The Deeper Truths of Working From Home – What All the Tips Aren't Telling You
Tired of hearing the same obvious WFH advice over and over again? They'll all fail if you don't respect the underlying challenges first.
If you’ve seen the internet over the last month, you’ve encountered hundreds of articles telling you how to work better from home. It’s a hot topic because it’s become a sudden necessity, and there’s nothing like a crisis to bring out the opportunistic writers looking to publish a viral hit with something so right now.
And you will have noticed how they ALL repeat the same things, right?
- Setup a dedicated office space.
- Stick to a schedule, time-block your day, use a to-do list.
- Dress for success.
- Maintain clear boundaries with family and clients.
- Communicate effectively.
- Don’t get distracted by food, news, social, Netflix, etc.
- Stay healthy — eat, sleep, exercise on a routine.
There, I just saved you hours of reading time. That described 95% of what everyone else it regurgitating.
Don’t get me wrong. All of this is good advice, and if I were to write that article it would include every one of those points. But what’s missing from the discussion are the more fundamental realities of what makes working from home work in the first place. Let’s address the elephant in the room, shall we?
Working from home is an entirely different mindset than working in an office. It’s mentally draining, emotionally unsettling, and requires unique personalities and mental modes than what might have been successful in the old normal.
I’ve been a self-employed work-from-homer for 18 years. Here’s the real truth about what it takes.
Don’t try to emulate the office
The best way to work from home likely isn’t the same way you worked in the office. Working from home is better than working the old way, but if all you do is try to duplicate how you used to work — make it like the office, just in a different location — you’re killing the unique strengths of remote work.
Instead, leverage those strengths — don’t beat them into submission in an attempt to create some semblance of tradition and normalcy. Most people agree meetings suck, right? Well now’s the chance to decide we don’t need to jump on Zoom every time we would have chatted around the office kitchen or brainstormed in the meeting room. Working from home is all about efficiency. Embrace it as a better way of working, not as a roadblock to how you used to work.
It’s been interesting observing and comparing how my clients have made this transition themselves. The ones who'd already setup processes to maximise the value of remote workers (favouring written, asynchronous communication over replacing meetings with video calls) are thriving as if nothing happened. The ones who are trying to emulate the old office are wondering why this is so difficult.
We have a rare opportunity to define the new normal. Let’s not waste it creating a shadow of the old one.
Don’t pretend this will work for everyone
Not everyone’s personality or life context is suited to working from home — or remotely at all. It requires extreme self-discipline, confidence, family support, independent self-managements skills, and mature autonomous working nouse.
A junior who needs constant training, supervision, and feedback is unlikely to make a valuable remote employee — it’s simply a reflection of their experience level and career position.
A social creature who thinks by talking, and lacks the confidence to make decisions without peer validation, may suffer in a work-from-home environment.
If you or someone you manage struggles when working from home, that’s OK. It’s not ideal for everybody. Play to your strengths and make the most of it, but admit where you need help and ask for it.
If you’re in HR, understand that your people’s office value and old skills may have risen or fallen in this new context. Lean on those you can depend on to work like adults and manage their responsibilities. Let go of those who require too much managing and not enough doing. Nobody has time for babysitting right now.
Don’t ignore the mental rollercoaster
Since you’re wasting less time communicating, meeting, and socialising, you’re probably spending more time than you used to on focused work. And that focus can be draining.
Out of the 8 hours you used to be at the office, how much of that was uninterrupted focus? Take out your lunch break, coffee breaks, snack breaks, social breaks, stand-ups, meetings, four-o-clock Friday beersies, and anything else that took you away from what you were actually supposed to be accomplishing. What was it, maybe 4–5 hours of real work if you were lucky? A lot less for some.
Now, at home, you might be working — really working — 6, 7, or even 8 hours a day. Hello burnout!
It’s counter-intuitive. Working from home sounds like it should be restful. But in reality, it’s a recipe for burnout if you don’t get the balance right. Breaks aren’t built into your day, so you have to work harder to maintain your mental health and clarity. You need to build transitions in an out of work so your brain can shift between different modes of thinking.
Force yourself to take that hour-long lunch break instead of scarfing down a sandwich in 15. Take a 5-minute scroll through Facebook or Instagram to give you focused brain a breather while you prepare to transition into a new task.
There, I said it. Intentionally distract yourself from work now and again. Go grab a glass of water, stretch your legs on the deck, meditate, don’t forget to go to the toilet, close your eyes or stare out at the horizon for a minute, peek in the fridge for a snack, breath deeply.
Don’t binge on Netflix, go down the youtube rabbit hole, or otherwise disappear for hours at a time. I’m talking about purposeful, planned distraction — 5 minutes is usually enough. Your brain will thank you. Your budget for headache and anxiety medication will drop.
