Tips on working from home

I have now been working from home for the better part of a year. Being self-employed has its advantages; not only do I get to choose the technology I will use (Goodbye Windows, Hello Macintosh), I also get to determine where I want my office to be. While others struggle with the daily drive to the office my biggest concern during my daily commute is turning an ankle while walking down the stairs to my home office.

Of course you don't have to be self employed to work from home. A surprising number of my friends and neighbors that work for other companies work from home as well and have to deal with many of the same issues I do. I've worked from home many times in the past as an employee and have also managed people that worked from home so I have learned a few things that may help you out if you are considering it.

1) Personal hygiene is NOT optional
It's so easy to simply stumble down stairs (or into the room you work from) and not worry about getting dressed for work or even taking a shower. One of the most important things to do when trying to adjust to working from home is to treat your day as though you are going into the office. Set the alarm, eat breakfast, exercise, shower, get dressed; whatever your normal routine is before commuting to the office. Try to do the same thing when working from home.

The people you live with will also appreciate not finding a pajama clad Sasquatch when they come home.

2) Make sure your family/roommates know when you're at work
If you live with others, be it a spouse, children, parents or roommates, make sure they all understand when you are in work mode. Let them know that when the door to the home office is closed you are at work. No door? Establish "work hours" and let people know that you should not be disturbed during that time. This can be especially difficult if you have people home with you when you are trying to work. You don't have to be a jerk about it mind you; hugging the kids and reminding them of their chores/homework when they get home is an important benefit of working from home.

Young children are the hardest to deal with while working from home; having a child under 5 in the house and trying to work is extremely hard. Don't assume that because you are working from home that you can automatically do your job and also be a day care provider. Short of mindless physical or highly repetitive tasks the interruptions will prevent you from doing anything meaningful. If you are able to get real work done then chances are you're not really there for your child. You may be one of the small number of people that can pull it off; if so you are in rare company. I found being a parent of young children was a full time job.

3) Become very organized
If you're not a "To Do List" kind of person consider becoming one. Write out a list of the things you need to get done for the day regardless of how trivial and cross them off the list as you go. You will likely be under increased scrutiny if you work from home so make sure you can clearly identify the things you are getting done. It's not just an accountability to your manager, it's also a tool that keeps you on track. If your company uses a shared calendaring system like Exchange you should make sure things like conference calls and out of office meetings get recorded there.

The distractions when working from home can pull you off track if you let them; having a list to turn to makes it easy to get back on track.

4) Be accessible
As a manager of people that worked from home I always became suspicious when they "dropped off the grid". I once had an employee that said he was working from home for the day simply disappear. He didn't get on our Instant Messaging service, was not reachable by phone and didn't reply to e-mails until late that evening. As a manager that has to trust my employees I felt that trust was violated. When I confronted him the next time he was in the office he said that he was "heads down" working and wanted to try to be productive so he didn't answer the phone or e-mail. He was a software developer so that's plausible but he couldn't really quantify what he accomplished that day. In his particular case the trust was broken and it was never recovered.

If you use instant messaging, update your status so people "see" what you are doing, much as they would if they strolled by your cube or office. Make sure that your boss feels comfortable with the way you work from home. Since you're not going to be in front of them as much make sure you establish clearly what they expect from you. Need to be heads down and work uninterrupted? Just let the boss know and give them an emergency way to reach you.

Some people that work from home feel that they should inundate their co-workers with e-mails and voice mails to prove that they are indeed working. Most people see right through that. Don't go overboard with the visibility thing, find a balance that closely emulates you working in the office.

5) Take care of yourself
One of the downsides to working from home is the easy accessibility of food. You get up to stretch your legs and there is a pantry or refrigerator just waiting to be raided. Sure, there may be snack machines in an office environment but they usually a) cost money you may not have handy and b) make you feel guilty as you walk by your co-workers several times a day inhaling a bag of Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies. If you don't have the self-control to handle easy access to unhealthy snacks then don't leave them around the house.

Getting some exercise throughout the day is also really important. When you work from home you drop a HUGE amount of walking out of your daily routine. Every couple of hours you need to get up, stretch and take a short walk. If you live within a reasonable distance walk or take a bicycle to get your lunch. If the weather is nice I will often grab my MacBook and move out to our deck to get certain types of work done.

You need to be careful not to become a shut-in once you start working from home.

6) Separate Work and Home Life
Once you set a work schedule make sure you stick to it as best you can. Though it's different when you are an entrepreneur (work is never really done), as a paid employee of a company you should try to wrap work up at a reasonable time and move to another part of the house to relax. Kick off the shoes, maybe even change clothes so that you mentally reinforce in your mind that you're done with work for the day.

I realize that these tips make it sound like I'm sucking most of the fun out of working from home. The reality is it's still called "work" and by definition it should generate results or achieve a purpose. If your employer is willing to trust you to get work done from home you should return the favor and not view it as a convenient way to slack off without getting caught.

The benefits of working from home include a lot more than setting your own schedule and working on your terms; add up the amount of time you get back by not having to deal with a commute. If you work from home 3 days a week and normally have a 30 minute commute you're getting back roughly 150 hours of time a year. You're likely cutting out over $600 annually in out of pocket fuel expenses, dramatically reducing the wear and tear on your vehicle and you are helping the environment by reducing your traffic footprint. If you manage it well everyone benefits from it.

Now that I've wrapped up this blog post I'm going to stretch my legs and find a snack upstairs. Hopefully something healthy.

Already working from home? Got another tip that will help people that do? Drop a note in the comments!


Keleko said…
I have been working from home since summer of 2001. My company decided to downsize from 5 to 2 office space in town (not people, fortunately), and there wasn't room for us at any of the remaining 2 offices. So my whole group moved to working at home. We'd already been together for several years, so we were familiar with each other's work habits already. Now we've been working from home just about as long as we were in the office.

