Expert Hacks and Tips for Working at Home

Smartsheet Contributor Becky Simon

September 27, 2020 (updated November 17, 2021)

As employers shift to remote work, they are also embracing the work-life balance their teams have long sought. We round up top WFH tips from professionals on boosting productivity, scheduling smartly, and clocking off confidently.

Included on this page, you’ll find expert tips for working from home, including conducting effective meetings, and advice for employers working with a remote workforce.

Working-from-Home Tips

To retain focus, treat your home office like a traditional workplace. That said, don’t forget to set boundaries, enjoy newfound time in the workday, or create an atmosphere that motivates your particular work patterns. 

Below are experts’ top tips for remaining productive while working from home:

  • Treat work from home like you’d treat work in your employer’s office.
     
     
    • Set a schedule. The concept of “core hours” can benefit both employees and employers, says Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics. Core hours are hours when you are reliably available to your employer and assumed to be working. If you know when you are (and aren’t) on duty, you have the power to schedule both your work time (and train nonwork contacts to lay off during those hours) and your social or personal time (and train the office when you’re unavailable except for emergencies).
    • Plan social activities and get out of the house occasionally. Whether you use “walking meetings” during work hours, take a sunrise coffee walk, or attend a weekly happy hour, it’s important to set social routines that enable you to untether from the home office.
    • Include watercooler time with teammates. People who work from home are prone to feelings of isolation. Checking in with colleagues when you’re off deadline or wrapping the workday can help prevent this workplace hazard.
    • Avoid lingering in the kitchen. When working from home, it’s easy to fall into lengthy midday meal prep or cooking sessions. A rule of thumb: Spend no more time in your home kitchen than you’d spend in an office kitchen — scramble an egg, make a sandwich, or microwave a bowl of soup, but otherwise prepare meals (or last night’s leftovers) and snacks in advance. Over the weekend, prep lunches or lunch ingredients for the week.
    • Keep it ambient. This is one way working from home might differ from working in a traditional office. If soft music helps you focus or find a productivity groove, tune in, turn on, and crank out work.
    • “Close the door” and “log off” to end the day. Make sure you have work-free spaces in your home — hours when you’re off-limits or places in the residence you don’t work. If you have an office, shut the door to it at the end of the day. It’s hard to associate every space onsite with productivity, and you don’t want the entire place to feel like an office. Use alerts on work accounts or watercooler apps such as Slack to indicate whether you’re “on” or “snoozed,” and set times for yourself when you don’t use your computer or other devices to work. Notify teammates and families of these times, and enforce them when people (inevitably) forget.
  • Create a space to work. 
    • Invest in the right home office equipment. If you’re a freelancer, home office equipment and even home office square footage are typically tax deductible (review IRS rules and discuss this with an accountant before splurging on an assumed deduction). Invest in a computer setup (computer, keyboard, monitor, and peripherals like a mouse, speakers, a microphone, and glare screens), as well as a proper desk, chair, printer (and scanner and fax machine, if applicable), and task lighting. As you work from home consistently, you may find you need to replace your existing gear for ergonomic reasons — perhaps invest in a standing desk to reduce sedentary work or a balance ball that makes for “active sitting” to replace a desk chair.
    • Upgrade your home access. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) provides a direct connection to your workplace, which enhances communications security, and may require coordination with your company’s IT department. If you’re transitioning from a workplace to a home office, you may also need to boost your Wi-Fi speed to ensure you can surf at the highest speed available. While your internet provider may offer you one speed, the true speed in your home could be slower due to the placement of your router or neighborhood web traffic. Use a Wi-Fi speed app (Google offers tools, as does Netspot, Wifiner, and Speed Test) to measure your connection speed, and talk to your provider about upgrade options.
    • Invest in noise-cancelling headphones with a mute button. These are among Fleishman’s favorite work-from-home tools and can cost as little as $40 per set. 
    • Install temperature control devices. If your go-to work spot is chilly or less insulated than the rest of the home, you may want to invest in a space heater, fan, or dehumidifier. No one works well when shivering, sweltering, or breathing overly dry air.
    • Choose your private office room — or private office nook. It’s important to separate work from personal life when working from home, so you’ll need to create a designated work space (as well as some work-free zones). Ideally, your home office has a door you can close, natural light (which can lighten moods and boost work motivation), and good air circulation. This office is where you work — and only work. Don’t take work outside of this room into the “personal” parts of the house, and don’t introduce nonwork activities to this room unless on a rare occasion (such as doing a nonwork hobby on a nonwork day). Some personal effects and plants and art are fine, as with a workplace office. Make this space attractive — a place you enjoy going — but don’t overdo the distractions.If you don’t have a dedicated room, this is where a combination of dedicated time and space come in handy, says Fleishman.

