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Working from home, often with multiple family members and pets, is taking on a new meaning. In the last year, more Americans than ever are juggling home offices with interruptions from other family members sharing the space and house duties. You might as well add office manager, superintendent, tech guru and pet sitter to your title. The working from home results are often comedic, and creative improvisation.
Just how many of us are at home? Some experts say as many as 40 percent of Americans are now working from home full time thanks to the pandemic. This compares to only 9.5 percent of the population working from home in 2010 and 7 percent full time home workers in 1997, according to the U.S. Census data. Last year we wrote about 7 Essential Tips for Working From Home, but we decided to see how things are really working out for people. We surveyed a variety of people who are new to working from home, as well as veterans to find out how they cope and what advice they can offer.
As a 12-year veteran to working from home, I live in Texas and the recent winter storm added a new dimension to scheduling meetings. As hourly power outages swept my city, I scheduled a video conference to take place within my predicted hour of power. I started the call bundled in three sweaters from the cold, but was happy to have WIFI, light and a sense of normalcy. However, 30 minutes in, the power went off early, cutting my WIFI connection. I uttered an expletive, and quickly connected my cell phone hotspot to my laptop, not thinking the weak cell service would work. It did! I rejoined the call within a minute.
Many people are their own office superintendents/repair people: Ken, a friend who owns a consulting business in Arkansas, delayed a meeting because as his wife and co-owner of the firm explained, they have ice damming on the roof of their house. “He’s been up on the roof all day, chipping ice to prevent it from melting into the walls.”
Meanwhile, when my city drained its entire water supply, a side-effect of the winter storm, I got a text from my neighbors, “Fill your tub!” I dropped all work, and frantically filled up a bathtub of water to have on hand. When the water supply came back late the next afternoon, I again abandoned work to rush from faucet to faucet, turning them on to release air from the lines and inspect for leaks.
On my plumber rounds, I bumped into my husband, an online sales executive, working from home since March. Bundled in a down vest and scarf, he is standing in the kitchen on a Zoom conference call trying in vain to grab the best cell phone spot in the house since of course, the power is off again.
If you happen to share your house with another family member working from home, things get complicated. Cherie has been working from home for almost a decade and is now sharing her workspace with her recently college graduated daughter. Her daughter’s job in New York is remote right now due to the pandemic. “Our offices (which hers is actually her bedroom) are next to each other, and we are both conscientiously respectful of our volumes,” Cherie says. “My daughter tapes a “Meeting in Progress” sign on her door which means “do not enter.” This solution was a result of me popping in her room one morning with a happy ‘good morning’ song & dance while delivering a cup of coffee (which unbeknownst to me) was captured on her Zoom call…yah–she was not too happy with me!”
Sometimes having a family member nearby is useful in a pinch, Cherie says. “I also sometimes need to text her when I’m in the middle of a Zoom call and my dog wants to get out (he’s old and practically lives in my office. However, he sometimes wants to get out and will start whining at my door right in the middle of a presentation I’m giving). If we weren’t both working from home, I wouldn’t need to keep my door shut so … we need to adjust the sails sometimes.”
Working in the same house with a family member can also be a source of comedic confusion. Gabby is relatively new to working from home and alternates it with going into the office. Her Mother also works from home. She says one humorous scenario is when they are both taking a break at the same time, perhaps to grab a snack or cup of coffee and the Microsoft ‘Teams ring’ goes off. The conversation will go something like, “Is it mine? No, it’s yours! No wait, it’s mine!” with both of them running back to their offices to make sure they’re not missing a call.
Heidi is a human resources manager from Texas, who was recently visiting her daughter on the East Coast for three weeks because she was suffering from severe morning sickness. She intended to work full time remotely while she was there while also caring for her preschooler granddaughter, a spirited and inquisitive little girl. Things didn’t go quite as planned. Desperately seeking a quiet place for a conference call one day, she recalls, “I had to hide in the bathroom.”
Improvisation extends beyond a bathroom ad-hoc office. At-home workers also make do with their own office equipment. Lucy, who’s doing an accounting internship from her house in Austin, Texas, wanted a standing desk converter but realized it was out of her price range. “They are expensive, so I’ve improvised with balancing my laptop on top of a filing cabinet and a few textbooks. It’s not pretty but it gets the job done!”
Successful at-home working veterans will tell you that healthy routines are key to success. Lucy suggests getting into a regular workout routine. She works out about three times a week at 7 a.m. “It gets me moving and awake and is my exercise for the day. The sun can be setting by the time I finish work. I also turn all my work stuff off after 6 p.m., and try not to work after that.”
Gabby says she tries to start her day with a phone call to a relative or friend. “I will take the time to give either one my grandmothers a quick call to check -in on them or even FaceTime a friend. I also go on walks often with my cousin to walk her dog.”
Working with multiple family members in the same house requires new rules. Cherie has a few suggestions:
It turns out very few work-from-home folks actually wear pjs to their workstations, even if they are located in a bedroom. Gabby says she usually wears a nice shirt and sweatpants. “I’ll wear anything that is comfy and presentable, nothing that I would consider to be questionable as not appropriate. I’d stick with solid colored clothing and nothing too loud or has too much graphics on it.”
Cherie tells us she treats it like she’s going into the outside office. “I definitely get dressed, fix my face and hair and look presentable as many of my calls are visual. Of course, if there’s a big presentation I will dress up a bit more, but as a rule, I’m not comfortable working in my jammies–just doesn’t feel professional for me.”
Gabby enjoys her mix of office and at-home work. “The combination of being able to partially work from home and in the office is always nice and beneficial in the sense for a good work/life balance and in terms for one’s own mental health,” she says.
Even though she’s a veteran at working from home, Cherie says, admits that it’s not always easy, as you often feel isolated. “I do travel to my company several times a year, which really helps to balance the lack of in-person time most of the year. And when the weather is better, I love to work outside on my deck–great way to enjoy the outdoors while working.”
She thinks most anyone could figure out how to make working from home work for them. “It does take some time getting used to but there are also many advantages (like getting the laundry done while you work, saving on gas costs, not worrying about getting your car out of the driveway in a blizzard, receiving packages, and even having your doggie on your lap while preparing a report).”
So, whatever your work-from-home experience looks like: juggling kids’ at-home school lessons, chipping ice off a roof or racing for Zoom calls, rest assured you’re not alone.