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SPECIAL: Top 10 tips for working successfully from home

Keep distractions low and separate home life from work!

The following article was written by Sharon Vardatira, director of Nonprofit Funding & Fiscal Solutions and our director of business development. As you’ll learn, Sharon is a veteran of working from home and she has some very useful tips to make that experience successful.

Over the weekend, my company – a consulting firm with clients around the country – ordered us to work remotely from home for the next three weeks at least.

As someone who ran a successful home-based consulting business for years, I am not only un-phased by working remotely, but I’m actually looking forward to the many benefits (and no, I’m not talking about working in my pajamas!). However, the staff I supervise are less than enthusiastic – some have partners who are also now working at home, not to mention teenagers and younger children whose schools have closed temporarily. They are gritting their teeth and bracing for the worst.

If you are one of those people facing a prolonged work-from-home arrangement, take heart. This can be a good thing – not only will you be helping prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but you may also come to appreciate the opportunity to tackle projects and connect with clients and co-workers in a whole new way. All that is possible – but you have to plan for it, organize your home office, and clarify expectations with everyone at home.

These are my ten tried and true tips for working from home that will enable you to remain effective and professional while enjoying a more relaxed workplace atmosphere.

  1. Establish your “office.” Although you might be tempted to move around your home or apartment, laptop in tow, it is important to establish clear boundaries between workspace and living space. If you already have a home office space (such as a room with a desk in it), your choice may be easy. If not, designate a counter, or portion of a room, or even clear out a closet for your desk and computer. If you have a partner working at home as well, designate separate spaces for each of you (trust me, this will save your relationship). If you have multiple floors, put a floor between you.
  2. Clean your office. If you are working out of an existing home office, clean it. Sort through the untended stacks of mail and bills, put away jackets that have been tossed over chairs, clean out pencil cups, and, as much as possible, move non-work related stuff (games, toys, clothes, wrapping paper, etc.) to a different part of your home. This is going to be your work space for some amount of time – envision your current office and recreate what works about that space in your home.
  3. Equip your office. What do you need to work?  Make sure you have the essentials. In my work that includes my work-issued laptop, combo printer/fax/scanner, extra-wide monitor, mouse, keyboard, webcam, calculator, headset, and phone charger. Also, paper, pens, markers, and newsprint. If your workplace is requiring you work from home, hopefully they are providing the necessary equipment. Because I require a larger stand-alone monitor (I am not permitted to take home the one at work), and because I’m more comfortable using a separate mouse and keyboard, I simply connect my personal desktop peripherals (monitor, mouse, and keyboard) to my work laptop when I’m working from home.
  4. About that webcam. If you are not a fan of your laptop’s onboard webcam, consider purchasing a stand-alone personal webcam to connect to your computer via USB. You can find a variety of affordable options for under $60. The advantage of a stand-alone webcam is that you can place it at a more flattering distance and angle/height than you would be able to achieve with your laptop camera.
  5. Learn the features of your virtual meeting platform. In addition to enabling a group of people to see and talk to each other in real time, most virtual meeting platforms (such as Zoom, GoToMeeting, Adobe Connect, etc.) can do a lot of other things that might surprise you, including screen sharing, breakout rooms, flip charts, white boards, polls, etc. Of course, none of that matters if you don’t know how to use those features. To avoid becoming the subject of another meme about the perils of teleconferencing, LEARN AND PRACTICE each feature before you use it in an official meeting. This could be fun to do with co-workers at the start of your at-home work experience. Put everyone into a different virtual break-out room with a whiteboard and then move people around from your command center. Fun and instructive! All joking aside, having seen my team do this successfully, a number of clients have recently begun asking us to host their now-virtual meetings, trainings, and conferences.
  6. Pay attention to your backdrop. Do not wait until you are in the midst of an on-line meeting to realize that the view behind your head includes stacks of dog food, your child watching television, or the kitchen garbage can. Position your camera for minimal background distractions. Even from home you can project a professional, clean, and organized image.
  7. Stick to a schedule. Just because you can wander into your office at all hours, pajama-clad with uncombed hair does not mean you should. As much as possible, follow your regular work schedule and arrive at your desk in the morning prepared to be seen. This not only puts you in the right frame of mind for working, but you won’t find yourself suddenly having to apply makeup or brush your hair when a colleague invites you to an impromptu video conference.  Sticking to a schedule also extends to work group, staff, and supervision meetings. While you may have to change meeting days/times to accommodate new realities (such as staff who need to attend to children), reschedule those meetings rather than simply cancel them. Also, while you’re at it, prepare your lunch the night before to ensure minimal household disruption during the work day.
  8. Dressing for the home office. While there are those who insist on wearing business clothes to the home office, for others (myself included) one of the joys of working from home is being able to dress casually. Right now I am wearing leggings, a turtle neck, a fleece sweater, socks, and slippers. If you do go casual, make sure to have work-appropriate clothes on hand for on-screen meetings. My pressed blouse, blazer and scarf hang at the ready – and clients have no idea I’m wearing slippers. However, I draw the line at sleepwear – the one thing you really want to avoid is allowing your home life and work life to bleed into each other. Better to be more fully present for both work and home than merging them together and doing either half-way.
  9. Clarify expectations with everyone at home. This is a critical step in preparing to work from home. It’s important that everyone understands what to expect, when you’re going to be working and when you will be available, and what will be happening when you are not available. If you share your home with other adults and children, figure out when each adult will be “on call,” and when you cannot be interrupted at all. And then take further steps to plan activities that will keep your children occupied and entertained during the day, including hiring a local babysitter if feasible. It is important to approach work-at-home time differently than other day-to-day interactions. In running our own home business, my wife and I learned to treat work time as entirely distinct from personal time. We kept separate offices (on separate floors), and if we needed to communicate with each other during the work day, we sent emails or set up meeting times. Never wander into each other’s space, call out random questions during the workday, or interrupt with non-work business. Likewise, do not bring work into your personal time together. And, as much as possible, stick to a regular quitting time.
  10. Communicate and connect. When everyone is working remotely, it’s more important than ever to communicate and maintain connections. And this includes personal connections. Take time to ask co-workers and clients how they are doing (especially during stressful times like these), celebrate personal milestones and acknowledge work successes, and listen carefully. Infuse all your interactions with humor, caring, compassion, and patience. However much you prepare, home life will intrude from time to time - someone’s child may wander into an online meeting, a dog will bark, and packages will be delivered. Pause, smile, and feel really good about the fact that you are able to keep working when so many workers don’t have jobs that can move home.  
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