      If you don’t have a private room, you can choose a room where you’ll work and set working hours. Perhaps the corner desk in the den or bedroom is your work-only zone from noon to 5 p.m. on weekdays. 

      Use rituals and routine to signal to yourself and family that it’s work time: closing the door to the room you use part-time, donning headphones, opening or closing blinds/curtains, or using a Shoji-type folding screen to make a temporary partition around your workspace. White noise apps such as Noisli (a Pandora for white noise) can enhance concentration when your work space isn’t yours 24/7.
  • Reclaim your commute time. 
    • Commute to your home office. Many folks who work from home practice rituals to mark the shift from personal time to work time and vice versa. Whether it’s walking to the office, making the bed, or shutting the bedroom door, be sure to separate your personal day from the workday. “I know a guy who drives around the block, comes home, parks, and then enters the house as if ‘returning home’ from work,” says Lister. If you have an office with a door, shut it when the workday’s done — and never bring work into other zones of your home.
    • Count your newfound hours. If you used to leave the house at 7:15, worked from 8-4:30, then commuted home from 4:30-5:15, congrats: You’ve gained 1.5 hours per weekday. Use this newfound time intentionally, whether that means starting the day with a review of the media you used to scroll through on the bus, tackling a short workout or yoga session, or preparing food for work hours. The end of the day might be a good time for “watercooler” chat — emailing or texting with professional contacts, hitting happy hour, or making exploratory contacts with prospective clients or collaborators.
    • Rethink your schedule. If you’re at your peak first thing in the morning, hit the desk early and take a long lunch or other break — walk the dog, work out, or tune into your favorite show. While some teleworkers and productivity professionals give mixed reviews to watching TV, scheduling a show as a reward allows you to enjoy it for a finite time frame and might be the perfect break that motivates you. 
  • Set boundaries.
    • Communicate your work hours to your communities. Tell children, overnight visitors, and relatives that you work during set hours and inform them of those hours. If you work from home with children, you can find additional approaches to juggling a workload while parenting by reading “Homework: Tips for Working from Home with Kids.” 
    • Don’t take or make personal calls during core hours. Presumably, significant others know your day’s rhythms and can wait on responses to texts or emails, so don’t take personal calls unless you plan them during scheduled break time. This advice also applies to friends and relatives in different time zones who may get in touch when they’re off work and you’re not.
    • Don’t communicate outside normal work hours. Harvard Business Review notes that part of the problem with work-from-home boundaries is this behavior — an employee uses messaging after hours, another employee responds after hours, and then they’ve both fallen into measurable after-hours work. If you send email after work, use the app’s scheduling feature so your note is delivered during work hours and the conversational thread picks up then. (Of course, this doesn’t apply if you and your employer have come to a separate agreement.) 
    • Take a stand on friends stopping by during the day, and suggest alternative ways or times to get in touch. Let friends know how much you appreciate their wanting to see you, but that you’ll be available to them later. If you find it hard to say, “I’m in the middle of my workday, but I could schedule a walk or talk later,” put it on a Post-it note by the phone or front door. 
    • Don’t come to work sick, and take proper sick days. Folks who work from home are hesitant to take sick days, but just because you’re at home already doesn’t mean you should power through those days. If you’re too sick for a simple walk or to complete typical work tasks, you’re too sick to work effectively from home. Shut the office door and climb in bed. 
  • Don’t forget the big picture. 
    • Create a vision board. Whether you’re self-employed or working remotely for an employer, set professional goals for yourself so you don’t vanish into your home office. If you want to pursue training opportunities through an employer or on your own, network or engage with trade organizations to get ahead, or review your résumé with headhunters or peers to flag your skills gaps or possible opportunities, stay proactive and set your own goals.
    • Be positive. Maintain your friendships, tend to self-care (whether that’s basics like regular doctor visits and exercise, or treats like a spa day or sports game), and develop your relationships in the office, too. 