All your rules pretty much right on.

#1) I got to start exercising because I was working from home. The saved commute time turned into exercise time. I do end up showering sometime mid-morning instead of before starting work, though. And I get to wear shorts in the summer.

#2) This was helped a lot by having my wife not working (for pay, anyway), so she's around to take care of the kids and chores. My kids have always been good about not bothering me when I'm working.

#3) We have a good way to determine who has what tasks, so getting things done by deadline is rarely a problem.

#4) Email, IM and phone are used all the time. We're always good at communicating.

#5) I'm in better shape now at 41 than I was at 21 since I actually exercise now.

#6) Not a problem. I'd rather be not working, so when I'm done with work, I'm done unless something urgent comes up. It does help to have a separate place for work that I leave when I'm done.

I do feel like a hermit at times, though, because going out somewhere feels like a hassle. But, it would take a lot to convince me to go back to an office again.
Cisco said…
Definitely important to use tools like Remember the Milk and Yammer, if your company uses it.
Anonymous said…
Get really dark drapes, and if you have an unfinished basement, work in there. Don't shave, and refer to the sun as the Daystar.
Anonymous said…
As a reader whose mother languge is not English, I have a quick question; Is there any difference when you say working "from" home instead of saying working "at" home?
Vasudev Ram said…
Useful post - thanks.
- Vasudev Ram
David Alison said…
@Anon: Sure, that is a strategy as well ;-)

@Wazaza: I'm not an English major as anyone who reads my blog can tell. I don't think it would be incorrect to use either "at" or "from" but as an American I see more references to "work from home".
Anonymous said…
Great list. I don't work from home often, but when I do I struggle with pretty much your entire numbered list.

One I really didn't think about until I read it was the "Take care of yourself". When I have a problem and have to really think about it before typing at all, I walk around. At work there is a small fridge, but it has nothing other than our lunches in it. No problem there. AT home I walk and think and I swear it's like I turn into a zombie. I'll sit back down at my laptop and I have a snack. Hardly realized I did it. :)
Anonymous said…
Great post, Dave. I'm one of the lucky ones who gets to work at home all the time (though I'm also of the entrepreneur set, so I mean that "all the time" literally), but do you have any tips for people trying to convince their boss to let them work from home? Might be a good follow-up post...
David Alison said…
@the_0ne: That is by far the most difficult thing for me. I get up to stretch and think and the next thing I know I'm parked back in front of my computer with evil snacks. The week after Halloween is by far the worst though Christmas and all of the freshly baked cookies that accompany it are a close second.

Want a tip to deal with that? Go buy a large bag of raw (non-roasted/salted) almonds. Great snack, very healthy and can curb the hunger pangs generated by being parked in front of a pair of LCD screens all day.
David Alison said…
@Nicholas: Thanks man - glad you liked the article. I actually planned to do one on this same topic from the bosses perspective. Please stop reading my mind.
Anonymous said…
woah Dave, get outta my head. :)

My wife has been on a health kick for awhile. We never really had those in the house, so we tried them last week. Very good. Same with walnuts. Really don't need the salted, roasted flavor much anymore.
I've been following your blog in a long time David, but I haven't really felt the need to comment until now. I think the above post hits perfectly well on me. I don't have any kids or a spouse to take my attention, but the fact that I can't seperate work into another room (I only have a single room) makes some trouble for me. Its too easy to slack of that way. I don't work at home that often though.
David Alison said…
@the_0ne: ha, yeah, eating some nuts raw takes a little getting used to but now I don't even like roasted / salted almonds any longer.

@Jesper: Thanks for the comment. This is where you just need to build up that discipline, outlining the things you want to get done for the day and working off a list.

I personally only feel productive when I can build up a list of the things I want to get done and mark them off, reviewing them at the end of the day / week to see if I was truly productive. If you haven't read it I suggest checking out David Allen's book on Getting Things DONE. Great read for people that some times find themselves struggling with productivity when first working from home.
@Alan: I have actually looked into the GTD way for the last week or so :)
Fortunately I don't suffer from those discipline issues. I work from home when my car breaks down. (Which unfortunately isn't that rare :( )
Anonymous said…
My name is Wilson, David, great article, i started working from home one year ago and it was very difficult to adapt to it, i'm the type of guy that tried and succeed in separating home and work as two completely different things, so when back at home = don't bring work, don't bring daily work problems and everybody is happy! And one year ago i have to change or lie to myself, home = work! Now i think i'm doing well, using to-do lists, i'm using openProj (open source version of ms project) to track tasks and i'm using a small app called Timer to stop working more than 12 hours a day.
마른개비 said…
Oh! Great Tips for me. I use New Macbook and iMac and i use them out(not imac!) and i love to work outside, watch movies with my family.

By the way, do know where to get Bose Companion 5 for cheap price?
Unknown said…
I run my own small business from my home studio, and I learned the hard way to establish a "Day Off." Since I usually work weekends, and my clients want to communicate on weekdays, I was finding myself with no time to myself, much less time to do the laundry. Now it's No Work Mondays for me... No Exceptions!
Jacob Taylor said…
Great article. I have found that being flexible in your schedule can be important. There are often family activities and tasks that have relatively defined periods of time. For instance, I typically stop work from just before dinner until the kids are tucked in or about to be tucked in. Then, I can go back to work and get more done. Taking some time out for the family breaks up the day and helps everyone remain connected while still allowing you to get work done during the day.

Anonymous said…
Very useful tips, thx very much.
Anonymous said…
Great article and very useful tips. I would like to have your tips for the bosses who have to manage people working from home.

Its badly needed.

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