Beyond a bathrobe and slippers: Survival skills for working from home

Working from home by choice or by mandate presents a unique set of opportunities and challenges. If you’re new to telecommuting, you might find that without some discipline, you’re waking up well beyond normal work hours and adopting behaviors you would never exhibit on your worst day at the office.

In the beginning, you might welcome a day or two of late mornings and wearing pajamas past noon. However, sloth mimicry is a habit few professionals would enthusiastically adopt long term. To get the most out of telecommuting, you need to master some best practices.

Create and maintain a routine

Recognize the fact that telework requires self-discipline. A day of waking up at 5 a.m. followed by one where you rise at 9 a.m. and another at 10 a.m. is a pattern on the path to disaster. Adopt some desk hours and stick with them. Also, be sure to take some regular breaks. You need to eat, you need to stand, and you need to stretch. You also need to turn off work when it’s time your work day is done. Unless you’re in a field that demands it, checking email at midnight is not a good idea. You need to establish psychological boundaries to keep work and home separate.

Learn new technology and leverage old

When working from a distance, you should learn how to use popular web-conferencing software, get comfortable on camera and get ready to meet regularly online. The world is moving to the virtual conference room, and you need to know how to operate in that space. “I don’t like being on camera,” “I’m not a tech person” and “I’ll just call in” are excuses that will leave you behind. Nobody looks their best on a webcam; that’s a fact. It’s also a fact that facial expressions, body language and other visual cues are a big part of communication. If they’re missing, you’re missing out. [Read more in “Building better video conferences.”] 

In addition to mastering video conferencing, if you’re working with a single screen, consider investing in one or two more. It can be helpful, especially if you don’t have access to a high-speed printer and find yourself having to read a lot of documents on screen that you would have normally printed at the office.

Stay connected

Working alone saves hours, but the lack of chit chat created during casual interactions can also cause your relationships with your co-workers to suffer. To remedy the problem, you need to be deliberate in your communication and schedule time to catch up.

Set aside a few minutes during your workday to check in with co-workers. Not working on a project that requires meetings? Consider setting up a virtual lunch date instead. Most people who wake up one day feeling isolated and in a funk don’t have a contact plan in place. Prepare for regular social interactions before you start missing them.

Seek out opportunity

If you’re working from home and find yourself with extra hours on your hands, it’s time to take initiative and learn some new skills. Anything you can do to expand your knowledge, work practices or professional network could help you later.

1.      Consider developing an education plan for yourself. For example, instead of faking your way through PowerPoint, learn how to use the slide master, templates and other features so each tool works for you the way in which its creators intended.

2.      Look for ways to make your work more efficient. Is it time to organize your email system? Could you benefit from creating rules, using folders and getting your electronic communication under control once and for all? It can be done, but it takes time. If you have any minutes to spare that you otherwise would have spent commuting, seize the day.

3.      Get online and expand your business network. Brush up your LinkedIn profile and start making connections. Look for people with whom you grew up, attended school or shared an employer at some point during your career. You never know how your efforts to connect could benefit you and others in the future.

Be prepared

Working from home means you have to become more self-reliant. For example, an ounce of prevention can make all the difference when you encounter a tech upset.

Start with the basics. Think about your files and the tools you need to complete your work. For example, do you have a cloud backup? Do you have remote access software so someone in IT can help you if you hit a roadblock?

Following routines, leveraging tech, being deliberate with communication, setting aside time for growth and preparing for uncertainty are five ways you can get the most out of a work-at-home experience.

Kate Zabriskie is the president of Business Training Works Inc., a Maryland-based talent development firm. She and her team help businesses establish customer service strategies and train their people to live up to what’s promised. For more information, visit

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