I Design Stuff + Life + Health

What I’ve learned in five years of working from home.

Santa Fe office - doorsixteen.com

I promise I won’t start off every post forever with a coronavirus segue, but I’d be lying if I said it’s not the biggest/only thing on my mind every moment I’m awake. I’m starting this post at around 10PM, cross-legged on the sofa, computer on my lap, chihuahua at my side. I should be in bed (I need a full eight hours every night these days), but I’m wound up and my thoughts are racing. The best cure for that is usually writing a little, even if it’s just to set up a framework of ideas.

From 1998 until 2015, I went to an office building in Midtown Manhattan every single weekday and sat at a desk in a little corner in a big room with all of my coworkers and worked there from 9AM until 5PM (or 9PM, or something in between). I was really lucky to get a very stable job doing exactly what I wanted to do professionally within weeks of graduating from college, and never once in the whole 17 years I was working at Simon & Schuster did I feel like I might want quit and become a freelance book cover designer. I loved having a stable routine, and as much as I’m a homebody who often has a hard time being around people, I loved being around THAT group of people.

My life got weird in 2015, though, and by the time I turned 40, I’d left my stable, reliable job and my cute little office and my beloved coworkers…and moved to New Mexico. It was entirely my choice, but it was completely terrifying to give up what I had at S&S. I’m not sure I realized how hard it would be to adjust to working from home, though.

Since I know a lot of you are now working from home (maybe for the first time), I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned about having a functional workday without the structure of being in an office. I’m sure not all of it will apply to everyone, and I’m also sure that everyone is going to face their own unique challenges, but it’s something.

Get up at your usual time.

I know it’s tempting to sleep in when you don’t have to rush to the train or sit in traffic, but your body and mind will thank you for sticking with a regular schedule. Even if the lack of a commute means you’ll have some extra time to spare before you have to be at your desk, think of that time as a bonus—you won’t have to hurry as much or constantly look at the clock. If the weather is nice where you are, maybe that means you can have your coffee on a porch—or even just while looking out the window and getting lost in thought for a while.

breakfast - doorsixteen.com

Eat breakfast.

Really. I don’t just mean coffee, either. If you’re not in the habit of eating breakfast already, now is a great time to start. Without the structure of a commute and an office, you may find that your mind doesn’t click on like it usually does. Breakfast can help with that. It’ll also keep you from feeling like you want to wander into the kitchen every 30 minutes just to “browse” in the refrigerator. I usually have a bowl of soy yogurt (I make it in the Instant Pot) with fresh fruit and a little granola or flax meal. Or, you know, a bagel.

Get dressed.

I’m not saying you should necessarily put on a suit and pantyhose (unless you want to, of course), but make some kind of effort to wear clothes that aren’t what you sleep in. Take a shower. Brush your teeth. If you like to wear makeup, wear makeup. Pretend you’re going to see someone, even though you’re in self-isolation. I promise that treating yourself like you would on a normal day will help you feel more normal in a highly abnormal situation.

Have a designated workspace.

I don’t think most people have enough rooms in their home to dedicate one to solely being an office (especially if working from home is a temporary thing), but if you’re able to designate a corner of your home to just being for work for the time being, do it. There have been periods of time in the last five years when I’ve settled for working on the sofa, and my back, mind, and work have suffered as a result. Give yourself all of the opportunities you can to have a normal workday.

flip-down desk - doorsixteen.com

Try to replicate the kind of workspace you have in an ideal working environment as best as you can. If you don’t have a desk or an available table, maybe you have the wall space to install a flip-down table like this? I had a similar one from IKEA in my old Washington Heights apartment (seen above, around 2010) and it was just the right size for a laptop and a few desk essentials—plus, you can flip it down at the end of the workday and not worry about it taking up too much space.

closet office - doorsixteen.com

This is another option (again from my old Washington Heights apartment) I thought I’d re-share in case it gets your mind working about where you can create an impromptu desk. This is a workspace I set up inside of a closet that was too shallow to be practical for standard clothes hangers. It’s really just a couple of inexpensive pine boards on simple cleats with a keyboard tray mounted underneath, but it functioned very well. You could recreate something similar in an awkward space in your home, if you have one—maybe at the end of a hallway or even in an unused doorway?

