Posted 13 March 2020
Written by Paula Akpan

Working from home? Here are five ways to maintain productivity and counteract loneliness

Whether you’re a new freelancer or one of many workers now housebound by Coronavirus fears, setting up a healthy environment to work from home has become a huge priority across the globe. Here, journalist, speaker and co-founder of Black Girl Festival, Paula Akpan shares advice from experienced freelancers who masterfully balance living space with professional productivity.

When you’ve worked in a 9-to-5 job with a testing commute and questionable management, the thought of working from home, or for yourself as a freelancer, is almost too good to be true – enjoying all the comforts of the house, working your own hours, sat snugly in your comfiest pyjamas.

However, as with most good things, there’s a catch. You’ll probably never get your work done – something I learned pretty quickly when I became a freelancer. My excitement in becoming my own boss was quickly replaced with the realisation that setting boundaries is a must. Without the defined and obvious framework that comes with working in-house – from regular check-ins with line managers to physically leaving the office at the end of the day – it falls on you to create a structure.

Set boundaries and routine

Though difficult, especially when it’s all new, this sense of routine is critical for success, and can take the form of putting communication boundaries in place with clients and ensuring work doesn’t spread into evenings and weekends. And sometimes, it requires you tricking your mind and body into a routine resemblant of a regular office job.

Despite having been self-employed for nearly seven years, journalist and writer Samira Sawlani still finds freelancing from home a challenge – one that requires a great deal of discipline. “It can be easy to miss lunch or take lunch earlier as a way to procrastinate, so I have a set time in place, [as well as] tea breaks and an hour for the gym,” she shares. “I also, without fail, switch my laptop off at 5pm and go out for a coffee. Even if I resume work later at night, having that time when I go out, walk, leave my phone at home, have a coffee and read my book has made a big difference.”

Creative and author Samantha Bertish, who has worked from her home office for ten years now, also believes that discipline is the key. Treating each day as a proper working day, Bertish’s work set-up replicates an office-style environment with a desk and chair: “My day starts just as if I was going to the office...I structure it with an 11am tea break, 30 minutes for lunch, a break in the afternoon to walk the dog and finish at 6pm. I don’t take calls or respond to emails after this time, just as if I had left a real working office.”

Choose the right spot

Another quirk that helps a lot of home-based freelancers is to avoid working in particular parts of the house. This means creating a physical and mental divide between work and comfort spaces. For example, I personally never work while sitting on my sofa, but will instead work at my kitchen table. Being in this setting helps me focus and reminds me that it’s time to work.

Illustrator Niki Groom puts similar boundaries in place; “I can’t do any work in the lounge or the bedroom. The only place where work is allowed is in the kitchen or my ‘art studio’. This really helps me keep some sort of work-life balance.” This also applies to working equipment: “I never take my laptop upstairs or watch films and shows on it,” she adds. “My laptop is for work and stays on the table; my TV is for films.”

Dress for the occasion

For many, overcoming unhealthy habits has all been part of the process. One content writer in my network told me that this meant breaking out of the temptation to work from bed or the sofa, while still wearing pyjamas. “I fell into the typical bad habits,” they admit, acknowledging how much of a difference this can make to your mindset. “[Now] I need to feel like I’m at a desk,” adding that dressing for the occasion has become an essential part of the routine – something many others can relate to.

“I always get dressed, pack my bag and take it to my home office. Even if my working spot for the day is my sofa.”

“To set myself into work mode each morning, I get dressed in work clothes, as if I’m at the office,” notes another freelancer working in finance. “Then, once work is over, I change into casual clothes, so my mind shifts from work mode to home mode.” Communications freelancer Phy McCarthy takes a similar approach: “I always get dressed, pack my bag and take it to my home office. Even if my working spot for the day is my sofa, my bag is packed with all the items I need for the day.”

Recreate a bustling atmosphere

Alongside setting boundaries and forging routines, those who work from home face another huge challenge: dealing with loneliness. For me, if I don’t have any meetings scheduled, I might not see anyone other than my flatmate in my working day – so I play low-level music to provide the feeling of having company.

For some, dealing with the lack of physical interaction means arranging coffee meetings and lunches with friends during the week. This is also true for Samantha Bertish: “Working from home can be isolating. I keep the TV on for background noise, and use Skype to stay in-the-loop with my agent with regular meetings.” As a people person, leadership coach Kim Adele also struggles with loneliness. “I miss the chance to talk to people,” she says. “That’s why I have joined a couple of networks, both physical and online, which give me a virtual team to bounce ideas off.”

Maintain a sense of community

While there is allure in the idea of setting your own schedule, it is clear that you still very much need some sort of community to lean on for support, to share tips and advice with, and generally keep one another on-track – recreating the atmosphere of working alongside of a team.

“Having a network of people I can message if I’m struggling has been a real game-changer for me,” Samira Sawlani shares. “Some are freelancers and some aren’t, but to be able to reach out and say ‘this is what I’m working on and this is when it’s due’ creates accountability, and a support network.”

Whether you’re a freelancer or currently housebound as a result of COVID-19, working from home is no walk in the park. Alongside establishing careers for ourselves, we’re battling both loneliness and distractions we’ve not been prepared for. But, since the very nature of our work is finding creative solutions, we will undoubtedly continue to discover imaginative ways to keep our working practices viable and sustainable.

Written by Paula Akpan
Illustration by Jiro Bevis