In a matter of weeks, social distancing and shelter in place have become household phrases. Universities and schools have scrambled to set up online classrooms, and workers around the globe have scrambled to set up home offices. We are now a telework nation – at least for the time being. My Facebook news feed is full of posts from friends trying to adapt to life in the home office. From setting up the workspace to dealing with interruptions from children (or pets!), telework can sure be a challenge.
As an industrial psychologist and health and wellness coach who has worked from a home office for over 22 years, I am abuzz with thoughts and ideas. How can I help people remain productive (industrial psychologist hat) and well (health coach hat) based on my own personal experiences (long-time teleworker hat)?
My Telework Story
In 1997, I stopped my daily commute into D.C. and started working from home. This was before home offices were a thing. And when the Internet was just becoming a thing. Which made my move from a stable government job in D.C. to a private sector job with a home office a bit risky. But I can emphatically state that while having a home office has its challenges, it has dramatically improved my quality of life.
In Support of the Home Office
There seems to be a greater emphasis today than ever before on finding a healthy work-life balance. The 60-hour work week is no longer a badge of honor. What’s honorable, and actually desirable, is finding balance. Balance between working hard to save for a rainy day and actually living the rainy day.
Friends who are now working from home: here is your opportunity to find that balance. You’re not even ALLOWED to overschedule and run all over the place right now! If now isn’t the time to achieve balance and greater wellness, I’m not sure when is.
But how do we achieve wellness when working from a home office, especially under current circumstances?
Opportunity and Flexibility: Home Office for the Win
A home office provides two key things: opportunity and flexibility. The home office isn’t going to force you to exercise or to choose a healthy afternoon snack over a bowl of ice cream (purely hypothetical of course). But the home office provides opportunity to take advantage of the extra time not spent commuting, and the convenience that being in a home environment provides. It also provides flexibility (under normal circumstances) to modify work hours and practices as needed. Making proper use of the opportunity and flexibility takes some practice. Give it some time and develop healthy habits that work for you, tweaking things as you go. It’s not easy, especially now, so give yourself a daily dose of grace, too.
Here are some practical suggestions on how to make the home office work for you.
Practical Suggestions for Home Office Wellness
Move your Body
When working from a home office, there’s no walk from the car to the office. Your commute may only be 20 steps! It’s easy for the activity level to tank. Force yourself to take some breaks, to get up and move. Set a timer if needed – a five-minute break for every hour of work. Instead of sitting through long conference calls, walk around your office (but please stay on mute). Or do some stretching exercises throughout your day. Seize opportunities to move around. Your mind and body will thank you.
Pets can be great partners in wellness. Take a break to play with your pet every few hours. You're especially lucky if you own a dog. When your dog needs to go out, you have no choice. My puppy Chloe keeps me from staying glued to my chair. (As an aside, we used to walk to the bus stop to greet my son at 3:00 every school day. I miss that ritual. I am doing my best to get back into the habit of our daily bus stop walk, but it’s just not the same without that yellow bus rounding the corner.)
Create your Mood
Create the mood that best suits you. Here are two key areas:
- Lighting – Do you need more light in your space? Or some soft lighting to help you focus? With a home office, you can set the lighting to suit your needs. No need for glaring overhead fluorescents that have long been the bane of many traditional offices. Also consider a salt lamp or some candles to help you feel more zen while you’re working.
- Music – Tranquil background music can help you focus. I use the Mood station on Spotify and select background piano music, spa music, or other soft music. Occasionally, I need more upbeat music to get energized. You could even play affirmations or uplifting podcasts. There are no coworkers around, so you don’t even need to wear headphones.
Change your Scenery
In a home office, there’s no water cooler gathering place. If you’re spinning your wheels or your energy is flagging, take it upon yourself to get up and change your scenery. I’d ordinarily suggest tapping into the WiFi at your local coffee shop or cafe. When we are all out and about again, support your local shops and find a quiet corner to work with a mug of your favorite brew. (Just be sure to time your calls carefully so that the barista isn’t announcing your Skinny Venti Vanilla Latte at an awkward moment.) Libraries are another great place to get work done – when they are open.
For now, look for opportunities where you can grab just your laptop and head to another quiet spot in the house for an hour or two. I find this helps when I need to get past writer’s block, especially if I can open the windows and breathe in the fresh air. On that note, is there a spot outside, maybe a porch or patio, where you can escape for a short time? The change of scenery can work magic. Just make sure the temporary location boosts your productivity and isn’t full of distractions.
Mind your Eating Habits
Perhaps one of the biggest dangers of a home office is the open access to the kitchen. But that candy jar on your coworker’s desk in your “real” office was a danger too. The truth is, it’s always been up to you to make healthy choices. Don’t let working from home be an excuse to let healthy eating fall by the wayside. You can keep your fridge stocked with healthy snacks. Yes, it takes some planning, as does packing a lunch to take to the office. But you have the opportunity to have fresh, healthy meals and snacks at your disposal, while saving money along the way.
Organize your Time and Space
A great challenge of the home office is the lack of built-in structure. There’s no time card to punch, and no clear transition between work and home life. I’ve found that it’s important to create dedicated work hours. Although exceptions will occur (this flexibility is part of the beauty of the home office), carving out designated work hours will benefit both the work you do and your life after hours.
Also do what you can to create separate work and home zones. My desk area is for work. When I need my computer for something that is not work-related during off hours, I pull it through to my kitchen or sitting room. If it’s not possible for you to carve out a designated work area, find a way to keep work and home documents separate. Otherwise you will feel overwhelmed as your two worlds collide.
Be Creative in How you Socialize
You have the opportunity to stay connected socially while working from home. It just requires more conscious effort, especially under quarantine rules. This is why Zoom has exploded. I've been using Zoom at work for about five years, but it wasn't until Coronavirus that I started using it to keep in touch with friends. Now we Zoom regularly and even play Yahtzee over Zoom. Get creative. Call friends, set up chat groups, or find an online discussion board. Take online lessons and classes – many are being offered for free right now. Once we are past this crisis, be sure to get out in the evenings or on weekends to get your social fix.
By the way, a big plus of home office socialization? The lack of office gossip and drama. You get to choose who you interact with, and when.
Home Office Wellness is Up to You!
My hope is that your home office will become a haven of wellness in no time. These are challenging times, but we have the opportunity to form new healthy habits and to take advantage of the flexibility a home office provides. So, go ahead and strike your best yoga pose. Just be sure your video camera is off!
For more tips on telework, head over to teleworknation.com.