Achieving a good work-life balance while working from home takes careful thought and planning.

By Jamie Carter
Updated March 17, 2020
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Everyone is suddenly a remote worker. In the wake of COVID-19, many employers are sending staff home as the coronavirus spreads around the globe, while others are forced to stay at home under quarantine.

Are you prepared? How will you cope? You may even be secretly excited by the prospect. Either way, you need a plan.

“Many freelancers deal with isolation and working from home every day, so we have plenty of experience of what is needed to work well when working remotely,” says Matthew Knight, founder of Leapers, a project supporting the mental health of self-employed people. “Fortunately, for many who might be under quarantine, 14 days is not forever, but isolation can very quickly set in, so we’re encouraging everyone to prepare for working remotely, not wait until it happens.”

Get organized.

Even if your employer has said nothing about working from home, that could change in an instant. So prepare now for an extended period at home by gathering work projects and reports — perhaps writing tasks you’ve been putting off for months — and making sure you can access them from home. If you’re going to need to borrow a work laptop, try to secure one now and, if you can, take it home each night after work just in case. Buy printer ink, reams of paper, and (lots of) extra coffee.

Keep active.

We all know sitting is the new cancer, and that long sessions of inactivity at a desk is bad for your body and your mind. So stop thinking that to maximize productivity means you have to be at your desk all day. In fact, it’s been shown that standing up and walking around for five minutes every hour during the workday can put you in a good mood, keep you refreshed, and even prevent you from snacking.

There are lots of apps to help you be more active, including Move on iOS, BreakTime, and Stand Up! The Work Break Timer, though you could also just set a reminder on your phone for 45 minutes. A makeshift standing desk can help, too — just find a place in your home where you can perch a laptop comfortably while standing up.

It’s also important to replace your daily commute with exercises at home; even a five-minute lower body workout can really help.

Jessie Casson/Getty Images

Separate work from play.

Think you had a problem checking your work emails late at night? You’re about to discover the real challenge of working from home. Without figuring out structure and boundaries it’s so easy to merge your work life and home life. Avoid that by putting a routine in place and physically separating work from home.

For example, don’t plan to work from the couch. Instead, designate a space to work that’s away from living spaces and the kitchen. A desk in a bedroom, back room, or spare room is perfect, preferably somewhere you can close the door if you share your living space with others. That works both ways, because when your working day is over, you can shut the door on your job and “go home.”

Look at the big picture.

Although you can easily work on a laptop from anywhere, an entire day, week, or even a month spent looking down at a screen is not going to do your neck muscles any favors. So if you have the space and the budget, think about upgrading to a decent-sized computer monitor to plug your laptop into.

A standard 32-inch monitor is fine and should set you back no more than about $350, but if you don’t mind splashing out about $800 you can get something ideal for multi-tasking, such as a so-called “ultrawide” (and even curved) monitor. They’re not essential, but as well as giving you lots of screen real estate they can be adjusted so the top of the screen is at your eye level — the recommended height.

Eat well, but not often.

Working from home is not an excuse to get pizza. If you’re at home alone, with little or no structure, there’s a natural tendency to soothe stress by eating. Snacking is enemy No. 1 for home-workers, and a period spent working from home can easily result in unwanted weight-gain. So rid the house of sugary snacks and anything you might be tempted to nibble on, and instead plan to survive only on a leisurely lunch in front of the TV … though avoid carbohydrates to reduce the post-lunch productivity crash.

Keep talking.

Communication is key. Make phone calls and video calls, both to friends and colleagues (making sure you’re not still in your pajamas!), to prevent any feelings of isolation from creeping in. However there’s another, more unexpected way you can keep talking: voice dictation. If you usually work in a busy open-plan office, talking to your computer is a non-starter, but at home it’s ideal. As well as being a refreshing change from hammering away at a keyboard, speaking out loud into your laptop’s microphone breaks up an otherwise quiet day. To use voice dictation on a Windows 10 computer, press the Windows logo key + H; while on a Mac, press the Fn key twice. The words you speak will start appearing in the text field of all documents, emails, and web browsers. However, it’s only about 95% accurate, so be sure to proofread everything very carefully.

Plan it carefully and working remotely can be life-changing. You’ll quickly realize how much you can get done away from the distractions of colleagues, so much so that returning to the office might be the bigger challenge.