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There are days when I still can’t believe I have a job that lets me work from home—after more than a decade as a stay-at-home parent, home-based work allowed me to transition back into the workforce in a way that wouldn’t have been possible with a conventional office job. That being said, working remotely from home isn’t always easy—or rather, it IS easy, but it can go off the rails pretty quickly without laying a basic foundation for success. So what does that foundation look like? As someone who’s found their way through trial and error over the last year, here are three critical things to keep in mind in order to make the most of your own work from home opportunities.
1. Scheduling Is a Must for Work-at-Home Jobs
While this first point might seem like a no-brainer, lack of effective scheduling will land you in a hole that takes a lot of evening and weekend time to dig yourself out of. Unless you set up a concrete schedule or to-do list dictating when you’re going to work versus when you’re going to do house chores, kid-related errands, or other domestic odds and ends, these things won’t just organically coexist in a manageable way. When I first started working from home, I was all over the place—I’d work for 20 minutes, notice crumbs on the floor that needed sweeping up or get distracted by dishes in the sink, return to work for ten minutes, decide to run a load of laundry, etc. to the point where my paid work and domestic work were both so fragmented I wasn’t getting ahead with either. Fortunately—just at the point where I felt like I was losing my mind—it occurred to me to pause for a time out and really start structuring my home-based work days.
Now when I start work at 8:30 a.m. every morning, I consider myself “on the clock” until 5:00 p.m. Barring any errands that HAVE to be done during this time window, I focus only on paid work tasks. By strictly compartmentalizing work and chores, I find that I’m more productive with both, and actually spend less time doing either. So—before you get lost in an undifferentiated mass of work, chores, and errands—take some time to map out a schedule that works for you and allows you tackle all the things you need to do at specific times. The aforementioned 8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. work window works for me, but you could just as easily break it up into several chunks at different parts of the day or evening. Having a well thought out schedule eliminates the guessing game of what to do next for home-based workers, and helps ensure work-life balance when you’re working remotely.
2. Home-Based Workers Need a Stable Work Space
Another trap that’s easy to fall into with work-at-home jobs is failing to set up a dedicated workspace (or spaces). Part of the flexibility when you work remotely is the fact that you can move freely through different spots around your house as you see fit, and moving around adds some critical variety to your work environment and keeps you engaged during natural energy lulls. On any given day, I might start off at a work area in my backyard, move to a work nook at our kitchen counter, log some time at the desktop computer in our study, and finish up on a work table in our dining room. The key here is that (after learning the hard way), I’ve prepped these areas to be work-ready—each area has a stable work surface that doesn’t necessitate balancing my laptop in an awkward way, comfortable chairs that allow me to type without contorting into impossible positions, and nearby outlets and cords for charging my devices.
With a work-at-home job, your house becomes your office and so you need to treat it as such. The home office setup that works for you will depend on your own personal preferences and needs—and of course your budget is a factor—but don’t feel pressured. Home offices are a work-in-progress that can be improved on over time. Simply having some kind of structured set up is the first step in winning the productivity battle from home.
3. Working From Home Requires Clear Boundaries—For Yourself and Other People
In addition to planning ahead with a schedule and creating dedicated work areas, establishing boundaries is a critical part of work-from-home jobs. These are boundaries you need to set with other people in your life, as well as boundaries you need to set for yourself. While the workforce may be continuing to trend toward remote work opportunities and flexible work arrangements (a rise from 19 percent of workers doing at least some of their work remotely in 2003 to 24 percent in 2015, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics), remote workers are still in the minority, so not everyone “gets” the fact that work-at-jobs are as much legitimate work as working in a 9-5 office.
As you settle in to a work-from-home schedule, be prepared for some friends and family members to assume that being home means being available. However, if you actually want to get work done there’s no way you can field every request for socializing, helping with errands, or watching kids that comes down the pike. Sure, you’ll have more flexibility for these things than if you were stuck at the office all day, but you need to be very clear with people that you are in fact working, and that you need the space to do so. Don’t be afraid to be pleasantly assertive about this fact, and the people in your life will start to understand.
Meanwhile, when it comes to your own personal boundaries, you also need to be honest with yourself about how much you can continue to take on around the house as you try to be effective while working from home. As a stay-at-home-parent, chores and errands used to be the focal point of my weekdays, but once I started working remotely I realized I needed to automate as many of my domestic chores as possible and outsource as much as I could. In the months since, I’ve set up automated online shopping lists to cut down on the need for trips to the store during the week, hired a gardener to help with yard work, and hired a cleaning service to do periodic deep cleaning around the house—all things I realized I simply don’t have time for any more. Spending some of the extra income I’m now making on these priceless services has paid dividends toward work-life balance.
And finally, on the subject of boundaries, when you’re working from home it’s absolutely crucial to pace yourself and stop working when it’s time to “clock out.” As much as being able to spread your work hours across the day and evening can be a flexible schedule blessing, it can also become a flexible schedule curse where you’re plugged-in every minute of the day. Being “at work” 24/7 doesn’t lead to some sort of super-productivity or effective completion of all the things—it really just leads to burnout, and an unbalanced state of mind where you’re neither working well or living the rest of your life. Coupling your schedule (as mentioned above) with a clear stopping point boundary each day will improve your work life and your home life.
Working from home is truly a game changer for those of us whose lifestyles don’t fit into the very narrow category of 9-to-5, and with some basic planning and foresight, you’ll be doing it sanely and successfully.
Scott Morris is Skillcrush's staff writer and content producer. Like all the members of Skillcrush's team, he works remotely (in his case from Napa, CA). He believes that content that's worth reading (and that your audience can find!) creates brands that people follow. He's experienced writing on topics including jobs and technology, digital marketing, career pivots, gender equity, parenting, and popular culture. Before starting his career as a writer and content marketer, he spent 10 years as a full-time parent to his daughters Veronica and Athena.