Telecommuting – The Art of Working At Home

Working from home is great on so many levels. Not having to commute saves money and time and can actually make you happier. A plethora of free tools make it super simple to check in with a decentralized office or teammates that may also be working in their homes, scattered around the globe.

But there are challenges, as well. How do you keep from getting distracted by things like dirty dishes or that pile of laundry? How do you handle a spouse, partner or roommate who also happens to be home during the day?

I may not have all the answers but here is a decent place to start.


Hello cubicle avoiders, open space ostracizers, corner office curtailers, home den dwellers, and coffee shop congregators. My name is Brock Armstrong, and I am… not the Workplace Hero. It’s true! I am learning this workplace stuff along with you, episode by episode, we are both learning to flex our day job muscles at the same time. You can think of me as your workplace safety net.

Before we get started with today’s topic… Did you know that there are show notes for all the podcasts over at the website www.workplacehero.me? There is. Quite robust ones at that! I know that the majority of you are listening to this podcast while you are on the bus, in your car, at the gym or otherwise not near a pen and paper – so to take the onus off of you having to try to remember the important points and valuable takeaways, I am making it easy for you. The only thing you need to remember from this episode is www.workplacehero.me/home. Slick eh?

Ok, here we go!

The other day I posted a short video on Instagram and Twitter asking people what they thought the next episode should be about. I suggested two options: How To Ask For A Raise and How To Prepare For A Big Day (like a presentation or the final sprint on a big project). Well, a fellow with the Instagram handle WholeDoods wrote back (quite quickly, I might add) with a great suggestion. He said: how about “The perils of working from home…how to not turn into a weird recluse who never puts on pants etc.” I wrote back (quite quickly) saying: “That’s a good one! I could have fun with that. Thanks!”

So that is exactly what we are going to cover on today’s episode. The good, the bad, the awkward and the comfort or working from home.

I have been working from home on and off (mostly on) since 2010 and I have made some mistakes along the way that I like to think I have learned from. I have also made some advances in my setup, my workspace, my gear and my work hours over those years. Along with some help from a few articles, I found at Forbes and Inc.com, I will now endeavour to help you avoid the mistakes that I have made.

Working from home is great on so many levels. Not having to commute saves money and time and can actually make you happier (as we learned in the episode at workplacehero.me/commute). A plethora of free tools make it dead simple to check in with a decentralised office or teammates that may also be working in their homes, scattered around the globe. And… yes, if you want to work in sweatpants or pajamas, you certainly can. I don’t do it often but I have been known to rock the old sweat-shorts.

But there are challenges, as well. How do you keep from getting distracted by things like dirty dishes or that pile of laundry? How do you handle a spouse, partner or roommate who also happens to be home during the day? Also, how the heck do you get anything done if you have kids around?

I may not have (or have found in my research) all the answers but here is a decent list to start with.

1. Make A To Do List:
First go to workplacehero.me/todo and listen to that episode. Now, identify what needs to get done every day and make sure to do it. As long as I have a plan on how to complete the list of daily tasks on my personal to-do list, it doesn’t matter if or how I may be interrupted or what my actual work hours are, as long as I get things done by the end of my day.

2. Use the cloud:
Klaus Sonnenleiter, president and CEO of Franklin Lakes, insists that important documents need to be uploaded to a cloud storage service such as Dropbox or Google Drive. This way you can log in from anywhere and never need to worry about having your files with you. That can come in very handy for those of us who like to get out of the house occasionally and work from a coffee shop or shared work space. No need to drag along external hard drives.

3. Get dressed:
I find that the most important thing for me is to keep a regular routine and that means that I shower and dress every day as if I were going to an actual office. Getting dressed makes the home office feel more like a real office and it reminds everyone, especially you, that even though you may be sitting at the kitchen table staring at your laptop, that you are actually indeed working.

4. Don’t let friends or family members interrupt you:
Boundaries are only as effective as they are enforced. I have joked for years now about getting a hat that says “I am at work” that I can put on to remind my partner that I am indeed “at work” even if I am standing at the window staring at the trees. I have not invested in said hat yet but I do get great results for a quick “working”.

Catherine Simms, co-founder of the company Whiner & Diner, also has this advice to avoid drop-in visitors. “I just tell them that it is not a good time [and] over the weekend would be better,” she says. She also instructs them to call first to see if she’s home. Then when they do she doesn’t pick up, at least during work hours.

Here’s an idea from John Meyer, CEO of Miramar. He advises that you hang or tape coloured construction paper on your office door. Tape the red paper up when you cannot be disturbed and the green paper when it’s OK to come in. Yellow paper means to check first. He ads that kids, no matter what age, understand this message and actually kind of enjoy playing along.