Eat lunch.

This is similar to eating breakfast, but later in the day. I’m sure you’re grateful to me for explaining that. Seriously though, don’t skip it. And don’t make lunch Oreos and Ruffles, either—those are your quarantine snacks, and you should be conserving them. Eat something healthy—say, lentil soup and a piece of knäckebröd. Use nice dishes. Don’t eat over the sink. And whatever you do, don’t eat at your desk. I know that’s probably what you usually do when you’re not working from home, but this is your opportunity to become a little more refined. Go for it.

If you need a coffee in the afternoon, have a coffee in the afternoon.

I mentioned this when I wrote about my little pick-me-up coffee station, but since freelance life means I no longer go out for coffee, I try to make my afternoon caffeine fix a little special. I find that because I don’t have coworkers around me I sometime start to “drift” a bit mentally by mid-afternoon, and a cup of coffee helps snap me back. (Sometimes I have tea instead, but don’t tell that to my Nespresso machine.)

Don’t watch cable news all day.

I am guilty of totally ignoring this advice on a regular basis, but I’m going to offer it anyway. I absolutely do not believe that people should block off the news from their lives and be unaware of what’s happening in the world, but I can say with 100% confidence that if you miss a White House press conference or one of those media events where Trump stands next to a running helicopter and screams at reporters, you’ll be fine. You’ll be better than fine, actually. The same goes for Twitter. You do not need to be aware of everything that’s happening in everyone’s minds for every second of the day. Do your work. This mad world will still be there when you’re done working.

Instead, if you really feel like you need some kind of entertainment while you’re working, listen to a podcast. (Maybe something about mass murderers, to take your mind off of the pandemic?) Or, if you just feel like it’s too quiet, try a white noise app. Noisli even has a setting that sounds like people chattering at a cafe, so you can remember what it was like when you had friends and a social life.

Keep track of any expenses.

I don’t think it’s totally clear yet what incurred expenses will be tax-deductible for people forced to work from home because of workplace closures, but assume that at least some stuff will be. I use Quickbooks to track my expenses throughout the year, but that might be overkill if this is just a short-term situation for you. At the very least, keep a notebook and write down everything you spend money on to be able to do your job at home: WiFi, utilities, pens, rent, printer paper, etc. Save the receipts. It can’t hurt to keep track now in case you need it later.

Know when to stop working for the day.

It’s really easy to slip into a 9AM-10PM kind of routine when you’re working from home (graphic designers, I am looking directly at you), and sometimes that can be really great creatively, but I strongly suggest at least setting a timer for your usual end-of-workday hour and then considering whether you truly need to keep working. Maybe it’s a better idea to make yourself a nice dinner, or take your dog for a walk? Speaking of which…

Fritz in a chair - doorsixteen.com

Pay attention to your pets.

If you have pets, they’re obviously going to notice the difference in the daily routine. Fritz loves having me work from home, but sometimes I think he misses the excitement of seeing me walk in the front door at the end of the day. So I really try to make sure we get in plenty of toy-throwing time and cuddles during the day, and a walk (it’s OK to go for a walk) at least three times a week (he has a bad knee, so he can’t go every day). It’s good for both of us.

So, tell me: If you’re suddenly working from home because of the coronavirus, what have you found is the hardest part? Have you discovered any unexpected perks? Do you wish you could keep working from home, or are you ready to go back to your office?

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43 Comments

  • Reply Claudia March 20, 2020 at 3:00 pm

    Thanks for the good advice! My main tip is to put my personal phone in ‘do not disturb’ mode. If your work and personal phone are the same, give work-related numbers a special ringtone as well as ask friends and family not to call during working hourd. Turn off notifications on your phone.

