For 12 years, I've worked from home, first solely focused on client work as Eric Miller Design. In that time I got married, had 2 kids, started a 2nd business (UX Kits) moved 4 times and bought a house. My wife came on as my business parter, who has worked alongside me for 7 years. I've vacated a black mold-infested apartment in 24 hours into a friend's basement while my wife was 8 months pregnant and I had pneumonia (say that 5 times fast). I've moved in with my parents, and then my in-laws, during hurricane blackouts, with a baby.
Are these stories awful? Nope (but that black mold pregnant wife pneumonia thing wasn't the best). But needless to say I have some experience when it comes to working remote in different environments and situations. So with that said, below are some tips on working from home, some reality checks and maybe a few tasteful jokes (laughter has been proven to deal with stress).
Note: This is not an article on moving a team remote. I'll leave that to the experts like Jason Fried, Trello and Shopify, who by the way, just gave employees a $1,000 stipend to buy supplies while they work from home.
Note #2: This is from the perspective of someone who works in design and tech, who is very fortunate and privileged to be able to work from home. I understand this is extremely difficult for others who have to be at their jobs to do their jobs, and to earn their wages. I can't begin to understand how difficult that must be, nor do I have the expertise to help. I only hope their employers do what they can to help, and if anything here comes across as naive or insensitive, call me out.
Habits Habits Habits
While I have only fairly recently started using a physical habit tracker, I can easily say it has changed my work life. If you think working against distractions in an office was hard, wait until no one is looking over your shoulder and your kids are screaming from downstairs (more on this later). A habit tracker has taught me to "show up no matter what". Below is a photo of my daily and weekly habits, but I'll also list the ones below that I think are best-suited to staying productive when working remotely.
- Take a Walk: Seems easy, but having a daily habit to take a walk (or two) will make sure you're getting outside and taking a break.
- Update To-Do List: Even with a habit tracker, most likely you are using another form of task management. Set a daily reminder to keep that list updated, even if you are just rescheduling tasks.
- Work: Yes, a habit to do your work. I have a couple; one to work on our products once each day, and a weekly habit to work on all current projects. This way, every project is getting attention every week.
- Check in With Clients: A nice reminder to at least check in with all ongoing clients (if applicable), even if it's just a friendly update.
- Play: For me, this generally means stopping what I'm doing to play with my kids. Sometimes it means taking a short break to play a video game. Whatever play means to you, it's healthy and you don't need to be a kid to do it. Got an extra $500 lying around? Treat yourself to a LEGO Death Star and put it together.
Spend Time with Family (or roommates, or yourself)
Lets face it. This won't be easy. But one up side is remote work does mean a little (or a lot) of extra "me time". You'll save time getting ready in the morning (you should get dressed, more on that later, but it'll be quicker) and by removing a two-way commute.
Take this opportunity to spend more time with those you live with, or take a little extra quiet time. Whether a chance to take a break to hang with your kids, or just sit quietly when you would normally be stuck in traffic, think about how you use this new time. If you really want to know my opinion, do not use it to work more.
Here's two quotes, pick one (hint, the answer is "B"):
A. "Remember that time I was stuck at home and I got all that extra work done?"
B. "Remember that time I was stuck at home and I got to see you and kids 3 extra hours every day?"
Dealing With Distractions
Speaking of spending more time with family (etc), working from home means a whole new set of distractions. Aside from a habit tracker, here's a few other ways to focus amongst chaos:
- Noise cancelling headphones: They really work, and they're especially good for phone calls if they have a mic. Tune out your kid's latest fight (just remember to go play with them after). Here's TechRadar's favorites, and I own these... but plenty to choose from at all budgets.
- Pick a new spot: Have trouble focusing? Move elsewhere even if in your apartment or house. This could be the kitchen table or couch... just move. I've even taken breaks (and recorded audio) in my kid's closet-turned-hideout. I love it in there. Closets aside, move to some sunlight if you can.
- Give in: Sometimes you can't fight the procrastination. Heard of the instant gratification monkey? Watch Tim Urban's Ted Talk "inside the mind of a master procrastinator" below.
Carve Out a Space
Over the 12 years I've worked from home I've had desks in a Brooklyn living room and bedroom, a basement and a home office. Most don't have a spare room lying around, so carve out a corner or any space that is dedicated to work, and try to "turn it off" at the end of the day. If you're low on space, you can even get a wall mounted desk that doubles as a bookshelf. This modular system from IKEA is pretty beautiful.
Joggers Are the Remote Worker's Best Friend
Am I serious? For the most part. A nice pair of joggers puts you somewhere in between getting dressed and giving in to pajamas. In my first days (ok years) of working from home, I could often be found in what I slept in and productivity is definitely affected. Get yourself showered and dressed in the morning, the first step to showing up. I love a good pair of joggers because lets face it, you're in comfortable sweatpants, but a bit more dressed.
Send a Little Extra Love
I'm finding my reaction to emails from various services we use has changed. Remember, there's a human on the other end. Send some thanks, encouragement or just a "be well" as a small boost to their (and your) day.
Open a Snack Bar
Setting up a home office snack bar, and other workplace-like amenities, makes for a better work environment. Think about what you like in a traditional office, and create a home-based version. We have 6 of these jars that we try to keep full of nuts, chocolate covered pretzels and other treats.
Whenever possible, make your phone calls video calls. The extra connection of seeing people's faces on a call goes a long way. In the past, I usually stick to audio calls, but a good time to create a new habit (and if you shower and get dressed you'll be ready). Just yesterday, I had a video call on what normally would have just been audio. It was nice.
Join a (not-your-company) Slack channel or two, as long as they're not too big of a distraction from work. Having access to a community (whatever your community is) is a great way to keep in touch with humans, share ideas and stay connected when working alone. We have a Slack channel for designers, but there are plenty of others.
I have more to say... but have to get back to work! I hope this helps just a little, and please share any other ideas in the comments.