So you've decided to work from home. As a rookie veteran of working without a traditional office for one year I'm here to tell you that it is the greatest and worst thing that can happen to your work life — much like being transferred to a glitter-packing facility. What follows is a quick two-minute guide of what you need to know before you take your pants off and turn up those old Hootie and the Blowfish albums.
Working from home completely changes your interrupt cycle. At a typical desk job you are interrupted constantly due to meetings, cake feasts, fire drills, people coming over to tell you about what the lake was like on Saturday, daydreaming about tripping said individuals, etc.
When you work at a location of your choice you can control what distracts you. If you want to work for four hours and not use the bathroom you can do it; if you want to work with a kilo of nachos taped to your face like a beard while wearing a sombrero filled with nacho cheese for snacking you can do this. Most people think they will be far more productive due to being able to control large blocks of time, but I found that the experience was quite jarring.
What you will realise is that outside of your normal distractions your body has learned to not focus for very long on anything. In my case after years of working in an environment where I was constantly interrupted I couldn't focus on anything for more than 20-30 minutes (about the longest free period I had on average). I would internally interrupt myself constantly: Twitter, Facebook, doodling, trying to clean nachos that fell onto the keyboard from my nacho beard, calling the manufacturer of said keyboard after the 's' key stopped working, writing a strongly-worded letter calling the manufacturer a bunch of "lazy jackae", picketing outside their headquarters, etc. Typical stuff.
When you work in an office you don't allow yourself to constantly be interrupted internally — you simply can't watch every video that looks funny, you can't read each article on The Morning News everyday, you can't keep up with Hacker News like you think karma points are worth money.
The way to get over this is pretty simple — practice. I for one spent about a month making love to The Pomodoro Technique (meta: learning to make love using this technique is experimental and not recommended by most doctors) but it worked quite well for me in training my brain to recognise interruption events and stop them. Now I can go over an hour without eating a nacho.
When you have a "bad" day at a normal job you still feel a sense of accomplishment — you drove to work, you drank some coffee, you attended a few meetings, you chatted with some co-workers about how little progress you were making — you did some concrete tasks.
Working from home alone you have days that you feel like you get nothing done. As soon as you get going you are interrupted, you spend a few hours working on something that you later scrap and start over, you can't figure something out. These days happen in an office but when you are alone with them they create extreme emotions. The thing you need to remember is that one day like this can be followed by a sugar-rush WFH day: a day in which you get as much done in a day as you remember getting done in a week at BigCorp. An entire feature imagined, mocked up, coded then just plain mocked, debugged, re-tooled, polished, stabilised and then shipped.
Crippling Depression — Ride It Like A Wave
If you work at home for long enough away from other real people you will be surprised how much you will miss the interaction. The annoying "did you see the game?" water cooler talk and "OMG it's Friday!!" chit-chat that used to make you want to hide in a conference room is actually a pretty effective social convention to avoid The Question: "Why am I working right now when I could be doing XYZ?"
While working you will have many moments when you will think things like:
- I work from home now, I could go take a walk — right now!
- I work from home now, I could go eat some yoghurt — right now!
- I work from home now, I could ride a bike — right now!
- I work from home now, I could watch The Wire — right now!
In the spring these thoughts are tough and you will stare out the window and cry a single slowly descending tear before turning back to your semi-colon delimited job and push through. In a normal office you don't think about the difference between working and playing hooky because the threat of getting fired for playing Grand Theft Auto III at your desk is very real.
In addition you will need to take steps to keep in touch with others in your field less you become a WFH monster like many that I have met. Signs you are becoming cripplingly depressed without realising it from working from home:
- You see a former co-worker and talk for 20 more minutes than would be normal. Even after they have gotten up and left the stall you continue.
- You are way too active on Twitter, Facebook, G+, etc. and constantly send videos to your friends like you work at Tosh.0.
- You watch TV instead of listening to music and you talk back to the characters. You think you hear Ferb talk back to you.
- You drink Pepsi Max just to let the pain make sure you can still feel something.
If any of these things happen put some pants on and go to a coffeeshop.
The Greatest Thing About Working From Home Is Your Kids. They Are Also The Worst Thing.
This might be a personal problem as:
- I work on the same floor of the house as my kids typically play.
- My wife currently stays at home with the kids.
- Before I worked from home I never listened to music while working (due to a deep-seated and irrational fear of being caught singing out loud a Jon Secada song).
I was very stressed with the noise of my kids and the general stress that kids cause when you do concentration-based work. I felt like a bad Dad because I would have to tell them eight times that I wasn't "done yet" but was just coming out to go to the bathroom, refill nachos, etc.
Once I realised that working at home meant more time with my kids I just mentally substituted the time spent in the car with time on the floor with them, and my stress melted away awkwardly like reheated queso.
Less Informal Communication Means More Organisation
I'm an organic and an improviser. I'm not naturally organised. But working from home in the absence of informal methods of communication means that you need to have prepared the following:
- A to-do list that you can share (workflowy, RTM, etc.) in less than one minute.
- A general daily plan that you can recite at the beginning, middle and end of the day.
- A weekly plan of what you want to get done and what you did last week.
- A plan for when you will meet with the client, boss or parole officer next.
I know that at some point my work from home life will be put on hold or go away. And I decided when I started that I wanted to do a good job and to enjoy it enough that when I looked back I wouldn't say that I regretted much.
So go — enjoy it. And please: take a shower.
David Tate is a software consultant. He is consistently bad at choosing reheating times for the microwave.