Over the past couple of weeks, life in America—really, the world it seems like—has been turned upside down thanks to the novel Coronavirus, aka Covid-19. Entire cities and states are being shutdown, schools have been shuttered indefinitely, and thousands—if not millions—of workers who have never worked remote are now having to figure out how to do just that while also trying to figure out how to keep their kids from going stir crazy and using up all the toilet paper.
While I can’t help you with the child or toilet paper situation, I have been working remotely for the past six and a half years. Even better? For the majority of that time my husband has also been at home (I know that’s something folks are struggling with right now, figuring out how two adults can suddenly work from home together without going insane), AND we were doing so under extremely stressful circumstances.*
And let’s face it, everyone is stressed AF right now. The fear of the unknown is a very powerful thing, especially when you’re dealing with weird viruses and an economic situation that seems like it could go sideways at any given moment. (Harvard Health Blog has some great tips for dealing with coronavirus anxiety here, if you’re interested.)
But there are some things that we can control, to an extent. As someone who’s been through some really stressful health and economic stuff over the past six and a half years—while working remotely—here are my tips to help make the most of a crappy situation (no pun intended).
- Have a dedicated workspace. This seems obvious, but trust me when I say it helps. When you first start working remotely—especially if you’re suddenly thrust into it due to social distancing measures—odds are you have to make due with whatever you have. That might be the kitchen table, your bed, or a table out on the patio, but having a dedicated space to work is really important. This also means that if you and your spouse/partner/significant other are both suddenly working from home, sharing the same space isn’t necessarily the best idea. You each need your own work spaces to A) be the most productive and B) keep from getting on each other’s last nerve. Since it’s just the two of us, we have the luxury of having two separate home offices—one for him and one for me—in our spare bedrooms. If you don’t have that luxury, try to get creative with the space you do have.
- A good set of earbuds/head phones can be a life saver. My husband has a set of Bose Noise Cancelling head phones that he absolutely loves. We both have Bose bluetooth ear buds, and I have a set of Bose wired Quiet Comfort earbuds that I often use for video calls. There’s nothing more frustrating than being on a call and not being able to hear the other person—or having someone constantly ask you to repeat yourself.
- Don’t forget to take care of yourself. When you’re in an office, you have all sorts of visual and aural cues that remind you to take care of yourself; people getting up and going to the restroom or the break room, the smell of coffee constantly brewing, someone heating up their lunch, a coworker asking you if you want to go grab something to eat, etc. When you’re working from home, all of those cues disappear. Sure, you still have clocks and meetings (and if you have kids, that’s a whole other thing), but it’s super easy to let lunchtime fly by without even realizing you did so. The same things go for making sure you get up and move around, go the bathroom, and drink enough water. It sounds silly, but anyone who’s worked remotely for any amount of time is probably sitting there nodding their head in solidarity because yes, the struggle is real. Set alarms if you have to, but don’t forget to take care of yourself while working from home, make sure to eat meals like normal, and try not to snack too much if that’s not something you would usually do in the workplace.
- Wear whatever you feel most productive in. Seriously. There are a shit ton of articles out there that talk about how successful remote workers get up and put on a suit every day, or do their full hair and makeup, or whatever. If that works for you, great. But honestly, if you’re more productive while wearing Spongebob pajama pants and a Metallica t-shirt and you don’t have any video calls scheduled for the day that require you to actually look professional, you do you. What works for one person doesn’t work for everyone, and the beauty of working remote is that you can experiment and figure out what does work best for you. My husband is more productive when he gets fully dressed. Me? Some days I stay in my PJs all day, others it’s leggings and a tank top, others I’m fully dressed.
- Over-communicate with your coworkers. One of the hardest parts about working remote—especially at first—is feeling disconnected from your coworkers. If there’s a question that could probably be solved with a quick face to face chat in-office, that’s no longer an option. This is where you have to step up your communication game and use all the tools available to you. Email can be a landmine sometimes, as tone and intent can be hard to interpret, and the longer a string goes on the more confused people can get. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people via Skype, Zoom, text, Slack, etc. This also means utilizing statuses on platforms like Skype to let coworkers know if you’re available or not.
- Stick to as normal of a schedule as possible. I say this with a caveat: unless your manager says otherwise. For those of us in more creative positions, or with globally distributed teams, sometimes a normal schedule is anything but what others would consider normal. But for the most part—especially while dealing with this whole Coronavirus outbreak—I think we all need a sense of normalcy. When you work remotely, it can already feel a little weird sometimes, so having a similar schedule to your coworkers, keeping your normal meeting cadence, etc. is actually really important.
