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Guest column Sarah Mulvehill: So now you’re a remote employee: 5 tips from someone who knows

Published: 3/20/2020 3:28:00 PM
Modified: 3/20/2020 3:27:48 PM

Are you in Week 1 or 2 of your work-from-home (WFH) experience thanks to COVID-19? I’m in Year 19 of the full-time WFH life. Here are five tips for success that you can adapt to fit your current circumstances.

1. Treat your job like it’s your job. During Week 1, you may have felt as if you were getting away with something, working in your pajamas, propped up in bed with the TV remote on the pillow next to you, or spending just as much time wrangling kids as responding to your supervisor’s emails.

Reader, that has to stop. You have to show up for work at home the same way you’d show up at the office if it weren’t End Times right now. That means logging on a few minutes before start time, focusing on your work, being available during your normal working hours, and not taking advantage of the situation.

Your goal is making your coworkers feel as if you are still sitting next door to them in the cubicle farm.

2. Establish a routine. Success in the WFH life demands a routine. Shower. Brush your teeth and hair. Exercise if you’re that type of person. Do what it takes to eat breakfast and get your family life in order in the morning. Get dressed in real clothes, even if the fleece pullover and stretchy pants are only a half-step away from pajamas. Make your day feel like a work day.

Instead of the traditional coffee or smoke break, consider throwing in a load of laundry and making the bed at 10:30. Then back to work. Lunch break, then back at it (with the cat on your lap). Go out to the mailbox in the afternoon to give your screen-ravaged eyes a break, and then finish up the day and log off as close to 5 as possible.

It may be necessary to work late or log on at night if an emergency project or a colleague’s time zone demands it, but try to stick to normal workday hours. It’s easy to let that log-off time slide, and you’d be shocked by how quickly people will come to expect it of you.

3. Set physical boundaries. Find a workspace that works. Aim for a supportive chair and a desk cleared of all of the detritus of daily life. A door is essential — try a guest room or similar out-of-the-way spot.

Encourage your people to knock or text if they need you. If you have a phone or web meeting while they’re home, tell them not to disturb you during your Very Important Appointment. They need to know work has to come first during your work hours in order to keep this whole thing going.

4. Set technological boundaries. Remember that your work laptop is for work, and your home laptop or phone is for any personal Googling or messaging. No exceptions. If your organization swears by the face-to-face contact of a video conference, take a careful look at the scenery behind you before you dial in — maybe don’t have an overflowing laundry basket over your shoulder for everyone in the department to comment on.

5. Connect with your coworkers. They’re adjusting to the WFH situation just like you, and it’s a strange time to be alive in general. Send a quick message to ask how a spouse is holding up under the circumstances. Check in about kids or older parents. Offer to pitch in with that looming deadline. Or just share a tip about your favorite place downtown that now offers no-contact curbside pickup.

Just like your daily chat as you filled your water bottle in the office, this casual conversation keeps everyone connected as work-friends.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what the new normal will look like after the COVID-19 chaos is behind us. Among my questions: With so many people working remotely to flatten the curve, will we transition away from 40-hour weeks in offices and toward a more balanced work life that’s free of (or at least less dependent on) commutes and cubicles?

It’s possible, if we use this moment to show our employers what widespread, productive WFH life looks like.

Sarah Mulvehill lives in Westhampton. She is a 20-year employee and editorial director of a global market research company based in New York.

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