It’s no great secret that working from home has become the “new normal” (I know, I know, but stay with me here!). Now that companies are settling in with remote work, some indefinitely, many of us are coming face-to-face with the fact that we might not ever come into the office again. Or have to wear pants. Or have to let our sweet puppies go ten minutes without a belly rub.
But as we know, it’s not all sunshine and roses.
Work from home culture brings with it a whole host of obstacles, from distractions to setting boundaries to glitchy video calls.
I have been with VMG Studios for 11 years, and I have been a remote employee for more than half of that time.
6.5 years ago, my husband was given the opportunity to take a new role with his company – the kicker? The role was in Chicago.
I remember feeling heartbroken at the thought of having to leave VMG, let alone having to tell my bosses, Kelly and Mark. When I sat down with them (after shedding some tears), we got down to the nuts and bolts… what would the transition of a new hire taking over my role look like?
We started talking about how I could temporarily work remotely to bridge the gap of a new hire by still performing my core job duties and flying home to on-board and train, etc. I will never forget Mark’s eyes sparkling as he said, “Well, if we can do this to bridge the gap, couldn’t this work long-term?” And now here we are more than half a decade later!
As the Vice President of the company, I serve a quintessential role in day-to-day tasks and big picture elements as well. It wasn’t easy taking on so much responsibility while being so far away at first, but working from home before it was cool has its advantages! I can now say with confidence that I have become an expert at remote work, and that I have key insights on how to make it viable long-term.
In this article, I’m going to lay out the 8 most crucial tips and tricks I’ve learned these past 6.5 years on how to make your WFH situation a success.
Tips for Working From Home Long-Term
1. Create a Schedule
First and foremost, it was really important that we tackled scheduling.
In my situation, with Chicago being 2 hours ahead, we wanted to strike the right balance and create boundaries for success.
What this meant in the beginning was me logging in at 10am and working until 6:30pm CT. It took a little getting used to since mornings are my time to be focused and productive. I ended up adapting my schedule and used my extra time in the mornings to workout, walk the dog, go to the grocery store, and manage personal things.
In the beginning, it was great!
After about a year, though, the schedule started to become harder for me. As I started making friends and building a community, I was beginning to feel a little left out. They would all go grab happy hour after work and ask me to join, but after saying no several times because of my schedule, the invitations dwindled until I was never asked.
Kelly and I still managed our daily morning huddle and that was when I brought up wanting to explore a split schedule to give me a little more balance and we agreed to 2 days a week working the same hours and 3 days a week shifting my hours to central time (8:30am – 5pm). It has worked out great!
This, in of itself, is another tip: be flexible.
While sticking to a set schedule is important, if it’s not working, try readjusting to find a better balance.
Sticking to a schedule will always be a work in progress, especially this year. I was much better at sticking to my schedule in the earlier days. Now, it isn’t uncommon that instead of taking the dog on a walk, I log onto my work computer and start plugging away. I allow for my meetings to bleed into the evenings, probably when I don’t have to because it is just part of my nature.
What has helped me is to put on my calendar when I have a hard stop at the end of the day or if I have something before work starts so that people have visibility to this and can plan meetings and events with those things in mind. I also make sure to outline my availability and preferred contact methods if I am stepping away or have something blocked on my calendar.
2. Create a Dedicated Workspace
I have a tendency to be a “workaholic,” so it was important for me to have a dedicated space in my home for work. A place where I could shut the door and “turn it off.” This was also a great cue for my husband and puppy, Penny, to know when I was “clocked out” for the day.
Here are some quick ways to optimize your workspace for peak creativity and productivity:
- Have a good chair
- Add pops of color
- Get some plants
- Find natural light
- Regulate the room temperature
- Limit noise
3. Set Expectations with People Around You
This includes colleagues, managers, spouses, family, and friends. Stick to those expectations that you have created.
Flexibility is important and taking that call in the evening or early morning is 100% okay, however, don’t make that the expectation. Make sure you are following the plan, schedule, and boundaries you have created 80% of the time.
Friends and family are always hard. Inevitably, in the beginning, they might think that since you are working from home, they can call, stop by, etc., when it works for them. That is obviously not the case and they may not be aware that you are still in all the same meetings, calls, brainstorms, or trying to meet a deadline as you would be if you were in the office.
Set the stage by communicating your working hours. Schedule breaks or lunches with friends and family, occasionally, if you feel you need a brain break. The key is making sure you are still getting your work completed on time.
4. Be Communicative
This is a no-brainer, but effective communication is really important to make sure everyone is aligned. It’s really easy for things to “get lost in translation” when you’re remote and mitigating that is a key to success.
There are benefits to working from home; you can have the plumber come out, appliances be delivered, throw in a load of laundry during your break time, etc. However, you need to let your team know that you may be unavailable during those times.
This is where setting expectations for those around you and being transparent with your schedule are paramount – and the only way for people to understand these boundaries is through communication.
Communicating your needs is super important. Don’t be afraid to open the door with your manager to discuss what is working and what is not from both perspectives.
It is easy to overthink conversations when you are not physically present to understand body language.
Everyone has the same goal: success for you, the company, and the working situation, however, it can be hard to remember that sometimes. Make sure you know and understand that this is a team effort and do not isolate yourself by thinking you will only create problems – that can be a lonely place to live. Work/life balance in a work from home scenario is really important and those lines can become blurred, so be sure to identify that early on with your team or you can drive yourself crazy.
READ: How to Look Professional While Video Conferencing: Body Language Tips
5. Time Management
You need to be really good at managing your time and prioritizing what needs to get done. Arguably, even more important is being realistic for how long things take. This helps immensely with limiting distractions and managing your working hours.