    PS Your office area is fab!

    • Reply Anna Dorfman March 21, 2020 at 1:20 pm

      That’s great advice! I always keep app notifications turned off, but when I really have to concentrate, I do put my photo in “do not disturb” mode (with a few people exempted in case there’s an emergency).

  • Reply Maggie March 20, 2020 at 3:16 pm

    I am ready to go back to the office. I think in some ways I am more productive when I’m not distracted by an open office setup, and most of my team is two time zones away so I’m pretty used to being on the phone all the time anyway. A perk is that it’s easier for me to get started a little earlier since my long commute has been eliminated so I can be more on their schedule. But I do not have a great setup at home and going on week two, I’m in constant pain because my setup is just not ergonomic. My husband lost his job this week so I can’t exactly invest in a bunch of furniture right now for what is hopefully a temporary situation! I’m going to try to adjust some things this weekend so it’s a little better.

    • Reply Anna Dorfman March 20, 2020 at 3:25 pm

      Maggie, I am so sorry to hear that. I really hope that not only is your own work situation temporary, but that your husband’s unemployment is as well.

      As for the painful work setup, is the problem primarily your chair? I have a lot of back problems related to my work, and for years (while I saved up to buy a good chair) I got through by elevating my feet a bit (on a low footrest) and by putting a folded or rolled towed in my lumbar area. And, of course, getting up to walk around and stretch when my body starts to get mad at me.

      • Reply Maggie Santolla March 20, 2020 at 4:26 pm

        Oh thanks, he manages a bar so it was not a surprise and they are hoping to open back up if this doesn’t go on for too long. I am using a standing-height table as a desk, and then sitting at a stool when I need to sit. I think it needs to be raised higher for my mouse hand. I am going to mess with it this weekend (it’s like, a Uline packing table so I have to take everything off of it and unscrew the legs to adjust the height! But luckily it is adjustable). I have another table in the room that I can switch too but it is also a non-standard height.

        • Reply Anna Dorfman March 21, 2020 at 1:21 pm

          I hope you can figure something out. Maybe raising your whole computer/mouse on a large board (scrap wood, cutting board, etc.) might help??

  • Reply Katie March 20, 2020 at 3:25 pm

    I’m unemployed at the moment (yay theater!) but I think some of these tips don’t just work for people working from home but for people who are not used to even *being* at home. So thank you for that!

    • Reply Anna Dorfman March 20, 2020 at 3:28 pm

      I hear you, Katie. My work has been very, very slow for months now, and I fear the current situation may be the death knell on my own employment—it’s just hard to know when that’s happened when you’re a freelancer. I’ve had a lot of time to gradually adjust to the uncertainty of being self-employed over the last few years, and that probably saved me. I have no doubt that the sudden shift you and so many others are experiencing right now is incredibly difficult—not just financially, but emotionally.

  • Reply Alex March 20, 2020 at 4:00 pm

    I love your recommendations Anna! As natural introverts, and as people who work from home with some regularity under normal circumstances, we’re definitely better equipped to deal with this mandatory shelter in place than most. That said, I’ve never been so glad that we have pocket doors between our living and dining rooms in our otherwise quite small one-bedroom. My husband can work in the living room, I’m in the dining room, and we “meet” for lunch, coffee, and an afternoon walk.

    • Reply Anna Dorfman March 21, 2020 at 1:22 pm

      I’m sure you’re right about that, Alex. I think there are a lot of perks to being an introvert, and right now I’m seeing them. I really feel for people who are suddenly without a social outlet that they need.

  • Reply Amy March 20, 2020 at 4:29 pm

    I’ve been working from home for the past seven years. The hardest part is the fact that my husband has to work from home now too. It’s like having a co-worker. “No time for chitchat, I’ve got to get back to work! Who took a bite of my sandwich? Hey, somebody took the last cup of coffee and didn’t make more!”
    Kidding. It’s actually been really nice having him here. I think it helps that we don’t have to worry about kids and the weather is really nice.
    The actual hard part is having nowhere to go when I do want to be socially engaged. I really looked forward to walking to the local bars and restaurants on weekends to meet up with friends. Or running errands during the weekday. That was how I coped with my isolation before all this.