Folks who work from home can struggle with too many distractions, too little connection to the home office, and lots of confusion about schedules and routines. The right tech tools and scheduling approaches can smooth road bumps to professional productivity. Check out “How to Focus While Working from Home” for tools and approaches to maintaining focus while working from home.

How to Conduct Successful Meetings While Working from Home

Whether or not your employer has begun rolling out work-sharing apps and video technologies for team-wide use, it’s worth your time learning to use Google Hangouts, Skype, and Zoom for video chat and calls, and Slack, WhatsApp, and Webex for quick communications during the day or quick meetings. If your home computer’s or phone’s video or audio capabilities aren’t up to par, consider investing in peripheral microphone or mini-video camera technologies. 

“We’re hearing from large employers working to get managers trained on technologies like Zoom and Google Hangouts and on enterprise-level versions of them — they’ve always had these technologies; they just haven’t used them so extensively,” says Lister.

As telework becomes the norm, management is coming on board to the utility of videoconferencing instead of simple phone calls. Skype and Google Hangouts are popular for quick pickup video chats, while other videoconferencing apps, such as Zoom, allow you to join multiparticipant meetings from your computer or phone and screen-share with other attendees. You can find reviews of videoconferencing options from PC Magazine. 

While video meetings aren’t the same as in-person communication — slight delays in sound and video quality may mean intuitive responses or even polite interruptions are somewhat sidelined — they are among the more popular options that telecommuters can use to replicate in-person contact.

Be sure to troubleshoot the videoconference tools before using them with your colleagues. Be mindful of personal items in the background (Zoom has animated background presets you can use), and always note whether your microphone is muted or camera turned off before you engage in any personal business during the meeting.

And while videoconferencing may be the closest approximation of in-person meetings, don’t discount the importance of face-to-face time. In fact, according to data from MIT’s Human Dynamic Lab cited in the Washington Post, the more in-person communication a team engages in, the better its performance — with up to 35 percent variance between teams that met in person most often and those that didn’t. Consider folding in in-person meetings over time, as appropriate.

Common Problems and Solutions for WFH Meetings

Paul Axtell

Paul Axtell, a Phoenix, Arizona-based corporate trainer and author of the book Meetings Matter (Jackson Creek Press, 2015), provides several points of view about how to maximize remote video meetings and common problems with them.

Problem: Poor meeting etiquette among attendees can reduce efficiency. Wacky backgrounds, chirps and chimes indicating late arrivals, and lengthy requests of participants to mute/unmute can derail a video meeting.

Solutions: Set etiquette guidelines when scheduling the meeting. Employees or teammates need to know that kooky backgrounds or walking around with a phone during a meeting can create visual distractions. Instead, use a solid background, choose where to sit carefully, and turn off video if you’re walking around during the meeting. Ask participants to show up early or on time (enable this in the meeting settings menu), and to select their audio and video options (muted or not) as instructed. Additionally, the flattened environment of computer screen video can make it hard for a speaker to see visual cues indicating when their point has been sufficiently made, so there’s a tendency to over-elaborate. Use a timer, bell, or other signal — especially in larger meetings — to level the playing field for time allotments among attendees who talk. 

Problem: Who has “responsibility for listening”? The smaller the meeting, the more implicit the responsibility for listening to one another. One-on-one meetings and small team meetings (up to four people) are small enough to where everyone must commit, out of politeness if not task-related urgency, to pay attention. But Axtell cites Stanford University research that notes when more than eight people convene, the meeting hits a “tipping point” in efficacy. The more people in a meeting, the higher the probability that a portion of the group will “hide out” in the crowd, like folks in the back of a class passing notes or texting. With meetings of more than 20, there’s a “front row” factor of active participants and issues regarding who’s in charge.

