The coronavirus is changing our lives before our very eyes. How and where we work may be among the biggest disruptions. If you’re dealing with the disorientation of suddenly having to work from home, and are not quite sure what’s hit you, here are a few tips from someone who’s been doing it, happily and successfully, for over 20 years. 

  • W is for work. First things first, you’ve got to have work you can a) do at home and b) want to do, period. Home is so full of distractions (Ellen, the washing up, your puppy that wants walkies). Unless you dig what you do, there’s always a ton of other things to do. One of the existential consequences of the virus is going to be millions of people staring at their new work-at-home office wall and sighing, “Stuff this for a game of soldiers …”
  • O is for office. Whether you’re 25 and in a small flat/apartment (or heaven forbid, your childhood bedroom) or 55 and in a suburban two-up-two-down, you’ve got to have a semi-dedicated space to work in. I have a converted bedroom set up with the usual accoutrements – desk, chair, screens, etc. Although I often take calls elsewhere, like my beach office (i.e., my car at the local surfside parking lot) or the family room with CNBC on in the background), I always write at my “formal” desk.
  • R is for reading chair. Here’s some unsolicited advice: You’ve got to get away from that desk. A lot of my job is reading, and a comfy chair or couch works just fine for that. (For more on the transition from the cubicle to the couch, read our “From/To” report.) Don’t feel bad about leaning back (not in). But also, don’t get too comfy and nod off. (Again, that might be a sign you’re not really digging your gig.)
  • K is for kimono. Perhaps this is TMI, and if so, I apologize, but many “work from home” articles I’ve seen recently suggest you should dress for your home office as though you’re in your regular office. IMO, that’s a rookie mistake. One of the great joys of WFH is being able to wear whatever you’re comfortable in. As a Scotsman brought up in the Middle East, I’ve had a bit of a hate-hate relationship with trousers over the years (I can’t, even after 20 years in America, bring myself to say “pants” – where I come from, pants means something totally different). Although wearing a kilt or a thawb on Cape Cod might not go over too well with domestic management, my lovely posh Japanese robe just about passes muster. Just remember to swap back into Western work gear before the videoconference call begins.
  • A is for attention. Amid all the distractions (see above), you’ve got to be able to pay attention to your work. I can’t teach you how to do this, but if you can’t, your work situation will probably get a lot more dire than just having to work at home.
  • T is for timebox: To me, this is the secret to working, not just working from home. Give yourself a defined amount of time to do the task at hand. If it’s e-mail, make it an hour. If it’s creating a PowerPoint deck, give yourself a morning. An endless, ill-defined stretch of time ahead often sounds alluring but ends up slowing your pace, taking leisurely detours down the byways of the information super highway, and procrastinating until the cows come home (assumed they’re allowed out under our current curfew conditions). At the end of the allotted time, it – whatever you’ve been working on – is what it is. The perfectionist workaholics among us will hate this approach, but a timebox, or a sprint, or whatever you want to call it, is the best way I’ve found to get the job done and keep everything in place.  
  • H is for hours. Speaking of which, one of the great dangers of working from home is that work spills over into non-work hours. Doing e-mail in bed at 5 am or 11 pm is sometimes a wonder of the modern world, and sometimes a sign of its imminent collapse. We’ve forgotten the old adage of not taking our work home with us (thanks to laptops and smartphones), but you’ve got to be able to turn it …
  • O is for offoff. Enough said.
  • M is for motivation. Along with attention, motivation is not something I (or anyone else) can teach you. Motivation is an entirely inner characteristic, forged on the playing fields of Eton (or wherever you spent years 0 to 20ish) and something you either have or don’t have. “Management” can make a difference but only on the margin (+/- 5%). You’ve got to want to do the work, and at the end of the day, the people who rise to the top are those who (not always but commonly) want it most. If working from home simply means Ellen or catching up with the laundry, or Fido, then probably you’ll be spending a lot of time there once the virus is slain. Just not working though.
  • E is for exercise. Another great joy of WFH is using the time gained by not having to commute to focus on the future of your workout. I call this my daily MAT session – motion-activated thinking – the treadmill, a blank wall or a mirror ahead (no TV or second screens), glasses off. Run. Think. What’s it all about Alfie? Some days I haven’t a clue. Other days “eureka” or “bingo,” and the answer is clear.

    Most times when inspiration strikes, it’s in the last few minutes of the 45 or 60 minutes of my MAT time – the endorphin-fueled zone of infamy. Maybe early in the day, maybe in the middle, maybe late. Not squeezed into the margins, though. If you’re in the thinking-differently business, where creativity and imagination are the coins of the realm, it stands to reason that you’ve got to create the environment, conditions and circumstances under which you can optimize and maximize your differentiated thoughts. To me, working out isn’t a break from work; it’s where I do my best work.                                                                    

The Start of Something New

Lots about working at home is a) no different from working not at home and b) common sense. But there are subtle nuances, some of which I hope I’ve helped a little to elucidate.

I love working at home and could never imagine having to commute regularly again. (I love the travel my job requires, but that is so different from schlepping from the same Point A to Point B every day.) I would hazard a guess that a large proportion of people who have been reluctant to work from home but are now forced to in these difficult days, will actually come to love it too.

In fact, I have a suspicion that once the coronavirus crisis  is over, many people will never go back to their previous places of work, and large organizations will be faced with a second-order consequence of the pandemic – what to do with all the empty space where people used to work – people now quite happily and productively working at home.  

Visit our COVID-19 resources page for additional insights and updates.

Ben Pring

Ben Pring

Ben Pring leads Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work and is a coauthor of the books What To Do When Machines... Read more