    • Reply Anna Dorfman March 21, 2020 at 1:24 pm

      I’m really grateful that I’ve spent the last 20+ years being comfortable with social engagement on the internet. Do you have a text chain going with the friends you’d normally be meeting up with? Just today I spent a half hour texting with a close friend that I’m used to spending time with at least once a week, and it really helped.

    • Reply Grace March 22, 2020 at 3:58 am

      Hi Amy, I had a few drinks with 4 friends last night on Zoom video app, it was really fun! You could try it as a social outlet. I felt like I hung out with them. Plus, I have kids so extra bonus – didn’t need a babysitter 🙂 All isolating here in Ireland too.

      • Reply Amy March 23, 2020 at 4:06 pm

        yes, we’ve been calling, using facetime, etc a lot this week. we even watched a movie with a friend this way (and chatted a long time before / after). it was way more fun than I expected. it was actually a pretty great weekend!

  • Reply Simone March 20, 2020 at 4:33 pm

    I’m flabbergasted that your dog only goes out three times a week. Ours go out three times a day. Fortunately I’m not the only person responsible for that chore.
    I can recommend a door that you can close for several reasons. And also don’t allow people who live with you to stuff their clutter in your room. Even when it is just temporary.

    • Reply Anna Dorfman March 20, 2020 at 4:36 pm

      He can outside, but he can’t go for *walks* daily. Fritz is 12 and has a luxating patella that’s exacerbated when he doesn’t have time off between walks. He’s been pad-trained his whole life (small dogs often need to pee 7-8 times a day), so it’s not an issue.

      • Reply Simone March 24, 2020 at 2:43 pm

        Ok. Pads for dogs, I’ve never really heard of that to be honest. Over here if dogs have problems walking some people get these strollers for dogs. I always thought that this was some kind of subconcious substitute for children, but I can see that that could work for a dog like Fritz.

        • Reply Anna Dorfman March 24, 2020 at 2:46 pm

          Fritz doesn’t need a stroller, he just needs to be able to pee whenever he needs to go. Pad training is really common for small dogs all over the world, especially for people who live in apartments without free access to a yard. If you’ve only ever had larger dogs, it makes sense you wouldn’t have heard of them. It’s normal, though, I promise.

  • Reply Allison March 20, 2020 at 4:43 pm

    Thank you for this and for returning to blogging in general–your blog reminds me of why I started loving blogs in the first place.

    I’m guilty of working from the couch and looking for an affordable, nice-looking, comfortable desk chair if you ever have recs–I looked through all of your desk posts earlier today for inspiration!

    • Reply Anna Dorfman March 21, 2020 at 1:31 pm

      Allison, until recently, I was working in Eames armshells—they look nice (and I got them cheaply), but they are absolutely NOT recommended for working in for long periods of time. I developed major back pain as a result, and decided I really had to save up to buy a better chair. Because I’d used (and loved) and Aeron chair at S&S for many years, I went with that—it was a known quantity that I was sure would work for me. I bought a used one from Office Designs Outlet for about 50% off. They’re an authorized Herman Miller reseller (and they include a one-year warranty even on used chairs), so I didn’t worry about it being used. An honestly? It looks BRAND NEW. I absolutely love it, and I don’t have back pain anymore (just neck pain from looking at my phone, which isn’t the chair’s fault). I personally think Aeron chairs are pretty ugly, but for me, the tradeoff of good back health it worth it. Even at half price it was still really expensive, but I felt like it was an important investment for my body.

      • Reply Allison Davis March 21, 2020 at 4:04 pm

        Thanks for this reply, Anna!

