In April this year, as the pandemic faded and masks fell, Jacob Rees-Mogg, a British cabinet minister, took a tour of British government offices. At each desk left empty by a civil servant still working from home, he placed a note printed on headed stationery.
“Sorry you were out when I visited,” he wrote. “I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon.”
Dave Penman, General Secretary of the FDA, a union representing government workers, called the passive-aggressive messages “crass and condescending.” He might also have added “ineffective.” If the convenience of working from home wasn’t persuasive enough to keep civil servants out of Whitehall, awareness that Jacob Rees-Mogg, an eccentric who models himself on the late Victorians, was prowling the offices would probably do the trick.
But convenience appears to be enough. Despite the calls of some managers for workers to return to the mothership, staff do seem to be staying away. New York subway ridership is still less than half of pre-pandemic levels while commuter tracks are operating at less than 40 percent of their levels before Covid.
The home offices that were supposed to have been temporary solutions to a temporary problem have evolved into a permanent change to the way we work.
So how do we do it? How can we maintain productivity, enhance creativity, and get the job done without seeing co-workers or while watching Powerpoint presentations in stuffy meeting rooms?
Some rules can help.
1. Renegotiate Home Work and Home Chores
Between May and July 2020, a group of researchers asked professionals working from home in Nova Scotia to keep a journal. Over ten weeks, 27 people managed to complete between four and ten entries each, describing how they felt as they adjusted to the new way of working. What they found wasn’t just the difficulty of creating a distraction-free environment in a home that also held partners, pets, and small children. Participants also struggled with the disruption that home-working brought to their home lives.
One participant noticed that because she was at home while her husband went to the office, her share of household duties increased by about 20 percent. Another participant suddenly discovered that his home didn’t have a dishwasher.
Any member of the household staying at home can expect to have extra chores dumped on them, from accepting deliveries to cleaning the kitchen and driving the kids. Negotiate that time with other members of the household so that the chores remain equitable and don’t eat into work time.
2. Set Clear Production Targets
One benefit of working from home is that you can set your own schedule. You don’t have to match the office’s nine-to-five. You can start earlier or later, take a long break in the middle of the day or shift your work-week so that you can take a day off mid-week and make it up at the weekends.
But the price of that flexibility has to be hard deadlines. Set solid productivity targets and organize your work around those results.
When you work from home, your employer is letting you choose your work hours. In return, they get to set your productivity levels, and you have to find a way to meet them.
3. Hold Meetings at Regular Times
Those productivity targets will function as the pillars around which you can build your work week. When you know how much you have to achieve and how long those achievements will take, you can start to allocate your hours.
But some of that time won’t be entirely up to you. You’ll have to schedule calls and meetings with people at times that also suit them. Some of those meetings will be ad-hoc. But others will take place regularly.
Set repeat meetings at the same time on the same day and at the same interval. The regularity of those meetings will then act as additional pillars around which you can build your week, reducing the chance that they’ll interrupt your routine and disturb your flow.
4. Keep Employers Safe
When Covid sent office workers to spare bedrooms, the International Labor Organization (ILO) produced an employers’ guide to working from home. The guide explained the difference between teleworking, telecommuting, and remote working, and discussed which jobs suited the working from home arrangements. It also outlined the responsibility of employers to staff even when they were out of the office.
“Employers have a duty of care for all their workers and need to, insofar as it is reasonably practicable, provide a working environment that is safe and without risks to physical and mental health,” the guide says. Although “it may be difficult” for employers to carry out traditional health and safety risk assessments at a worker’s home, employers still have to ensure that their staff can perform their work safely off the business’s premises.
Clearly, that’s a bigger concern for staff using power tools but it also applies to workers doing telesales that could reveal their own home number or their location. The ILO also warns that “in some countries, employers could be liable for accidents that arise out of and occur within the course of employment when the injury takes place in the worker’s home workspace during work hours.”
If you’re asking or allowing people to work from home, it’s up to you to make sure that they can do it safely.
5. Meet People to Boost Your Creativity
Creative work depends on a number of different inputs. Allen Gannett, author of The Creative Curve, argues that creativity requires consumption, imitation, and iteration. But it also requires community. When creative people come together and share thoughts, feedback knocks the rough edges off unfinished ideas, and new influences send those concepts in new directions.
That creative influence is harder to maintain when you’re sitting at home with the cat.
In addition to those regular Zoom meetings then, make sure that you’re also meeting other people in real life, including colleagues. And take the chance while working from home to start a class or begin a new collaborative hobby.
Those connections aren’t just important to keep yourself social and sane, and give you reason to change out of your pajamas. They’re also vital to keeping your ideas fresh and maintaining your creative edge.
6. Pay for the Office
Office buildings only have one purpose. Their goal is to create a productive working environment. Whether they’re fitted out with foosball tables, massage spas, and multiple cafeterias like a Silicon Valley unicorn, or consist of little more than rows of cubicles like a Bangalore telesales center, they’re optimized to ensure that staff can get their work done.
Home offices are compromises between the comfort of home and a bland, distraction-free office space. That means that they often have Internet connections that aren’t the fastest, printers that only work after they’ve received a few slaps, and computers with inadequate safety protections.
If working from home is going to be a permanent change, the home office has to come up to the professional standards of a commercial workplace. If you need to upgrade the Internet connection, buy a new printer, and shell out for anti-viral software or cloud services, you’re just going to have to pay—and claim the expenses.
7. Figure Out the Taxes
And of course, working from home doesn’t have to mean your home. Places like Bali, Bangkok, and Buenos Aires have practically reinvented themselves as hubs for digital nomads. They don’t just provide beautiful views, low rents, and easy access to beaches. They also supply well-equipped co-working spaces and access to communities of similar, tech-minded digital nomads. Bali’s Hubud, for example, provided lectures and lessons on topics from podcasting to marketing.
But working from a far-away home does mean managing complex tax rules. American citizens, of course, will still need to file wherever they are but local laws will vary and you will need to obey them all.
Before you start trying to figure out the visa requirements to work in your new paradise island, take the time to talk to a tax expert and understand what you’ll need to pay wherever you’re earning income.
And the same is true even if you’re staying in suburbia. Converting a spare bedroom into a permanent office could have knock-on effects on your deductions. If you’re working from home, that high speed broadband might be deductible, as could the new projector—even if you mount it on your porch.
Talk to an accountant and find out how working from home will affect your taxes.
The work environment has been changing for a while. Before Covid, cafes had become alternatives to office buildings, with coffee on tap, plenty of pastries, and a good Internet connection. But that meant sitting at someone else’s table and putting up with constant distractions.
Co-working spaces offered a different kind of alternative, one with all of the professionalism of an office but without the long commute or the commitment to office rent.
The rise of Covid has given us all a taste of work from the bedroom and the kitchen table. It’s a new way of working but it does appear to be here to stay. With a few rules, you can make it work for you.