9 ways to stay sane when work-from-home is the new normal

Here are nine ways to keep the current social-distancing stretch of working from home from turning into working from hell.

In the past week the coronavirus outbreak has prompted a wave of telecommuting across the U.S., the likes of which we’ve never seen before and may never see again. Basically, everybody who’s able to work from home is doing so.

Companies – and workers themselves – are making the best out of a difficult set of circumstances. We’re all scrambling to set up infrastructures that work for our own particular situations. It’s not always easy. Technology connections can be challenging. Work processes need to be sorted out. And with kids home from school, entertainment options limited, and food-shopping trips curtailed, we’re all doing what we can to keep our digital sanity while continuing to meet the obligations of our daily jobs.

Here are nine ways to keep the current social-distancing stretch of Working From Home from turning into Working From Hell.

  • Get dressed – If you’re going to work from home, put yourself in the right frame of mind to get things done. Making yourself presentable is a good start. It’s good to be in work gear, not in an old ratty t-shirt, operating in work mode – especially if a client needs you on a videoconference right now.
  • Set a schedule – When you commute to work and your kids are in school, it’s easier to put parameters on the work day. Not so much when you’re working remotely – along with everyone you work with. Oh, and your kids are too. Set a schedule to be sure you take breaks and end your work day. There isn't a model for parenting and working at the same time, but we are going to invent a work etiquette that allows for interruptions and distractions. Set time limits for projects. Block out moderate-work time and heavy-work time. Communicate trade-offs you are making like "I wanted to attend this call, but the kids are restless, so I am listening but may have to step away".
  • But be willing to be flexible – With kids home from school, that schedule you’re trying to maintain can get jumbled pretty quickly. If they need help focusing on homework or on plugging into an online school activity, you might prune the number of calls you attend, trade off meetings with a co-parent, or schedule your conference call for an after-hours block. Or maybe you start the day early, and get that report over before the team gets in, so you can tend to child matters later on.
  • You’ve got tools; use them – Your company likely has made all kinds of connections available so you can be in touch with the office. Learn to connect to the VPN. Figure out what tools should be used for what – videoconference, email, Slack, phone, WhatsApp, etc. Work with your IT team to ensure you have all the security measures in place. Your home office can be an extension of your work office – if you do it right.
  • Communicate often on work items – Stay. In. Touch. Your company probably stresses “overcommunicating” on key items, so take it to heart. Send Slack notes checking in with teams. Call clients. Hold video conferences. Your team is scattered, but tools are in place to make everyone feel like they’re in a virtual office sharing bagels and high fives.
  • Maintain a vibrant work culture – We talked about work meetings. Fine. One of the things you like about working at your company is its culture. Embrace that culture need, even in your self-imposed quarantine. Schedule an after-hours virtual wine-tasting. Dial up your football friends to beef about Tom Brady. Get on your company Slack channel and brainstorm a list of song titles that best describe what we’re all going through. Set a lunch date with colleagues and meet over Zoom just to check in. 
  • Avoid cabin fever – “Social distancing” guidelines suggest that we work from home and avoid gatherings – even playdates for kids. But, to stay sane, we all need to get out of the house. Just like you would at the office, take some time during your work-at-home stretch to enjoy the outdoors. Sit on the porch. Take a stroll. Bring the dog out for a walk. If you’re able, get some fresh air, even if it’s just via an open window. 
  • Define ground rules for tech – Kids at home will probably view this as one long vacation. They’d prefer to kick back and jump on their screens for most of the day, and it will be tempting for you to let them. Three hours in front of a video game gives you time to get that proposal wrapped up. Resist the temptation. Set definite rules for tech time: an hour on the game console, an hour on your phone, then two hours reading a book. Blend some kind of recreational activity in, and your kids will have a well-rounded day.
  • Don’t be “that guy on BBC” – Just like you have to set ground rules for tech, you have to do your best to create boundaries when you’re handling a critical work assignment. Most of us have seen the footage of a professor doing a video call live on BBC from his home office. A toddler barrels into the office, all smiles, wanting to hang out. Clients, teammates and business prospects will cut you some slack if this kind of thing happens to you. These are unprecedented times, but if you need to have a fully professional meeting - be sure to set ground rules for interruptions. 

Whether you’re navigating the unknown waters of working at home for the first time with a spouse, home-schooling kiddos or indulging in mandated isolation alone – we’re all feeling the impact of the ‘world’s largest work from home experiment’ together in some way. Juggling this unprecedented fine line between managing professional obligations in tandem with maintaining sanity leaves us wondering if maybe we’re all experiencing too much screen time? Understanding the human limitations that accompany the new work-from-home, school-at-home dynamics can help us discover new ways of using technology to our advantage while maintaining digital sanity.

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