5. Get out of the house occasionally:
Even in the most awesome of home offices, we can fall into a routine, and a routine is the enemy of creativity. Changing your environment, even just for a day, brings new types of input and stimulation, which in turn stimulates creativity and inspiration.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but working from a bustling coffee shop or a shared work space can be less distracting than working from a quiet office. Being surrounded by awesome team- and officemates means being interrupted for water cooler chats and work questions. Being interrupted kills productivity. The coffee shop environment combines the benefit of anonymity with the dull buzz of exciting activity. Unlike working at home, with the ever-present black hole of solitude and procrastination, a coffee shop provides the opportunity of human interaction, but on your terms.

6. Invest in creating a comfortable office:
Deb McAlister-Holland, a freelance marketing professional in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, says the $5,000 she spent remodelling her home office was the best thing she ever did to increase her productivity. I agree! I love my current home office. I have a sit-stand desk from IKEA, some awesome 1950s robot artwork on my walls, a tonne of plants, plenty of natural light and a lot of storage space to keep everything neat and tidy.

I would encourage you all to establish a few different working locations around the house as well. One where you can stand, one where you can sit, even one where you can squat or kneel. If there is one thing we have learned in the past 14 episodes of this podcast it is that we need to vary our body position as often as possible throughout the day – so take the time to establish that in your work habitat so it is easy and automatic rather than a chore to relocate depending on your task.

7. Be clear about your working hours:
This was a big lesson for me. For a couple years I never felt like I was actually off the clock because there wasn’t a clock for me to be on. This is really not good for your nervous system. You know when the doctor refers to “low level stress?” Well, this is it and it ain’t good.

At first, you can even go as far as to post your hours of operation on your home office door (or laptop lid), as with any brick and mortar office and stick to those hours. Indicate in your email signature, your Skype status, and your voicemail what your hours of operation are, and again – stick to them. As tempting as it is to check your work email before bed – don’t do it! Stick to your business hours.

8. Pretend you’re not home:
During those work hours, don’t answer your home phone (if you still have one of those) or the door during business hours (unless you are expecting a delivery). This way, you are never tempted to chat or take time off or slack off in any way. This is a good strategy to stay focussed and on task.

9. Don’t go to non-work appointments in the middle of the day:
I’ve heard some people say that they try to make doctor and dentist appointments just as they would in a company office, first thing in the morning, last thing in the day to minimize disruptions of their work. Personally, I think this is one of the perks of working from home – I can do stuff when the line-ups are shorter, the waiting rooms are empty and the streets are less crowded. I’ll leave this one up to you guys to decide which is best for you but personally going to a matinee on a Wednesday afternoon is one of the reasons I dig being a freelance, work from home, contract monkey.

10. Get some in-person time with co-workers:
For about 18 months I worked full-time for a distributed company. By distributed, I mean that we had no office to go to… even if we wanted to. We kept in touch via email and conferencing software called Zoom. We had retreats and a conference once a year but aside from that, we never saw each other face-to-face. That really took a toll on both our camaraderie and our communication. I don’t work full-time for that company anymore but I heard the other day that they have gotten themselves some primo office space and are encouraging team members to start using it. I think this is a great move. In-person meetings are important, now and then.

11. Use Video Conferencing whenever possible:
Like I just said, while it’s ideal if you can occasionally meet in-person with coworkers, sometimes it’s not possible because teams are separated by geography. In that case, video chatting is the next best thing. There are tons of versions out there and many of them are free to use. I like Zoom and Skype but I know a lot of people who use Google Hangouts as well. Choose the platform that works best for you and team and encourage everyone to turn on the camera… no matter what state their hair may be in.

12. Enjoy your flexibility:
Just like my affinity for Wednesday afternoon matinees, if you find your focus wavering you can always just take a break with a bike ride, a long walk, or even by throwing in the towel and quitting work for the rest of the day. That’s according to Patti Hill, founder and managing director of Penman PR. She says “Because my work schedule can be as flexible as I need it to be, sometimes it’s important to walk away, it’s amazing what a cool dip on a hot day can do for helping boost the creative juices.”

13. Stay out of the kitchen:
This is a dirty little secret of noobie telecommuters, but it can be like the freshman 15 all over again. I shudder at the thought of how many times I opened the fridge that first year I was working from home. Like many of the things I have mentioned so far, this takes discipline but it is important and worthwhile. Sticking to a meal schedule is as important as sticking to a work schedule. Go for a walk or do some stretching when you feel the need to procrastinate rather than grabbing a snack. Movement will help boost your mood and creativity where snacking will just make you feel sleepy and perhaps even ashamed.

