By Tony Azzara | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor
6 Min Read | June 26, 2020 in Money
The number of Americans working from home continues to grow as technologies change, job descriptions adapt, people’s work-life balance desires shift, and the overall economy evolves—sometimes rapidly. More than 26 million Americans worked remotely at least part of the week in 2018.1 And the number of full-time employees working from home eclipsed 4.7 million in 2019, up from 3.9 million four years earlier.2,3
For some people, working from home may literally improve their lives. The American Psychological Association finds that working from home can help improve employee productivity, creativity, and morale.4 It can be an opportunity to achieve greater work-life balance.
But successfully working from home requires the right approach—which can be different for every worker—and some trial and error. Each person has challenges for successfully working from home, yet 99% of respondents in a recent survey said yes to wanting to work from home at least part of the time for the rest of their career.5 My initial challenges have revolved around my cat. But we eventually came to an understanding.
Here are some tips, best practices, and common strategies for improving your productivity in a work-from-home environment that I put together from research, my own experience, and that of my colleagues.
You’ll be spending a lot of time every day in whatever part of the house or apartment you call your office. Choose wisely: the right space can help boost your mood and productivity. Decide where your office’s location will be within your living space. Of course, if you’re the type who’s happy making your office wherever your laptop goes, that’s also cool. Either way, make sure your plug reaches a power outlet. An ergonomic, comfortable seat is crucial, too.
Your office also should reflect your work style. Envision your desk in your ideal workplace. Does it have pictures? Plants? Is it minimalist, or is it not decorated at all? Are there some personal effects you may not want to appear in the background on a video conference call with your colleagues? Your home office will need to work with the routines discussed below, and support your work habits.
This is the one rule to rule them all. To be productive working from home when living with a roommate, spouse, or an entire family, you’re going to need ground rules. So, step one: make those ground rules and get everyone to agree to them. Step two: don’t get upset when people break the rules. It happens. When rules are broken, it’s an opportunity to ask yourself if that’s the right rule, and to grow and fine-tune the rules—and that’s true whether you’re working from home or not.
From exercising or waking up at the same time every morning, to scheduling daily meals and breaks, establish a routine early. After all, similar routines help people get to work on time and be productive when they go to a “regular” business location; they can be an even more important best practice when working from home, where there’ll be less structure (until you make it). This may sound restrictive but remember: you make the rules. Put in short breaks whenever they make sense for you. Learn what works best for you and adjust your routine accordingly.
This particular tip for maximizing your work-from-home productivity and efficiency may seem counterintuitive, but it works in favor of your work-life balance. Shut it down at the end of the workday.6 Be aware that extended periods of isolation can cause you to overwork yourself, and that may lead to breaking routine and losing productivity. Plan your work, work your plan. Keep consistent work hours as best as possible.
Remote work habits that keep you healthy are key to long-term productivity. Some suggestions: meditate (a personal favorite of mine), stretch, go for a walk or other light form of exercise. If you live with others, be it roommates, family, or pets, factoring them into your breaks becomes an efficient way to balance home and work life. I meditate and take meals with my roommate/partner, who’s also working from home right now.
Does your at-home computer need a reboot? With all the time and effort you’re going to put into it, consider replacing it with a newer, faster model. You may be able to deduct such a work expense on your tax return, though you’ll need to consult a tax professional to be sure. Don’t overdo it, though. Find one that meets your needs, both occupationally and financially.
In reaching out to remote co-workers for this article, I learned this story from Sammy and Skyler (not their real names). They are married, sit back-to-back in a shared home office, and have established many important routines and rules. They sit down to their desks around 8 a.m. The last one in brings the coffee. Then they spend a few minutes coordinating their schedules: who has which calls or meetings, when, who is on a tight deadline, etc., so they can decide which one of them will attend to their dog. In video meetings, other participants only rarely see the back of Sammy’s head when meeting with Skyler, or vice versa, because by sitting back-to-back they block each other from the camera. But if their meetings overlap, one of them moves to another room in the house. They keep their office clean by taking away any coffee cups and dishes as part of their scheduled breaks. Skyler likes listening to podcasts or music while working. Sammy needs quiet, so Skyler uses noise-cancelling headphones.
These rules and routines, together with mutual respect for each other, their workspace, and their home, are all at the core of Sammy and Skyler’s work-from-home success.
Another co-worker shared a beautiful gem of advice. He and his wife both work from home and have two children, ages 6 and 4. Productivity decreases, um, abruptly when the 4-year-old wants to play with the 6-year-old’s dolls, since the 6-year-old is protective of “my girls.” Children need to be educated in many ways beyond school. Their personal space needs to be respected, as does their schedules and routines—just like yours. If you’re looking for a fun, free way to occupy the children in your house—or other grown-ups—there are plenty of resources on the internet. Include the terms “creative commons” or “open source” in your internet searches for puzzles, mazes, coloring books, etc., to find free, shared content for all ages. A new app for a child can be the difference that helps Mommy and Daddy get through that conference call with the boss. And make sure to keep those phones and tablets charged!
But if you happen to have the luxury of family members living nearby, or have a trusted babysitter, you can use my co-worker’s solution: Grandma and Grandpa are close-at-hand and happily babysit. Trusted babysitters and/or willing family members who care for your kids while you work can be very important. Your productivity will increase, as will what my colleague calls “parental sanity.”
No more commuting means no more of those expenses, whether that’s train or bus tickets, gas money, tolls, parking, etc. It also returns that travel time back into your life. These savings can snowball the longer you work from home. Do the math on your commute over a year. Now, flip that number from an expense to an amount you could possibly deposit into a savings account that earns a good interest rate. Feeling better about working from home now?
Working from home has been on the rise for many reasons over the years. Setting up a home office and making ground rules is different for everyone, based on their individual needs, but they usually play key roles in ensuring your work-from-home productivity is high. Sometimes, trial and error is the best method for figuring out how you work best.
1 “Table 6. Employed persons working at home, workplace, and time spent working at each location by full- and part-time status and sex, jobholding status, and educational attainment, 2018 annual averages,” U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.
3 “Remote Work Statistics: Shifting Norms and Expectations,” flexjobs.com
4 “The future of remote work,” American Psychological Association
5 “State of Remote Work,” Buffer