Solutions: In large meetings, it’s important to start with “watercooler” chat. Just as people might file into a conference room or stand around with coffee waiting for things to start, some of this throat-clearing time may be necessary with virtual meetings, too. When setting the meeting, make sure participants have their name affixed to their image (to reduce time needed for introductions). Prior to the meeting, assign clusters of thought leaders to steer the conversation around topics they know well. Ask follow-up questions of those who speak, and reach out to those who remain silent to engage them in the meeting. Finally, set parameters for how the chat feature can be used — as a “parking lot” for future issues, a place for quick info-sharing (links, graphics, etc.), or even meeting minutes.

Problem: Though video is available, is it the best way to interact?Not all meetings demand video interaction. If the parties are holding a quick conversation to resolve minor hitches, to keep work moving along, to schedule project milestones, or to collaboratively problem-solve, video is not always necessary to achieve the desired meeting goals.

Solution: Give your colleagues options between platforms, including a phone call or video. “I like phone meetings better for one-on-ones,” Axtell says. “You don’t make up a bunch of mischief based on how people look or their chosen background setting.” One-to-one video meetings may be as effective as in-person communication, in that both parties have equal responsibility for listening to one another and, even with slight delays, can still pick up visual cues. Phone calls may allow for the same level of committed interaction, but without visual distractions. 

On the other hand, especially extroverted teammates like meetings for socializing and community. They might love a good one-to-one about tasks or a team happy hour, which they could even facilitate.

What Employers Should Know about Working from Home

Allowing employees to work from home can boost productivity, save employers money on office space, reduce turnover (since employees appreciate flexibility), and allow companies to lean on their distributed workforces for business continuity during a crisis or disruption.

Working from home also helps employees save time, especially for commuting: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average American commute in 2018 was 27 minutes each way. That’s 270 minutes, or 4.5 hours, freed up each week, which allows employees to adjust work hours to meet their needs. This, in turn, boosts morale and allows workers to work the way that suits their personality. 

In addition to increased focus, telecommuters and freelancers who work from home are 57 percent more likely to experience job satisfaction, according to a survey by Amerisleep, and 80 percent report less stress. Remote employees may also earn up to $4,000 more per year than their office-based counterparts, according to Flexjobs research.  

Owl Labs research indicates that working from home is no longer a perceived or actual barrier to advancement: telecommuters are 2.2 times as likely to earn over $100,000 per year as office-bound workers, and nearly half of C-level executives work from home at least sometimes. In addition, according to Flexjobs, environmentalists can take pride in the fact that remote work can help reduce the number of cars on the road. 

New research from Willis Towers Watson indicates that among 681 major employers surveyed in May 2020, 53 percent of their collective workforces are currently working remotely. Though that percentage is expected to drop to 22 percent after social distancing and congregating restrictions ease, the remote worker contingent will remain considerably higher than the pre-pandemic level of 7 percent. 

Zillow, the Seattle-based real estate listings and services company, significantly reconsidered telecommuting during the pandemic. CEO Rich Barton tweeted: “My personal opinions about WFH have been turned upside down over the past 2 months. I expect this will have a lasting influence on the future of work ... and home. Stay safe.” 

Employees can work from home through the end of 2020, Barton proclaimed in a GeekWire article. Soon after, Twitter announced it would not only permit employees to work from home through the end of 2020, but allow them to do so in perpetuity. Canadian online retailer Shopify followed suit. Facebook told the New York Times that within a decade, about half of its 45,000 employees are expected to work from home. These household names may now join the growing “best workplaces to telecommute” lists proliferating among mainstream media such as CNBC and remote work resources sites such as Flexjobs. 

