Now that everyone is stuck at home during the Time of Coronavirus, you may be getting a lot of advice on how to telecommute.
It usually runs somewhere along these lines: make a separate and closed-off space just for work, keep a regular 9-to-5 work schedule, and get dressed and ready in the morning the same as you would if you were heading to the office.
I’m sure this sort of advice will be useful to a lot of people—but on the other hand, I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I routinely violate every single one of those rules. In fact, being able to violate those rules, flagrantly and repeatedly, is the whole attraction of working on the internet.
I mean, if you can’t work sitting on the couch in your pajamas, I don’t know what the point of telecommuting even is.
The advice people are giving you is to try as much as possible to recreate in your home the exact routine of work in an office. But a lot of us figured out years ago that working in an office is annoying and counterproductive, filled with useless distractions and unnecessary rituals, all chained down to an artificial schedule. What’s the point of working from home if you’re just going to re-create everything that’s wrong with working in an office?
So let me welcome you over to the Dark Side and its many seductions with my own advice on how to work from home as if you actually wanted to enjoy it.
Wear whatever you like.
In addition to the pleasure of being able to touch your face as much as you damn well please, one of the advantages of keeping yourself in isolation from the rest of the world is that nobody particularly cares how you look. I say that as a writer, someone whose product is words on a computer screen, or at most a disembodied voice on a podcast. Other jobs may involve more meetings and more talking to people, and some of that may end up being on videoconferences—though as you go along, you will find that phone calls suffice for most purposes. So sure, keep a corner of a room free of clutter, and dress more nicely—from the waist up, at least—when you have to.
But most of the time, just wear what’s comfortable and focus on your work. Oh, and work where it’s comfortable, too. Go ahead and sit on that couch.
Those of us who work on the internet have long ago reversed the usual approach to clothing. Everybody else dresses up for work, then dresses like a slob on evenings and weekends. We dress for comfort while working and dress up to go out. Not that you’ll be going out for a while, I hope. But for the duration of this crisis, try dressing in jeans and a T-shirt while you’re bent over your laptop working—then shower and get dressed for dinner with your spouse in the evening. Doesn’t this make more sense?
Do non-work things during the middle of the day.
Actually, during normal times, I usually end up showering at the gym, which I go to during the off-hours—the middle of the morning or the middle of the afternoon—with all the retirees. The gym is closed now, of course, because we don’t want those retirees to get infected. So we’re all exercising in our homes or in outdoor spaces where we can get sufficient distance from other people. Why not do it on your own schedule?
When everything returns to normal, you might also consider the attraction of being able to go to Costco when it’s fairly empty in the morning, hitting a matinee showing of a movie, or starting a big pot of chili on the stove in the middle of the afternoon and letting it simmer while you work.
The point is to go ahead and do these things when they make sense and not on the artificial schedule of office life. For example, your body has a natural cycle that tends to induce a period of drowsiness after lunch, usually around 2:30 in the afternoon. We all know that feeling. Since this makes concentrated work impossible—writing especially—I like to counterprogram it by going for a workout, using the physical activity to power through the period of drowsiness. Then I’ll try to hit my deadlines when I’m more productive.
Work when you are most productive.
Maybe being home will pose some more distractions, but it also makes it easier to avoid the distractions endemic to office life. Before I had kids and was forced onto a normie schedule, I used to sleep late in the morning and get a lot of my prime work done between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. It’s a great time to work because nobody bothers you and there’s nothing else to do. The point is to find the spot when you can get “into the bubble,” when you can get highly focused and get a lot done, without the routines of office life breaking your concentration.
Talk to other people when you need to, not when you’re forced to.
People who try to sell you on life in an office building like to talk about the need for open spaces that allow for “collaboration.” But most of us have probably worked at some point in a cubicle farm, an arrangement seemingly designed for the purpose of refuting this idea. Note to office design experts: “collaboration” is not fostered by overhearing everybody else’s phone calls, getting dragged into random conversations, and trying to tune out other people’s conversations.
Long ago, I worked for a media company that was moving to new offices, and the architects came to interview everyone in the company and ask us what we needed. Every single one of the writers replied that what we wanted was a closed office with a door. It could be a tiny office, a broom closet, but it had to have a door. Naturally, they put us all in cubicles. This often produces the ironic spectacle of the “collaborative” open office plan where everyone is sitting around with headphones on, avoiding eye contact and desperately trying to tune each other out.
Sitting at home cannot possibly be worse. In fact, the distractions of home are not all unwelcome.
Relax the barriers between work and family.
People think the worst part of this national lockdown is being stuck at home with the kids. But as someone who has been doing this for a long time, I can tell you that this is the best part.
Granted, this is a lot harder for, say, parents with toddlers. At any age, it requires a little training for the kids. Mine have learned how to be quiet when mom has a call with a client or when dad has a radio interview, and at the beginning of every summer I have to spend a week or so reminding them that they’re on vacation, but I’m not. Most of us have trained our kids to think that if we’re there at the house, we’re endlessly available to them, so they’ll need a little time to adjust.
But they can do it, and when you get into the new routine, you will find that it is nice for your work life to be embedded not in the atmosphere and rhythms of your coworkers, but in those of your family. And while you’re not endlessly available to your kids, you are available to them, here and there, throughout the day.
Under normal circumstances, that might mean I spend flag-football practice or violin lessons sitting in my car tapping away on my laptop—but it also means I’m always available to pick up the kids from school, take them to their activities, and spend time with them along the way.
As I’m writing this—sprawled out on the couch, of course—my oldest son is half draped across my legs reading a book for his schoolwork. Aside from the constriction of my circulation (he’s getting a bit big for this sort of thing), it’s a pretty awesome way to spend the workday.
Organize your work around tasks, not time.
I had a job once working remotely for a think tank, where an overly bureaucratic office manager asked me to clock my hours. After years outside an office, the whole question threw me off.
I don’t think any more in terms of the hours I put in, which are so scattered throughout the day and the week that it’s not worth the trouble to track them. I find myself thinking in terms of tasks: articles to write, interviews to record, what I need to update on my website. As a freelancer, I also get paid by the task, not by how many hours I put in at a particular location. Which makes a lot more sense when you think about it.
The freewheeling work-at-home lifestyle is not for everyone. Like all forms of freedom, it loosens you from some restrictions while imposing greater demands for self-discipline.
But I hope that a lot of people—after doing this for a few weeks and figuring out how to live the Bohemian lifestyle of an internet warrior while being even more productive than they were before—won’t want to go back.
Here’s a good test. There’s a scene in The Magnificent Seven when Steve McQueen’s gunslinger has ended up in a town that’s too civilized for his taste. He describes being offered a job as a clerk in a grocery store, and the Mexican farmers are very impressed with this, explaining that “it’s good, steady work.” The camera goes back to McQueen’s face with its stricken look of panicked desperation.
If you identify at all with this, you might want to question whether you really have to go back to the office when they give the all-clear on this virus. Come join us out here on the open range of the internet.