Seven tips after five years working from home

Yesterday morning I was enjoying a bike ride before work and it occurred to me that this month marks my fifth year of working from home. As with all things in life, there are both good and bad aspects to working remotely, but on the whole I think working from home nets out to a Good Thing: I see more of my family, I spend less time and money on driving, and I’m healthier.

Most of these didn’t take five years to figure out, but here they are anyway: Seven Tips on Working From Home:

Tip #1: Take a shower and get dressed, for crying out loud

I know there are a lot of people that like to work from home in their pajamas, but I don’t see how they do that consistently. Can you really have a serious conference call about global strategy when you’ve got Yoda staring up at you from your lounge pants? Plus, I need that shower to wake me up. And, while they may be shorts and a t-shirt, putting clothes on is part of getting into the “I’m working” mindset for you and a good external signal to others around you.

Tip #2: Set expectations with your kids

My kids were 5 and 8 when I started working from home. That meant both were in school for most of the day for most of the year. The other key factor is that they were old enough to understand that Dad’s at home during the day to work, not to play. Younger kids don’t get that at all. And little kids don’t quickly grasp the all-critical Signs of Interrupt-ability:

  • Door Open = Come on in.
  • Door Closed = Think twice!
  • Door Closed with Headphones On = Interrupt only if you are bleeding uncontrollably or the house is on fire, also realizing that it may take several minutes for Dad to come out of The Zone such that he can form words and coherent thoughts.

Tip #3: Set expectations with your spouse/partner/roommate

Similar to the previous point, you’ve got to set some ground rules with your mate. For example, I don’t answer the door or the home phone during work hours. Or work on honey-do’s. Or tell one sibling to stop bugging the other. Or figure out why the printer doesn’t work. When I’m in work mode, I’m at work. Sure, I’m happy to have lunch with the rest of the fam or take a quick break to find out how the kids’ day at school went–that’s part of the appeal to working from home–but my family understands the limits of what they can get away with when I’m in the home office.

Tip #4: Establish a clean break between work and non-work modes

A common complaint from the families of people who work from home is that “they work all of the time”. It is easy to fall into that pattern. I think you’ve got to already have a handle on work-life balance before you start working from home or it can become a bigger problem. It helps if you have space you can dedicate as your work area and a time window you can designate as work-time and try to stick to that. When you are in serious work mode, don’t work from the couch. And on the weekends, don’t hang out in your office. Sure, in crunch times you’ll burn the midnight oil, but don’t let that be all of the time. And, if it is any consolation to your family, at least when you are working all night, you don’t have to drive home in the wee hours.

Tip #5: Collaborate with co-workers/clients in-person from time-to-time

It’s important to form bonds with the rest of your teammates. You can do this when you collaborate with remote tools like Skype and Webex, but it happens much faster in-person. My job involves a lot of travel, so I get plenty of opportunities for face-time with colleagues. When I collaborate remotely with people I don’t see in-person often, I make sure some part of our online collaboration is spent talking about non-work stuff. On client projects, we always tried to be on-site at the start of a project and again at major milestones.

Tip #6: Get out of the house

When your commute is measured in steps, not miles, it is easy to get cabin fever. Staring at the same four walls every day can be a drag. In America, our average day contains an appallingly low amount of walking or other physical activity. Working from home can compound the problem–you’re not getting that vigorous walk from the parking garage to the cubicle twice a day, after all! I try to go out to lunch with friends or family, ride my bike or go for a walk, or attend meetups or networking events. Anything to get out of the house, interact with people, and get the blood flowing. A nice thing about working from home is that it is easier to do a mid-day exercise break, whereas most people in a traditional office have to settle for working out before or after work. If you can take advantage of the opportunity for more exercise and combine that with less eating out, I think working from home can have positive health effects.

Tip #7: Invest in tools

If your company relies on a remote workforce you need to make sure you are providing top-notch tools and infrastructure to facilitate that (disclaimer: I work for a software company that produces content management and collaboration tools). At Optaros, we were a globally distributed team. We used Alfresco for document management, but for project collaboration we used Trac because, although Alfresco Share is awesome for content collaboration, it lacks some of the tools critical for collaborating on code-based projects, like source code control integration and automatically-logged real-time chat. (Those would actually make good community contributions, by the way, hint, hint). Regardless of what you use, the point is, there are a lot of great tools out there (both on-premise and SaaS) that can really make remote teams hum, and this ought to be considered critical infrastructure at your company.

So, overall, it’s been a productive and happy five years working from home and it would be hard to change now. I do miss the higher level of face-time with my teammates, and actually, sometimes I miss the drive–that’s when I did most of my music listening and thinking about the day. But the pros outweigh the cons, for sure.

How about you? Got any working from home tips I’ve missed?