How To Work From Home Without Losing Your Sh*t

Working from home can be the easiest way to work. It can be the hardest. Sometimes it is both.

Currently I work from home, and it’s been more than four years since I’ve held a job with a physical office. I’ve spent several additional years of my life working from home. I’ve worked from home as an hourly consultant, contractor under lump sum, freelancer drumming up new business, half-time employee for someone else, full-time employee for someone else, and entrepreneur starting my own non-profit. During these years, I’ve had a boss, been my own boss, and been somebody’s boss. I’ve worked with fellow contractors with more authority. I’ve worked with employees inside the firm that hired me — and they had an office. I’ve held multiple contracts at once, multiple jobs at once, and held full-time, work-from-home-jobs while also attending full-time school in the evening. I’ve worked in someone else’s home, too. And, I’ve worked in several offices.

Frankly, I love working from home and don’t want to stop. But if I had an office tomorrow, I’d probably say I loved that and didn’t want to stop. There are positives and negatives for both working environments.

These are my best tips for working from home without losing your sh*t:

When you’re working, work. When you’re not working, don’t work. 
The most important thing to do is to compartmentalize. Think of work as an on/off light switch. Not a round dimmer that lets you explore gradations of work and home life happening at the same time, an on/off light switch. This approach protects both procrastinators who delay their work as well as workaholics who can’t stop working. Be deliberate about your boundaries, and when you’re at home, go all-in on your work or all-in on your personal life.

*Note – Others take vastly different approaches and find it works for them. With this tip as with the ones that follow, take what works for you and ignore the rest.

Keep a timesheet.
Whether or not you have billable hours to report or a mandatory company timesheet, track the amount of time you are working. Keeping a timesheet is the next step of compartmentalizing your activity. It acts as both a safeguard to keep you aware of when you are working and not working, and also as a way to hold you accountable to actually working or not working (some of us have problems actually getting to work, others of us have problems actually having a life).

Work in a dedicated space.
Having a dedicated space, even a $20 Ikea chair on the floor of your otherwise barren studio apartment (been there) is another mental kickstart to getting in the work mode. Do not conduct conference calls from bed. You will begin to associate your bed — which should be your most sacred space — with work annoyances that should have been absorbed by a cubicle with a carpeted wall.

Take a shower and get dressed.
I wear nicer clothes on my working-from-home days than my weekend days (let’s be real, we’re talking about slightly nicer T-shirts with the same jeans, sneakers, and hoodies). Get ready. Brush your teeth. When you feel professional, it helps you to act professional.

Get out to coffee shops on occasion, but not as an excuse to delay your work.
I used to put so much energy into working from coffee shops. I had a circuit of coffee shops I went to daily (seriously, they would have been so upset if they knew I had other steady coffee shops). It feels good to get out of your house and be around other people sometimes. It’s human nature. But if you think you need to go to a coffee shop or a library in order to be able to focus, something is wrong with the way you are approaching your work at home. When you’re working, you need to work.

Put more emphasis on professional development, including attending educational and networking events.
I tend to have more interest in professional development, including attending educational and networking events, when I’m working from home. Even when you work from home with other colleagues, it’s simply not as natural to develop, learn, and network as when you’re in an office. So — sign up for some professional events, and go. It feels good and keeps you relevant.

If you work from home and have children, don’t pretend you can do both without childcare.
These days, one of the sweetest comments I get when people find out I have a child and work from home is the assumption that I can, oh, do both. Unless you’re working part-time and don’t have to be on a specific schedule or you can’t afford or secure childcare and are forced to never sleep yourself, you can’t. It is simply not sustainable to work from home and take care of young kids at the same time.  I’ve worked from home with a nanny who came to us (best advice I have is to stay out of it, let the nanny take leadership, and act like you aren’t there) and these days our daughter goes to full-time daycare outside the home.

Take extra steps to be personal with your colleagues.
Just as small talk is just about the weather but profoundly important to a person’s ability to ramp into a focused conversation with someone they don’t know well already, so is bullshit time. Bullshit time is the time you spend in an office standing around a copier that can’t be fixed even though everyone has tried what the monitor says. During bullshit time you find out who people really are, and this develops trust and impacts our ability to communicate honestly with one another, and give and receive feedback. Sending a handwritten card in the mail to someone you work with virtually takes 10 minutes but makes you remarkable. Build in time to care about someone’s weekend or sick kid. No one is just a cog behind a screen.

Don’t construct a narrative about what your boss or client is thinking.
You ever watched a friend project the universe onto someone hot they found online? (Okay, I’ll woman up and confess to doing that myself.) Our brains are wired to fill in the gaps for others — undeservedly positive or negative. We can over-inflate how wonderful someone blah is, or construct a really hostile narrative against ourselves (like, literally, I have convinced myself that a previous boss who is in fact one of my greatest champions hated everything I did and was going to fire me). When you’re working from home, you’re missing body language, contact, and context that helps you to understand better what your boss or client really thinks. Get out of your head. Don’t think and theorize, talk. The exception is that if someone proves to you in a virtual space that they are toxic — as with real life — find a way to get the hell away from them, and never look back.

