Working from Home and Staying Sane
Amidst Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Working from home can be challenging even in ordinary circumstances. I did it from the age of 23 until early last year, taking time off when my three daughters were young, and whilst it became second nature and I worked productively (mostly), it was never particularly easy. For those now working from home for the first time during this unprecedented situation, the challenge is considerable.
When the rug is pulled out from under all of us, and the consequences are so myriad and far-reaching that we couldn’t list them even if we tried, it is akin to having our top layers of skin ripped off. Everywhere we are, every plan we had, every routine we took for granted, every assumption we mistook for certitude … everything is different. It is a horrible feeling. In addition, against the backdrop of Covid-19, and with our quotidian lives completely derailed, millions of people are not only having to stay at home, but to work from it, too. As the Dude (from the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski) memorably put it, when asked to take in some fresh information: “Man, that’s a lot of new **** to assimilate.”
In fact, there’s not all that much to assimilate, just a few common-sense things to consider. There’s little I can say about working from home that you won’t have figured out for yourself, and I’m sure I’ve failed to consider things that pertain to lots of people. However, if something I say is useful to somebody, that’s a plus. No one needs some author to tell them how to do things, but that’s not what I’m doing. I’m just offering a few tips, and most of all, I’m here to assist anyone working at home for the first time who is finding it particularly tough to adjust to, because the toughest thing is the sense of isolation. It can be really hard, even when you’re used to it. Therefore, if after reading this you have any questions, do please ask them on this Twitter thread, or you can follow me if you want to, and DM me. I will gladly help if I can. Finally, if you find this piece unhelpful or irritating, I’m sorry. But please don’t write mean or spiteful things: they won’t help anyone, and they’ll only add to the sum total of misery that Covid-19 has already dished out to us all.
Nuts and bolts
Only you know how much you have to do and how long it might take to do in the usual circumstances. These are not usual circumstances. You may be fortunate enough to have a study or extra room available, but you may find yourself working in your kitchen, hallway or bedroom, and there may be a lot of disturbance. If at all possible, be by yourself. If not, wear ear-plugs. They’re really great. They block out a lot of sound but they also give you a sense of being at one-remove from anything else going on around you. Noise-cancelling headphones will do the same.
If you and your partner are at home with very young children, and both of you have work to do, then the simplest solution will be to work in shifts. This may not be possible, for any number of reasons, but if it is, it will help considerably if you delineate tasks ahead of time and accept that you will barely see each other, except to pass the batons of work, children and responsibilities between you. It won’t feel normal because it isn’t. So, don’t expect to feel normal about it. Everything is weird right now.
If you work well in the mornings, I’d suggest you get up as early as you possibly can, and put in four to five hours before the day takes hold. If you can work for five hours between, say, 7am – noon, or better still, from 6am – 11am, you may have completed all or most of your work by late morning. I do appreciate that this is far easier said than done if you are a single parent, and certainly if you have a baby to care for. I also appreciate that calls often need to be made, or emails sent, when colleagues are also working. But if possible, aim to be as undisturbed and productive as possible in one good stretch.
Remember, four to five hours of work completed at home may be equal to that achieved during an eight-hour day elsewhere. If you take in to account the times spent during a usual working day getting to and from work, or chatting socially with colleagues, or attending meetings, you may – if you are lucky – be cheerfully surprised by how much less time it all takes at home. Those not looking after others during the working day may also be able to do more than usual. One of the greatest advantages of working from home is efficiency, along with flexibility and (in usual circumstances) liberty.
Feeling fed up, anxious or lonely
If this happens, and it may well, figure out whether you need to keep going or to take a break. If you can keep going, do. There’s plenty of hard evidence that working at a stretch with as few breaks as possible is most effective. But if you need to stop to take a breather, do so. Be aware, however, that it takes a whopping 25 minutes for the brain to return properly to a task if concentration is broken. That break really needs to be worth it.
However, if you are alone, and you want to talk to people, you must. Anything that takes the pressure off is essential. Your mental health matters most of all.
No adult needs another adult to tell them what to do with their phone.
No adult needs another adult to talk to them about exercise, either.
What to wear so that life doesn’t feel stranger still
No adult needs another adult to tell them what to wear simply because they’re working from home. However, for what it’s worth (very little, probably), I wrote all five of my books dressed mainly in running leggings and loose, comfy tops, because I run at some point most days. But more to the point, if you’re sitting for a good while, stretchy clothes are most comfortable. Unless you have conference calls to do and are expected to look neat, at least from the waist upwards, clothes are as good as irrelevant. (I know someone who gets up and starts work with a towel around his bottom half in anticipation of a shower, and either nothing, or a sweater, on the top half.) However, if working at home feels strange, doing so un-showered or semi-naked may make it feel stranger still – or simply liberating.
Being cooped up together
Life in close proximity to other people – however much you love them – has the capacity to drive you nuts. Being cooped up at home for 24 hours a day with family and work is not something most of us are used to. Domestic life can become a rolling personification of Newton’s third law (for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction), and if in ordinary circumstances you bicker, or compete over whose time or work is more important, or who is most exhausted, in these extraordinary circumstances you will do the same – but more so. Expect to. Don’t be lazy or cavalier about your behaviour; be as patient and tolerant as possible. Equally, remember you are just as big a pain in the neck for others as they are for you. Don’t expect more of anyone else than you do of yourself.
