Working from home for the first time? Here's how to make it a success

Working remotely demands a big mental shift and a sudden loss of the camaraderie and socializing that comes with a shared workplace. 

Juggling kids, pets and the lure of a stocked fridge

Experts say that carving out a workspace at home is part of the key to remote working. (Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press)

Public health officials have implored Canadians to take up ''social distancing'' in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. As a result, thousands of people have headed home to work remotely for the next several weeks.

For many, it's the first time they'll be working from home, relying on technology to keep them connected and productive. But even the most cutting-edge technology can't always overcome basic distractions such as kids, a dog or the call of a nearby snack. 

Working remotely demands a big mental shift and brings with it a sudden loss of the camaraderie and socializing that comes with a workplace. 

Here are some tips to make your new home office productive. 

1. Maintain your routine

It's key. You should try to do exactly what you always do on a workday. Get up at the same time, shower, dress (in your work clothes, even), put on make-up (if that's part of your daily prep) and have breakfast (if you normally do that, too).

It all lets your brain know it's getting ready for work. 

But your brain is smart. It notices you haven't taken that final step of actually going to work, said one remote work consultant. So you have to help it make the switch. 

"Maybe instead of a commute, you go for a walk or listen to a professional podcast, and it will help our brain snap into work mode," said Laurel Farrar, who works from her Connecticut home as founder of Distribute Consulting. 

That can help you stay more focused through the day and less likely to be distracted by Netflix or a snack.

2. Create a work space

Having the right mindset is important. But having the right space to work  — a separate space — is also key. It might seem like a good plan to just pull out the laptop and go sit on the couch, but that's a bad idea, said another workplace expert. 

"If you don't have a designated workspace or office, create a little spot in your bedroom," said Jennifer Moss, author of Unlocking Happiness at Work. "If you close the door and you let people know that you're going to take some time to have heads-down time or time to take a call... then you have that privacy."

Working from home means overcoming many distractions - including kids and dogs. (Yara Nardi/Reuters)

And for once, don't stress about a messy house.

"Take 10 minutes to de-clutter or whatever you need to do to create sort of a healthy mental space for yourself. Just make sure that you don't wake up every morning and think, I need to get all the laundry done."

3. Manage the kids

Millions of Canadian children are on an extended March break because of the pandemic, with schools in every province now closed for two weeks or longer. There are no camps and no YMCAs, and parents are being advised not to arrange play dates or send their young kids to the grandparents, given that young germ-magnets can easily infect older, more vulnerable relatives. 

So how do you work with kids at home all day, too? 

Moss said that with all parents in the same boat, you can just be straight up with your supervisor or colleagues. Don't be shy to tell them a kid or a dog might run through the room during a conference call.

After all, remember this?

Moss, who also works from home, suggested parents shouldn't feel too guilty if there is more screen time than normal for their kids over the next few weeks. But she said it's not really a solution. 

"If you really need it or there's a situation where you need to put on the TV or whatever it is… I get it. But it's not a sustainable way to have kids and remote work happening at the same time."

The advice? Structure your kids' day so that they know when you are working and they can't come and bother you — and when they will have access to you. 

Make a schedule. The kids then know what they are doing during the hours when Mum or Dad have to work, and they know what times they can't open a closed office door or interrupt a call. 

Moss said you can even schedule breaks. 

"It could even mean setting an alarm on the iPad ... so that [the kids] know that if they wait till that moment in time, they get this access, and then they'll feel like they're in control and you can feel like you're in control."

4. Take charge 

Now is the time to exercise some autonomy. ''It is crucial for people to be responsible for their own time, their own tasks, their own energy as a remote worker,'' Farrar said.

Communicate with your workplace, know what they need, but tell them what you need, too. ''That's how you stay visible as an employee. That's how you stay engaged as a teammate.''

5. Avoid isolation

Even the most introverted can enjoy the interaction of the daily workplace: adult conversation, getting caught up on your colleagues' lives, sharing a laugh. Working from home suddenly slams the door on your daily socialization and can leave remote workers feeling isolated. 

Farrar said with today's technology, that doesn't have to be the case. "We're not going to lose our human connections if we work remotely. The channels in which we interact are just going to change." 

So use those quick chat programs, hold video meetings and video calls. Or just pick up the phone. 

It doesn't all have to be work chat, either. It's OK to socialize a bit, just as you would if you were grabbing a coffee together. 

6. Overcome a tight space

If you share a home with someone, there's a good chance that person is also working from home right now. If you have a large home with an office, you'll probably do OK. 

But what if home is a 500-square-foot space with no closed rooms? Right now, one person packing off to a cafe is not an option. 

For many people right now, sharing a home means sharing a workspace. And things can be tight. (Eloy Martin/Reuters)

The advice is for each individual to designate a spot, no matter how small, as separate as possible. Even in workplaces, people work in and around other people. If you are trying to make calls or be part of a video meeting, it can work just as well in a small home. 

It just takes some planning and communication. 

"It's maybe creating a discussion about what each person's day looks like and seeing if you can stagger your calls based on that,'' Moss said. "Can you coordinate your schedule? Is there any way that if someone asks for a meeting, you can check with your partner or your spouse first [so] you're not speaking over each other?"

7. Finally, don't overwork

Try not to fall into the trap of working too much. People who have long commutes could find themselves with extra hours to fill every day. Resist the temptation to use it all for work at a time like this.

Instead, maybe watch one of the many online concerts artists are offering up or take an online yoga class. Go for a walk with the dog and try to stay healthy, both physically and mentally.

''One of the things that we have to do around our mindset — and mindset is really critical here — is look at this as a sacrifice for the greater good, understanding that we're doing this for a purpose,'' Moss said. ''Feeling like we're contributing to the overall goal and that we're connecting with other people that are in the same boat.''