How to work from home
With many people now facing the prospect of working from home to protect themselves against coronavirus what can you do to ease the transition? As someone that has worked from home (and therefore ‘self-isolated’) for 21 years there are a number of considerations along with a few tips and tricks to make the most of it.
In June 1999 I made the transition from being office-based in one company to starting with another, based overseas, where I would work exclusively from home. Although I never had any issue with the changeover, I’ve spoken to many that say they’ve struggled on the occasions when they’ve had to work from home or some that admitted that they felt they couldn’t do it at all – the temptation to do anything but work would be too great. Let’s start by looking at some of the financial benefits and potential drawbacks.
The cost and savings of working from home
Your first thought might be ‘I’ll save a fortune by working from home’. Yes, there will be gains from commuting costs, buying lunch out and the like, but you will also have additional outgoings. Your power consumption will increase as you have to light and heat your home during the day when it might otherwise be empty. (The self-employed can claim some of this back). If you intend to work from home regularly then you may need to invest in some equipment – desk, chair, additional computer equipment, stationery, etc.
It’s worth drawing up a spreadsheet to tot up all of the estimated savings versus new outgoings. There are plenty of online calculators that will help you to estimate your increased power costs. You will save money in the long-term, but there may be some short-term outlays. It’s worth taking the time to shop around for lower cost energy suppliers, as well as ensuring that the lights you will use are low energy. LED bulbs use around 75% less power and last much longer. You may only be talking a £30-40 per year saving, but it all adds up.
Location, Location, Location
Maybe you already have an area suitable for work such as a dedicated computer desk. If not, you need to give consideration to the amount of space you’ll need. Is your work mainly computer-based, telephone-based or focussed on paperwork? Do you have room to store everything you’ll need?
Your home situation will most probably dictate where you can or indeed must work. If you have young children then it would be better to have a dedicated room where you can shut yourself off from the daily home soundtrack, also keeping your work safe from those under-age destructive forces. For those with deeper pockets either a loft conversion or one of the many available garden ‘cabins’ might be an option, giving you more space and adding value to your property at the same time.
You’ve allocated an area of your home where you can work comfortably, so now you need to decide on the hardware and software that you’ll need to do your job. It may be that your company will provide you with relevant equipment such as a laptop, but what else might you need?
First off, communications! If you need to make/receive phone calls how do you plan on doing this? Do you have a company mobile? Does your personal mobile or home number have unlimited outgoing calls, or can you easily log the cost of outgoing calls to bill back to your company? Are you even happy for your home number(s) to be potentially visible to staff or customers (because of caller ID)? These are all factors that you need to consider, and everyone will feel differently about this. One option would be to rent a VOIP (Voice Over IP) number, whereby you buy a number which can make or receive calls via computer rather than landline. Skype offers this for around £30 per year for unlimited calls, and you’d be able to make/receive calls on a PC, tablet or mobile device using the Skype app.
In order to sustain good quality communications you’ll also need to ensure that your broadband and WIFI is up to scratch. Check that you don’t have a broadband cap, as you could quickly accrue additional charges. It’s worth discussing with your employer whether they’ll pick up or share the additional costs if you have to change to a higher tariff.
I always like to have a ‘Plan B’ for those inevitable times when broadband goes down, and this is where your mobile can come to the rescue. Most phones allow you to create a mobile hotspot, sharing your 4G data as a local WIFI network and this can be a lifesaver if your broadband is less than reliable. You can quickly burn through your mobile data allowance though, so make sure that you keep an eye on it.
Most people will use a laptop – either their own or a company supplied one. If you’re using a desktop PC you may need to buy a webcam, but a laptop will have this built in.
Next up, invest in a good headset that you’ll be comfortable wearing for long periods. Although the above-mentioned laptop will have speakers and microphone you can often get feedback when on conference calls, which a headset will eliminate. A wired one will be cheaper, but Bluetooth will untether you from your desk, giving you the freedom to perhaps walk, talk and add to your step count.
If your desk space allows and you’ve not already done so it’s worth getting a second monitor. Research shows that people can work up to 30% more efficiently by having two screens. I’ll have emails open on one screen and whatever app I’m working in on the other. A cheaper option is to repurpose a tablet as a second screen. There are plenty of apps out there that will allow you to plug in a tablet and either mirror or extend your PCs screen. A word of warning – even with a 12.9” iPad Pro I find it hard work – a good-sized 20”+ screen is best.
Software and accessing your data
There will be standard apps that you use during work, and your company should be able to provide you with a license, but alternatively there may be cheaper or even free alternatives. Office 365 (which gives you access to all of Microsoft’s office suite) starts at around £6 per month and also gives you 1TB of OneDrive cloud storage, but if you can’t stretch to that consider Libre Office, an open source and free alternative, covering word processing, spreadsheets and presentations. For email, Mozilla Thunderbird is a good alternative to Outlook.
You’ll probably need to access your office files, and an Office 365 subscription could solve that problem with OneDrive – just log in on both computers, move your office files into the OneDrive folder and they’ll immediately sync with your home PC.
If you can’t sync your data because it’s sensitive, there are alternatives. Your company’s IT department may be able to set up a VPN or remote desktop software to connect to your computer as if you were there, mirroring your office computer’s screen on your home PC. Real VNC is a great, secure and free way to do this – just create a free account, install the server on your office PC and the client app on your home PC. Once set up you can connect in literally seconds. It also has the added benefit of working on tablets and mobiles, so you can access your PC from anywhere on any device if need be.
