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I’m a homeworking veteran and I swear by these golden rules – and believe me, you need to get dressed

The WFH Expert Tanya Sweeney


Tanya Sweeney at home with her daughter Isola. Photo: Arthur Carron.

Tanya Sweeney at home with her daughter Isola. Photo: Arthur Carron.

Tanya Sweeney at home with her daughter Isola. Photo: Arthur Carron.

Around four or five years ago, people had very solid ideas about what the idea of ‘working from home’ meant. Usually, it was synonymous with ‘dossing’, ‘laptop in bed’ or ‘working, but not really’. It wasn’t unusual for friends of mine to ring the doorbell of my home unannounced and demand that we go for a walk, or for a coffee, or just have a hang on my sofa because… well, I could. Those walks would be long, leisurely and languid, with my friends little the wiser about how much they were actually eating into my working life. In the end, my pals and I had to implement a daytime ban. “You wouldn’t like it if I walked into your office and wanted to chill out there, would you?” I would say. “Because from 9am to 5am, this is pretty much my place of work, and not much else.”

In the last year or so, there has been no need for such conversations. For a great swathe of the population, working from home is no longer misunderstood as an opportunity to lay about the house. People are now painfully aware that WFH does not mean ‘binge watch Netflix while taking the odd phonecall from the gaffer’. People know all too well that working from home isn’t a slacker’s paradise.

Fine, the dreaded commute has been done away with for many, but several Irish workers have traded in that one challenge for another; meeting targets, hitting deadlines, being productive. It’s working, just in a room with more familiar wallpaper.

I have worked from home for close to 15 years. It’s my true comfort zone, work-wise. I know many who thrive on the office politics and the water-cooler chat of the traditional workplace, but my concentration takes a nose-dive, and I get jittery and distracted by other people in regular offices. Yet the reverse is true of other people. Sharing the space with other family members, the housework and the sheer energy of the place they usually regard as a sanctuary all amount to challenges that they never could have foreseen in their working day.

Yet it’s possible not just to survive the vagaries of working from home; it’s easy to in fact thrive and make the situation work perfectly well for you. These few pointers should make things easier not just for you, but for those you share a home with, and those in your professional life.

1. Find a dedicated space, somehow

I get it; spare rooms are a luxury that many Irish homes just don’t have right now. But working in the main arteries of the house – the kitchen table, under the stairs, the living room – is a fool’s errand. If you’re lucky enough to have a guest room, a ‘good room’ or even a dining room, repurpose it for the time being. The further they are from the ‘rest’ zones in your house, the better. I’m surprised to hear that so many of my friends are attempting to work in the living room, while a guest room remains completely unbothered. And really, what guests are you going to have anytime soon? (I’ve managed to turn a tiny playroom beside my daughter’s bedroom into an office).

Job done on harvesting enough space to be able to get your head down, make it somewhere that you genuinely like returning to. Work is not easy right now, and motivation is likely at an all-time low for many people. A scented candle, hand lotion on the desk, some instrumental music on Spotify and nice prints on the wall make things a little easier to handle.

2. Don’t worry too much about your Zoom background

2020 became the year that we finally got a peek into what our colleagues’ homes looked like. Because we Irish are a fairly nosy sort, there was something secretly thrilling about seeing the bookshelves from Alan from Accounts, or that someone in marketing had bought Sliderobes.

Well, 2021 is the year in which we no longer really care about Zoom backgrounds at work. We are so jaded with seeing our colleagues and associates painstakingly curate their spaces. No-one is going to judge you for a plain white background, so don’t worry if your wall art, bookshelves or wall colour aren’t a reflection of your ‘true’ character. No-one’s looking anymore.

If you’re a boss, the ‘zany’ Zoom meeting is also a no-no. I was invited onto a Zoom recently where we were encouraged to introduce ourselves and then disclose a ‘fun fact’ about ourselves. The request was met with awkward silence. I know it’s tempting to try and jazz things up, but read the room. People are bored and fatigued, and this doesn’t help.

