What do you do when your apartment becomes an office for two?
Going from working in an office to working from home can be a tricky transition even under the best of circumstances. And it’s all the more challenging now, especially if you live with other people. Like Alex, I have also been working from home for a number of years—and that experience has given me a handful of key strategies for how to do so effectively. These tips have become all the more essential in this current moment, as my roommate and I both adjust to both of us working remotely out of our little New York City apartment.
During these difficult times, as we all try our best to figure out how to stay safe while still doing our best work, I hope some of my advice may be of help.
General WFH Tips
Find An Activity To Replace Your Commute
When you work from home, it can be tempting to stay under the covers for as long as possible. Once it’s time to start working, you can just roll on out of bed and open your laptop up, right? Of course you can, but you may actually be setting yourself up for a more stressful start to your day.
When I first started working from home, I was surprised by how strange it felt to no longer have a commute. Of course, when you’re running for the subway five days a week, the slog of getting to and from work often just feels like a hassle you’d prefer to avoid if you could. But when your daily travel is suddenly reduced to the walk from your bed to your kitchen table, you start to realize just how valuable that commute experience really is.
More than just the process of getting from Point A to Point B, the morning commute serves another somewhat elusive purpose in your day. Whether you drive, walk, bike or take public transportation, your trek to work involves a certain level of physical movement and mental coordination – but doesn’t actually require your brain to be completely on. It’s an in-between moment that gives you the chance to ease your mind into being fully awake.
For many people right now, it’s either impossible or inadvisable to try to recreate their usual commute to work routine. Instead, I recommend finding another activity to replace it. It should be something that gets you up and moving, but it doesn’t have to be any sort of exercise really. Ideally, it should be something totally unrelated to your job, require little to no decision-making and be easily repeated each day. It should also be relatively contained in terms of how long it will take: this isn’t the moment to reorganize your spice rack – but maybe try unloading the dishwasher. Or sweeping the kitchen floor. Or making a breakfast that involves more than just pouring cereal into a bowl.
When it comes to starting your work day, don’t expect yourself to go from 0 to 60. Ease into your day. Take your time with your new morning routine, listen to a podcast or groove to some tunes—and relish in the fact that you’re not squished up against a stranger on a crowded A train.
Put On (Different) Pants
While some WFH experts swear by getting fully dressed and ready each day, I don’t subscribe to the belief that the key to working from home is pretending you’re still going into the office. But I do believe in the power of sending little signals to your brain that you’ve now switched over into work mode.
So my advice: you don’t have to put on real pants every morning, but you do have to put on different pants. Or shorts. Or a dress. It’s not really WHAT you’re wearing, but the act of changing out of your pajamas that signals to your brain that it’s now work time.
If you feel like you need to put on a suit to get work done, then by all means go for it. But if you’d rather just wear leggings, don’t feel guilty about it.
Stay In Touch With Coworkers – And End Each Meeting With Clear Directives
When everyone is all working out of the same office, communication just comes a little bit more naturally. You can easily clarify or remind or circle back with colleagues when you are sitting next to them or running into them in the kitchen. It’s second nature. But when you’re all working from separate locations and checking in via various technology platforms, clarity becomes more important than ever.
Don’t assume that the transition from in-person meetings to video conferencing will be seamless. If you’re not careful, details will invariably get lost in the ether of the internet.
So while we’re all still getting in the swing of things, try to take a minute at the end of each conference call and have everyone share what their next steps are. What are they working on now? Who are they sharing it with next? When should it be done? Even if you already have these kinds of systems in place, now is the time to really pay close attention to them. Doing so will help ensure that everyone is on the same page.
Write Everything Down For Yourself
You should hold yourself to that same commitment to clarity, as well. When you don’t have the visual cues of your coworkers to jog your memory, it can be easier for tasks and details to fall through the cracks. While there are plenty of different tools and resources to use for time and project management these days, good old fashioned pen and paper still works best for me. I keep one notebook for ongoing notes and then smaller notepads for my daily To-Do Lists. This combination allows me to keep track of larger projects that need to get done over time (in my big notebook) along with my day-to-day tasks (on a sheet from my notepad).
Organize Your Day Into Time Slots
For a lot of people, the lack of structure can be the most difficult thing about remote work. When left to your own devices, how do you keep yourself from losing track of time? Unfortunately, there’s no easy life hack for this one. The best solution is to create your own routine—and then stick to it.
Here’s what has worked for me: portion your day into roughly 45 minutes time slots, with 10 minute breaks in between. Rather than just attempting to power through each task on your To Do List from start to finish, mix it up: maybe work on one for the first 45 minutes, then switch to another for the next, then go back to the first. And in between, give yourself an actual break. Get up, stretch, refill your coffee, do some push-ups, read a poem, work on a crossword. This is also a great way to keep yourself from accidentally falling down a social media wormhole, as you can relegate your scrolling-time to that 10 minute window.