You should also go as paperless as possible. Every computer can create or read a PDF, and you can use your phone as a document scanner to quickly create and email multi-page PDFs as required. Couple that with cloud storage and you can scan a document and email someone a OneDrive link to it in the cloud with a couple of taps. It’s obviously better for the environment, you’ll save space and won’t have to spend extra money on printer consumables.
Dedication’s what you need!
You’ve got your office set up, access to your data and your telecoms and data are sorted out – now you’ve actually got to do some work! Although one of the benefits of working remotely means that (depending on your job) you may be able to work flexible hours it’s good practice to replicate a fixed working day, at least at the beginning. It can be easy to get distracted by home chores or projects, especially if there are others in the house. If family members know that between X and Y you are ‘not there’ they will quickly learn to respect that if you do.
It may be a minor point, but don’t use the fact that you’re unlikely to see another living soul in person all day to be an excuse for not taking care of your appearance. If the boss suddenly wants a skype call and you’re in your dressing gown sporting that ‘just dragged through a hedge backwards’ look it does not send the message that you’re slaving over a hot keyboard – it screams ‘daytime TV’....
Do not underestimate the potential that working from home has to take a negative toll on your health, both physically and mentally. Physically, you will move a lot less. You’re not expending any energy on a commute and you’re not walking around an office. It’s therefore important to take time out for exercise – maybe take a walk at lunchtime or go to the gym before or after work. I struggled with the commitment of going out to a gym – especially on cold, dreary nights – so invested in some gym equipment at home. This left me with no excuses and allows me to have a workout before work, meaning that I sit down at 9am feeling energised and like I’ve got a head-start on the day.
A simpler way to easily burn a few calories without effort is to buy a standing desk, which you can adjust to either a seated or standing position within seconds. There are products such as Varidesk which will convert your existing desk for relatively low cost. You may also want to keep more of an eye on your daily step count with a fitness tracker such as an Apple Watch or Fitbit. This will give you visibility about how much (or little) exercise you’re actually getting.
A high-quality chair is equally important, as you’ll spend a lot of time on it – possibly longer than your office chair. Don’t just order a chair online – try it out first if possible or be prepared to return it if you feel aches and pains after a few hours of sitting on it.
Many struggle with the isolation of working remotely. We respond to visual communication as well as audio and cutting one element of this out can be the most difficult aspect of home working. Over the last two decades I’ve relied on Skype to keep in touch with colleagues and will occasionally have a 10-minute skype just to catch up. I’ve made the mental adjustment that a conversation on Skype is much the same as a chat across the desk, and most days will have at least half a dozen video Skype calls in addition to telephone calls. Even if you only send the odd text chat rather than audio/visual that can be enough to help you to feel connected.
Probably the biggest downside if you are one of only a few in your company that work remotely is that you might miss out on the social aspect. The companies I work for are either a long drive or flight away, so meeting down the pub after work is simply not an option for me. I gladly make the effort to attend company events such as Christmas parties, and with every event I always get the chance to positively engage with others on a social level that perhaps I rarely speak to professionally.
Listening to music has long since been known to either relax or help you focus, and you can use your computer to stream radio stations or music streaming services to your headset. If you’re more old-school you can create your own jukebox by ‘ripping’ your music CDs to your PC. In fact, this was one of the first tasks I set myself back in 1999, setting a stack of CDs on my desk and gradually copying them to my PC. (I was syncing mp3s to my phone two years before the iPod was launched!). Most computers have ample space to store even an impressively sized library without needing to increase storage. The average high quality mp3 file is around 5MB, so a hundred 10-track albums might take 5GB, which is a drop in the ocean for most hard drives.
Of course, the biggest health benefit to working from home is that you come into contact with fewer people. Having done so for over two decades I can confirm that I get far fewer colds – I’ve had two days off sick in 20 years!
Working from home also shifts the overall work-life balance. I was able to take my daughter to school when she was younger and still be online by 9am. I was home if she was sick, and didn’t have to take time off work. I was always available for early evening school events rather than being stuck in traffic and was able to take a much more active role in my daughter’s childhood than many parents are able. Even the ability to ask ‘how was your day’ as soon as she walks in the door is something that I appreciate every day.
Overall, the benefits of working from home far outweigh the drawbacks. I would not want to go back to office working now. You no longer have the stress of a commute, there’s no office dress code (but that’s no excuse to slum it!) and it gives you more time to be with your family. With the right hardware/software setup you can minimise or eradicate any drawbacks from not being in the office. Attitude is important – you have to be of the mindset that you’re ‘at work’, despite the reality of your actual location. That’s why a dedicated space is important.
To finalise, and in no particular order here are my top tips to working successfully at home:
- Be disciplined with your hours – always have a fixed start time
- Have a dedicated work area; ideally a separate room where you can set up and leave everything ready
- Get the right furniture – comfort is a priority
- Make sure that you have rock-solid communications. A good broadband connection, backed up with a Plan B of mobile broadband should you need it is essential. Good headphones and microphone are also a necessity
- Have the right software. In addition to the software you currently use, investigate if there are other tools that can make working from home easier and perhaps even more effective
- Make time for exercise. It’s very easy to quickly form unhealthy habits
- Make the effort - ensure that should you have to jump on camera you are presentable
- Appreciate the difference that working from home provides - although there is an adjustment to make there is much to gain from it