Coronavirus is beginning to take hold in the UK, which means many more companies are likely to instruct employees to work from home in the coming days and weeks. That may sound like a short-term bonus, but working from home can be more stressful – especially if you don’t get the technology and your work habits right.
I’ve worked from home for five years now, so here are my tips on how to make a success of home working, even in the short term.
Find a dedicated workspace
Don’t work on the sofa, at the kitchen table or in any other communal space if you can avoid it. Having a dedicated workspace is important for your mindset, if nothing else.
Of course, most people won’t go to the expense of creating a home office for what might turn out to be only a couple of weeks of homeworking, but setting up a table and chair in a spare bedroom – or even your own bedroom – helps isolate you from the rest of the family when you need to concentrate.
Family members also need to be politely reminded to respect your workspace. Just because mum or dad are working from home doesn’t mean they can be interrupted every five minutes.
Get a keyboard and mouse
If you’re working from a laptop, buy yourself an external keyboard and mouse. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself hunched in an RSI-inducing position for hours on end, doing yourself no end of musculoskeletal damage.
You needn’t spend a great deal on these. The Logitech MK270 Wireless Keyboard and Mouse costs only £19 from Amazon and will be much better for you than the built-in keyboard and trackpad.
An external screen might be an expense too far if you’re only going to be working at home for a week or two, but do your best to get your laptop screen at eye level. A cheap stand or even a pile of books will help. (Thanks to Craig Grannell for the tip.)
The problem with working from home is it’s too easy to put work on a back-burner while you watch Homes Under The Hammer and destroy a grab bag of Wotsits.
Don’t have the telly on in the background, don’t have your music blaring out, don’t have “just one more go” on the Xbox at lunchtime. Try and match your office routine as closely as possible at home.
Agree a communications package with colleagues
If your team isn’t used to remote working, you may find your first few days are bogged down trying to keep on top of all the team comms, as people resort to email, mobile phone calls and the social media networks to stay in touch.
Nobody can keep on top of six different methods of communication and hope to remain productive, so set the rules of engagement early and agree on just one or two ways in which your team will keep in touch.
Slack is excellent for remote teams, providing both group and private chat channels, as well as audio and video-conferencing facilities. Microsoft Teams is a similar option. Both have free tiers which should be perfectly sufficient for a short period of home working, although you might want to check in with your IT department if you work in a regulated industry.
Have a broadband backup plan
While installing a second line is overkill for a (hopefully) short period of enforced home working, having a backup plan prepared if the main broadband line does go down is worthwhile.
If you’ve got a decent 4G or even 5G signal in your home (and I do mean inside your home, not in the garden), then a mobile hotspot might be a strong backup plan.
Your smartphone will almost certainly have the ability to turn itself into a mobile hotspot, but just be careful not to smash past your mobile data cap and run up horrendous bills.
A safer option might be to invest in something like this dedicated 4G hotspot from EE, which costs £50 from Currys and comes pre-loaded with 6GB of data, which should be plenty for basic surfing for a day or two, until the broadband’s fixed. Just make sure you switch off Windows Updates or anything else that might download gigabyte upon gigabyte of data on a mobile connection. If you’re using the home computer and the kids have Fortnite installed, for example, a single update of that game can take 70GB!
If you’re a BT Broadband customer and a neighbour’s BT network is within range (which they often are), you can also log in to their router with your BT Broadband username and password, and treat it like a Wi-Fi hotspot. It’s all perfectly above board. Look for Wi-Fi networks called BTWifi-With-Fon. Even if you’re not a BT customer, you can buy daily access passes for £8.
Leave the house!
When you work from home you tend to overcompensate, staying chained to your desk for 12 hours just in case someone emails and it looks like you’re slacking off, watching Lorraine.
At work, you’d probably nip out for a coffee, go to Pret for lunch, or just take a five-minute breather on the smoking deck. Don’t feel like you’re contractually obliged to be chained to the desk just because you’re at home.
I often make work calls whilst walking the dog at lunchtime, for example. Or even nip over to the cafe over the road and work in there for an hour, just for a change of scenery.
Cabin fever is a big problem when you first start working from home. Make a conscious effort to get out.
Make Alexa your new colleague
If you’ve got an Amazon Echo or Google Home smart speaker, bring it into your office – they really are an excellent work colleague.
For starters, they can both make free phone calls to UK landlines or mobiles, saving you a potential expense of working from home.
They’re useful for setting reminders, checking facts, doing basic sums or helping you spell words.
And they go some way to replacing the casual chat in the office. Bid Alexa “good morning” and she’ll give you a funny bit of daily trivia. You can ask her what’s on the telly tonight or last night’s football results. And if you’re really missing Colin from accounts, she’ll tell you a succession of dad jokes, too.