So Now You Have to Work from Home: A Guide to Not Losing Your Shit

Person sitting on a teal couch with pillows pulling their head off like a light bulb. A second lightbulb head sits on a coffee table.
Stock photo by Aliekber Ozturk, licensed via Scopio. Do not copy or duplicate.

Working from home is better for the environment. It’s better for people with disabilities. It’s mentally and physically healthier.

So why the seven habits of highly effective hell did it take a global pandemic to adjust the American workforce’s thinking on the advantages? Because the advantages are legion.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work from home for the past three years, and it’s the best investment I ever made in my career. No commute, no small talk anxiety (Oh god what if I accidentally ask someone a painful personal question?! Oh god but if I say nothing I’ll come off as rude?! OH GOD!!), no distracting ambient chatter, no exposure to whatever crud coworkers pass around, significantly less money spent on makeup and “work-appropriate attire,” more time to sleep and tend to my non-work needs. I’m the most productive I’ve ever been in my life, both professionally and personally, because of this opportunity.

Oh yeah. I have advice for you pardners suddenly vaulted into the not-really-all-that-wild west of telecommuting.

Since I’m not trying to sell you a book with diluted, decontextualized interpretations of Sun Tzu, I recognize that even though I’m keeping to the broadest possible tips, they’re still not universal. I’m an able-bodied, middle-class-salaried, white-collar worker with good health insurance who lives within walking distance of necessities and has access to quality telecommuting equipment. These are privileges; I can’t in good faith advise anyone without one or more of my advantages on how to apply my advice, and I apologize for my lack of knowledge and foresight in these areas.

(Side Note: Comcast is currently offering free high-speed internet packages for low-income households.)

In addition, I’m not a parent. However, I have commissioned two writers who are to pen responses to this piece with insight on working from home with kids and newborns, respectively. Those will get posted once complete, and the authors have been instructed to prioritize quality over expedience.

Regardless of your circumstances, though, transitioning to working from home does require trial and error. You’re going to make mistakes while you find the most comfortable environment, habits, and routines. Treat them as learning experiences and adjust accordingly. With any luck, some of the following tidbits should help ease the transition.

And hey, if it doesn’t? At least you didn’t waste money on a book.

Set Boundaries. Assert Boundaries.

The thing about working from home that many people didn’t seem to understand – at least prior to coronavirus – is that it involves… working. Even if you have flex hours, keeping to a schedule as tightly as you can normalizes the new circumstances much faster. Inform your loved ones and anyone who may share a living space with you of your unavailable hours, and tell them not to contact you during that span unless it’s an emergency. You don’t have time to do favors just because you’re at home.

Don’t cave if they forget or, worse, ignore. Say no. Say no again if you have to. Say you two are going to have to have a talk about boundaries later if it continues. Now isn’t the time to prioritize being “nice.” You have a job to do. More importantly, you have a job to keep. If your friends and family can’t respect the fact that you need to stay employed, find a convenient potty and give them such a swirlie.

Eventually you may get to a point where you can multitask between chit-chatting on social media (if your company doesn’t monitor your every virtual move like a dystopian despot, anyway). That’s probably not going to happen immediately, though, so don’t concern yourself with finding the right balance quickly; it’s not even on your list of primary concerns.

Boundaries aren’t relegated to your time, either. Your space deserves just as much consideration. Again, it may take a while to find where in your house you feel most comfortable working. Maybe it’s not a desk – the idea that everyone everywhere with every circumstance functions best with a desk is part of how we ended up with an inaccessible, inflexible corporate culture in the first place. Maybe you work best from the couch. Maybe you don’t mind tree bukakke and enjoy your balcony or patio. Maybe you prefer the bed, propped up with pillows with a soft kitty asleep next to your elbow.

As you discover where you work best, keep the same commitment to holding your boundaries as you do with your time, especially if you live with other people. Set them, assert them, and let others know when they’ve shifted. Don’t feel pressured to change your comfort zones to accommodate other people. Remember, you’re working. Anyone who can’t recognize and honor that should be kindly invited to fling themselves into the nearest dumpster.

Communicate, for the Love of God and All that is Holy

A work-from-home setup without communication is like a Led Zeppelin song without Robert Plant warbling, “WWWWWWWAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUUUAHHHHHHHHHAHHHHHHHHAHHHHHHAHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!” Take the initiative to let your boss know what you’re working on without being asked, or better yet schedule some regular weekly time to chat about projects and priorities. Sign into your company’s respective communication system first thing. Set a reminder on your phone or computer if you must, but it needs to become a habit.

As with working in an office, you’re probably going to want to get up sometimes and stretch, or refill your coffee, or run a quick errand, or just take a short walk around the neighborhood to clear your head (more on that later). Make sure you let your boss and any project collaborators where you’re headed and how long you’ll be gone; that way, they’ll have an idea of when you are and are not available, and they can put the kibosh on you leaving if a mission critical deadline looms.

You don’t need to let them know if you’re taking a bathroom break, though. Nobody needs to know that unless they’re paying you specifically for a play-by-play of your toilet habits.

The best rule here is to communicate as you wish others to communicate with you. Revolutionary stuff, that. Set a precedent on how to responsibly get shit done no matter where in the world you’re parking your job. Failing to establish open lines of back-and-forth with supervisors and teammates will most likely lead to having work from home opportunities yanked from you once offices reopen. I have a feeling that future job listings might start including flexibility between remote work and face-to-face work as a desired trait for hires. It’s an ideal skill to have not only for pandemics, but natural disasters and other nastiness as well. Build it up.

