Navigating a work-from-home environment

Post written by Ericka Miller.

It’s everywhere we turn – “alternative workplace!” “Yahoo! stops letting people work from home!” “Workers say flexibility is #1 motivator!” Maybe I hear these more because of the career I am in, but my guess is you see the same headlines no matter the size of your company or industry.

Most stories come from the perspective of the employer and the impact a mobile workforce has on said employers. However, when I found myself working from my home office in 2010 after having worked in traditional office settings for most of my life, it was a bit of a shock.

A bit of irony

I’ve been in commercial or corporate real estate related roles for about 20 years. I have held numerous roles of increasing responsibility ranging from a paralegal to a developer to various roles within corporate outsourcing for integrated real estate services. Throughout this time, trends have come and gone but my work world has always had to do with workspace—from business decisions on what, how and where to build, to when to leave or sell space that was either obsolete or no longer required.

After many years of being on the landlord, owner or finance side of a commercial real estate deal, I found myself at the vantage point of working on behalf of tenants or “occupiers” of space both in-house at a large Fortune 500 company, then on an “outsource provider” team for an even larger Fortune 500 company. Everywhere I worked during the first 13 years of my career was done in traditional office space. Some spaces were nicer than others and some more convenient (think commute time). You would think that because my career centered on real estate and the workplace, I would have done more thinking about my own workspace but I didn’t, not really, I was too busy. A little ironic I’d say. Sort of like the cobbler’s children have no shoes.

In March of 2010, I was hired by a global company to help corporate clients with their real estate portfolios that often spanned the globe. Our goal was to partner on their real estate needs from portfolio strategy (assessing locations, how they were used, processes for existing and new locations, etc.) to facilities management (maintaining the assets they owned or used) while they focused on their core business.

I could feel the new challenges I was about to jump into but maybe the best part about this new role was I would be WORKING FROM HOME!

Wait, what?

I could have a really cool, challenging job and work in pajamas every day if I wanted to?

Since I didn’t have to commute to work or get ready, I would have oodles of time to work out, be involved in my kid’s life (I only had 1 to start with when I began this journey) and really take charge of my career! This was going to be the BEST!

Well, turns out, it has been a real blessing and a sometimes a curse. Over the years I’ve had so many conversations about working from a home office with co-workers and friends and at times, have tried to find online groups that work from home to see if we are all feeling the same way or maybe to try to get some advice on things but have not found much that pertains to my situation. Mainly I’ve found articles written by journalists, not by others who work in jobs who aren’t paid to write about it.

Starting out: Getting through the first weeks

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed getting dressed up for work—it gave me a sense of purpose, made me feel good and when I was younger, made me feel more established. However, one day I walked out the door of a high-rise corporate office downtown and the next day I walked…down the stairs to my home office…in yoga pants… Boy it was great! But also, really odd.

It’s odd on your first day (OK, at least the whole first week or so) when you work from home. There aren’t a bunch of new people to meet, there’s no Bubbly Bernice bringing donuts and showing you where the bathrooms are (I always loved the Bubbly Bernice’s of the world). I was at home, my child was off to daycare, my husband off to work and I sat, in my yoga pants and T-shirt, at my new computer wondering what to do or where to start. I called my boss who lived in Wisconsin, but he had exactly 15 minutes to spend on the phone welcoming me to the company and was then off to meetings. So, I started to read the company’s website to learn even more about this new place I was going to be working.

One thing I have to get off my chest right away is that my attention isn’t long for this world unless I am actively engaged in something. Reading a company website is not easy to do for hours on end unless you have a real end goal in mind. I found out quickly that “learning more about my company” was different than learning about exactly what I was going to be doing for the next several years. Thankfully I had a couple of very close friends who also worked for the same company and were working from home in close proximity to me. I called them. They were busy but promised to catch up very soon. GREAT! How soon? Let’s shoot for in a week or two. Sounds good. Wait. A week or two? What do I do until then?

Here is what you do, you take the bull by the horns, find out who else works in your group (there was a whole massive group of people and almost all worked from home), call until you find someone who will talk to you and ask away! Hint: have questions ready and try to know a little bit about who they are before you call. The beauty of social media is that you can find so much out about a person just by doing a simple Google and LinkedIn search (and of course, looking up their bio on the company website). Feels a little creepy at first but you’ll get over that. Most of the people I know who work from home have had to do this. There typically isn’t a week-long orientation. Your employer expects you know enough about the company to take the job and you are enough of a self starter to figure things out. Both are sort of true but sort of not. I often wondered how I would have survived those first few months if I wasn’t truly curious enough to ask questions.

Here are my suggestions for those first few weeks:

  1. If at all possible, get meetings (phone calls are fine) scheduled prior to your start date – take the initiative, don’t wait for your boss or co-workers to set them up for you.

  2. Enjoy these days in your comfy clothes free of guilt. You start to get a complex after awhile, but not for quite a while, so enjoy!

  3. Get to know others who are starting at or around the same time you are. This is especially important so you can divide and conquer. Work out a plan to call on different people and research different topics important to your business and co-workers then plan to meet weekly (or even every other day at first) to compare notes.

  4. On the personal side: Get ready for the bizarre questions people start to ask when they find out you work from home. My guess is it happens more to me because I am a woman but if I had a dime for every time someone asked, “Do you keep your kids home with you?” I’d be rich! The answer is no. A persistent 2-year-old doesn’t mix well with conference calls and client deadlines. Even better is the one they ask when you travel, “What do you do with your kids while you are gone?” For the record, I am married, they have a father perfectly as capable as I am of caring for them. My husband travels for work too; he’s never once been asked this question.

  5. Last but not least, find a routine. Set out a plan for at least the first two weeks. Go ahead, schedule that workout over your lunch time—you don’t have to look pretty for your 1:00 PM call. Don’t worry, this downtime won’t last long and pretty soon you’ll be wondering why/how you fit that workout in in the first place!

Tips for employers exploring telecommute or work-from-home options

As an employer, a great onboarding process for those team members who have work-from-home options will be a key part in the management process. To get started, here are few tips to make the process smooth:

  • Onboard in person when possible. This will give you a positive starting point to build strong teams from the start.

  • Use technology to stay connected. Visual conference and phone calls through an app such as Zoom can create a sense of connectedness. Chat apps such as Slack also work well for this.

  • Schedule in-person meetings throughout the year. Finding opportunities to see one another in person helps build camaraderie. Use some of the occupancy savings to cover travel costs for remote workers. Require a set amount of in-person, team-building and training meetings each year.

  • Communicate consistently. Schedule regular touchbase meetings, phone calls or Zoom calls to stay in-the-know and available to your home-based workers.

  • Provide adequate tools and technology. Ensure that your employees working in a home office have the tools and technology they need to be productive as well as the necessities to promote healthy working such as standing desks and ergonomic chairs.

  • Create geo-based employee groups. Support your home-based employees with additional collaboration tools such as co-working memberships or other support groups that can get together in similar locations for networking, brainstorming and collaboration.

What additional tips do you have? What have your struggles been? How have you gotten through them? We’d love to hear your thoughts on our Facebook or LinkedIn pages.