If you have older children or teenagers, the chances are they’ll keep out of your way. If you have toddlers, pre-school or young school-children, thank your lucky stars for television. This is not the time to insist your kids are quietly reading books or making sculptures from recycled materials while you work. If they want to, fine – and if there is someone else at home who can occupy them, great. But if not, needs must. Children will be unsettled by drastic changes to lives and routines. If they want to watch TV for three hours with mouldering bowls of cereal in front of them, let them if it means you can work. And please relax about it. In the long-term, it will have no ill-effect on their lives overall! Take the long view. And ignore completely what other parents say their children are up to. Triumphal short reports and photos posted by others are to be avoided.
The trouble with Wifi
… is that when lots of people use it at once, it can slow right down or even grind to a halt. If your wifi goes down, or you don’t have wifi at home, you can use a smartphone (if you have one) to create a personal hotspot if necessary. Check your usage and the possible extra costs involved. It’s a pain having to do this but sometimes, it’s the only way.
Distractions and evasions
These are legion, from a huge pile of laundry to a small dog, to making a piece of toast to watching a Youtube video. Worse, you will be able to justify all forms of time-wasting to yourself. Don’t. Don’t succumb to them and don’t try to justify them. They will wait *.
I wish I had some great tips on this one but I don’t. Bloody-minded self-discipline is the only way. I’ve been asked hundreds (literally, hundreds) of times if you have to be self-disciplined to be a writer, and it’s odd how surprised people are to find the reply is, “Yes.” The same goes for working from home, regardless of your job. How you police yourself when working alone is up to you, but we all know that sticking to something is its own reward. Even if the task is a real sod, the satisfaction of getting it done and out of the way generally outweighs its awfulness.
I once heard a woman in a restaurant describing an ample friend to her husband: “The only exercise she needs to do, is to push herself away from the table, and stay away.” Her remark was really mean but I found myself re-phrasing it one day shortly afterwards, when I was hating my work and wanting to skive off: “The only thing you need to do is sit at this desk, and stay here. For the next four hours.”
It’s hard but there’s really no alternative. Mind you, no one should sit at a desk or a screen for four hours without moving, and I’m not advocating that. But you get the picture.
Details to consider
If making a drink means a visit to a kitchen in which there will be other people, especially children, don’t do it unless you genuinely want a break (or to be inveigled into a prevailing argument). If you really want to maintain calm concentration, take a flask to wherever you are, and stay put.
Anxious post script
Forgive me. I have to say this otherwise I will kick myself. If you’re working from home alone with small children who might in usual circumstances be with a child-minder or at nursery, please make sure that when you are absorbed in your work, your children are safe. I know this must seem obvious, but however diligently we care for our children, it’s all too easy to overlook or forget things that are not (yet) part of a daily routine. Make sure they don’t have unsupervised access to objects / animals / windows / doors / water that in usual daily circumstances might not present dangers. And please make sure they can’t reach food they could choke on, like grapes.
Some years ago, bang in the middle of the funeral of an elderly friend, and feeling sad about aspects of my life as well as the end of hers, I found myself fantasising about being her instead: dead, but with all the effort, joys, difficulties and satisfaction of a nice life behind me. I wasn’t alarmed by the morbid thought. I was mentally exhausted, and a flower-adorned wicker coffin seemed for just a moment, if through a glass darkly, as inviting as my own sofa.
I may not have been alarmed but I was angry: I felt ungrateful and pathetic; and the thought of surrendering to mental burnout induced such livid** self-contempt that life-force in the form of resolution kicked in. “Find the gift,” was what I thought, there and then. “Find the gift.” There was nothing Pollyanna-ish about the impulse, no hint of self-empowerment or improvement. It was an urgent appeal, a call to arms, because there was no other choice. “Find the gift. And make something of it.”
So, I did what we all have to do at times: I tackled the things I had been avoiding and life improved. It was unremarkable but therein lay the gift – and the phrase itself has proved a nifty prompt on occasion, as applicable in brighter instances as it once proved in the dark. Yet its imprecation is not as simple as it sounds. I am not so foolish as to imagine there are gifts galore in our present situation. For a few there will be some, for many there will be none, and for others – more than we probably dare imagine – there will be sustained damage from an array of potential losses, on a sliding scale of enormity. Yet we really must keep looking for the gift, all the same, wherever possible. And if we find it, we must make something of it.
Finally, while I am candid as a writer, in real life I am fairly private. It has felt really uncomfortable to conclude a tips-list with a brief personal account of an old but private personal epiphany, but the point is this: if despair can engulf us occasionally in ordinary, everyday life – and it can, we know it can – then it can most certainly engulf us when things are turned upside down. Everyone has a tipping point. If you feel you are approaching yours – if the entire universe feels blighted, the world eerie and the silence clamorous, remember, things will alter; we won’t be sequestered forever. We are all in this together, even if “together” feels – and is – the antithesis of “isolation”. If I can help with any further questions or words of encouragement as you work at home, do contact me via Twitter.
* When I was writing my novel, Eddie Izzard’s Star Wars Café, Ricky Gervais’ Equality Street and Nina Conti with Monkey were my favourite YouTube pick-me-ups.
** It’s hard for me to write the word ‘livid’ without remembering the hilarious Gerald the Gorilla sketch from Not The Nine O’Clock News, in which Professor Fielding (Mel Smith) and his Gorilla protégé Gerald (Rowan Atkinson), are interviewed together.
Professor Fielding: “When I first captured Gerald in the Congo, in ‘67 I think it was – ”
“When I caught Gerald, in ’68, he was completely wild.”
Gerald: “Wild?! I was absolutely livid!”