Where do you work most productively? In the office? At home? At your local coffee shop? In a crowd? There was a time when I was most productive amid a crowd. Sometimes I would go to a busy mall, sit down on a bench or in a chair, open my laptop, and go to work. I was never distracted by the crowd and its noise. Instead, the people and the noise made it easier for me to focus by pushing out the chaos around me.
However, this is no longer true for me. Today I need more solitude and a space in which I have fewer distractions.
But back to you…where do you work most efficiently and productively?
This question became more important than ever as we were all adjusting to the restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. Our work, home, and life patterns became wildly disrupted and, for many people, they became enmeshed. Some people, and perhaps you were one of them, had to find a way to work efficiently and effectively from home.
In May 2020 NBC news had this headline on its website: Coronavirus has lifted the work-from-home stigma. How will that shape the future? This headline said a lot about the shifting attitudes of both employers and employees. What many once believed was not possible, is not only proving to be possible but productive and, for some, preferable.
After years of going into an office to work in downtown Washington, DC, I have now been working from my home for nearly a decade. Here I would like offer some of the lessons I have learned about working from home that I hope you find useful.
Let’s think about the space we need to work efficiently and productively from home. There are two types of “space” that we need to consider: workspace and head space.
Workspace is the physical space we need to work from home. Some people do fine on a couch in front of the television. Others need more formal spaces to be efficient and productive, especially if their work involves a lot of video conferencing.
When I started working from home, my workspace was on a small desk, in a spare bedroom, and on a straight-back chair. I could close the door for privacy during calls and to make it easier to focus my attention. For brief periods of time, this worked well, especially since I also, at that time, had a full office available to me in downtown DC. I would use my home set up mostly for the occasional evening or weekend work.
When I decided to go into business for myself and set up a formal office at home, some things had to change. I kept the small desk, but I added a second desk that I found at Goodwill that had enough space for me to set up my computer and a separate monitor. The monitor allowed me to have multiple documents open more easily which meant I did not have to worry about having a printer for a few years. I got an actual office chair that rolled, turned, and had padding.
Eventually the spare bedroom became my home office. We exchanged the bed for bookcases and cabinets and I fully settled in.
There are three important things to remember when it comes to workspace.
First, work wherever it works for you. It might be the couch, the kitchen table, a dining room table, a bedroom, a deck, a porch or even a bathroom – though this last, of course, is not recommended if you are on Zoom! It might be with family, kids, dogs, cats, or other family pets around you. Whatever you do, it just needs to work for you.
Second, you do not have to spend a lot of money to create your workspace. Use the space you have available to you. During the pandemic people became much more forgiving and much less judgmental of people trying to work from home. In fact, the pandemic has allowed us to learn more about the lives of our colleagues…including the lives of their families and pets…as we all try to work from home.
During the pandemic, I have really enjoyed seeing the home backgrounds for reporters on the news. On the PBS NewsHour there is a reporter who has a black and white cat which can be seen in the background. I love it! Sometimes it is laying on the couch, other times it is wandering around. There was even one day when I did not see the full cat, just a straight up black tail that passed by in view of the camera.
Third, if your work involves a lot of time on Zoom or other video conferencing platforms, be sure to consider your lighting, the placement of the camera, and investing in a decent headset to keep your conversations private. I have found giving attention to even these simple things – light, placement, and sound – has made a big difference in how I experience an online meeting and how others experience me. How can you learn how to set up for video call? Simply Google this phrase: “how to look good on a video call.” That will bring up a bunch of YouTube videos and brief articles which are sure to help you.
One last thing about workspace at home. If you are working from home – whether you want to or not – it is because of the privilege you and I have. Not everyone has the education, training, standing, or type of job which can be done from home. In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic it is important to be mindful of our privilege and to do everything we can to support and keep safe the people who cannot work at home.
The second type of space is, to me, the most important of the two. It is “headspace.” By “headspace” I mean being in a “good place” to work from home – physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.
As you just read, the physical aspects of working from home, as it relates to having a workspace that works for us, is important. However, there is a bit more to it than that.
It is also important that we get physical exercise especially if we are spending most of our day sitting in front of the computer. You know, when we drive long distances, it is usually recommended that we stop, get out of the car, and move around at two-hour intervals. I suggest you do the same thing when working at home. If you need to, set an alarm on your computer or phone so that you are reminded just to stop, get up, and walk around a little – even if it is to go to the kitchen to get a drink or a snack. Just move!
