On Working from Home: Past Experience and New Challenges

There is a place in the life of faith for commiseration…the Psalms make that quite clear. So, let’s be honest from the outset, work from home is fraught with frustration, especially if you are new to the challenges. All those pitches from people who want to sell work-from-home schemes that will allow you to set your own schedule and work from the beach and get rich working 20  hours a week…yes, they are lies.

However, there is no place for or benefit to being bitter and remaining ungrateful. Also, there are some real blessings and benefits involved with working from home. So, let’s move past the commiseration and let me share a few things that might help with the reality of working at home in all its glorious challenges…especially some of the special challenges of working under shelter-in-place protocol.

As an adjunct instructor in the current academic market, a significant amount of my teaching was already done online. So, I have been “working from home” for over a year now. Over the past week I have come to realize that there are challenges that I have never had to address…so some things I have to share below are new discoveries.

First, it is important to re-direct your attitude. Certainly, at those times of difficulty express honestly to God your difficulties and frustrations in prayer…and then move on. Those of us struggling with this now need to recognize how blessed we are. Telling yourself that truth will help improve your attitude which will make you more productive. There are many people at the moment without work. If you are having problems getting work done, congratulation, you, like me, have a job…many don’t right now. There are other blessings besides this one…being more present to your family, having some control over your schedule, saving significant money on incidentals (gas and food)…but for now that initial one is incredibly important to keep in mind. If not for our own sake, let us curb our complaints for the sake of those who have no work, and when tempted to grumble let us pray instead for them.

Now to the more practical points…

One of the biggest challenges to working from home for me even before the quarantines started is that we can begin to feel like we are always at work. When you work elsewhere, you come home and work is left, well, elsewhere. If you work “from home,” you carry your work wherever you go. Previously I solved this by going to do work in coffee shops and libraries. (That maintained home as a separate place. There was also a time when we had a rather unused room to the house where I could go hide with the door closed and work.)

But what if you have nowhere that you can go? It begins to feel like you can never escape work. That grows gradually more and more stressful if you do not actively combat it. Presently we live with five kids still home ages 4-18, and we home school (of course everyone with kids does now). We just moved into the house in January that we have been renovating…and we are not settled. Our new house is just over 1500 square feet, and we designed it with an extremely open floor plan for entertaining…not to have a secluded home office. We have three moderate-sized bedrooms and nowhere to hide.  On nice days I have set up a small table and chair outside where I can work, but on rainy days it is different entirely.

To overcome the issues involved with having no possible place to designate as only for work, I am having to learn to separate myself from work by creating a schedule. Family time must be walled off from work time to maintain health and sanity of person and family…so this requires prayer and thought. It also requires cooperation and a servant attitude. If you are in such a predicament, you must pay attention to family rhythms already in existence. It may (probably will) be necessary to adapt those, but you will not succeed if you simply try to set  your own schedule and demand compliance from everyone else…unless you are single or have no children at home.

Still, whether single, in a large family, or an empty-nester, under current circumstances you need a schedule for your health whether you have a distinctive and separate work space or not. Otherwise, if you tend (like me on most days) towards avoidance, you will find that work keeps getting pushed off until later if you don’t set a scheduled time. Then, when everything comes crashing in as urgent you will kill yourself working. If, on the other hand, you tend (like me during crunch time) towards complete immersion in your work, you will work yourself to death because there are now so few natural hindrances to your work–it is always with you and follows you around the house. (In fact, if you have family at home, the unavoidable interruptions of a kid following you around the house may be a blessing in disguise to keep you from killing yourself with work.)

Another practice I have found helpful to getting work done when there is nowhere to report and nobody to see: dress for work. I don’t mean necessarily dress clothes or even dress casual. But all these supposed work-from-home gurus who tout the glories of working in pajamas are again proven false. I don’t care if you simply change into a nicer pair of shorts and a t-shirt. Dress comfortably, but dress. Do not stay in your pajamas. Emotions effect productivity in the long run…not just in the moment. If you stay in your PJ’s all day, you will feel less productive even if you get things done. That feeling will slowly build stress. That growing stress will negatively affect your health and productivity in the long run.

Along these these lines, I once read the book Symphony for the City of the Dead, which told the story of the siege of Leningrad by the Nazi’s during WWII through the experiences of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich (great book if you are looking for something to read). We currently are experiencing nothing like real suffering in comparison to what the citizens of Leningrad faced at that time. But we can learn lessons from them all the same. One big lesson that I found absolutely intriguing was the way in which they completely defied Nazi scientists’ calculations of how long they could last in a siege of the sort conducted in the winter…and if Nazi scientists understood anything it was the effects of suffering on human beings. But they failed because they saw the human as primarily and animal. Some few people in Leningrad proved them right…being reduced to eating the dead and worse…but those didn’t survive. The survivors were the ones who maintained everything they could of normal life and human decency. The things that carried them through were things like brushing your teeth, having tea (hot water with something soaked in it), going through daily motions, breaking to play music, etc. Those who maintained rhythms in life like getting dressed for the day survived. That is, of course the extreme…but take the lesson it offers. If you are working under shelter-in-place protocol, you will do better if you maintain rhythms of the day…adapted rhythms certainly…but getting dressed is an easy one to keep up.

Finally, as part of your setting a schedule to establish healthy rhythms, make sure you get plenty of sleep. It can be easy to build a schedule that works with the family schedule and allows plenty of work time…and then keep working once everyone else is in bed. It may be that some of your scheduled work time (like mine) requires some work while others are in bed. But do not let it rob you of sufficient sleep. If you are up early and late to work in the quiet of the morning and evening, then take a nap.

In the end, be patient with yourself, your family, and the circumstances. I return again to the opening point. Be thankful for your work. Gratitude will help you keep in check unreal expectations that can rob you of joy and energy. The difficulties of this moment will decrease productivity, especially at first. In the face of the trial remember what Paul says: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6).

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