Employers considering preserving or extending telework can benefit from knowing the following:

  • Remote employees need company face-to-face time, but not too often. Videoconferencing can put a face to a name on distributed teams, but periodic in-person meetings, meals, and bonding still help build trust and communication among colleagues. But live meetups don’t have to happen very often. 
  • Managers need nudging to accept the significance of work from home. It’s no secret that employees show more enthusiasm about working from home than their managers do. Pew Research data on working from home indicate as much, and Global Workplace Analytics’ Lister says that one positive side effect of a disruption-induced shift to WFH may be a long-awaited improvement in reluctant managers’ mindsets, which have presented a hurdle to the proliferation of working from home.

    Instead of “babysitting teams” in the office, managing a distributed team makes the most sense when managers shift their mindset to a “results-oriented work environment” (ROWE) approach — what matters is that work projects are completed on time, not that an employee was parked in their cubicle during set hours. Managing in a results-oriented work environment requires trust and communication, Lister notes, and managers need to recognize employees’ deliveries (regardless of how little or much time they took) versus their presence in an “on retainer” manner. In a non-ROWE work environment, research on the workday from Vouchercloud indicates that a typical office employee is only truly productive three hours per day — the rest of their time is spent “being present,” passively attending meetings and so on. CultureRx’s Results-Only Work Environment library may give senior leaders or managers ideas on how to shift to a results-based environment.
  • Managers need training on remote tools and remote management issues. While unplanned events and crises occasionally turn many nonremote workplaces into all-telework offices, seemingly overnight, that doesn’t mean all companies or managers are ready for remote management. Proactive companies can develop a remote-work playbook that outlines policies, or at least offer managerial tools and approaches for the situation. To learn more about building a strong remote company culture, read this article.As the reality of the new need for telework evolved, Zillow’s Learning & Development team assembled training content and webinars for leaders about how to communicate with employees during a period of fear and uncertainty, as well as what does and doesn’t work in a remote management setting, according to Emily Heffter, Zillow’s Director of Corporate Communications. On her own team, Heffter said the group initially began their new remote lifestyle with a daily video meeting to check in and say good morning — a replication of the morning huddle that happened organically in the office. 
    Emily Heffter
    We swiftly got ‘meeting fatigue,’” Heffter says. “The meetings started to feel unnecessary.” Heffter says that as the weeks of working from home accrued, she’s learned that, for one-on-one meetings, it’s a courtesy to ask the other party what sort of meeting they want to have (a phone call, a video chat, a walking meeting, etc.). 
  • Outfitting employees may require some investment. Leading an effective, distributed work team may require investments on the part of corporate for employees to flesh out their home workspaces. Not all adults with full-time office jobs have an appropriate home office space, and they may need furnishings or accessories to work effectively. 

    Zillow, like many companies supporting telework, has offered to subsidize home office expenses for employees to augment their workspace, Heffter says. “Once it became clear ... that the stay-home orders would last, employees became eligible to put in for up to $200 in supplies — usually the requests are for monitors or desk chairs.” 

    Companies fully converting to or hiring for permanently remote positions may offer allowances ranging from $500 to $1,000 for home offices, Lister notes. 
  • Employees still need to feel connected to their work and each other. Despite the many advantages of working from home, it also brings unique psychological challenges — namely, feeling disconnected. An original study conducted by Smartsheet in April 2020 found that 60 percent of employees feel less informed when working full-time remotely, and 75 percent of employees feel less connected. This issue is particularly prevalent among younger employees, as 82 percent of Generation Z and 81 percent of millennials report feeling less connected. With this in mind, employers should take extra steps to ensure employees are well-informed, up to date, and interacting with each other — through video, chat, and email, but also in-person meetings, as appropriate and safe.

How Do I Work from Home?

Working from home is a good match for employees in a variety of professions, especially so-called knowledge fields (teaching, therapy) or in professional services, including accounting and bookkeeping, law, engineering, virtual assistance, or software design. 

Whether you’re working from home temporarily, hoping to find remote work, or planning to persuade your existing employer to allow a permanent shift toward work from home, know that some jobs are more suitable for telework than others. Other jobs might be suitable from home only some of the time, such as a sales role requiring a mix of in-person meetings and travel interspersed with from-home calls, order fulfillment, and other customer followup or administrative activities. 

