Well friends, these are some unexpected times, aren’t they? Life has changed with #COVID19 and recommendations for social distancing (although for ranchers, self-isolation is a normal and usually welcome practice). Schools and day-cares are closed and employers have transitioned to telework where possible, as society pulls together to minimize the spread of the disease that will potentially overburden our health care system.
I’ve been working from home (WFH) among a menagerie of children, cattle, and laundry for seven years. Most of my work is writing, analysis, and developing content, and I’m fortunate to work remotely although my approach is a bit unconventional. I’ve captured interviews in my truck from the Wal-Mart parking lot, simultaneously giving my kids the “mom eyes” to will them into silence. There is currently a soundtrack of Paw Patrol (“we’re on a roll!”) playing in the background of all my video and conference calls. I wear the abstract WFH wardrobe (hi there, ugly 17-year-old cardigan and Video Conference Head Band). And yes, I’m guilty of buying work time from my children for the sum of an unending supply of fruit snacks and the promise of binge-watching Dude Perfect on YouTube.
I’m not perfect. Nobody is, but working remotely for me is my everyday reality. Now that friends, family, and colleagues are unexpectedly riding the work-from-home wave, I’ve gotten a chuckle out of their experiences. Here are a few ideas and tips I’ve put into practice over the years:
Manage your expectations. And your guilt. At first, I was disappointed when I didn’t get a solid eight hours of “work” in each day, but I’ve grown to realize that it’s not realistic for me right now. I’ve also learned to cut myself some household slack because when I am in work mode, my house will be messy and other parts of my life will feel disorganized. Unfortunately, the mom guilt is real and I still struggle with explaining to my kids why I am distracted and not able to give them my full attention at certain times. There is also work guilt that creeps in when I ignore emails and undone projects in order to focus on other important things in my life.
There are no rules. I do have dedicated home office space that moonlights as a guest room but thanks to the nature of my live-in kinfolk co-workers, the boundaries are very porous. Sometimes my office works well, but I’ve also learned that perhaps I can get more done when I set up my laptop in a common area and become part of the general chaos. Plus, I can keep an eye on things (Put down the scissors! No more juice boxes! Why is there a cow herd in the front yard?!).
Do not underestimate yourself. You will surprise yourself with how much work you can get done especially if you are under a little pressure. While I don’t advocate putting pressure on yourself, somehow the work that needs to get done, always does. (Why, yes, I am a procrastinator).
Prioritize. Each morning, I take a moment to mark down the essential family, ranch, or work duties that need to get done that day, plus a few nice-to-do tasks in another column. I also try to go with the flow, and work on creative tasks that require my full attention when the spirit moves me. I save perfunctory jobs for times when I don’t feel as focused.
Put your phone down. No, really. It’s a vortex, especially now with constant updates and alerts, and it can put a real damper on your productivity, not to mention your mood. Avoiding my phone is tricky because part of my work is to curate social media accounts like Twitter and Facebook. However, there is a fine line between uploading a disciplined professional work post and accidentally spending 45 minutes trying to identify desert range plants on a friend’s Facebook feed. I have adjusted the screen time settings on my phone to set a time limit on social media apps, which helps. I also place my phone out of reach. I can still hear it and respond as needed, but it’s a little more difficult to get distracted.
Back up yo’ files. Get to know your external hard drive. Appreciate it. Become one with it. While having things available on shared online folders or “the cloud” is a revolutionary way to share resources and collaborate virtually, make sure you download the files you really need to do your work. I’ve learned this the hard way thanks to rural internet challenges, but no one is immune to technical issues. It is frustrating when you get focused and ready to work, except you can’t because your material is inaccessible.
Budget your energy. Parents all have the grand scheme to maximize work during our kids’ naptime. This is a great strategy…if your kids get the memo. Which they never do. In order to enjoy the luxury of a quiet workplace, I used to pride myself on being able to stay up late and get lots of hours in. Then sometimes I would try and get up extra early to get a few hours in too. All this extra time did allow me to accomplish some work, however it came with a nasty side effect of me becoming a burnt-out crazy person, so I had to dial that back. I still occasionally will get up early OR stay up late, but then I try to budget my energy accordingly for the rest of the day.
While the COVID-19 situation is challenging everyone in an unprecedented way, it may also be an opportunity to show employers that working from home, even with kids around, is possible. Our families can learn more about the work we do while we spend less wasted time (and money) commuting. Plus, we can spend less time listening to Felicia from Human Resources drone on and on about her dog’s babysitter.
Now get off your phone, put on your office blanket-disguised-as-a-sweater and get at ’er. You can do this. We can do this. We truly are in this together.