  • Reply Jenn March 20, 2020 at 6:51 pm

    It’s my first week working from home and the hardest thing has been the silence and not having reasons to get up from my space. Started putting on some background music (Plantasia is a great one!) and I’m going to start scheduling break times in my calendar just so I get up and walk around the block or something to get me to move a little more. I need to find a place to eat lunch because I am using my dining room table as my work setup now and it’s not easy to move and it’s a small apartment that I share with a roommate. Thanks for all of these tips! I always thought working from home seemed fun but now that I’m stuck in here 24/7 for the time being need to find new ways to give my brain a break from my desk/space.

    • Reply Anna Dorfman March 21, 2020 at 1:33 pm

      I should definitely be going for walks more than I am. When I worked in an office I would get up every hour or so to refill my water bottle and use that as a reason to walk the perimeter of the building, and now I don’t do stuff like that. Setting alert times on my phone (and not just dismissing them) is probably a smart move!

  • Reply Wilhemina March 20, 2020 at 9:25 pm

    So glad to be reading your posts again! I’m working from home with two small children and no childcare so that’s an intense adjustment. I’m taking it one day at a time and accepting that I will not be able to be as productive and that’s ok. I’ve got my closet desk set up and although I need to refine my space configuration soon, it’s nice to have my Aeron chair. I’m focusing on establishing a household routine that respects our personal space and needs, making Greek lentil soup, planting a garden and buying bulk coffee online.

    • Reply Anna Dorfman March 21, 2020 at 1:34 pm

      Ooooh, Greek lentil soup?? Tell me more!!

  • Reply Rachelle Connor March 21, 2020 at 3:01 am

    Thanks Anna. Thanks for posting again! I love reading your reflective posts! Emailing from Melbourne Australia, where presently my husband , me, uni student son and daughter and two high schoolers are all at home together working and studying. The house is feeling VERY small! I have emailed a link to this post to them all because it sums up why it’s so important to keep to a routine. Stay well during these trying times…..

    • Reply Anna Dorfman March 21, 2020 at 1:35 pm

      You too, Rachelle. I’m glad you have your family around you, even if it’s all feeling a little overly-“cozy” at the moment.

  • Reply abby March 21, 2020 at 9:19 am

    Thanks to you I’ve been ordering Zabar’s bagels for my friends having birthdays and recovering from surgery. Thank you for posting about them. I love reading your writing.

    • Reply Anna Dorfman March 21, 2020 at 9:21 am

      That’s amazingly kind of you, Abby!!

  • Reply Karen March 21, 2020 at 12:01 pm

    Thank you for the recommendations as I started WFH last Tuesday. For now it’s until EOM. My WFH setup could be better but I get up regularly, stretch and take the dog for two walks a day now. BTW – so glad to see you back to blogging. I have always loved your posts and have been following for several years!

    • Reply Anna Dorfman March 21, 2020 at 2:00 pm

      Thanks, Karen! I’m glad to be back to blogging, too.

  • Reply Emma March 21, 2020 at 12:28 pm

    I find that maintaining as many micro- and macro structures as possible from my regular work environment is key to productivity. That means that I hold office hours at the same time – although now it is via Zoom and not in my office. It means that I check in with my graduate student writers mid-week – although now it is via Zoom and not at the library. It means that I annotate one draft at a time – although now it is via marginal comments instead of handwritten comments. To me, flexibility is important in how I accommodate my students who are now spread across the globe (!), but for them, having a solid and familiar structure provided by me ensures continuation of learning. Class is still at 1:30pm EST so if their parents demand they do the laundry immediately, they have a solid reason not to – because we do not do laundry in class. So maintaining as much of the “before” is crucial, but with the expectation that although everyone will try their hardest, there will be some glitches. And glitches are fine – it’s a global pandemic after all. So long as we do our best under the circumstances (and Daniel Kanter keeps painting trim…), we will come out the other side of this tunnel in good shape to continue saving the world. 🙂

    • Reply Anna Dorfman March 21, 2020 at 2:09 pm

      Emma, I have THE MOST admiration for teachers in the best of times, and right now? You are heroes. Thank you so much for understanding that the glitches are going to be there, and that there are extenuating circumstances for everyone. I’m sure your students appreciate it more than you’ll ever know (and maybe more than they’ll ever recognize).

