As I write this, the terms “self-isolation”, “social distancing” and “home quarantine” have – almost overnight – become everyday terms in our vocabulary. People all over the world are having to adjust to new ways of living and working.
As someone who has already been working from home for many years because of adjustments I have had to make due to living with MS, this “new normal” is a reality that’s already embedded into my day-to-day life.
I’m a translator and an analyst for a business intelligence company. I translate Spanish-language business press into English to help companies develop their strategies. I had already been working at the company for four years when I was diagnosed with MS and have now been there for almost sixteen years.
One of the reasons why I’ve been able to continue working full-time is because I transitioned from being office-based to home-based. This was due to my symptoms – fatigue was making it increasingly difficult to commute and was seriously affecting my productivity. The transition was gradual – starting with two days from home and increasing it over several years, to working the full five days from home.
How I work (well) from home
What has helped me to work from home effectively? These are my top tips for staying productive and healthy if you’re faced with bringing your office into your home.
Routine is vital
I try to treat working from home the same as being in the office in terms of discipline. In normal circumstances, many of us aren’t able to turn up to the office at whatever time we like or at different times each day. This should be no different when you work from home. Your overall working hours might change, for example, to accommodate when you’re most productive and taking into account the lack of a commute. However, you should try to stick to the same timings every day. Not only should this help you to get into the “work zone”, but it also helps others in your household to understand when you shouldn’t be disturbed.
Technology is your friend
Unlike today, when I started to work from home we didn’t have the vast array of digital tools that enables us to seamlessly bring the office into our homes. Nowadays, I make sure to use information sharing apps such as Zoom, Slack, Yammer, Office 365, Google Calendars, Skype (just to mention a few) to coordinate with team members, stay connected and to facilitate remote access to company servers.
If you’re unsure of anything “techy”, don’t be afraid to ask for help. There’s lots of information and advice out there, whether it’s IT support from the organisation you work for or crowdsourced help from social media (I find that LinkedIn can be particularly helpful when it comes to business-related technology questions).
Finally, the key to being able to properly utilise these tools is having a fast and stable broadband connection and strong WiFi signal (if you’re unable to connect directly to your router).
Create the right working environment
Ergonomics are just as important at home as they are in the office. Make sure you have the correct equipment and gadgets that facilitate good work practices. This might include a good desk chair, a keyboard rest and a screen protector if you’re mainly working on a computer. If you’re on the phone a lot, it might include a headset and a hands-free device. If you live with MS, like me, there might be specific tools you need because of your symptoms. For example, if your manual dexterity isn’t great, dictation software will help to reduce the need to type.
If possible, try to have your workspace in a separate area of the house with plenty of natural light – I have a small office at home. If this isn’t possible, and you’re working in a bedroom or on the kitchen table, try to differentiate between your “work time” and “non-work time” by setting yourself up slightly differently when you’re working. This might be as simple as packing away your laptop and all your work papers when you’re done.
If you do have an office at home, make it a nice environment to be in. I’ve decorated mine with photos, certificates and other bits and pieces. It means I enjoy sitting in there.
Set boundaries for other people at home
When friends found out I was working from home, many thought it meant I would be available to chat or meet up whenever I wanted. My family also thought it meant that if we needed something at home, like the boiler service being done, I could just “take a break” to deal with it.
While working from home can give some people more flexibility, depending on work hours and the type of job, it’s not necessarily the case for everyone. I have my set working hours and between those times I don’t expect to be disturbed any more than I would be if I was at the office.
Be clear about the boundaries so that you’re able to get on with your work when you need to.
It can be very easy to get caught up with work when you’re at home. There isn’t the opportunity to get up and have a chat with a colleague, walk to a different department to get some information, or even the chance to pop over to the vending machine to buy a snack. Unless I consciously make an effort to move away from my work, I can easily lose track of time.
Whenever possible, try to move around if you can. If I’ve been working at my computer for a while and then need to make a phone call, I’ll get up and walk about while I’m on the call. If the weather is nice, I’ll go for a five minute stroll around the garden. Anything to get the blood circulating and stop my legs from going to sleep!
Stay hydrated and eat well
It’s tempting to reach for the fridge or the store cupboard door much more frequently when we’re at home. However, just as it’s important to have a routine with your work schedule, it’s also important to have a routine when it comes to eating and drinking. I have set times when I eat – and this includes meals and snacks. I don’t keep unhealthy snacks around. If they’re not there, there’s no temptation to eat them!
One advantage of working from home is that I’m not as worried about the bladder issues that I experience as a symptom of MS. I actually drink much more now than when I was in the office because I don’t have to worry about whether I can get to the bathroom or not.
Avoid feeling isolated
When I was working in the office, coffee breaks were more than just getting something to drink. They were a time to catch up with colleagues and have some social interaction. This disappears when you’re working from home and it’s very easy to become isolated, particularly if your job is quite solitary. I can quite easily go the entire day without physically speaking to anyone at work. It’s just not a part of my job.
To help overcome the lack of social interaction, setting up virtual coffee breaks can be a good way of staying connected with colleagues. I also make sure I attend all meetings (albeit virtually), even the optional ones. It means people remember I’m part of the organisation. I also make an effort to develop hobbies that get me out of the house and socialising with others.
When you’re done, you’re done
It’s important to be able to switch off when you’re working from home, otherwise you can constantly feel like you’re on call. When you’ve finished for the day, shut down your computer, put away any work-related items and close the door on your working day. Some people find sending an email to colleagues to say you’re done for the day can be helpful.
Switch off notifications for work emails and if you have a separate work mobile phone, turn it to silent or switch it off if you’re able to. If you’re not able to and something comes up, ask yourself: does it really need your attention now or can it wait until tomorrow?
Having time to recharge properly is so important, otherwise you could end up working all the time.
Finally, do what works for you
There is lots of advice out there about the “do’s and don’ts” of homeworking. However, there isn’t a one-size fits all solution. Many people say to avoid working in your pyjamas, for instance. However, I’m most productive in the mornings. So, I get up early and, admittedly, I do start working in my pyjamas. I will then shower and change late-morning because I know by then I will need a break and something to “wake me up” when fatigue kicks in. I do realise, however, that some people don’t feel they’re in the right frame of mind to work unless they’re showered, properly dressed and with breakfast in their stomach.
It might take some trial and error, but finding what works for you is key to being able to sustain productive homeworking in the long run.
UK/MED/20/0128 May 2020