Forget the guilt & grief
Do you get into the WFH groove and think this isn’t so bad, but then you remember the emotional turmoil of why we’re all stuck at home in the first place? Or the weekend rolls around and you remember why socialising has become a distant memory?
Do you feel guilty for working when so many people have been forced to put their jobs on hold? Or feel guilty for working when you could be spending this time with your family? Or guilty for not working enough, feeling like you used to work faster or get more done — not earning as much as you planned for pre-pandemic?
None of those choices are wrong, but it can feel like they’re not 100% right either. We’re all experiencing this crisis differently and making different sacrifices to our ways of life to get our communities through it. Make the choice that’s best for you and your family — and forget what others think about it.
Don’t try to win without a team
Working from home is a team effort. And I don’t mean your workmates.
When you work from home, your family is your team. If they’re not supporting you, they’re undermining your chances of success. Working from home is a lifestyle choice that your entire household needs to buy into, even if that choice was made by a boss, or by a virus.
This goes beyond the obvious things like respecting your work hours and giving you privacy for phone calls. It’s a commitment not to expect you to do all the household chores just because you’re at home. It’s more than being a good ear when you need to vent about a tough day at work — because now that stress is more immediate. It’s right there, in their space, a moment later rather than when you’ve cooled off after an hour’s commute home.
No matter how much you think you can separate work and life, when you work from home they’re fundamentally intertwined. And in some ways trying to force them apart is less healthy. When your commute is 30 seconds down the hall, your work is going to bleed into your life and your life into your work.
Your kids/dogs/cats/partners are going to walk in and interrupt important video calls. Their needs might pull you away from work for a second — and you’ll be happy to do so because you’ve got the luxury of being right there to help when it’s needed. Your emails might bleed into your breakfast, business strategy will occur in the shower, and genius ideas might come at bedtime. The beauty of it is that you have the flexibility to say yes or no to all of those intrusions, and it up to you to define the boundaries that work for your household.
I won’t try to tell you how to find the perfect balance, because what works for me might be terrible for you. The power of working from home is that you shape it to fit your life, rather than moulding your life around someone else’s definition of your job.
But what I know for certain is that it won’t be sustainable without your tribe behind you. Your family is key to this commitment.
Don’t stress over parenting vs. working
They both suffer if you do.
Working from home isn’t realistic if you’re also trying to be a full-time parent (and now, homeschool teacher too).
Yes, I’ve also seen the stories about the glamour-hustling single mom with two toddlers on her lap who multi-tasks like a boss to run her online empire while also raising two perfect vegan kids from her tiny off-the-grid house.
That’s not going to be your reality. Pick your priorities and let work stay on hold if it means keeping your family sane. Losing a few clients is better than losing your mind. Family comes first, because if not for them, who are you even working for?
If you have the luxury, let one parent focus on work while the other focuses on family. If you can’t afford that, divide the day into blocks when you can achieve that focus for at least one hour at a time, and then notify your boss or clients about the change in expectations of your new reality. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can be a great parent and a focused worker in the same moment. That’s too much pressure — and impossible expectations — to put on anyone.
Don’t undervalue your WFH expertise
If you’re an experienced work-from-home pro, recognise that you’re a very valuable asset right now! Reliable, autonomous experts who can execute remotely are business lifelines in these tough times. Organisations who continue to thrive in this crisis will be looking to plug their gaps with trusted professionals like you. Know your value and be their saviour.
It’s easy to play it safe in uncertain times. Getting a promotion, a new job, or landing a big new client may be the last thing on your mind as you try to survive. But that also makes it the perfect time for innovators and risk-takers to make a move. If your value is high right now, take advantage of it. Use that leverage while your unique skills are in extra demand.
Working from home may not be temporary, by mandate or by choice. If you’ve mastered it, that’s a very marketable superpower to spread and share.
Don’t look back
When you do find the right balance of work and life, focus and rest, family and privacy, structure and freedom, communication and independence, working from home is a beautiful thing. Once you’ve experienced its benefits you might find it very difficult to go back.
And you may not have to.
We’re in a rare time. When this challenge has passed, the choices we make about what we let back into our lives and our businesses may shape the future of work for decades. And there’s no reason we have to go back to what we did pre-pandemic. That would be a very disappointing waste of a unique opportunity.
I’d like the believe one positive we get from this adventure is a deeper understanding and appreciation for the modern work-from-home career. That flexible work options become the norm, not a progressive perk. That forward-thinking companies choose a distributed workforce because it leads to more productive, and most of all, happier team members.
I want to believe that when this crisis is over, we choose to never go back to normal.
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Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 20 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.
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