Lessons: 27 years of working from home

ANN ARBOR, Michigan – The buzz began in my Pilates class on Thursday night, when several female executives from the University of Michigan began wondering out loud how they were going to conduct business from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

They were concerned about everything from domestic distractions and maintaining a professional atmosphere to gaining weight. They are right to be concerned. I started working full-time from my home in 1993, running a business as a writer and a tutor, and I’ve found that the situation can be a stepping stone as well as a stumbling block.

Here’s what I’ve learned in the past 27 years of working out of a spare bedroom and what others can expect from this new routine:

  • Set boundaries. Work is always lurking just down the hall, beckoning you to check in at all hours. The most challenging thing about working from home isn’t staying on task, it’s setting boundaries and not letting the work consume you 24/7. I often get to my desk before dawn, the best writing hours of my day, and long before the emails marked “PRIORITY” start flooding my inbox. I’ve made a big effort to work no more than eight hours a day and then walk away. It helps that I’ve selected a home workspace that is the furthest point in my house from the gathering spaces of the kitchen and the family room.
  • Dress for success. While I occasionally fall into the bad habit of working in my PJs (favorites are the aqua ones with the black-and-white sheep), I am much more professional and productive when I first take a shower, dress in business casual (includes a spritz of cologne and lipstick) and eat breakfast — not at my desk, but in the kitchen.
  • rosie in chairNo working in bed. I started working at the kitchen counter when I began my business in 1993, but I’ve since carefully and thoughtfully set up a “room of one’s own,” as Virginia Woolf urged in her extended essay. My office now is a spare bedroom with a closet that holds only business staples and a file cabinet — no clothing, luggage or other personal items. My room also has a big overstuffed chair for my dog Rosie, who loves it when I get on Webex or Skype calls because I’m literally tethered to my chair, and she can keep track of me.
  • Surround yourself with love. My home office is filled with things that remind me of why I’m working so hard. They include pictures of my grandchildren and dozens of books, including some of my favorites from childhood and beyond (365 Bedtime Stories, The New Journalism, and The American Language by H.L. Mencken). There’s also a picture from around 1920 of my paternal grandmother Tekla Pyzik. When I look up from my computer, her photo is the first thing I see. She survived the Spanish Flu in 1918, the Great Depression, and life as a welfare mother of nine who was evicted from 18 homes in 18 years. She is an ever-present reminder that my worst day of working from home is nothing compared to what she went through.
  • Heed the things that matter most. I start most days with the daily reading from Sacred Space, the web site of the Irish Jesuits. It includes a gospel reading and a reflection (we are often reminded to pray for prisoners and captives) and takes about two minutes. I keep a regular work schedule that includes breaks for fresh air and exercise. Rosie helps with this because her inner clock tells her when we’re due for a break, and she lets me know it. We go for two walks a day, regardless of the weather or deadlines. But these turn out to be some of my most productive times. During these contemplative moments, I often put together stories, video scripts, or lesson plans in my head.
  • Fight loneliness. Even though I’m religious about routine, I’m not a cloistered nun; I have to fight against the loneliness that marks a day filled with virtual interactions. Before the pandemic, I made sure I ended my day three times a week by going to a Pilates class, not just to be fit, but to connect with other people outside of work. With that temporarily coming to an end, my friends and I have pledged to check in with each other daily through texts, phone calls or Face Time just to maintain the personal connections outside of work.
  • dandelion posterSeek inspiration. Artwork is important, but I recently took down my reproduction of Matthew and the Angel by Guido Reni, a poster that was part of a Vatican exhibition years ago. It made me chuckle because the gospel writer appeared to be taking dictation from a cherub. But one of my students complained that the picture made him uncomfortable, given the clergy abuse crisis in the church. I replaced it with a poster of a dandelion. The symbolism of a weed being a thing of beauty and a piece of art seems to appeal greatly to my students and me. It’s my nod to the coming-of-age novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and reminds me that we can all bloom where we are planted, whether we’re firing up the laptop in a fancy office building or in a modest spare bedroom with a dog by our side.

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