For many of us, the home working revolution arrived rudely and without warning. Personally, I’d been fortunate to be in a permanent remote role for some years beforehand: I took a fully-remote position back in 2017, at least in part because it seemed like a fun novelty. Though even that move wasn’t without its challenges: when I was interviewing for the role, I was living in a tiny village where the internet connection peaked at 1MB/sec, which was clearly not going to support videoconferencing or large file downloads. So I packed up and moved to a location which had the infrastructure to support my role (you may have seen a photograph of it in my previous remote working post).

In 2020, few of us had that option. We found ourselves suddenly working from whatever space we had available, making compromises along the way. (Myself included: I worked from a kitchen table during the first lockdown, and if I wanted a good angle for my webcam then I perched my laptop on the microwave.) As we begin to look more at the future of work, with the word “hybrid” now on everybody’s lips, let’s reassess and check that temporary fixes haven’t become bad habits.

Have a clear delineation between home and work

We can’t all be fortunate enough to have a spare room to convert into a home office. Indeed, some of the most creative home solutions that I’ve seen have spawned from the desperate need to somehow carve a laptop-sized space in an otherwise-crowded house. But when your workspace is deeply integrated into your living space, it’s all too easy to treat work as an entity which is in your life 24/7. My first piece of advice is to, ideally, have a door you can close which signifies the start (and end) of your working day. If you don’t have a separate room for work, then find a drawer - even if it’s that drawer in your kitchen which you never open because it’s full of tea towels. Get work out of sight when your working day is done.

I saw this problem for myself in my 2017 role: for as much as my new apartment was roomy, with a dedicated desk space, the desk itself was in the corner of my living room. In other words, if I was relaxing in the evening and I had the sudden nagging urge to deal with a piece of work, my laptop was right there and it was all too easy to jump in and work untracked hours. Similarly, as it was an open-plan living room and kitchen/diner, if I found myself still working at evening mealtimes then it was all too tempting to just grab a plate of food and bring it back to my desk.

Your technology won’t tell you when to stop working (although many desktop and mobile devices now have usage trackers which you can wrangle to help you with this). And while many employers will say the right things about making sure you don’t extend your working hours, it’s ultimately down to you to find a way to create that clear delineation.

Create the soundscape for your best work

We all have our own preferred atmosphere for doing our best work. Some of us would like absolute silence for concentration; others want a low hum, louder chatter, or some music which allows for deep focus. And sometimes our needs might change, depending on the type of task that we’re doing. This is one of the downsides to a “one size fits all” office space, where everybody is treated to the same soundscape, regardless of what we’re doing (woe betide anybody who has to listen to somebody else’s choice of music all day).

Luckily, when we have our own workspace, we have more control over this. Set yourself up with some mood-specific playlists, find your favourite radio station, or put some podcast chatter in the background. Simulate background chatter by using a web app like Coffitivity. Or play a video of the USS Enterprise-D’s engine hum. Whatever works for you!

And remember, particularly in a post-lockdown culture, “remote working” doesn’t need to mean “working from home”. If your day-to-day tasks allow it, why not break up your schedule by choosing one morning a week to work from your favourite coffee shop? You might spend a bit of money on a few drinks (and don’t grab a cake from the counter on every trip!) but it might be just the spark that you need in order to feel extra-productive.

Don’t fall into the sedentary trap

Another reason for promoting the coffee shop idea is because it gets us out of our chairs. If you’re working from home full-time, and you’re in a busy job (let’s face it, most of us are), you’ll probably have had days when you’ve barely stood up, let alone actually left the house. Bathing ourselves in artificial light all day is as unhealthy at home as if we were in an office - and if we were in an office, at least we’d have the commute to make sure that we get some fresh air.

Something which kept me sane when working through lockdown was to create myself an artificial “walk to work”: rather than just going into the laptop and powering-on my laptop, I’d put on my shoes and take a 15-minute walk around our neighourhood, before returning to my desk at home. (And I’d repeat this at the end of the working day.) This gives our minds more chance to switch in and out of “work mode”, and gives us a chance to plan for our working day, or to decompress when we’ve finished.

Give yourself a home workstation assessment

Many of us probably grimaced and moaned when our HR teams asked us to sign up for an annual “workstation safety assessment” session. And while it seemed like a dull interruption to the day, we acknowledged the importance of it - the last thing that we want is to develop repetitive strain injury through bad keyboard use, or to do lasting damage to our spine through bad posture.

But our HR teams don’t have access to our home working space, so there’s nobody to enforce these checks except you. The good news is, the Health and Safety Executive have a Workstation checklist PDF which you can download and complete for yourself. As above, sure it’s boring, but it almost certainly contains questions that you never thought to ask when you were just desperately clawing for a dedicated place to put your laptop. And if you identify any issues with your workstation, and your role ascribes any degree of remote/hybrid working, your employer is compelled to help support you in making any changes - just as if you had a problem with your desk in the company office.

Key takeaways 📝

  • Don’t let your work impinge on your downtime - lock that laptop away.
  • “Remote working” doesn’t need to mean “working from home” - add some variety to your life.
  • Nobody will assess your workspace for you, so it’s vital that you do it for yourself.