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Speaking of which, it has been proven that Zoom calls really do drain your energy. It’s not just you. Video chats mean we need to be ‘on’ for the duration of the call. We need to work harder to speak and to process non-verbal clues, while we are also quite aware of being watched on camera. Take a head-clearing walk outside after Zoom meetings if you can and shake off that awkward, niggling sense that Zooms aren’t a substitute for the real thing.

3. Enjoy the benefits of working from home (up to a point)

One of the great joys of working within your own household is the ability to pop on a load of laundry before you get started, have an afternoon nap or to slap on a hair mask for the morning and let it do its job while you do yours. These are certainly the sort of perks to be taken advantage of, but it really does help to have a strong line between your working day, and your home life. Put the washing out on your lunch break; don’t go the full day-spa if things have to be done. Keep the TV off, or the sirensong of daytime TV will lure you in. You get the gist.

Tempting though it may be to blur the lines between work and leisure, it helps greatly to get up in the morning and get into a ‘work’ frame of mind. Leisurewear should, in theory, be one of the great fringe benefits of the WFH lifestyle, but I’d worry too much that I’d be constantly on the verge of clocking off if I were wearing pyjamas. I get up each morning, shower, dress and put make-up on as though I am going to an outside workplace (I don’t even allow myself to wear slippers). Just because no-one sees me, doesn’t mean that I need to dispense with civilisation entirely. Also, it would be just my luck that I would dress well from the waist up, like a newsreader, and get caught out in a video meeting.

Trying to keep kids occupied at home while also working at the same time? Just remember to take the baking apron off if you’re Zooming with your boss. Yes, your boss is definitely being understanding about your family commitments right now, but they could probably do without the visual reminder of your banan bread-baking prowess.

4. Check in with the entire office team, regularly

Usually, offices are great hubs of innovation and productivity, where ideas get swapped and the energy of a productive hive just… seems to get things done. Naturally, this has fallen by the wayside in the current situation. Slack and Zoom are great ways for work teams to stay connected on an ongoing basis, but other tools, like team boards on Trello and projects managed on Toggl, are useful too.

It probably goes without saying, but likes on Facebook or Instagram do not constitute meaningful interaction. The truth is, if you’re gawping away at social media sites for most of the day, you’re not ‘connected’ to anyone at all, unless you count the 14 cats you’ve just watched fall off a windowsill. Don’t fall into the trap that I have in the past: watching viral videos, going down the rabbit-hole of looking up old school friends on Facebook, following a particularly heated online debate. Unless you actually work for one of these companies, keeping on social media throughout the day amounts to little more than extreme time-suckage.

5. Split the responsibilities

If you and your partner are both working from home, get strict – and real - about sharing the home-schooling and childcare responsibilities. Several studies, including one by Yale sociologists Thomas Lyttleton, Emma Zang and Kelly Musick, suggest that while fathers forced to work from home during the pandemic have taken on more childcare than usual, mothers are more often stuck juggling kids and work at the same time. Tag-teaming is fine if you have kids, but one parent always needs to be on deck, parenting-wise, if the other is working. Otherwise, you’re on a hiding to nothing. When you try to parent and keep a boss happy at the same time, you end up doing both terribly. Have an honest conversation about who is picking up the most slack, and whether your current set-up is appropriate for the efficient running of your home, and your professional life.

6. Create work boundaries

Your mates may not be calling around to lure you out for the afternoon, but you still need to enshrine your working hours. To get the most out of the WFH situation, sticking as faithfully to a regular set of hours as you can will give you greater freedom in the long run. A meme surfaced on Twitter recently: ‘remember, you’re not working from home – you’re living at work’. If your boss emails you at 8.30pm at night, remember that you are entirely within your rights to reply and say you will give their request your full consideration, in the morning. Likewise, if you’re a boss attempting to get ahead of yourself with a spot of nocturnal delegation, please don’t expect your team members to jump to it.

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