Five tips for working from home

Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc.

Never waste a crisis. If you or your staff are being forced to work from home due to COVID‑19, this is a great opportunity for you and your organization to learn how you can take advantage of technology to work differently and more productively. Organizations of all kinds are adapting; even my church is figuring out how to live stream and hold internet meetings.

I have been working from home for almost five years now, and I love it. Avoiding a commute in the Greater Toronto Area can redeem as much as three hours per day—time I can invest with my family instead. I spend my lunch break with them, and seeing them “at the water cooler” throughout the day ensures I stay engaged in family life—even if I’m putting in long hours on a big project.

I work most productively at home because I’m not being interrupted as much as when I’m “at the office.” Today’s knowledge work usually requires people to concentrate on a task for a bare minimum of 15 minutes, and many tasks are best done with a few uninterrupted hours (see Cal Newport’s book, “Deep Work”). For another perspective on the benefits of working from home, see Michael Hyatt’s blog, https://michaelhyatt.com/no-office/.

Over the past number of years, I’ve learned quite a bit about what works—and what doesn’t—when it comes to working from home. Here are five tips for making the transition as successfully as possible.

  1. Set up an office room

Avoid working from the dining room table or other spaces in the middle of household life. Convert a bedroom into an office so you will have a door to close when appropriate. The kids may have to learn to share bedrooms, like large families have traditionally done.

You don’t need to invest a lot of money to set up an effective home office. All you really need to get started is a flat worktop and a chair. I bought two folding tables (about $80 each) from an office supply store and put them together in an L‑shape. This gives me plenty of working space; even one would be enough. I also have a small two-drawer filing cabinet, which substitutes for drawer space. For general storage, I put an old dresser in the closet to store various office supplies.

2. Invest in quality connections

Have you ever been frustrated in a virtual meeting when people can barely communicate because of poor audio or bad internet connections? It probably happens more often than we want to admit.

Working from home, you’ll be relying on virtual meetings now more than ever. Invest in reliable high-speed internet and quality phone connections with good audio so you’re not the weak link. Don’t rely exclusively on your cell phone, as the audio quality often isn’t great.

Get a dedicated telephone line for your home office space so you only get work-related calls when you are working. This line can be a traditional land line, but internet-based phone lines (i.e. VOIP) are an option to save money. (The audio quality of such connections has improved over the years; just keep in mind you’ll need a back-up phone for the rare times when your internet connection does not work.). Importantly for self-isolation during covid-19, you can sign up for a VOIP service online, the phone adapter will be shipped to you, and you can install it yourself—no need for a technician to visit your home.

Pay for a reliable internet-based video meeting service, if your employer doesn’t already provide one. Free services like Skype are not reliable enough for professional communications. Any paid service will be better.

3. Get good communications equipment

For your telephone, make sure it has a corded handset as an option for better audio, even though you may use the speaker frequently. The phone I had when I first started working from home was a cheap cordless model, and what a pain! Too many times I had to repeat myself or ask others to repeat. On speaker, it had only one volume level: too loud. Make sure your unit has adjustable volume controls. If you use your telephone a lot, get a headset that plugs into the phone, so you don’t have to hold the handset (sometimes audio quality on speaker will not be good enough, regardless of your phone).

For internet-based meetings, get another headset with a microphone that will connect to your computer. The microphones built into laptops and computer monitors are located too far from your mouth for optimal sound. The headset microphone will help others hear you. An over-ear headset will also help screen out background noise to help you concentrate on the conversation.

For video conferences, the webcam that’s built into your computer is an entry-level option. Purchasing an external webcam can give you better video quality. Also consider the lighting in your home office. Even the highest-resolution camera can’t make you look professional if the lighting is poor. You may need to supplement your overhead lights with desk lamps to distribute light adequately and avoid shadows on your face. There is at least one webcam that builds in a flat light to prevent this specific problem (i.e. the Razer Kiyo).

4. Use your audio and video communications to full advantage

When we’re working in person, we build relationships with our team. These working relationships become a kind of social capital that is necessary to maintain an efficient, effective, and trusting work culture.

It can be hard to build that social capital with your colleagues unless there is frequent visual (or at least audio) communication. These more personal forms of communication simply build trust faster. Text communications (e.g. email, instant messages) are easily open to misunderstandings and just aren’t suited to many conversations.

When I started working from home, I had seven years of social capital already built with my main coworkers, which enabled me to make the transition to working from home easily. But if you’re relatively new to your role, or are working with a new member of your team, then it’s a good idea to proactively reach out via video or audio to start building social capital.  

5. Set schedules with boundaries

Set a regular working schedule and stick to it, for the sake of both your family and your work colleagues. Ideally, your schedule should mirror your company’s regular “office hours.” If not, it should substantially overlap with the work schedules of your closest team members, so that you can connect with each other frequently and on short notice. 

Some people promote working from home because it allows you to work whenever is best for you. This is true to some extent. However, the problem is twofold. First, it is easy for competing responsibilities (e.g. parenting, errands, housework, etc.) to gradually consume more and more of your time—and, conversely, pressures at work can sabotage your family duties. Secondly, in most cases, your work is not just about you; you must consider what is best for your team as well.

Talk to both your employer and your family about what they can expect from you while you are working from home, and stick to it within reason. If you need to deviate from the schedule once in a while, that’s OK—but first decide how you will make up the difference in terms of your work or family responsibilities.

Lastly, it’s important to talk to your family about what kinds of interruptions are appropriate. In my case, my wife and I taught our four-year-old son about respecting boundaries by having him paint a door-hanger sign, which reads “Come in” on one side and “Shh… Daddy at work” on the other.

Now is the time to embrace the opportunity that working from home presents. After the COVID‑19 crisis is over, your team will rediscover the benefits of getting out of the house and back into an office environment. But if you can make sure that the benefits of working from home are not forgotten, then your team will be better able to accommodate those who work from a distance. And who knows? Some just might want to continue working from home at least part of the time.

For questions and discussion about working from home, you can reach me at: http://tvbassociates.ca/#contact