A Guide on How to Make the Most of Working From Home During the Coronavirus Outbreak

COVID-19 is making remote work a new norm

a drawing of a person lifting a house and revealing a computer underneath
You can work from home without losing your entire mind, according to these experts. Getty Images
Headshot of Mary Emily O

Key insights:

As the coronavirus spreads, canceled events and a stock market crash aren’t the only things impacting businesses. Untold numbers of workers around the world are adjusting to staying home and offices are scrambling to find ways to quickly adapt to remote operations.

Twitter told all 5,000 of its employees to work from home. Apple CEO Tim Cook sent out a memo encouraging office workers not to go in, and the company put in efforts to limit “human density” at stores. The city of Seattle canceled meetings and told its 12,000-plus employees to follow the city’s new Alternative Work Arrangements COVID-19 Guidelines.

The major advertising holding companies have issued travel restrictions and remote work policies. At least two—Denstu and Omnicom—closed some offices after employees either contracted the coronavirus or showed initial symptoms. Those kinds of safety measures are trickling down to countless agencies, as ad pros find themselves piecing together home offices and recalibrating routines.

If you aren’t used to working from home, it can seem like a vacation at first. The opportunity to skip the stressful commute and lay on the couch with a laptop on your chest is glorious indeed. Remote work can be isolating and full of distractions, too. To help make working from home more effective and enjoyable, Adweek put together a handy guide for newbies with the help of a few experts (including the author, who works from home every day).

Stick to the schedule

According to remote work consultant Melissa Smith, a major obstacle when working at home is procrastination.

“In the comfort of your own home, you suddenly have the urge and energy to do things that distract you from work: spring cleaning your closets, cleaning out the refrigerator, washing the windows, organizing your photos, etcetera,” said Smith.

It can be tempting to blend office time with chores when laundry is right there, especially if your day isn’t sandwiched by meetings and deadlines. If you’re working relatively on your own without anyone monitoring your hours, the trick to avoid procrastination is to be your own boss. Set your own working hours, deadlines, and breaks and stick to them like glue.

If you have trouble focusing and start to feel yourself drift off into daydreams, Smith suggests taking a quick 15-minute walk outside to get your energy flowing so you can get back to work, and then setting a timer for 10-15 minute intervals with breaks in between.

Designate a home office

Remote work consultant Lisette Sutherland has received so many requests for help since the coronavirus spread, she added a new page on her website purely about working from home during the COVID-19 outbreak. Sutherland’s number one tip? Set up your home workspace in “an area where you can be productive and [that] is separate from your private life.”

In response to a prompt on Twitter asking remote workers for their own tips of the trade, marketing manager Jo Siebeck shared a way to keep work from taking over the whole house: “I try to put all my work things away into one neat pile in a corner when I’m not working.”

For parents who find themselves struggling to stay on track with kids in the house, senior director of PR at FlexJobs Kathy Gardner offered some advice.

“Explain to them that when you’re ‘at work’ at home, they shouldn’t interrupt you,” said Gardner. “You might even print out green light and red light photos to make a sign to hang on your computer, so they know when you need to be left alone. Even small kids can understand that red means stop.”

Pet owners will encounter unique problems. Podcaster Katie Parker tweeted that her employer-mandated working from home two weeks ago, and so far, the biggest perk is more time with her dog. However, said Parker, “her new favorite game is ‘I want outside! No, I want inside!’ which is getting old fast.”

Other Twitter users described the trials of typing with cats that are magnetically drawn to laying on your keyboard. Alex Webster, an ecologist at the University of Alaska, suggested investing in “a heating pad for your cat, for when you can’t navigate the cat-blocking-keyboard situation any longer.”

Use tech to your advantage 

Telecommuting simply wouldn’t be possible without the internet, but it’s made more functional and enjoyable thanks to technologies like Slack (for chatting with your team), Google Hangouts and Skype (for quick face-to-face conversations) as well as remote conferencing tools like Zoom, Bluejeans, and Gather (for multi-attendee meetings). 

Here at Adweek, we use a combination of really simple tools that allow remote workers to collaborate with everyone in the office. Each morning starts with a conference call, in which each reporter and editor clarify what they’re working on. Those stories are placed into an Excel spreadsheet that tracks the daily publishing schedule, and writers chat with editors and art directors in Slack. In a Microsoft Planner hub, short-term and long-term editorial projects are separated into columns by subject and section. These are just a few of the tools that make it possible for some Adweek staffers to work from places like Alabama, Oregon, and Texas.

Don’t isolate completely 

Venezuelan journalist José González Vargas worked from home until very recently, and said via Twitter that while he loved the comfort of working on his couch, he hated the “lack of human contact” and “environment full of distractions instead of one that forces you to focus on your work.”

You don’t actually have to work from home. Unless you live in a quarantine zone, you aren’t mandated to stay in the confines of your apartment or house. In response to a Twitter prompt, writer and creative Jon Dale Shadel suggested mixing up your location based on your goals.

“I use different spaces as cues for what I need to accomplish,” said Shadel. “I’ll sit at my kitchen table if I need to write. I’ll relocate to a coffee shop for emails, a bar for admin work, etc. One of the big perks of remote/freelance work is that you can tweak your environment at will.”

Smith suggests scheduling social time after work or throughout the week.

“When working from home, you have to be much more intentional about spending time with others,” said Smith. 

Do marvel at your productivity

While it’s important to stick to a schedule and avoid procrastination, many newbies will find that they are actually more productive while working from home. There’s no watercooler chats, no colleagues suddenly appearing at your desk with unexpected distractions. There are way fewer pointless meetings that could have been accomplished as emails instead. 

Increased productivity means more time for rewards. You may be tempted to overcompensate for not being in the office by pushing yourself ridiculously hard—don’t! Writer Jaya Saxena pointed out via Twitter that it’s just as important to recognize break time when you’re on your own: “A nice thing is not having to perform busy-ness if you are finished with work/waiting on someone else.” 

Make the most of remote work

A lot of people are working from home right now, but many will have to return to commutes and office life once the health scare is contained. Enjoy the remote life while you have it! Work at home “wearing nothing but lipstick and underwear,” as writer Nikki Levine suggested via Twitter.

Take this time as an opportunity to show kids, partners, or roommates what it actually is that you do all day when you’re normally away at the office. Block out an hour in the middle of the day to cook healthy lunches or hit the gym. Working from home allows for a level of self-care that is often impossible in an office.

Smith also pointed out that this remote stretch can be a chance to catch up.

“Use this time to not only tackle your current assignments but to get ahead on future assignments,” she said. It’s also a good time to pay attention to how long it takes you to complete projects at home. If it’s remarkably faster, take that knowledge to your boss and make a case for working from home more often.

@MaryEmilyOHara maryemily.ohara@adweek.com Mary Emily O'Hara is a diversity and inclusion reporter. They specialize in covering LGBTQ+ issues and other underrepresented communities.