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Working at Home: A Survival Guide

With the proliferation of COVID-19 and the demand for social distancing, more and more employers are requiring their workforce to work from home. Many of us have taken a laptop home or to a coffee shop to get away from the office or work on a project over a weekend. It can be kind of fun to change up our environment, maybe work on the couch and have the TV on in the background. However, it is a much different proposition to be prepared to work from home for an indefinite period.

As far as Uber, Lyft, and Google are concerned, for the past five years, my “office” has been the Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) airport, Terminal 1. In reality, when I am not traveling my office has been a comfortable space in the home I share with my wife, our children, and pets. Over that time, I’ve had to learn to work with verbal pets at home and children returning home from school during the middle of my workday in addition to their being home during winter, spring and full summer breaks.

For those unexpectedly facing an indefinite period of having to work from home, especially with children and pets around, below are some thoughts on what you can do to successfully establish and maintain a functional work environment in your personal living space.

First and foremost, establish a framework for a new work-life balance. I recommend you start with the mindset that every workday you are going to work on your regular schedule, albeit with a much shorter commute. This is not a vacation or an extended hang-at-home weekend; I start my work-day as I normally would: shower, groom and get dressed every morning. For some, getting dressed may mean putting on full work gear. For others, that may be casual Fridays or weekends at the office, such as jeans and a casual shirt. I never wear “sweats” or gym-wear to my “office” except if I am sick or for an early morning call (which, when I worked in an office, I would take from home before going into work). It’s important to think of yourself as “going to work” each day.

Establishing other personal boundaries, both with yourself and your family, is equally important. Personal boundaries include setting aside time for lunch and breaks just as would in the office. For those who have spent years putting in “face time” at the office, there’s an amazing freedom to know that there is suddenly no one who will walk by your office multiple times and note that you are not there. That said, I urge you to avoid the desire to take multi-hour breaks in the middle of the day. Promises made to yourself to make up the time later in the day are rarely kept. You are being paid to work, and you still need to be available to others and complete your deliverables.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, it is also important to end work at a reasonable hour. You might find a sudden burst of productivity after the emails slow down and the phone stops ringing and there’s no need to run home to get the kids or make dinner or take care of some after-school activity. After you have put in your hours for the day and there’s nothing immediately pressing, you can stop at dinner time and not go back to the home office.

As for family boundaries, I strongly urge you and everyone else at your home to agree on this simple principle: when you walk into your workspace (as addressed further below), you are “going to the “office” or “going to work.” [I often find myself ending conversations with my wife and children saying, “I’m going back to work.” It is a good verbal indication to them and to me that I’m leaving “home” despite walking only a few feet away.] You can take a momentary break to take care of something for the kids, or answer a question, just as you would over the phone or text from your real office miles away. However, you will benefit from establishing and enforcing rules and boundaries where your family contacts you only as necessary, just as they would under normal work-day conditions. For example, I have a door on my office space, and when that door is closed, my children know they are supposed to be quiet and text me if I’m needed.

While most children will respond well to clear rules and boundaries, pets can be slightly more challenging. Some pets react poorly to closed doors and others are happily quiet and content right until you get on a phone call. If you are unable to control for these interruptions, do not try to hide it from others when you are on a call. People are generally very understanding.

The next consideration is the home workspace. The kitchen table or living room sofa or chair might be fine for a day or two, or longer in a pinch. Many of you will already have some space at home set aside with a desk and chair, while others will have to make do with that informal space. If at all feasible, attempt to recreate your current workspace in your regular office. This includes one or more external monitors, keyboard, mouse and speakers. A good chair is just as important in your home office as it is in your regular office. You might want to inquire if your company will allow you to temporarily relocate some office equipment or furniture to your temporary home office. If that is not a possibility, you can get relatively inexpensive desks and chairs online and shipped to you.

Last, but by no means least, is the importance of maintaining active communication with your colleagues. Most of us are used to stopping by someone’s office, chatting in the kitchen or other gathering spots, and of course grabbing lunch with our co-workers. All of these day-to-day communal face-to-face interactions disappear when you work from home. You may miss these casual, around-the-office chats, but you may also find that you suddenly have a surprising amount of additional time in your day. Working from home requires different communication patterns than normal. It can be more challenging, at least at first, to work as a member of a team without physical proximity to others on a regular basis. There may be more misunderstandings than normal, and it can be easier for someone to drop the ball. You will need to be exceedingly clear in your writing, particularly in sending updates to supervisors or instructions to subordinates. Use your company’s communication channels actively, including chat systems (while avoiding non-authorized systems that you would not normally use to conduct business communications). Finally, do not hesitate to use the phone, as verbal communications are much better than written communications in conveying meaning, emotion, and intent.

In summary, working from home can be a challenge, but can also be very liberating. It may feel very different at first. Just be sure to start with this: create a functioning workspace and establish boundaries for yourself and those with whom you live, particularly with clearly signaling when you are “at home” and when you are “at work.”

Eric P. Mandel
Eric P. Mandel
Eric is an attorney, legal technologist, and privacy professional who has spent the past 13 years focused on solving complex problems at the intersection of law and technology. He has served in senior leadership roles in several trade associations, including The Sedona Conference, the EDRM Institute, the Legal Technology Professionals Institute, and the Association of Certified E-Discovery Specialists, and is a frequent speaker on a broad range of topics relating to electronic discovery, information governance, data regulatory compliance, and data privacy and data protection. Additionally, Eric has worked on numerous leading publications, including The Sedona Principles, Third Edition.