How to make the home office work for you

24th Mar 2020
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The COVID-19 outbreak is forcing many to convert their home into a professional workspace. Take these steps to ensure it is an opportunity, not a burden. 

The perception of working from home has changed in recent years. Once shunned by employers on the basis that workers would end up slacking, flexible working policies have since been shown to boost productivity and job satisfaction. Commute time can be reduced or removed altogether, creating more free time and slashing travel expenses. For businesses, operational costs will fall and may even allow for office downsizing. Whether it is the odd day a week or an exclusively home-based role, remote working has quickly become the norm for many organisations.

Prior to COVID-19, it was not uncommon for those at manager- or even director-level to work exclusively from home 

But with the on going effects of COVID-19, working from home may not simply be an option moving forward. In order to limit transmission of the novel virus, many employees are being encouraged to proactively isolate themselves from the office indefinitely. With a return to the office uncertain, it can be a big step—particularly for those with limited experience of a home-based nine to five. For a business where accounting practices are typically carried out in-house, the transition can be all the more challenging.  

Find a balance

Find a work-life balance—and stick to it

Accountants within any organisation typically have an intense couple of weeks working on their month-end. For example, the first two weeks of April would be spent meticulously compiling figures from March—everything from revenue totals and expenses to analysing the value of fixed assets. This ensures that the books are properly balanced and helps to simplify company tax returns. 

During this time, working from home can prove incredibly useful—be it due to a lack of distractions or the opportunity to get a head start instead of commuting. As a result, management accounts can often be turned over significantly faster. Remote working has been implemented across the board for years; prior to COVID-19, it was not uncommon for those at manager- or even director-level to work exclusively from home. Those who are self-employed will have had the same experience. 

The flexibility afforded by remote working does offer significant benefits for any computer-centric job, but there are drawbacks to consider. Without the need to return from the office or to ‘beat the traffic’, working hours always end up longer than intended. Even with an eye on the clock, replying to ‘one last email’ at the end of a shift can quickly spiral into an evening of unintentional work. It might seem productive initially, but this becomes severely draining over time. Employees should be vigilant with their hours of service to avoid burning out. 

Self-enforced lunch breaks are vital. Without the cue of other colleagues stepping away to eat at a regular time, it is not uncommon for the typical 1pm lunch to creep further back in the day. When lunchtime does come, it will often be taken at the desk anyway. As years of working from home can demonstrate, this has long-term side effects; all that extra screen time adds up, and those with perfect vision could soon find themselves booking in with the optician to solve the headaches and dizziness that result. 

Research the ‘20-20-20’ rule to enforce frequent breaks from the screen

Set up next to a window if possible—research the ‘20-20-20’ rule to enforce frequent breaks from the screen—and invest in a standalone monitor to avoid working exclusively from a 13” laptop. In some cases this may be funded by the employer, or tax-deductible as a business expense if self-employed.

Freshen up

It might initially seem counterintuitive, but the home office must be treated like a work environment. Ditch the pyjamas, and wear shoes, not slippers. Invest in house plants. Spruce up the study if you have one, or create a ‘nook’ in the corner of a room. If you treat working from home as a lazy day, you can bet that is what it will be. Dressing for work also creates an additional boundary at the end of the day—getting out of ‘work clothes’ signifies that the job is over, and the home is now a place to relax. 

Home workers will spend at least eight hours a day in this space, so it must be inviting. Use a desk if possible to ensure work is not carried out on the sofa; at this point, the only signifier for the end of the day is closing the laptop shut. Don’t even consider working in bed. Long-term home workers in a suitable location might even consider bringing a pet into the family for company, providing significant thought has been taken beforehand. 

Keeping up appearances

Even with a vibrant and semi-professional environment at home, the standard of professional and personal communication can still suffer. 

With face-to-face interaction no longer an option, it can be complicated to resolve issues or effectively collaborate on certain tasks via a chat box. Combat the frustration of missed messages by introducing ‘digital workspaces’ such as Microsoft Teams, Slack or Monday.com to ensure everyone is on the same page. Deadlines, messages and files can be shared to individuals, specific groups or the entire ‘office’ at once. This not only helps to soothe any social isolation, it also limits the level of disruption that can be experienced when moving out of the office. 

Taxcalc’s award-winning CloudConnect service can mirror the conventional desktop experience

It is not only productivity software that should be considered. For any accountant, gaining easy access to secure company documents is vital for business as usual. Taxcalc’s award-winning CloudConnect service, for example, can mirror the conventional desktop experience by accessing data that would normally be available only through work computers. In essence, employees can access what they need from their home setup—be that a laptop on the kitchen table, the newly spruced-up home office or anywhere with an internet connection. 

Dealing with uncertainty 

At the time of writing, government advice is to avoid physical contact to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Home workers should follow the advice of health professionals as the situation develops over the coming months, but it is also vital to avoid becoming an avatar. Hours behind a screen can lead once close colleagues to become distant and social skills on the whole to deteriorate. 

In simpler times, all this could be avoided by meeting up with colleagues during the week—taking turns to work at each other’s homes or meeting at a café, for example. Other options include shared working spaces, with both large chains and independent offices widely available across the UK today. Group collaboration of this kind is strongly discouraged for the time being, but should be considered as part of a long-term strategy for remote working once normal service resumes. 

The transition to home working can be enjoyable, flexible and productive, but only if the right measures are put in place

Making the switch from full-time office worker is a big deal, and should not be taken lightly. It is unclear how long office workers may need to set up shop at home, and for many the period ahead will appear daunting. The transition can be enjoyable, flexible and productive, but only if the right measures are put in place.