  • Reply Melissa March 21, 2020 at 1:55 pm

    Great tips. I was just laid off (hopefully temporarily) so I’m really trying to create a schedule, be productive, and figure out my next step. This is helping!

  • Reply M March 21, 2020 at 2:02 pm

    The hardest part is feeling like I have to “prove” that I’m working (since nobody can see me), so I never leave my desk so I can always respond immediately and I feel like I’m under more pressure than when I went in to the office. (Not healthy, I know)
    An unexpected perk is now I’m always home to get deliveries. Except I don’t buy things except food anymore. 🙁

    • Reply Anna Dorfman March 21, 2020 at 2:07 pm

      I completely understand that feeling. I think I’ve forgotten it a bit (or at least been reassured enough by clients) over time, but I still try to reply to art directors IMMEDIATELY (and maybe a little too enthusiastically) because I feel like I need to prove myself tenfold. I think it’s really important right now that we all try to remember that everyone is going through this—and we need to cut ourselves slack just like we’re cutting slack for everyone else. This is a major learning curve.

  • Reply Annie Pazoo March 21, 2020 at 3:39 pm

    Loved this piece, Anna. Also loved the tweet reminder to go back to reading blogs. I had been thinking and hoping the same, recently, that all the self isolation and wfh at might lead more folks to start posting again on their blogs.
    Love your work and your POV

  • Reply Fiona March 21, 2020 at 3:45 pm

    Thanks Anna, some of this advice is immediately useful. Like a lot of people my office had to switch to home working immediately last week. What I’m really needing is my office chair. The IKEA desk I have is too high, so I’m trying to pile my chair high with pillows. I really wish I still had my dog. And my car. We’ve been trying out car-free, bad timing for now. Otherwise though, it’s kind of amazing how all this happened so quickly. Environmentalists have been asking us to make this change in work culture and it seemed like it would take decades. I hope you’re keeping well, what a week.

  • Reply Amanda March 22, 2020 at 8:25 am

    This is all such great advice. I worked from home as a freelance designer and a remote worker for a while a few years back, and having had that experience has made a transition back to working from home much smoother this time around. I also made sure to snag my office chair and stuff it in the back seat of my car along with my extra monitor—that’s been SO helpful.

    Thank you for your blogging and pics! I lived in Santa Fe a long time ago, and I still miss it every single day!

  • Reply Caroline March 22, 2020 at 3:19 pm

    Love your set up. I worked at home for years and went back to a full time job in Nov so this situation is confusing. I have a desk but set up my treadmill this weekend so I can do zoom calls while walking. Might try working at the dining room table too as it has a nice view of the garden. This was helpful and got me feeling excited about new routine. Thanks!

  • Reply Isabel Barrios March 24, 2020 at 3:04 pm

    Thank you for sharing! Trying to put some structure in place and definitely appreciating your suggestions. I work for a foundation that is responding to COVID 19 with grants and supports for nonprofits, so I have been eating at the little desk I set up, but started making an effort to eat elsewhere. One week ago working from home felt like a jail sentence, but this week I have hit my stride and feel like I could do it all the time. Sending all my appreciation!!!

  • Reply LaDonna March 28, 2020 at 8:46 pm

    I’ve been working from home the past two weeks. Sitting on the couch with my laptop. I somehow became the go to person for helping my coworkers set up their remote connection so I spent a lot of time on that. Other wise I’m pretty productive. Not getting enough exercise. Used to do lunch walks with coworkers. Now I try to make myself walk for 30 minutes a day. It’s hard to take proper lunches because coworkers keep emailing or messaging me. Grateful to have a job.

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