What’s the secret to working from home well?

My maternity leave started in October 2019, back when the world was more or less normal and pre-COVID-19. People were working in the office, and our canteen was bustling with life, laughter, and conversation. We randomly ran into people at the coffee machine (or the tea kettle, as the case may be for me). I had just edited my new paper, making it ready for publication and leaving with the warm feeling of a closed chapter. I left for maternity leave excited to meet my baby and calmly leaving the work world behind me.

Fast forward 10 months, and in September 2020 I returned to work. Wow, had the workplace changed! People had been working from home for about 6 months now, so I felt like I had fallen behind. As though everyone else was in on a secret I didn’t know anything about. What were the secret rules of working from home? Apparently, everybody referred to it as WFH, so I started doing that too, trying to be cool.

I asked colleagues and friends for their tips. “What have I missed? What do I need to know about WFH?”

“Wear pants when you are on a video call.” This was a common suggestion, but I have to say not everyone agreed. Some people still think pants are overrated. To each their own, I guess.

“If you’re going to the bathroom when on a video call, check that your camera is off!!!” This seemed like an important tip. Nobody disagreed here.

“If you’re eating during a video call, mute your microphone.” Fair enough.

“If your partner, housemate, child, or pet comes into view while you’re on a video call, it’s perfectly fine. It happens all the time.” It took me a while to get used to this, but it was really reassuring to know that I don’t have to keep up my professional persona at all times. After all, I’m in science, and we don’t act too formal anyway.

Many people shared tips on how to divide home time and work time.

“Put on work clothes when you’re starting to work.”

“Set working hours for yourself and stick to them.”

“Go for a walk/bike ride at the beginning and end of the workday to signify the transition from and to home time.”

At the same time, many people appreciated the flexibility of WFH (see what I did there? cool, huh?).

“It’s great that I can hang up the laundry or unload the dishwasher while I take a break from work.”

“I can easily do a home workout during my lunchbreak!”

I’ve implemented these tips, and they’ve served me well. But these are ideas that are pretty easy to come to. I was expecting more of a “secret” that everybody else was in on except me. Perhaps by working from home for the last 6 months, people had figured it out and become comfortable with the new setup. By being late to the party, I’d stand out as the one who doesn’t know how to do this.

Well, it wasn’t that bad. Most of my work is easy to do from a laptop with an internet connection, so that was fine. My video call set up wasn’t great, and people had a great view of my messy kitchen. My husband walked behind me and into view a couple of times (luckily, he was dressed!). I bought a foldable screen which works well to block out the kitchen view and to give me some separation from the rest of the household. It does the job except for when William, my one-year-old son, crawls to it and pulls it down. Oh well. And people sometimes get curious about what’s going on behind the screen. To be honest, not much. Dirty dishes and maybe, if you’re lucky, my husband attempting to feed William, food flying everywhere.

Soon, I realized that my workspace wasn’t particularly comfortable. To fix this, I bought a kneeling chair (much better for my back) and a wide monitor (oh, what a joy to put two windows next to each other!). I also got an ergonomic mouse and keyboard. In fact, the keyboard is supposed to be a gaming keyboard! How cool am I now?!

With some disappointment, I realized that I didn’t look good on video calls. I was using my laptop’s camera, which was filming me from below and from the right. I was looking at my wide monitor during the call and not into the camera. Basically, it was bad. As vain as it felt, I googled, “how to look good on a video call.” Who knew there were tens, probably hundreds, of videos on the topic! They said that I had to position my camera a little bit higher than eye level and center. That made a huge difference! The other important suggestion was about the light source, which fortunately is a window in front of me, the best option according to the tutorials. Again, as vain is it sounds, now I look better on video calls, and it makes me feel good 🙂

So far, I haven’t discovered a big secret about working from home. Most of us (all of us?) are winging it and adjusting as we go. This has been reassuring to me–phew! But I also appreciate the little tips and suggestions. A small tip can make a big difference: honestly, I always wear pants on video calls.

What are your suggestions, tips, and secrets about working from home? Please let me know! I really need to know…

Image: Me in the MEG (magnetoencephalography) scanner at the Donders Institute.
Image credit: The Donders Institute

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