How to succeed at working from home

As a software engineer, I’m fortunate that my job lends to telecommuting. I’ve been doing so in a formal capacity for almost 9 years and dealing with telecommuting in some manner or other for my entire professional career.

Often when people hear I telecommute I get two responses: 1. Wow that’s so cool, I wish I could do that, 2. But I couldn’t do that because of distractions. Do you want to know what I’ve found to be the keys to successful work at home?

The keys to successful telecommuting are discipline and responsibility. Sure you’re at home, sure you can work naked if you want to. But all of your favorite distractions are right at your fingertips: the tv, books, whatever you like to do for hobbies, your bed/couch for napping, all your favorite foods in the kitchen, and probably other people (spouse, kids, roommates, etc.). You have to overcome these distractions and/or learn how to manage them because you still must produce and get your work done on time.

One question I often get from new telecommuters is how to deal with interruptions. You’re home, trying to get work done, and there are the kids, or the spouse, or the roomates… making noise, barging in, talking to you while you’re trying to focus and get work done. As well, once your neighbors know you’re home all the time, they often assume that means they can take advantage of your “at-home-ness”. The solution is simple (but not easy).

You must lay down the law.

Just because you are home does not mean you are available. You must make this clear to everyone in the household, and you must enforce this at every turn. If someone in the household cannot understand it (e.g. small child), then you must find a way to enforce it (e.g. baby gates to block their passage to your workspace, whomever is in charge of their care must make efforts to keep the kiddo quiet when needed, away from your office, etc.). While you’re training yourself to work from home, you must also train everyone else in the house. If you can work in a separate room with a door, use it. You could have a policy that if the door is close they stay out, if the door is open they can come right in and talk. If the door is closed, they must knock and must wait for you to answer affirmitively to enter; if you don’t answer or deny their request, it’s nothing personal but you just can’t be interrupted right now (but be sure to seek them out and find out what’s up at your earliest opportunity). Of course, make sure that if there’s an emergency they know they can bust in. Some may think a lock on the door is useful here, but I really wouldn’t do that. You need to train the others — just as you’re training yourself — to have the discipline to leave you alone, to respect and obey your work rules. While the lock may keep them out, the jiggling of the locked doorknob is still going to be an interruption. Plus if there’s truly a need for them to bust in unannounced, the lock will prevent that.

If you might need extra silence for a while (e.g. important meeting), take a moment to go through the house and notify everyone in the house of the need and expect compliance. Once things are clear, be sure to go back through the house to let them know all is clear now. Don’t be an orge about this (threatening your kid to keep quiet could just be the invitation a rebellious teenager needs). Just help them realize that if you don’t work, you don’t get paid, and if you don’t get paid, there’s no food, no clothing, no house, no nuthin’. It’s about teaching respect to the others in the house. But as well, you have to remember to respect those others and not totally dominate the house for your work needs —they live there too.

Do remember, you are at home; take advantage of it. I’ll take a 5-10 minute break in the middle of my workday to just go down and talk with my wife and kids. Why not? I’m here, I can do that, so I’ll take advantage of that. The office-bound chat with each other during the day (the “water-cooler”), so chatting with your “officemates” is really no different. And do allow yourself to be accessible and keep in perspective just what’s truly important. For instance, sometimes my kids knock on my office door during my workday. If I’m truly in a zone and can’t be interrupted that’s one thing. But most of the time all the kids want is 30 seconds of my time to show me the LEGO creation they built or the comic strip they drew. I take that time because which am I going to regret later? that I didn’t stay unwaveringly focused on my work? or that I missed out on my kids growing up?  But on the same token, if the kids are coming in every 5 minutes, you have to gentlely remind them that you need to get work done and you can’t do that if they keep coming in and interrupting you. But again, don’t totally shun the wife or the kids. Tell them “no” right now, but let them know when there will be a “yes”. Let them know you’ll make time for them a little later, and make sure you follow through.

You must be in control of your work environment as much as possible. You must make it clear that you must work, you must succeed at your work, and that in order to do so there are some rules that must be laid down and obeyed. The primary rule is “Just because I’m home doesn’t mean I’m available”. Set down other rules to help support that primary rule. You must be strict about adhering to those rules, but over time as both you and others in the household gain the discipline you’ll also find a balance and groove that works so go with that. You must also remember that those other people live there too, and you must allow them to live there and be accepting that sometimes things won’t be ideal for your situation. Make sure the others know when you are available for them, and make sure to be available. It builds the trust and respect needed, so if you say “no, sorry, not now” they’ll be ok with that because they’ll know you’ve gotta work but will be with them later.

It’s not easy, it takes time to get there. But it is what makes it work.

3 thoughts on “How to succeed at working from home

  1. It’s tough doing this when you don’t have an office where you can close the door. All it really takes is a little more reinforcement of the law. The kids are good about it, and my wife is getting better;)

  2. Pingback: How to deal with the pitfalls of telecommuting « THE Work At Home Blog

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