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Top homeworking tips from a veteran homeworker

Dominic Irvine, Epiphanies LLP

I may have 20 years of home working experience but I recognise for many this is the exception rather than the rule. Here are some very practical tips I have found help in making it a stress free, effective, experience. The first house I worked from home in was a two up two down terraced railway cottage with three children running around the place. I’ve also worked in an open plan house with very few internal walls, and these days I work from a 16th century farmhouse. Each has its challenges. These are my thoughts on home working in general and some tips and techniques to help make it work.

Routines help
Make starting work a habit. Try and get into the same routine each day. Instead of getting into the car to drive to work, head to your home working space, boot up your computer and plan what you aim to achieve by the end of the day. It can help to allocate the day using your diary to the various pieces of work you have to do.

Treat home like work
Do what you would do at work. You don’t sit for 4 hours in the office without a cup of coffee or without chatting to someone, so don’t try it at home either, it won’t work. Stop once in a while, get up, stretch your legs, have something to drink, give your eyes a rest from the screen, it all helps.

You’re not alone
Keep in touch. Check in with colleagues, use Hangouts/Teams/Facetime/Skype…etc, you have conversations in the office so have conversations when you work from home. Accept that from time to time one of your colleagues will interrupt you, take the call even if you’re in the middle of something – if you were in the office you wouldn’t be able to call screen people. They’re calling for a reason that’s important to them – remember another time it will be you interrupting their flow but you would still want them to answer you. Remember, if you were in the office and needed help you would ask for it. Nothing has changed just because you’re at home.

Take advantage of the flexibility home working brings
Working from home is not the same as working in the office. Embrace the flexibility that home working provides, sometimes it won’t matter when you do the work so if it’s more convenient to do it at 8pm and spend an hour with the family at 3pm – do it. You aren’t tied to 9am-5pm, develop a routine that allows you to work when you are most productive. Focus on the outcomes you need to deliver rather than sitting behind a desk for 8 hours a day. It’s easy to be suspicious of whether people are really working when at home. You can’t easily check like you can in the office. Spending your time wondering whether others are working is a waste of time and energy. Judge people by their outputs. If they are not delivering that’s the time to start probing into why. If they are getting the work done but choosing to start at 5am and take a break in the middle of the day to walk the dog for a couple of hours it really doesn’t matter, what’s important is that work gets done and they are available when needed. On which point, you may need to let people know when you will and won’t be available to talk – usually they can see.

If you are struggling to focus, try some suitable calming background music, perhaps leave the radio off if you would normally have it on. It’s your home, you can play what you want if it helps get the work done.

Stay focused
It’s easier to get distracted at home and easier to be focused. You wouldn’t normally spend hours browsing Facebook in the office, don’t do it at home. Without anyone looking over your shoulder, a 5 minute diversion into social media can quickly become half an hour. It requires self-discipline to limit yourself to 5 minutes. It’s also easier to lose yourself into a piece of work devoid of the usual distractions of office life – it can feel really great to work through a demanding piece of work uninterrupted.

Train others in your house
Avoid unwanted disruptions. It can be hard training children to leave you in peace whilst making a call, sometimes they need or want something and their concept of time means they feel like they have waited ages. Helping them understand to leave you in peace or if they do need your attention how best to get it can be very useful. Ideas include getting them to send you a text message – you can read this during the call and respond as appropriate. Be aware if you do you will be distracted from the call itself. Teach them where to stand to be outside of the camera viewing angle such that you can see them and can acknowledge them and then excuse yourself briefly from the call, muting your microphone and covering the camera whilst you deal with the interruption.

Older generations may simply have no idea how virtual working works and see you as fair game if you are home when they call in. Because you are home you must be free is how the logic seems to work. You may need to spend considerable effort helping them understand how home working functions and to help them understand how to gain your attention.