- When it’s time to “leave work,” step away from it. I think no matter where you work these days—in office or from home—it’s harder and harder to only work 40 hours a week. We get our work emails on our phones. We’re always connected. When you work from home you can have a bit of a hard time with that shut off point between work and family time; your laptop is right there, it won’t hurt to check your email just one last time before you go to bed or while supper’s cooking, right? I’m here to tell you: that’s a slippery slope, and life’s too short for that shit. I myself am guilty of it, especially when I have a big project going on. But our time on this earth is finite. The time we have with our loved ones is short. And in the middle of a global pandemic, what’s more important—work, or spending time with your family?
- Limit social media during work hours. Especially right now. It’s a distraction. It’s even more of a distraction when you work from home, because social media is often the primary way you stay connected with others. It’s hard, trust me. What works best for me may not work best for you, but I personally try to have social media “breaks” while working: I’ll log on while eating breakfast and lunch, and stay off the rest of the day unless I need to hop on for something work-related. This admittedly doesn’t always work, but I try my hardest to make it work.
- Utilize technology to help keep yourself organized/focused. Odds are you and your team probably already do this, but if you don’t, there are some great apps out there that are popular among remote and distributed teams. Slack is the obvious one, as are Skype and Zoom. I’m a big fan of Trello for individuals, but it’s also good for teams, too. Breeze is good for project management. Calendly is great for scheduling meetings and calls. Dropbox and Google Drive for sharing files.
- Get outside. Yes, right now we’re having to practice social distancing (my husband and I are actually quarantined because he’s immunosuppressed), but that doesn’t mean you can’t step outside into your back yard and let the sunshine touch your face. Take a few deep breaths (just not too many because it’s allergy season and all the stores are also sold out of facial tissues and most allergy meds too). The beauty of working from home is that you can step outside any time you want to, and Vitamin D is good for the body and soul (plus, you don’t have to go to the store in order to buy sunshine).
In the end, you may find you absolutely love working remotely or that you would rather be in an office surrounded by people. I myself prefer remote work for a variety of reasons: flexibility, fewer external stimuli to distract me, and I’m a bajillion percent more productive. There’s also that whole introvert thing, the fact that we live in the middle of nowhere, and my husband’s immunosuppressed state (I’m a total germaphobe these days).
So if you are suddenly working from home, take this time to see if you like it or not. Work on your communication skills. Assess which meetings could really have just been emails. And most importantly, don’t forget to breathe and enjoy this extra time you’re getting to spend with your loved ones. Wash your hands, be kind to one another, and try to remember that odds are everyone else is just as stressed and worried as you are.
*On June 9, 2014, I took my husband to the ER after about six months of being told by multiple doctors he simply had GERD. That night we found out my husband did not have GERD, but instead was in renal failure and had less than 5% kidney function left. I’d already been working remotely for at least the past six months, so the next week or so while he was in the hospital receiving blood transfusions, having a perm cath put in, and getting emergency dialysis treatments, I worked from his hospital room (I was contract and we couldn’t afford for me to miss more than a few days of work at that point).
Once he was released from the hospital, he began working from home too. It was admittedly an adjustment at first; we’re both introverts, but I’m an extroverted introvert who desperately needs her alone time. He’s pretty much 100% introverted who’s fine if he’s around me. Plus, there was a lot of stress from him starting dialysis and having to start the process of getting listed for a kidney transplant and trying to find a living donor if possible. And like I said, I was contract, so even though I was well-liked by everyone on my team and considered to be a valuable asset there was always the chance my contract wouldn’t be renewed due to budget issues or something.
I’m not going to go through the entire very long story, but the summary is this: in January of 2015 he received a kidney from a cousin, we had to stay with his grandfather for about eight weeks post-transplant for follow-up appointments because of how far away we lived from the transplant center, there were multiple complications, he eventually ended up with a virus that does nothing but kill transplanted kidneys, and by September of 2015 he had lost it and was back on dialysis. That October my contract was not renewed due to a company-wide hiring freeze. In December he had to have the transplanted kidney removed due to chronic rejection. In January of 2016 I started a new job, where I would remain for almost four years. In April of 2016 we made the decision for him to stop working because of how tired dialysis made him and because it was affecting his quality of work, but that also meant I was the sole carrier of health insurance, which was absolutely necessary in order for him to receive dialysis and be listed for a transplant. Three days a week, four hours each time, I worked from the dialysis clinic (he’s blind, so I was his “eyes”). The rest of the time I worked from home, and two days a week I would go into the office if we didn’t have transplant-related appointments or other doctor appointments. In October of 2018 he received a deceased donor kidney. It was sleepy at first, things were super rocky at the very beginning, but have for the most part continued to get better other than a chronically low white blood cell count, meaning his immune system is even more wrecked than most transplant patients (to the point where he couldn’t even get a flu shot for this flu season). In late summer of 2019 the company I’d been with was acquired by another company, and in October of 2019—while on my way to therapy nonetheless—I found out I was being laid off due to my position being redundant.
And now here we are. So I know what it’s like to work remotely while being stressed AF about viruses you can’t control.