14. Buy a noise-cancelling headset with a mute button:
The last thing you want is to be in an online meeting and have the doorbell ring or police sirens blaring the background. “Perception is reality,” says New York City-based Jonathan Vlock, co-Founder of the meal-planning app Cooking Planit. You want people to think you run a tight ship, and have all of the necessary resources at your fingertips. This is especially critical when you are an entrepreneur talking to someone at a larger organization. People can’t visualize your home but they can certainly visualize an office, and that is exactly what you want them to [see and hear].

This can also be an issue when taking a call or meeting when you are working at a coffee shop. As much as you like to give the air of being the creative type who can work anywhere, it is often more important to give the air of a professional who takes their work seriously. Using a good set up headphones and learning how to toggle the mute button can go a long way.

15. Check in with co-workers and the boss several times a day:
Several years ago I worked for a small company that let me telecommute a few times a week. Because I wanted everyone in the office to know I was really working and not napping (which honestly I sometimes did), I made a point of emailing and calling co-workers and especially my boss a few times a day. And actually, now that I think about it, they called and emailed me more often on those days as well. Heh.

16. Set aside a specific place exclusively for work:
You’ll be able to deduct it from your taxes and, as we have talked about already, it will help you psychologically. As Richard Eisenberg wrote in Secrets of Claiming a Home-Office Deduction, although an estimated 26 million Americans have home offices, only 3.4 million taxpayers claimed their home-office deductions. Eisenberg notes that many people with home offices skip the tax breaks because they’re worried the write-offs will spark a tax audit. That’s not really the case these days. Don’t be a chump! Write that sucker off.

17. Accept that your rise to the top might be thwarted, or do something to fight back. I feel like this is changing nowadays but some employers still think that you can’t really manage others when you work from home. I think they’re probably right on some levels. Being a boss means face-time. But even getting promoted often gets tied up in the out-of-sight out-of-mind factor. To combat that, I suggest you make a diligent effort to show-up on a regular basis for meetings and other office gatherings. If you make a big enough splash on those occasions, it will be harder for you to be out-of-mind even when you are out-of-sight.

18. Force yourself to be an extrovert.
Working remotely can prevent you from building workplace relationships and chances to meet new people in an office — those things rarely happen when you work from home. This is a bit of an intangible loss, but, again, push yourself to get out of the house, and squeeze in a lunch, or coffee with colleagues or friend and even bosses. I found joining a running club and teaching some evening swim classes greatly reduced the chances of me becoming a weird hermit that never spoke out-loud to anyone… other than the cat.

19. Take an aggressive stance on taxes and retirement savings.
When you work for yourself, this is essential since you don’t have an employer’s plan to automatically set funds aside for you. Get some good financial advice (probably not from me or this podcast) and follow it. I have been stunned at the end of the year with a crippling tax bill more than once. Now, I plan ahead. I encourage you to skip the part where you are stunned and get right to the part where you have it under control.

Ok… now that I have brought up taxes, it is probably time to bring up your homework.

Feel free to choose any of the items on the list and implement it right away but in my experience, the biggest challenge and hurdle for most people who work from home is sticking to a schedule. So, your homework is to write down your “office hours” post them somewhere and stick to them rigidly for the next 5 days. It’s ok if you need to adjust them based on your workload but treat them the same way you would if you had an office job… and don’t be the lone person still sitting in their cubicle when the janitorial staff come in. Trust me. No one likes that person. Not even the janitor.

Do you have any great tips for your fellow Workplace Heros? If so, head over to workplacehero.me/home and leave them in the comments section. It’s a little lonely over there right now so let’s see if we can’t brighten it up a little bit. That’s workplacehero.me/home

From my experience, to work from home on a regular basis, you must be well-organized, have time management skills and be a self-starter. Not everyone is hardwired that way. It’s important to be honest with yourself before you take the leap. Even if you are hardwired that way, you may still have to make rules, exert some discipline and for goodness sake – put on some pants!

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Workplace Hero is researched, written, narrated and recorded by me Brock Armstrong in gorgeous Vancouver BC. Podcast logo by Ken Cunningham and music by my old band, The Irregular Heartbeats. Today Heroic idea came from Instagram follower WholeDoods with inspiration from Inc and Forbes.com. Shownotes for this podcast episode can be found at www.workplacehero.me/home

Now go make this week count!

3 Replies to “Telecommuting – The Art of Working At Home”

  1. I went and showered and got dressed before I made this comment! Thanks for all the tips – I feel a successful week coming on!

  2. I love the reminder to get out of the house. One of the biggest lessons I learned working from home is the importance of human interaction! At one point I realized that it had been over two weeks and I hadn’t met with anyone outside of my immediate family.

    Now I make sure to get out at least once a week and meet with someone.

  3. I work from home. Wish I had this podcast when I first started because I made a lot of the classic mistakes – pj pants, over snacking and checking email at night. Great episode.

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