Telecommuting in the Age of Coronavirus: Your 5-Step Plan

Has COVID-19 transformed your home into both a remote office and kids’ classroom? Here’s how to make it all work

woman working from home

The new coronavirus is likely turning your life—and your house—upside down. As thousands of schools have closed and offices have switched to telecommuting, you may be setting up shop at your kitchen table or in a corner of your bedroom—and caring for your kids at the same time.

It’s all helping to slow the spread of the virus, which causes the respiratory illness COVID-19, but one thing’s for sure: It’s complicated.

“When you work at home, your work life is immersed with your family life,” says Timothy Golden, Ph.D., professor of management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, whose research specialty is telecommuting. “To be successful, it takes some creativity and thoughtfulness. Set up a plan ahead of time—an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.”

Start with a good Wi-Fi connection and a pair of noise-canceling headphones. Then try these remote-control strategies.

Step #1: Define Your Space

To maximize your productivity—and keep life as normal as possible—designate a place for you and your kids to get work done.

For you: In an ideal world, your home office would be a room with a door, where you could close yourself off from the household commotion.

Then there’s reality, where the only available spot for you and your laptop might be a corner of the kitchen counter. But whatever your space turns out to be, stake your claim and let the whole family (or your roommates) know that it’s now your official office.

“Designation is really important,” says Scott Willyerd, president of the RW Jones Agency, a public relations firm in Pittsburgh where the employees routinely work from home. “It marks out a physical space that tells you—and your family—that you’re going to work.”

For kids: Kids will benefit from a defined “learning zone” in your home. That’s true whether your child’s school is set up for online learning, or whether you’ll be winging it with alternatives like Scholastic’s Learn at Home program , which offers free online instruction keyed to specific grade levels.

Stock this area with their books and supplies, and insist that—for the time being—this is their no-nonsense, school-away-from-school study zone.

Step #2: Create a Schedule

Routines can help us get things done, increase our sense of control, and tame stress in challenging times and situations. If you’re working from home—especially in the midst of chaotic family life—schedules are more important than ever.

For you: If possible, try to stick with your normal office routine. That means making yourself available for phone or video meetings with your colleagues or clients during typical business hours.

“Set expectations with family members about how and when you’ll work,” suggests Golden. “Let them know you can be available to them when you’re on your break—but during your work hours, you’re not to be disturbed.”

Be disciplined: You may be working in your pajamas, but you’re still on the clock. “If you run downstairs to do a load of laundry,” says Golden, “you’ll be mentally distracted and lose your focus on your job.”

Try saving the household tasks and personal errands for after-work hours—just as you would if you were working at the office.

For kids: You’ll need to set up a schedule for them as well. Chances are, their teachers have sent over plans for them to follow, so encourage them to work through their lessons as they would every day at school.

Younger children—especially babies and toddlers—need lots more attention. If there’s no one else at home to help look after them, you may need to switch to plan B.

“Talk to your boss about working flexible hours,” suggests Golden. “You might be better able to concentrate while the little ones are napping or after they’ve gone to bed.”

Step #3: Overcommunicate

Your colleagues may be scattered, but you’re still a team and you’re still working together toward common goals. “Especially now, maintaining communication with your coworkers, boss, and clients is paramount,” says Golden.

For you: Be proactive. Don’t wait for problems to happen—ward them off with a plan. Think about how you communicate in the office, and try to replicate that pattern at home.

If you’re in the habit of a quick daily recap with your boss, send an email summing up your day. If group brainstorming sessions keep you energized, set up a videoconference. Figure out the communication style that works best for you and your team, and use technology to make it happen at home.

“It’s important to stay accessible to the office,” says Willyerd. “There are software packages such as Slack that make collaborating easy.”

For kids: Your kid’s school likely set up video lessons or check-ins with teachers via email or phone. Take advantage of those tools.

Also, know that there are lots of great learning resources you can tap into. In addition to Scholastic’s Learn at Home program, try the following:

  • Duolingo —learn a foreign language through fun games and other online activities
  • Mystery Doug —provides age-appropriate K–5 science lessons
  • Squiggle Park Dreamscape —keep reading skills strong with games that incorporate strategy and imagination (for grades 2 to 8)
  • Dictionary.com —fun multiple-choice quizzes on a variety of topics
  • @joshgad —lovable Olaf (aka the actor Josh Gad) has been reading bedtime stories to kids on his Twitter account since March

Step #4: Close the Distance (Virtually)

Social distancing may be great for stopping the coronavirus—but it can also lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. And a sense of connection is important to your physical and mental health.

For you: A big part of our work lives are our relationships with colleagues—something we miss now that we’ve retreated to our separate quarters. “Those hallway conversations and happenstance encounters by the water cooler help us form emotional connections and do our jobs better,” says Golden.

“Telecommuters need to build in time for informal conversation,” he continues. “Try allocating a few minutes before or after a conference call to check in with one another about how things are going. Building up a sense of rapport can cut down on the isolation you may experience while working from home.”

For kids: Children are social beings, too, and they’ll be missing their friends. Set up remote playdates with their pals, using portals like Zoom, Skype, or FaceTime.

Also, while video games get knocked around a lot in parenting circles, keep in mind that many games are played in teams and involve lots of back-and-forth conversation—and laughter. You don’t need to bend your screen rules entirely, but try to keep an open mind to their upside.

Step #5: Cut Yourself Some Slack

These are anxious and confusing times for everyone, so don’t expect your work-at-home experience to be perfect.

“During this time, just try to do your best,” advises Willyerd. “Everything’s been upended, and employers know you have a lot to deal with—not just [with] your team, but [with] your clients and their clients, too. Your job is important, of course, but your family and community are most important now. Take a deep breath—the work will get done.”

The information in this story is accurate as of press time and posting. Because the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, we encourage readers to follow the news and recommendations for their own communities by using the resources from the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department.