What not to do when working from home for a prolonged period, according to experts

If you want to be productive while working from home, avoid these pitfalls.

A home office designer making notes and choosing color from palette while working by desk
Working from home is now a reality for millions of office workers. –Adobe Stock Photo

After a couple of weeks working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic, a lot of people probably feel like they’re settling into a groove. Some might even be thinking that once we make it through the COVID-19 outbreak, they’ll join the 5 million Americans who work remotely at least half of the time for their jobs.

While working from home for a few days isn’t a new concept to most — remember the winter of 2015? — telecommuting for weeks and weeks with no specific end date is a different story.

Even for those who transitioned into comfortable remote work setups, there are a lot of things that can derail a home work environment. To help everyone live their best telecommuting life, we asked people who have worked remotely for years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic to offer warnings about the bad habits and pitfalls to avoid while working from home.

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(Did we miss anything? When you’re done reading, let us know your own work-from-home tips in the comments, or by emailing tips@boston.com.)

1. Don’t work from the couch.

In our guide of work-from-home tips, one of the most popular recommendations was having a dedicated home office space. Similarly, the most frequent note of caution was to not work from a place where non-work duties reign supreme, specifically the sofa, kitchen table, or your bed.

Matt Sullivan, who works for digital employee experience company Akumina, said that working from a couch or kitchen table “is not conducive to productivity.” 

Andrew Snyder, a senior digital strategist for Veracity Media who has worked remotely for 2+ years, echoed the sentiment, speaking from personal experience.

“Don’t work from your couch for 20+ hours a week — I have tried,” Snyder said. “Ergonomics matter.”

2. Don’t do household chores during work time.

Initially, working remotely seems like a great chance to get a head start on your personal to-do list. Doing laundry, cleaning the bathroom, and cooking dinner are suddenly within reach when you’re not at the office. But all those tasks take time, and your work likely takes as much — if not more — time than usual while at home, meaning you can’t afford to skimp on your job responsibilities.

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Snyder said that he estimated it took him three months to stop being tempted by these “home from work” tasks during work hours, while Sullivan said that those chores need their own time slot.

“If you want to spend time doing household things — laundry, cleaning, dog walking — build it into your schedule,” Sullivan said. “Don’t do it ad-hoc.”

3. Don’t let work time invade personal time.

Just as it might be tempting to do personal tasks like laundry or exercise during work time, it’s easy to idly answer e-mails or organize spreadsheets while sitting on your couch late into the evening when you’re supposed to be done working for the day. Unless the prospect of a 24-7 work week is appealing, it’s best to keep work limited to certain hours of the day.

Sara Carlson, a senior project manager for the American Cancer Society, said that she is strict about not doing anything work-related outside of those hours.

“I wake up at a certain time, set work hours, and don’t read anything about work outside of those hours,” Carlson said.

Physically distancing yourself from your work can also be helpful, whether by putting your work laptop away in a bag or walking away from your desk.

“Having a desk behind a door that closes and leaving your work computer there is crucial,” Snyder said.

4. Don’t forget to take breaks.

One tip that’s equally important at both traditional workplaces and home offices is the need to take breaks. It can be all too easy to get absorbed in a task, and before you know it, you haven’t been outside or talked to another person for an entire day.

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Michael Walsh, a writer for Nerdist, said he makes a point to go out for lunch when he can.

“Make sure you take a real lunch/break where you don’t work,” Walsh said. “Get away from your laptop. Do some dishes, read a book, call a friend. Mentally disengage, otherwise you’ll feel fried.”

5. Don’t forget to socialize with coworkers, even from afar.

Even if you’re still keeping in touch with coworkers regularly via Slack chats or Zoom meetings, it’s not the same as grabbing lunch together, catching up over after-work drinks, or simply chatting in the break room as you make your morning coffee. That’s why you should make sure to keep up that socialization virtually, whether it’s by holding a video conference lunch or happy hour.

For someone who regularly works remotely like Carlson, missing out on in-person office socialization is already a given, so she tries to sign on to video meetings early to catch up with her colleagues. 

“You lose the water cooler talk when you work from home,” Carlson said. “For me this usually means joining a meeting early to shoot the s*** for a couple of minutes.”

Conversely, when you’re sharing a workspace with family members or roommates, don’t let your home office turn into a gabfest. Shaun Davis, a software engineer at IBM, has strict rules for at-home interaction.

“If your significant other is home as well, create boundaries on communication,” Davis said. “Even though my wife is home all day as well, when I’m working we communicate over text or iMessage.”


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