Since Covid kicked off, a lot of people have made the switch to working from home for the first time – either temporarily or permanently. Some may have assumed that it was temporary only to find that this is just how things are going to be from now on. Others have found themselves leaving old jobs – either voluntarily or with a jolt – and have made the decision to go freelance.
As someone who has worked from home for the last seven years, here are a few things I’ve learned that have helped me. Although I’m a writer and editor, it all boils down to a lot of time at a keyboard and staring at screens, so I think the broad strokes are relevant to many people.
Many of you are experienced writers (either full or part time) already, so I may be preaching to the choir! But I’m often really bad at following my own advice, so maybe this will provide a nudge or a reminder.
You may also find my recent interview with the Freedom Matters blog interesting. It’s relevant to a lot of these topics.
Try to make your own space
This is a tricky one, because a dedicated home office would be an unattainable luxury for many, and even something as simple as a clear corner of a shared desk may require compromises. But I think that a quiet space set aside for your work is important if you can manage it. My wife and I share a study but in practice I get it to myself 80% of the time. I find this tremendously important for my work, much of which requires intense concentration on linear tasks.
Parents (or even pet-owners) reading this may be smiling and shaking their heads, because I think we all know that we should have our own dedicated working space, but the reality can be messy. We all make what we’ve got work, but a working space of your own is definitely something to plan for if possible. It does make a difference.
Even if you have to work from a laptop, don’t just bung it down on the kitchen table and call it a day. This is fine for an hour or two, but long term it can cause many health problems – especially in your neck and back, and possibly repetitive stress injury (RSI) in your hands and wrists as well. I think a bare minimum is to raise your laptop up on a pile of books (or dedicated laptop stand) and use an external keyboard and mouse/trackball. This will keep the monitor at a safe working height. Laptops are simply not designed for ergonomic long-term working. Chronic pain from constantly stooping to look at a screen inches above your typing surface is no fun – and RSI can ruin your career.
If you have the space and can afford it, I recommend a sit/stand desk and a desktop computer with a large high-resolution monitor, high-quality mechanical keyboard, and an ergonomic pointing device such as a trackball, large trackpad, or ergonomic mouse. A good rule of thumb is for the top of the monitor to be at about (or just beneath) your eye level, and for your elbows to bend at about 90° so that your hands float naturally over the keyboard without resting on the desk – and without needing a wrist rest. A floor pad will help to prevent foot pain if you use a standing desk. I started using a standing desk in 2017, and I wouldn’t go back now.
Set work/life boundaries
This is another one that working parents may think of as naive – and the rest of us already know that we should do this, but actually doing it can be something else! When working from home, it’s all too easy to never actually be off work altogether. I suggest setting strict working hours – and then not looking at email outside those hours. Try to ringfence your leisure/family time.
Again, this may be a privileged position to be in. It may simply be impossible for some roles. But I believe that it’s toxic and unhealthy to be constantly thinking about work, and I find it helpful to completely ignore email between 1900 and 0900. This can be difficult, because sometimes it’s easy to get into that state of thinking that everything is urgent and must be replied to right away, but is it really that important? Can’t it wait until morning? More generally, am I really that important? Nine times out of ten, the answers are yes it can and no I’m not – but emails have a habit of burrowing into your brain if seen and not acted upon, so it’s better not to look until you’re actually at work.
If you have a positive relationship with a client and deliver the work on time, they will respect your need for boundaries. (Of course, different rules apply for work across time zones, but the need for boundaries remains.)
With new clients, it can be tempting to work like hell and be ultra-responsive at all hours in order to give a good first impression, but I find that this actually does the opposite – it sets an unhelpful precedent and unsustainable expectations from the start. I learned this the hard way.
Also: weekends. It took me two or three years to get there after setting up my freelance business, but I’m now at the point where I almost never do client work at weekends. If I find myself with an overflow list of stuff to do on a Saturday or Sunday, I now see that as evidence that something is wrong somewhere. Again, this will depend on your exact role, and some people may choose to take their ‘weekends’ at other times of the week (flexibility is one of the benefits of working for yourself).
Get a change of scenery
Commuting from the bedroom to the kitchen to the study can feel like groundhog day after a few weeks (or months). If the writing muscles start to feel a bit creaky, taking my laptop to the cafe, or just into a different room, can be enough to get things going again. For me, changing almost anything about my working environment can be enough to get a fresh perspective on a problem. Even changing the desktop wallpaper on my computer works sometimes!
If you have the time, I also recommend the virtual commute: a walk, run or bike ride first thing in the morning before work. I go walking for about 90 minutes every morning and I find that it really sets me up for the day.
This is one for the freelancers amongst you – especially the new freelancers. Freelance work can be quite isolating and it can be hard to know what is and isn’t appropriate, especially with new clients. However, if it’s been two or three months since you filed your invoice (or the publication has been published, which may be longer) and the money hasn’t appeared, it’s reasonable to ask why.
Most of my long-term clients are great at paying invoices on time. A couple are consistently late, and I’m not shy about sending a polite reminder and asking for the money. This is usually enough to trigger an apology (‘your invoice must have got lost in the system’) and a prompt payment. I’m lucky in that I’ve never had to take things further than that.
Working relationships are important
When your main point of contact with the people you work with is an email address, it can be easy to start thinking of people simply in terms of work – what they can do for you, and what you have to do for them. This way of thinking about people isn’t healthy.
I have a couple of long-term clients that I regularly catch up with over the phone just to see how things are going with them, even if we don’t have a specific project to talk about. It really helps. I actually find phone calls a lot more natural than Zoom in this regard, because I find the uncanny valley of Zoom hard to cross (the artificial 40-minute deadline, the weird turn-based nature of the conversation, the audio echoes and video glitches, the transformation of people into digital avatars – it all feels a bit like a video game). Maybe I’m just more used to phone calls. Still, the occasional video call is better than just doing everything via email/Slack/Basecamp. It helps to remind me that colleagues and clients are human beings with other stuff going on in their lives than work assignments.
Until next time,
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