All of a sudden, I’m working from home. Now what do I do?

Working from home is a new experience for many of us in the library community, and we are collectively facing challenges while not only “working from home” but also “homing from work.” We hear from library colleagues across the globe who have abruptly transitioned to work-from-home. You are converting your home to a workplace (frequently with new “colleagues” such as roommates, spouses, children and pets). You may also be re-thinking what work looks like, when done outside the library. You may be navigating software and systems challenges (VPN, anyone?).

Many of us in OCLC’s Membership and Research group have experience working from home, and we offer some tips that will hopefully help. We recognize that these are not ideal circumstances and that this is an evolving situation, so we are not advising a home office makeover, or investment in special equipment. We hope you will offer your own tips and wisdom in the comments.

Lynn Silipigni Connaway has worked remotely for 18 years

Set boundaries. You can learn from my mistakes! I did not want my colleagues to think that I was not working, so I made myself available – too available – 24/7. Develop a schedule and routine and set parameters. A friend recommends the Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo, who named the system after the tomato-shaped timer he used to track his work as a student. Organize your day into 15-minute chunks, with 5-minute breaks. Twice a day, take a longer break – 15 – 20 minutes. When the day is over, shut down the computer, close the door (if you have a separate office), and walk away until the next workday begins. This is difficult for many of us. However, try to not be “on” constantly.

Mentally and physically prepare for work. Get up, dress, and have breakfast. You can be casual, but plan as though you are going to an office or meeting outside of the home. This helps to put you in the work mindset.

Hydrate. Have water at your work area since you may be on multiple, consecutive phone calls or video conferences. This also will force you to stand up, take a bio break, and replenish your water.

Merrilee Proffitt has been working from home for 15 months and started practicing “shelter in place” with her family on March 13. She has some thoughts on working from home with children

Calendaring. Even for those of us who have been working from home for a long period of time, having the whole family home with us at the same time presents some new challenges. Colleagues in the library world with young children report that back-to-back meetings are not realistic; they need to space out their workday to spend time with those younger family members. If this is the case for you, do “defensive calendaring” and communicate your needs to team members. And if you work with people with young children, recognize that your colleagues may need additional support in this regard.

Leave Space. When you’re adding meetings to calendars, make sure to leave some space for people. No one who is telecommuting needs back-to-back-to-back-to-back meetings. Give at least 15-minute breathers in peoples’ schedules, to allow for stretching, resting eyes, refilling water, answering email, recharging introvert batteries

Routine. I am working at home with my 13-year-old, and we’ve created a schedule with 2-3 hours for focused academic time, and the remainder of the time is devoted to creative time, outdoor time, music practice and chores. Of her own accord, my daughter has volunteered to offer a free of charge virtual babysitting service for parents with younger children who need focus time and has also offered to be a “pen pal” for kids that are more her age. It has been great to see her, and other children see themselves as “helpers”. This time has also given her a firsthand glimpse into the work that I do; she’s always been curious about my work but overhearing my work conversations on a regular basis has given her a front row seat. 

Sharon Streams has regularly telecommuted between home and an office that’s a 90-mile commute away

The big switch for me is that I am now connecting to a global network of colleagues sitting in their homes! These tips are written to help you and others adjust to working together while not in the same building.

Accommodating styles. In a typical office, there is a mix of work styles: those that drop by your desk unannounced, others who want long interrupted focus time, the ones who always remember birthdays or plan happy hour, “the scheduler” who likes meetings, early birds, night owls, and so on. Our work personalities follow us home, so, we need to accommodate styles in the online environment. Think about how you can use email, IM, web conferencing, telephone, and text to get the level and type of communication that suits you best. But also remember that preferences vary; meet your colleagues halfway to help them feel connected and supported. If you used to bring in a cake to the workplace on someone’s birthday, send cake GIFs over your messaging platform. If you work with a person who would drop by to “just throw some ideas” at you, invite them to continue sharing their practice on a preferred platform.

About face. If you are unable to have video meetings where you can see other people’s expressions and read their body language, be extra mindful of how your express yourself verbally or in writing so that you do not create misunderstanding or hurt feelings. When you are on video, keep your self-view turned on so that you can see if you are unintentionally scowling at the speaker (or have food on your face).

A close up of text on a white surface. "Dude, I'm on a video call"

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Not right now

Order of operations. I have typically approached meetings like a mullet: business in the front and party at the end. Now, when we are navigating very unsettling circumstances, I recommend switching it around. Start by checking in with everyone to see how they are feeling, then proceed with your agenda.

Dude! Post a sign that says “ON VIDEO CALL” or something, so that family members* (other than toddlers or pets) do not walk into camera view or ask if you would like lunch. Here’s the post-it I stick on the basement door for my spouse to see.

Prior to joining OCLC in 2016, Rebecca Bryant worked from home during her time as Community Director for ORCID, and shares her experience working from home with pets

My cat, Buddha, was so glad to have me home during the day, and he wanted to always be on my desk, on top of whatever I was working on. He grew jealous if I was on a videoconference, and he would act out during those times, gnawing on the power and internet cables or offering some full-throated vocalizations. He was a huge distraction, and I needed to get him off my desk.

Orange cat on a desk
Buddha, “supervising

I finally realized I didn’t have to fight with him—I just needed to give him a better option. I put a basket with a fleece pillow on top of the cabinet behind my desk which quickly became his new spot. He was still near me but in a safe, confined space where he could watch everything. In fact, I’m quite sure he thought he could better “supervise” me, as he watched over my shoulder all day.  He could also more effectively participate in video calls, as he had full access to my screen. Later my woodworker husband made a small shelf for him, offering him corner office views.

Our pets love us and want to be near us, and we can offer them spaces that help them be near, but out of our way.

Orange cat in a basket
Buddha lends a hand

Annette Dortmund has been working from home since 2005, initially from a desk in her living room

Create a work / home division. Working and living in the same space can present challenges. Rituals can help keep a clear divide and ease transition between the two. For example, if you only have one work desk (very likely!) use different parts of the desk for your work and personal lives. Box your home materials away in the evening, and box work stuff away when you are done for the day. I use different operating systems and applications for work and private life. Even on one laptop, just using different browsers, with a different set of bookmarks, can make all the difference. Failing all that, one can use different cups for coffee, work ones and after-work ones. One can dress for work and change dress for private life; this need not be head to toe, it can be jacket on/off, whatever. Small changes in the environment can help support a conscious change of mindset.

On the other hand, if washing the dishes or doing the laundry helps you sort out a tricky work-related problem, by all means, take advantage of being at home.

Rethink your calendar. In addition to the calendar mindfulness mentioned above, you can also take control of your calendar by blocking out the time you need for family or exercise, and pre-schedule a regular series of breaks, including comfort breaks, during the work part of your day. (If this sounds crazy to you, I have been in the situation to find this necessary.) A five-minute buffer can make all the difference. And now that we are all meeting virtually, consider switching to 45- or 50-minute meetings as a rule. As agendas fill up, this could greatly help.

Meryl Cinnamon, a team member who has worked from home since 2005 offers this final bit of advice for avoiding temptation: “Do not put out candy dishes when working from home.  Those little pieces of sugar can become way too inviting!”

Want more? Our colleague Andy Bush shared his tips for working from home after twenty years of experience – they are highlighted on Skip Prichard’s blog.

One Comment on “All of a sudden, I’m working from home. Now what do I do?”

  1. I love Sharon’s Dude! tip and wonder if she got that idea from our video conference call last week when my husband barged into my office wearing bib overalls and shouting about not being able to find his phone! I’m afraid that even if there is a sign on the door, it will not deter some.

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