The Pew Research Center reports that approximately 24 percent of knowledge workers (management, business, and financial jobs performed on computers) and about 14 percent of professional services workers (lawyers, engineers, software designers) already have access to work-from-home opportunities through their employers. But as many states entered shelter-in-place protocols during the first quarter of 2020, entire companies (Microsoft, Google, and more) began permitting all ranks of employees to work from home. 

In April 2020, Flexjobs reported that a variety of new professions have entered the realm of work from home, including therapy, real estate services, and some banking and financial services roles. They join other professions already known to support telework such as bookkeeping, auditing, insurance claims and medical claims/billing management, IT administration (especially for cloud-based computing environments), translation, call center work, and online teaching.

Lister notes that those who telework may want to “manage up” to their managers: he encourages employees to proactively notify their bosses of project status or updates or inform teammates of a heads-down day for focus or a key deliverable. Managers working with remote employees should adhere to routine check-ins, so that brewing issues are resolved before they mushroom into real problems. 

If you’re making the switch, read “Digital Nomads: Setting a Course for Success in Today’s Workplace” to learn more about best practices for working from home. 

If you’re a manager or business owner, know that by permitting work from home or operating with a legacy teleworker, you may require extra communication — but this interaction is a two-way street. Zillow sends out a weekly employee survey to ask individuals and teams if they’re receiving the management and technical support they need to accomplish their job responsibilities. That way, the company’s leadership and team members can determine and troubleshoot gaps between the home office and the corporate office. 

“In our most recent survey, more than 90 percent of employees said they feel they can work from home effectively,” Heffter notes. “This is opening up the possibility of working in a different way across the company.”

Top Five Tips for Convincing a Boss to Work from Home

While many companies have normalized working from home — and are allowing employees to work from home indefinitely — other companies may not be on board. If your boss or company is resistant to this idea, but you’d like to bring up the option, you’ll need to demonstrate how working from home benefits not only you, but your team and company, too. When initiating a conversation with your manager about continuing to work from home (even after WFH restrictions have been lifted), be sure to anticipate and address the following in your email or meeting:

  • Gather supporting evidence. The best way to convince your boss that working from home benefits both you and the company is to present them with data. Your KPIs will depend on your role, but consider providing evidence for time savings around task performance, meetings vs. head-down work, and other workplace distractions. Additionally, arm yourself with research and statistics about the benefits of remote work at large.
  • Create criteria for what “productivity” means. Everyone’s definition of productivity is different, so think about how this translates for both your company and your role. What does your boss expect of you that you can better execute, focus on, or collaborate on remotely? Bring this information to your email or meeting.
  • Demonstrate remote culture fit. If certain circumstances in your life make working from home particularly beneficial (rather than just generally more convenient), say so. For instance, if you’re a parent (especially a single parent), live uniquely far from the office, or have a health issue or physical disability that makes remote work easier, list these reasons and be ready to provide applicable documentation.
  • Anticipate your manager’s questions. Don’t assume that your manager will automatically grant your wish. Be prepared to answer the following common questions:
    • What will your remote schedule look like? Will you be online during normal working hours?
    • How will I know that you’re working?
    • Why does your situation uniquely necessitate remote work?
    • How will you stay socially connected to the team?
    • Do you have the adequate technology to support long-term remote work?
  • Suggest a trial basis. A trial run will likely ease your manager’s anxieties about committing to remote work and provide you with an opportunity to showcase your ability to meaningfully contribute from home. It can also work in your favor, as it will allow you to troubleshoot any issues that arise. Be sure to set a time frame on the trial and make a plan for how to re-evaluate terms when the test period ends.

Remain Effective While Working Remotely with Real-Time Work Management in Smartsheet

Empower your people to go above and beyond with a flexible platform designed to match the needs of your team — and adapt as those needs change. 

The Smartsheet platform makes it easy to plan, capture, manage, and report on work from anywhere, helping your team be more effective and get more done. Report on key metrics and get real-time visibility into work as it happens with roll-up reports, dashboards, and automated workflows built to keep your team connected and informed. 

When teams have clarity into the work getting done, there’s no telling how much more they can accomplish in the same amount of time. Try Smartsheet for free, today.

 

 

 

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