Learn how to use your mute function
Control what people hear. There are times when the door bell will ring, children want attention or someone is talking loudly in the background who doesn’t really understand what home working means and that you are on an important call. Being able to hit the mute button means you can answer your child’s question, ask someone to keep the noise down or block the dog barking at the doorbell. It’s also helpful to block out sound when you want to sneeze or cough.

Position your microphone
Can people hear you clearly? If it’s built into the computer there’s not a lot you can do. Face the screen when you speak. Sometimes the microphones are directionally specific and turning your head may mean your speech is not picked up. With a headset, if the microphone boom is too close to your mouth, people will hear you breathing, too far away and it might make it difficult to be heard. Sometimes a separate microphone can help with audio quality.

Lighting
Can you be seen? On video calls, be aware of how you are lit. If there’s a window behind you the chances are all people will see is your silhouette. A light behind you shining onto your desk may help you but could be blinding for others. Lights from above and or the side help light you so you can be seen.

What’s in the background?
What can they see? You might think the washing drying on the rack can’t be seen but sometimes what the camera shows others is a wider angle view than is being displayed on your computer. The background will tell others a lot about you – is what they see the image you wish to portray?

Camera angle
Are you looking down on them? A camera mounted at the top of a desktop screen creates an ‘eye to eye’ perspective. Because you are looking down at a laptop camera that’s how the viewers will see you – looking down on them. A mobile phone placed flat on the desk may mean your audience is getting a weird ‘up your nostrils view’ and can feel like you are being a bit disdainful. Put your laptop on a pile of books or consider using a separate camera mounted a bit higher.

Struggling to see and watch?
Need more screens? Consider joining by mobile phone (use a stand to get it to the right height) and also joining a video call via your computer. If you are doing this, disable the microphone and speakers on the laptop to avoid creating distortion and feedback. Use the computer to view others in the call or the documents being shared and use your phone for voice and video.

Get yourself ready for every call / video call
Been to the loo? Got yourself a coffee? Need an extra layer? Now you are ready. It’s difficult to stop a call mid-way through for a comfort break / refreshment break. Go to the bathroom, make yourself a brew and get yourself ready for the call. That way if it looks like running on you will at least be comfortable. It’s a little more obvious when you have to step out of the call to go to the bathroom than it is in a real meeting where you can pop out for a moment. Depending on the environment, it can get quite cold being sat on a call for a long time. Do you have a jersey to wear? Better to have access to the right layers than simply to get colder and colder. The colder you get the more your concentration will go.

Be disciplined
Don’t try and do two things at once. The temptation to look at your email or scan the news mid telephone or video call spells disaster. You can’t do both at once, you really can’t. All that happens is you simply do not hear what is being said and this makes it very difficult to rejoin the conversation. You could get really caught out if someone asks you a question and you were on your phone. Stay focused, don’t get distracted by ‘stuff’.

Get your computer to do your work
Use the computer as the tool. These days you can make calls as if from your phone using services provided by Google and Skype for example. People think you are calling from your mobile as this is the number that appears on their screen, but in reality you are using an app on your computer. This allows you to talk much more comfortably either using the built in microphone or speakers or a headset. This frees up your hands to be able to take notes.

Find a space in your house and set it up as your home office
Be comfortable. Ideally it will be set up just as you want it. A comfortable desk, proper desk chair, computer, printer, good lighting, quiet environment, warm and everything you need to hand. Get it right and you can sit down and start working straight away with no time wasted setting it up.

Can’t get WiFi to your desk area?
No wifi no connection. Install a mesh or worst case a series of extenders to get the signal to your desk. Don’t tolerate a poor connection – it will make home working a misery. You need a fast, stable connection for home working to work properly.

Get it right and it’s great
Quality of life goes up. My colleagues and I have been working virtually for many years and we love it. We accept it’s not for everyone and there are some roles that necessitate being in the office. But where you can make it work, it can be a really useful environment to get a lot done. Like most things, it’s a skill that takes a bit of practice.

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