exactly when she can count on you being online and when you’re “out of the office.” If done right, this will enable you to separate work time from free time more easily and will do wonders for your sanity as the lockdown/quarantine continues.

The same goes for members of your household. They need to be made aware, in no uncertain terms, that you’re off-limits while working. This part can be especially tough when dealing with children. My advice here is to set aside time they can spend with you after the work is done. Do this as often as you can, and always keep your word. This will help them be patient because they will know that, later on, you will make up for time not spent with them. The same goes for your spouse or partner.

If you don’t have time for your family, you’re doing something wrong. Go back to step one and rearrange your schedule so that you have enough time dedicated to those you love. Otherwise, why are you putting in all that work?

Communication challenges

In the past, all you had to do when someone was late with their part of a work project was to go to their cubicle and ask for a status update. Now, things are different. You will have colleagues who will actively avoid you by being rarely online. You will deal with managers who seldom respond to emails, and you may also see a greater influx of emails/chat requests than usual. In this scenario, it’s vitally important to keep the communication alive, which means that you should adapt to using whatever online tools your company subscribes to, whether its Microsoft
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Teams, Zoom
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or something else.

Status updates are now even more important than ever. Make sure that people managing you are always aware of how your project is coming along.

Here’s a tip you might have used before: If you have a colleague who’s stalling with their delivery of content, slowing down your own delivery and putting the project in jeopardy, remind them politely via email, making sure you CC your supervisor/manager. This will clearly show who is responsible for the delay, as well as keep the manager informed. Please note this should be a last-resort move, so make sure you’ve already done all you could in reaching the tardy colleague.

Crunch time and unforeseen circumstances

Sometimes you can’t stick to the schedule. Things needed to be done yesterday, and it’s someone else’s fault, but there’s nothing you can do. So it’s time to put in extra hours and get the job done. In these situations, make sure you clearly communicate this to your family. If you have children, your spouse or partner should take care of them, giving you enough room to put in the extra effort without unnecessary distractions.

You should be aware that doing extra work means other members of your household will have to do more chores, stop talking to you or avoid noisy activities. This can create tension that needs to be diffused as soon as possible, so make sure of the following:

Crunch time should be an exception rather than a rule — it’s an unsustainable business practice, and both your boss and your family need to be aware of this. After your work is done, reward your family members by helping them unwind — do some fun activities together, make a nice meal for them, maybe take over additional chores or watch a family movie together.

Finally, remember to return the favor when your partner is in a bind. As for your boss, if this keeps up, consider asking for one or more days off after the prolonged overtime. Remember: This isn’t you being needy — it’s what’s necessary to keep the boat afloat. Bosses who don’t understand this are not only insensitive, but also poor managers.

Miscellaneous

If possible, get quality, over-ear noise-cancellation headphones. They work wonders for me. In my time off, they also help me unwind, as I can listen to whatever I want without annoying other members of my household. Finally, they come with a microphone, so I can also do video conferences with them.

You will soon learn that working from home often means unexpected expenses. Faster internet speed, more bandwidth and even software/hardware purchases all come into play now that you’re no longer using company resources. Needless to say, all additional expenses should ideally be paid by the company, as you’re using these tools only because you’re required to do so by your employer. Make sure your boss is aware of any expenses and be ready to provide evidence for the costs you wish the company to shoulder for you.

By now you’re already aware of it, but it still needs to be said: These days you’re probably spending more time with your family than you have in a long time. Make sure everyone is happy. Be aware of their mental resilience in these trying times and put out fires whenever possible.

Try to turn this quarantine into a fun time for your children — use it for bonding, learning about their interests and partaking in them. Dedicate some time during the day to your partner, even if it’s only a few minutes, to show appreciation for everything they do and mean to you. Make sure you clearly communicate your needs and concerns, because these times will test your unity. Always remember who you’re putting your hours in for, and make sure they’re appreciated, and vice versa.

This has been my successful routine for the past 15 years, and I hope you’ll find at least some of the tips useful. How have you been coping with the quarantine and lockdowns? Has your productivity plummeted or improved? Please let me know in the comment section below.

Stay safe and take care.

Jurica Dujmovic is a MarketWatch columnist.

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