Most important: If you don’t love your job, don’t work from home. You will fail.
Almost all the problems of working from home really stem from not believing in what you do. If you think your job sucks, is boring, evil, under the direction of evil people, or you’re in a dead end, you won’t be motivated to work. In those instances, be honest with yourself and get out. I say this with the acknowledgement that it’s a great privilege to quit your job because it’s stupid, and one that most people can’t swing. But that doesn’t mean that if you hate working from home you should be reading tips on how to correct the situation. Just start looking for another job. Your problem might be working from home, but it’s more likely your job being the wrong fit.

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On Motherhood And Employment

In our culture, pregnancy is viewed as something you did to yourself. Having a child comes with consequences you must be prepared to accept. This isn’t gender neutral; it’s no accident that women’s reproductive capacity is reduced to a supposedly objective decision-making matrix that sets up women as a class to fail.

On any given day, cultural and political leaders will portray children as punishments for casual sex; as luxuries for wealthy families; and at their most heinous, as ruses for public benefits or citizenship status.

The idea of pregnancy and children as consequences for which women must pay plays out in many sectors of our lives, including restrictions upon reproductive rights, and punitive attacks on the social safety net.

Here I will discuss some of the negative consequences for women in the workplace. I say women intentionally; although not all women are or will become mothers, it is often anticipated they will. So even a woman who has no intention of having children is often unfairly judged by her actual and prospective employers.

The United States does not guarantee paid parental leave. Today pregnant workers still face inadequate workplace protections, as made clear by the failure of Congress to pass a Pregnant Workers Fairness Act that would simply clarify that employers must offer minor accommodations when necessary, such as increased bathroom breaks or lighter lifting duties. A year of day care costs more than a year in public college in 31 states.

These are not just women’s issues or family issues; these are massive economic problems that constrain our economy.

But, I’d argue, our cultural attitudes suck at least as much as our institutional failures to accommodate the reality of parents who work, a reality that resoundingly ends in undervaluing women in their personal lives and on the job.

I have a toddler. It has only been a few years since I was in my early thirties, single, and facing all sorts of biological clock-type questions about whether I wanted to have kids. Bluntly, this kind of pressure can destroy a dating life (if you want one) — I have watched it happen with friends and experienced variations of it myself. But even more, I wish that some of those people who wondered about me being single would have instead asked what I was reading, or working on, or thinking about current events.

If and when women do have children, the very real work they turn around and put into caring for those children is often portrayed as heroic (“the hardest job in the world”), which may be well-intentioned but is ultimately patronizing since caregiving for one’s own family is put on a pedestal but neither compensated nor respected in the marketplace. In portraying the motherly woman as idol, this false heroism also excuses men in heterosexual child-rearing relationships from stepping up to do their fair share.

And on the job? Mark Zuckerberg once said of Facebook having younger (i.e., childless) employees:

“Young people just have simpler lives. We may not have a car. We may not have family. Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what’s important.”

What’s important, apparently, is to be found in those corners of the office where working moms don’t hang out late at night.

You might think, “What the fuck, Zuck?!” and write it off, but I’ve heard versions of this riff in explicitly feminist settings. In one example, I heard a non-profit executive express resentment that women with children didn’t have to work as much as she did. In another, I heard a consultant express concern that a boss who worked standard business hours because of her kids didn’t understand her younger employees needs to come in later in the day.

The first case is frankly bullshit. There’s a cliche going around that if you want something done, you should give it to a mom — and that’s often true. I know motherhood has greatly increased my time management skills. If I need to get something done, I no longer plan to get it done later — that leaves too much margin for error when a toddler depends on me. Further, it’s unfair because many employees smoke and take smoke breaks, or go on long lunches with friends, or leave early to play recreational sports.

The second case greatly concerns me, because ultimately what concern over the supposed rigidity of a working mom’s office schedule says is that a woman with children isn’t fit to make decisions, and isn’t fit to judge how her team should work, including whether they should keep the same hours. In other words, that a mom isn’t fit to be the boss.

Yes, dads get some crap in the workplace, too, but rarely if ever will you hear it suggested that he’s not pulling his weight, or he’s not fit to be the boss, because he has kids. It’s assumed a woman will step up for him when junior throws up all over the classroom on presentation day.

My college thesis examined the failure of the feminist movement (at the time, so we’re talking 2002) to tackle the problem of child care in a visionary way and as a major rallying cry — specifically, why it costs so much, why quality is so varied, and why it is inaccessible to so many. The voices calling for universal child care, or Social Security contributions for caregivers, are too few and far between.

Ultimately the conclusion I reached is that liberal feminism is too invested in theories of bootstraps individualism, and that acknowledging caregiving as gendered, much less a societal obligation (it takes a village) rather than a personal lifestyle, could be seen as threatening to undermine the “long way” you’ve come, “baby.”

I still believe, to an extent, that’s true, but to another extent I would argue today that the failure to progress also sits largely in the friendly and willing cooptation of many feminist organizations by the Democratic Party, which throws bones to the ladies as a matter of electoral convenience and sometimes deeply felt principle, but never should be confused with a movement making radical demands for social change. Although it has been.

I believe these dynamics are at play when we consider why it is not equal to be a mother, or for that matter a woman, in the workplace.