Even better, do some light exercise or even go outside your home for fresh air and some exercise. Really, just move!
Where I live, we have a walking path nearby. I do my best to walk 90 minutes a day…regardless of my schedule for the day. My schedule is so varied that I cannot walk at the same time every day, but I squeeze in 90 minutes whenever I can. I am a bit competitive with myself, so I have a goal of walking five miles in 90 minutes (which is approximately 3.5 MPH, by the way). Some days I hit it, some days I do not. Even when I do not, it is important that I am getting exercise.
One other thing about physical space…some of my colleagues have spent a few dollars on “standing desks.” These allow you to work while standing up. Some are whole desks, and some are just adjustable tops that you set on your existing desk. The people I know who use them, love them. I have been tempted me to get one as well, but I have not…yet…but I am thinking about it!
Being in the right headspace also means taking care of ourselves emotionally. Look, we have all learned a new spelling for stress, right? You know it…let’s spell it together…C-O-V-I-D. The pandemic infused our lives with extremely high levels of stress. Fear, worry, illness, overwork, home schooling, isolation, sheltering-in-place (even with people we love), never having space and time to ourselves, and many other factors have pushed each of us to the point of emotional meltdown. If we are being totally honest here, it did not just push us to the point of meltdown…it pushed us past it. We have all been there.
All of us need to engage in some emotional self-care. Sometimes that means we just need to talk out our stress – with partners or spouses, friends, parents, children, pets, or just ourselves. Other times it means we need to practice prayer, meditation, or some other form of mindfulness. At other times we may need to reach out to a counselor for more in-depth conversation and insight. Whatever we need to do to feel emotionally healthy and stress free, we need to do it.
Social engagement is also important for helping us be in the right headspace. I know…if we are in isolation or quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic it is hard to be socially engaged. Some of us are sheltering in place with a spouse, partner, or children. Others of us are alone. Regardless of our circumstances, we need to recognize our social nature as human beings and find a way to nurture it.
Raise your hand if you are sick and tired of Zoom meetings. My hand is up, too. They are a necessary evil currently, but I am still tired of Zoom meetings. However, I am not tired of Zoom gatherings with my friends and family.
Since March 2020 we have gathered weekly with good friends from Kansas almost every Saturday morning for Zoom coffee. We talk, we laugh, we tell stories, and before we know it, it has been nearly 90 minutes, even 2 hours, that we have been together on Zoom.
Each week I also gather with another group of friends for an hour on late Thursday afternoon for a BYOB Happy Hour (for one member in Hawaii it is “Bring Your Own Lunch” because of the time zone difference).
My spouse and I have been intentional about staying in touch with friends and family via Zoom during the pandemic. We are having so much fun with it, we will probably continue it once it is safe to out again!
Like you, I am tired of Zoom meetings and I really did not think it would be possible for video conferencing to replace in-person contact with others. In some regards it is not adequate at all. In other regards, it is surprising how Zoom and video conferencing has deepened connections between people.
The bottom line is this…just because you cannot go out and see other people, do not let that stop you from being with them. Zoom and video conferencing is not perfect, but it is surprisingly good!
Being in the right headspace means we also take care of ourselves spiritually. If this means religious activity for you, that is great! You should be able to attend religious gatherings via video conferencing any place in the world. More generically, to be in the right headspace spiritually means we are finding a way to feed our mind and our soul. It could be through reading, music, or art. Maybe it is in learning to play a musical instrument. Maybe it is in having deep conversations with friends or attending workshops and conferences online. In whatever form it takes for you, make time for it.
Okay…true confession. One of the things I have done to tend to my spirit is to take ukulele lessons online. I have been having a blast with it and I am stunned with how much progress I have made. (Do not worry, I am not going to play for you…yet.)
To recap, there are two types of space we need to have to work efficiently and productively at home. One is workspace. It does not have to be fancy. It just needs to be space that works for you. The other is headspace. If we want to be in a “good place” in our heads, we need to give attention to our physical, emotional, social, and spiritual well-being.
Finally, remember that working at home is a privilege that many others do not have at this time. Even as we work from home, let’s be mindful of those who do not have that privilege and do all we can to support them and keep them safe.