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At Home at Work: A Survival Guide

As someone who was working at home when traveling with a laptop on planes would attract strange looks as if I’d sprouted an antenna and a third eye, and whose fortified home office here in sunny South Florida has outlasted Katrina, Hugo, Wilma and, as of this writing, COVID-19, I come to this topic with near impeccable credentials. 

Moving from the structure, support and social interactivity of a traditional office to a home office can be a rough transition. For me, it was a natural fit, all the way back in 1996. One of my recurring youthful fantasies was being alone in the middle of a placid sea, on a fully provisioned houseboat with perfect TV reception and access to a McDonald’s drive-through. When my daughter was a mere 12 years old, she observed that I’m friendly, but not particularly social — which was either a preternaturally astute insight, or obvious to anyone who’s ever been around me for more than 24 hours.

I do go out: I play tennis, so I’m not a shut-in. But I’m perfectly content within these four walls watching movies, reading e-books and vanishing for hours gaping at random YouTube videos. In my defense, I’ve always viewed reading as a social activity, particularly when reading classics, as it connects me to a community of great minds who’ve come before me. Reading is also a great leveler, as it doesn’t matter if you’re on the banks of Lake Como as George Clooney’s houseguest or in a well-lit tent, it can’t be improved upon.

Over the years, friends have sought my counsel as they were making the transition to a home office. I’m happy to offer some timely advice.

The Family Elephant in the Room

Working from home (WFH) when everyone else is also home is a test of how much you like — I mean, really like — your family. After a week, things can get unpleasant, like the waning days of a disappointing family vacation when a misplaced sigh during a tense meal can turn the friendly chain restaurant into a crime scene. I wish I had some advice here, but as a far-wiser man once said, all happy families are alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Good luck.

Sound and the Fury

You will quickly go mad if you can’t effectively block the persistent chatter, background noise and frequent interruptions. I recommend stockpiling ambient music to sonically wall yourself off, preferably selections from the Brian Eno catalog. I also recommend a pair of
quality noise canceling ear buds, though some are so good you won’t be able to hear yourself think — not necessarily a bad thing when your family is getting on your last nerve and your head thrums with lurid revenge scenarios.

Tend to Your Pet

If you WFH, you know the hazards of an unexpectedly demonstrative pet. Make sure they’re fed and walked, though there’s no defense against regular deliveries arriving at your door. If there’s no one to take your dog out and you’re on a call, the mute button is your friend, but at some point you will launch into an inspired riff and won’t pick up on everyone asking where you disappeared to.

Get into a Routine

After several weeks of working in your bathrobe and making mindless trips to the fridge, you’ll soon find yourself throwing hygiene, grooming and fitness to the wind. But you don’t want to go full Thoreau; when things return to normal it’s gonna be a long way back — that is, unless your family is finally out of the house, the parade of deliveries has finally stopped, and you don’t want to leave. In which case, welcome to my
world: Kick off your slippers and make yourself at home.

Charles Epstein is president and founder of BackBone Inc. He is also the co-host of WorldatWork’s “Work in Progress” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BackBoneInc.

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