Some days, it won’t feel helpful to try to switch projects for each time slot. And that’s ok! It’s fine to be flexible about that. Just don’t try to skip your break time. Of course, you can give yourself an extra minute to finish your thought – but I promise you won’t forget all of your ideas if you give yourself a breather. It’s unrealistic to expect yourself to work solidly for 8 hours a day. Thinking that way is just setting yourself up for failure. By giving yourself the dedicated time to turn your brain off a little bit (or at least change the channel on it), you are actually saving yourself from burning out.
“But that’s not how I work when I’m in the office.” That may be true, but remember that working from home is a totally different beast – and you’re probably not used to doing your job for extended periods of time there. Giving yourself some extra structure while you’re getting used to WFH can help you set yourself up for success down the line. And over time, it just may become second-nature.
Make A Routine Based On Your Needs
If you have the kind of job that allows for some wiggle room on your work hours, don’t be afraid to take advantage of that right now. If you don’t have to be signed on and working at 7am on the dot, ask yourself: does that timing actually work for me? Does it feel natural? Maybe you are actually a night owl who has been forcing yourself to follow an early-bird schedule. Or maybe you naturally wake up bright eyed and bushy-tailed, but crash in the late afternoon. If you don’t have to push yourself into the normal 9 to 5 schedule right now, why not try shifting your hours to whatever feels best for you?
Once you start working with your body rather than fighting against it, you may even find your work start to improve. Or, your work may stay exactly the same and you just feel better all around. That counts as a win in my book too!
Working From Home With A Roommate
Go Over Your Weekly Schedules Together
Just because you live together, that doesn’t mean your jobs are compatible. Are you on the phone making sales calls all day while your roommate is trying to finish up some complex data set? Or maybe they’ve decided the time to practice their trombone is the exact moment you’re trying to start a video presentation. This can happen even if you’re pals: maybe they’ve got a huge deadline to meet and you keep popping in to show them funny tweets.
To avoid both interruption and frustration, make a point to sit down and go over your work schedules with one another on a semi-regular basis. You don’t have to get in to the nitty-gritty of every line item on your To Do List; just stick to the big projects or meetings that may have an impact on each other’s daily routines.
Simply put, your roommate won’t know that you have a very important call at 2pm if you don’t tell them. And asking them to move or shut up at 1:59pm is a sure-fire way to build unnecessary resentment. By giving each other advance notice that you will need a certain space or level of quiet for a certain amount of time, you will both have enough time to figure out how to accommodate that.
Have A Few Work-Station Options (Even If They’re Not Perfect)
Some roommates are lucky enough to be holed up in palatial houses or apartments during this time. Or, at the very least, a space with two separate offices. But for many people—especially those of us living in cities—part of this WFH transition is figuring out how to both do your jobs in very close quarters.
There’s no doubt that having one dedicated workspace can be really helpful for getting things done. That could mean sequestering yourself to the desk in your room or you and your roommate sharing two sides of the same kitchen table. But eventually, you may both need to mix things up for whatever reason. Sometimes you just need to get out of the way for a little bit while your roommate finishes up a call. Or they want some space while you’re chomping on your lunch. Having a secondary work location in mind means that you have somewhere to retreat to if the situation calls for it.
Now this alternate spot may not be your picture-perfect work environment—but that’s ok. Working from your bed or the kitchen counter isn’t a great permanent solution, but you can probably make do there if the situation calls for it. Having a clear set-up in mind in advance is an easy way to keep the peace.
Be Clear About Your Needs – And Flexible About Theirs
Look, this entire WFH situation is less than ideal for everyone. People are already stressed, and you don’t want to accidentally add to that by turning your living situation into a hostile environment. You and your roommate will need to work together, honestly and openly, in order to make this work. Now is not the time to be bossy or passive aggressive. Be clear about what you need to do your job best, and ready to compromise to accommodate their needs too. So if you need your living space to be quiet so you can record a podcast, tell your roommate that. Then be prepared and willing to do the same for them.
Make sure you’re not going into this conversation assuming that anyone’s job is more important than the other. Just because you make more money doesn’t mean you get free rein over the apartment—and vice versa. Of course, that doesn’t mean everything has to be perfectly 50/50 just for the sake of being “fair.” Some jobs require more space than others. Just do what you can to make sure that no one feels like they’re always getting the short end of the stick.
Apologize & Reevaluate As Needed
Everyone’s human. And sometimes that means you will be loud or annoying—and sometimes that means you will get snippy or mad. No matter how good your communication skills are, it’s not going to be perfectly smooth sailing all the time. At some point or another, both of you will inevitably do something to annoy the other. That’s not the end of the world. If it was something little, just apologize and move on. If it’s something bigger or it’s starting to feel like your normal routine isn’t working anymore, talk about it and try to figure out a better solution. These are habits that will continue to serve you well into the future; so even if they don’t come naturally to you, now’s as good a time as any to start practicing.