How to Work from Home During the Coronavirus Outbreak

Many of us are being asked to work from home during the coronavirus outbreak. These tips from someone who's been in the work-at-home trenches for over 20 years will help you succeed.

Karen Lunde Hertzberg
6-minute read


Coronavirus dominates the news right now—it's all we can think and talk about. We've been told to prepare for lifestyle changes. Companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have told employees to work remotely, and many others are preparing their staff for the possibility of remote work, at least until the threat has diminished.

But how do you not only work from home but do it successfully? I've worked from home for the majority of my adult life, well before words like "remote work" and "telecommuting" were part of our modern vocabulary. That's over 20 years in the telework trenches! Now, I work from home managing a team of remote podcasters here on Quick and Dirty Tips. Let's talk about the challenges of working from home and how to successfully manage them.

Working from home isn't always easy

If you've never worked from home, or you do so infrequently, you may have fantasized about how awesome it would be to have a permanent remote gig. There would be no daily commute to the office, for one thing. And how wonderful would it be to roll out of bed, make some coffee, and work in your pajamas?

It's true that working from home has its perks, but it also has challenges. Here are a few of the most common ones.

  • Distractions are everywhere. At home, there are lots of things vying for your attention. The dog needs to go out. Oh, and while you're at it, the trash should go out, too. Was that the mail carrier? A nap would be good right now.
  • There's less accountability. At the office, you'd expect your coworkers to judge you if they find you scrolling through Instagram when you're supposed to be finishing an important report. At home, that peer pressure is gone and all bets are— look at the cute corgi video!
  • Communication is more challenging. If you're not used to having to communicate in writing, you may struggle with things like context and diplomacy. You'll have to work harder to make yourself understood.
  • You'll have to be your own cheerleader. Don't expect people to notice when you've accomplished something big. You'll have to champion yourself to get the same level of recognition when you work remotely.

Whether you're working from home temporarily or you've made it your goal to find permanent work as a telecommuter, these tips will help you make the transition.

5 strategies for success when you work from home

1. Get dressed for work as you normally would

I know, I know—it's tempting to lounge in your comfy clothes. And sure, you can get away with that for a day or two. But research has shown that how you dress may impact your job performance. A 2015 study revealed that people wearing formal business attire were better at abstract thinking, which seemed related to feelings of power. Although you may not be inspired to suit up every day when you work from home, dressing for success is something to keep in mind for times when you want to feel empowered to make big decisions or come up with strategic ideas.

A 2015 study revealed that people wearing formal business attire were better at abstract thinking.

Your dress can also affect how you're perceived should you have to join a video conference. Can you really be taken seriously dressed in the ratty Nyan Cat sweatshirt from 2011? It's best not to find out.

But the biggest advantage of wearing work attire, even when you're working from your living room or home office, is its effect on your mindset. Speaking from experience, you just feel like you're working when you dress for work. You don't have to dress as formally as you might for a day at the office, but at least dress in clothing you wouldn't be ashamed for your coworkers to see you in. And that means ditching the track pants and sweatshirt. (Sorry, Nyan Cat.)

2. Create your own accountability

You may be accustomed to team milestones, but now is the time to set some personal ones. When you telework, it's important to hold yourself accountable for delivering the same quality and quantity of work you would if you were in the office. If you're often closely managed, now is a good time to prove you can get work done without someone looking over your shoulder.

You may be accustomed to team milestones, but now is the time to set some personal ones.

If you're not already using them for work, project and task management tools like Asana, Trello, and Airtable can help you stay on task by helping you keep track of your to-dos and set deadlines for yourself.

If your team is suddenly working remotely for a while and your projects have a lot of moving parts, you might become the office hero by researching the pros and cons of a few project management tools and presenting them for consideration.

3. Schedule your time

You may be forced to work the same hours as the rest of your team. If so, great—you're already on top of this step. But if you've been given some flexibility with your hours, consider whether it's wise to take it.

Unstructured time can be a real challenge to productivity. Until you work remotely, you'll never know just how tempting it is to put something off because you can "finish it later." Except that after dinner, you might be drawn in by the siren song of your favorite TV show. The few rounds you intended to play of your favorite mobile game can turn into an hour or more wasted while you still have things on your work to-do list.

Unstructured time can be a real challenge to productivity.

If you're not careful, "later" will come around much later than you think. It's no fun to have to drag yourself back to your laptop and slog through work when it's already past bedtime. And are you really going to be at your best when you just want to get some sleep?

If your company's normal work hours are 9-5, consider sticking close to that schedule when you telework. You'll thank yourself.

4. Be thoughtful with communication

Once, my supervisor asked me to write a query to someone higher up the food chain. It was a high-stakes conversation, and he trusted me to handle myself well. I'm an expert communicator—it's what I've done for a living for most of my life—so I dashed off a well-written note and CCed my supervisor. Simple! Eloquent!

But the higher-up responded with confusion and asked me to clarify several things. My supervisor then wrote to me privately and said, "Do you see how important context is?!"

I do now, that's for sure. And even with that knowledge in mind, giving enough context without bogging your colleagues down with too much information can be a challenge.

Be aware that others may not have the same frame of reference you do.

When you communicate—whether through email or some other office communication tool—be aware that others may not have the same frame of reference you do. Take the time to outline what's necessary to give context (bullet points are great for keeping it simple) and make sure everyone's on the same page.

Proofread carefully, and don't forget to ask yourself whether your communication could be misunderstood. I was mortified by my supervisor's response because I thought he was angry. He later told me that he'd been concerned and was trying to help. He was embarrassed that his response had come across as snapping at me.

Chat programs like Slack or Google Hangouts are great for checking in or asking quick questions, but avoid using them for more complex conversations. Chats can be difficult to keep track of, and it's always a good idea to have searchable documentation like email.

5. You don't have to constantly prove you're working, but do highlight your progress

When you work remotely, you may wonder if your colleagues are going to think you're slacking off. It's tempting to send emails and chat messages to show others you're truly at your desk doing what you're getting paid for.

Proving you're hard at work each day isn't necessary. Instead, let your progress speak for you.

But proving you're hard at work each day isn't necessary. Instead, let your progress speak for you. You can do things like giving brief status updates to stakeholders when you hit milestones or sharing the results of your efforts. Maybe something you did created a win for the company. Invite your coworkers to celebrate it with you! And don't forget to call out contributions from your teammates so you don't seem like you're bragging or taking all the credit.

It's important to highlight progress and celebrate wins, but you should also not be afraid to let your colleagues know when something didn't work as well as you'd hoped. Speak about losses or struggles in terms of what you've learned rather than how you and your teammates have failed.

Working from home can be rewarding. Once you learn to navigate the challenges, you may even find that the lack of distractions, chatty coworkers, office politics, and that brutal daily commute frees you to do some of your best work.

About the Author

Karen Lunde Hertzberg

Karen Lunde Hertzberg was QDT's editor and content strategist. Her eclectic background includes pioneering an online writing school in the late 90s, leading an editorial team of video game journalists, managing massive public and media relations campaigns, and writing hundreds of articles on writing and communication.