Each morning, I take a look at my email, calendar, and to-do list from the previous day to help me block and plan my time appropriately. I try to knock out the smaller things that I know will only take me 15 minutes or less first thing in the morning, unless there’s a deadline. Being a couple of hours ahead of my coworkers on the west coast is when I can be the most productive and prepared for when the office opens, and my peers get online.
Here’s a pro tip: build-in blocks of time into your daily schedule where you can address things that pop up unexpectedly throughout the day. There will always be surprises, challenges, and things that you cannot predict. Make sure you give yourself some time to handle these tasks, too.
It’s also important to limit how often you multitask. Multi-tasking is something that we’re all guilty of, however, it really impedes on a successful work from home scenario. This is mainly because you will inevitably miss something or get delayed and behind.
I find that dedicating your full attention to one thing and expediting its completion is extremely helpful.
If I know an email will take me 5 minutes to craft and send, I will do so before I pop into a proposal or sales call. Having 100% of your focus on one task will allow you to maximize your time and get it done quickly to dedicate yourself to the next thing. Therefore, allowing you to be more productive and maintain your deadlines.
6. Minimize Distractions
Working and living at home can be many people’s dream, however, it can also be extremely distracting from time to time. There will always be chores to complete, house projects, and other calendar events that will make you want to prioritize these types of things to maximize your time and schedule.
My tip: schedule some time in the morning and after work hours for your personal tasks. Knowing that I have time set aside helps me stay focused while I am “on the clock” and feel better about managing my schedule. It can be overwhelming to see the dishes that need to be washed as you are getting a drink of water or knowing you’re having friends over for dinner and need to sweep or vacuum.
My husband and I have created a schedule for chores to help us. Every morning and evening, we dedicate our time to one part of the house. It helps me know that on specific days we are deep cleaning one room so when the weekend comes, we’re able to decompress because we have been tackling these projects in chunks.
7. Take Breaks
It’s easy to get lost in your tasks and forget to stop and take a breather. If you’re hitting a wall, go take a walk and regenerate, or put on some music and dance it off, or move your body even a little bit. I promise it will help!
I can see how it would be easier to hit burn-out while working from home than being in the office where there are little breaks that naturally occur throughout the day, like driving to/from meetings, walking down the hall, and chatting with a co-worker for a couple of minutes, etc.
Try to find times in your day where you can block 10 to 15 minutes for some downtime, especially if you have a day packed with meetings. You can’t bring your best self to meetings if you don’t have the chance to take breathers.
With that said, try to not schedule meetings back-to-back. Give yourself a 5-minute window to use the restroom, grab some water to stay hydrated, pet the dog, cat, or hedgehog.
READ: 5 Strategies to Combat Video Conferencing (Zoom) Fatigue
8. Get Outside
It’s easy to stay cooped up in your house all day when working remotely. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked from my office upstairs to the couch downstairs and didn’t move until bed after a stressful day. There was even one week where I realized that I hadn’t left the house in 4 days.
I saw the bad habit forming immediately.
When I logged off work that day, I immediately put my sneakers on, leashed up the dog, and hit the sidewalk. Fresh air, exercise, and human interaction are really important for your physical and mental health.
Make sure you don’t stay confined to the indoors and make a plan to get outside 1 to 2 times a day, if not more.
My routine now starts with a 45-minute to 1-hour brisk walk in the morning with the pupper-roo. It helps me clear my head, get in the right mindset to approach the day, and I always feel 110% better after I move my body.
Hardships and Misconceptions of Working From Home
I’m sure you’ve heard all these tips before – they aren’t new – however, I think there are still many misconceptions people have when it comes to remote work.
The biggest is that it’s “easy,” or “you’re so lucky to be able to work from home.” (I’m sure many people are starting to realize this isn’t the case.)
Working from home has its own challenges.
You tend to work more hours because you’re not commuting, or you think of something and run up to your office space to knock it out and inevitably fall into other tasks. In a traditional office, you can physically leave work at work. At home, it’s easy to blur those lines and continue to plug away, answer that email, or take that call.
I work in a deadline-driven industry, which naturally means long days/nights/and occasional weekend work. However, I wouldn’t change that because I love the intensity of getting something out the door and the sense of accomplishment when it’s delivered, but that’s another thing that’s missed when working off-site – the celebration of hitting a deadline, winning a project, or wrapping a big deal. It’s much less exciting at home than when you are on-site and celebrating with bubbly, dinner, or happy hour with the team.
With that, working from home can also be really lonely.
I remember when my husband, Jon, would come home from work, and I would be so excited to get to see someone in real life that I would bombard him with questions, hugs, and just chatter away! That lasted about a month before he finally stopped me one night and told me “he needed at least 30 minutes of downtime” when getting home because he HAS been talking to people all day, in meetings, problem-solving, etc., and that he needed that time to decompress. So, we adjusted and found our rhythm. (Remember that tip about setting expectations with people around you? Yep, it goes both ways)
Setting Yourself Up for Success While Working From Home
Working from home is awesome, hard, and doable, all at the same time. Just remember these key points, and you’ll be well on your way to finding the perfect work from home balance.
- Create a schedule and stick to it.
- Optimize your workspace.
- Set clear expectations for yourself and those around you.
- Communicate your needs with your boss and coworkers.
- Flex your time management skills by blocking time to deal with surprises.
- Minimize distractions by not multitasking.
- Take breaks, every day, when you need them.
- Get outside!
And, when all else fails, be gentle with yourself. This is new territory for most, and the learning curve is different for everyone. Take deep breaths, enjoy those puppy snuggles, and then crush your work day! If I can do it, you can too.
-Written by Alysia Lee
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