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!