Develop Healthy Habits

The last time I worked in an office, I got at least two miles of walking in per day since it was a mile to and from the train station. Often more than that, as there was a beautiful park on the way and I’d stop there on nice days to stroll for an hour. My biggest mistake when transitioning to a remote job was maintaining the same eating habits that I had when on that exercise schedule.

Anyway, that’s the story of why my cholesterol looks like Tetsuo’s arm.

If you already have a regular workout routine that offsets the sedentary nature of a “desk job,” you’re probably going to be fine keeping it unless a walking or biking commute is a major part. If you don’t have a regular workout routine, you’re going to need one. Staying healthy doesn’t require a gym membership or equipment, and there are plenty of online resources and workouts for your unique body and budget needs.

You’re going to have to change your eating habits, too. On the plus side, you’re not going to wolf down vanilla sheet cake every week when the birthdays roll around. So you’ve already got more space to fill with more nutritious fare.

Right now, restaurants are struggling. Especially Chinese restaurants. If you have the budget to order delivery – and you best account for a generous tip in there, too, because food service workers do not deserve your Scrooge McDuck shit – then by all means please set up a win-win situation by calling in for their healthiest menu options. Perhaps even a few days’ worth.

Most of us can’t afford to eat out that often, however. For us, there’s night and weekend meal prep if we enjoy cooking and easy-to-assemble sandwich and salad materials if we don’t. Not to mention wholesome snack options. I’m deliberately not getting into specifics here since I don’t have the space to account for every dietary restriction, physical restriction, and regional food availability. All I can say is that I like the World Health Organization’s nutritional guidelines and try to stick with those.

Also? Take your legally-mandated lunch break. Away from your computer. It’s good for your mental health, too.

The unfortunate reality of eating healthy and hydration is that healthy food and clean water isn’t easily accessible to workers in food deserts or areas with broken infrastructure. Every community dealing with one, both, or either will have different solutions to address their different needs.

Again, keeping up with your health and your body varies from person to person and location to location, so it might take some trial and error to find what habits work best for you. And that’s OK. That’s pretty much how this whole work-from-home thing goes.

Indulge Your Distractions, but Only Sometimes

Look, your mind will probably wander. It happens to most of us, even the hyperfocused, nose-to-the-grindstoneiest workers. You’re probably going to start thinking about your crusty underpants rotting in the laundry basket, or how your dog is the most goodest and purest being on the face of this sad, dying planet. No doubt the droning alien hum of the fluorescent office lighting caused the same effect, so all that’s new here is what, specifically, made you Walter Mitty.

Every once in a while, take that break. It reduces eye strain and resets your brain when you’re stuck on a problem or finding your focus slipping. Dump that load of moldering laundry in the washer, walk your dog, leave an angry voicemail for your landlord… as long as you let your coworkers know if you’ll be gone for ten to fifteen minutes (remember that whole communication thing), you should be fine. Just don’t overindulge; giving in too often could invite more pesky distractions at best or lead to your dismissal at worst. You have to ignore the big stuff if you’re on the clock. Water the caladiums, don’t thwip on your gloves and start repotting.

The best rule you can stick to is never take breaks that last any longer than the ones you took while in the office, and don’t take more breaks than that. I try for about ten to fifteen minutes in the morning and ten to fifteen minutes in the afternoon.

But hey, at least working from home means Chet won’t go narcing to your boss when you’re not at your desk.

Fucking Chet.

Make Time for Friends

Obviously, we’re all socially distancing ourselves right now, so face-to-face interactions with our nearest and dearest probably isn’t happening often if it’s happening at all. And that sucks. It sucks so much, but flattening the curve is a significant section of the social contract.

However, our ties with others are critical when establishing the mental health balance needed to work from home even during non-pandemics. Slack conversations don’t replace human interaction despite their great convenience, and interacting with coworkers over videoconferencing doesn’t involve the same degree of emotional intimacy as a friendship.

You need to schedule time with your loved ones. Skype is free. Most Luddites at least have a flip phone or a land line to call. Share coffee or tea or beers or meals over video chat. Watch movies together without leaving your respective couches. Play collaborative video games. One of my friends is hosting private yoga sessions on Facebook Live. Find something you already enjoy together and adapt it to our currently new normal. Reach out and set aside a few hours per week to invest in the people you need and want around you most.

Then, once we’ve been given the all clear, find them all and hug anyone who consents to a hug.

Dress Comfortably

Whether you get up hours before your shift begins and slather on and slither into your Trixie Mattel finery or roll out of bed and onto your laptop like a musky, sweat-stained trollgremlin, your comfort is key. Many remote workers even prefer maintaining their office routine and wardrobe to keep themselves disciplined. By this point, you already know what clothes make you feel the most relaxed and focused. Wear them. Buy more of them if you must.

However, if your meetings involve video, there may be an expectation that you put on clothing aligning with your office’s dress code. So it’s not a great idea to go clearing out your closet yet. When the cameras are off, though, do whatever makes you happy.

…Some things that make you happy might require closing the blinds, though. Helpful tip.

Don’t Neglect Your Hygiene, Because that’s How Pandemics Happen

Wash your god damn hands.


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