As the new coronavirus continues to spread, many people used to working in an office face a new sudden reality: working from home.
Instead of interacting with the co-workers whose rhythms and foibles you’ve learned over time, you might find yourself listening in on your partner’s calls. Or trying to chime in on an important conference call while your kid whines for an ice cream sundae at 9 a.m.
Even if COVID-19 isn’t in your area, the situation is so fluid that quarantines and strict social distancing measures may soon come your way.
So how do you work from home while remaining calm, productive and patient with your new co-workers (as it were)?
1. Plan in 24-hour chunks
Part of what makes the coronavirus pandemic so stressful for many people is how little we know about what is to come. You can’t control whether the virus is going to come to your area. You can’t control whether its spread is going to close down workplaces and schools. You can’t control how long any of this lasts.
What you can control (in addition to your own hand hygiene, of course) is what happens within your home every 24 hours.
“It feels bad to not have structure and boundaries,” said Perri Shaw Borish, a Philadelphia-based licensed clinical social worker who specializes in treating anxiety among parents. “It’s important to sit down every night and plan for the next day.”
That means taking a few minutes to look at a calendar and mark down any virtual meetings or important phone calls you have. Or any looming deadlines. If you’ve got kids at home, what is your general plan for the morning? What time is lunch? When are you signing off for the day? When are you going to do the other things you normally do, like shower, workout, etc.?
“We’re going to stick to our regular schedules as much as possible,” said Mikaela Kiner, a Seattle-area executive coach currently working from home with her husband and daughter. “Get up in the morning like it’s a normal workday. Exercise. Take proper meal breaks. Having a routine, especially for my 15-year-old, keeps us all productive and helps manage disruption and anxiety.”
2. Establish “blue zones”
First, consider carving out areas within your home that are strictly yours. Maybe you get the bedroom, while your partner works in the kitchen. Even if you live in a tiny apartment, you can give everyone their own little spot.
In addition, you want to establish what Britt Riley, co-founder of the Coggeshall Club — a combination daycare, co-working, and fitness space — called “blue zones.”
“They could end up being your car, or a corner in your bedroom or the bathroom — what you’re looking for are the quietest, most private and secluded parts of your home where you know have WiFi and cell phone service,” said Riley, adding that they might not be your favorite spots, but they should provide the most privacy. “Then you and your partner need to sit down and identify any calls or meetings that you’re going to take there.”
3. Work in shifts
If you’re home with kids who are demanding your time and energy, you’re probably not going to be able to work a typical 9 to 5 shift — or whatever the usual is for you. You can’t really change that it’s harder to get work done when you’re also parenting, so don’t try.
Instead, Riley advised talking with your partner about when you each are most productive. Are you someone who works really well in the morning? Claim that time to focus while your partner watches the kids. Are you more of a night owl? Put your partner in charge of dinner and bedtime. If you both like to work at the same point in the day, take turns.
“People are really productive when they know they have a set amount of time to get something done,” Riley said. “And you’ll be able to look back on this time together and say, ‘Wow, we really worked as a team.’”
4. Focus on the upsides
Yes, that’s a weird thing to say when a serious virus is spreading around the globe. But WFH experts say it can help to focus on the silver lining, which is the opportunity to spend time with your partner or kids in a way you don’t normally get to.
“You might have lunch as a family every day, and that might be just kind of the coolest thing,” Riley said.
It can also be pretty damn interesting to see your partner work, which is a side of them you might not often have access to. Let yourself be impressed watching your partner get it done.
“Yes, there is a very scary virus looming over all of this, but your home is your safe space, and your people are your people,” Riley said. “Try and frame it in a positive way, which is that you can work together as a team, plan the things you can plan, and spend this time together.”
5. Make “friends” with your anxiety
“It’s normal to feel anxious. It’s OK that you’re feeling anxious,” Shaw Borish said. “Probably the best thing to do is not to try and fight the anxiety. It’s to try and be friends with it.”
By that, she means not beating yourself up if you are feeling stressed, and not trying to push that stress away, either. People are stressed about the possibility of getting sick, very real and pressing questions about how they’re going to make ends meet and how they’re going to get their work done. Those are big, frightening questions. So take deep breaths. When you feel anxiety taking a hold of you, acknowledge it outright: Like, literally say to yourself, “I am feeling anxious right now — and this is a normal thing to feel anxious about.”
Then set some boundaries around your consumption of coronavirus-related news. You likely wouldn’t spend all day in the office reading or watching the news for hours on end, so don’t do it at home. Pretend your boss is peering over your shoulder if helps.
“Tell yourself that you’re not going to feed the anxiety,” Shaw Borish said.