As the Coronavirus starts to bite, more and more people will be asked to work from home. When I worked for Boots the Chemists, my days ‘working from home’ generally comprised of watching daytime TV programmes, doing the odd crossword, playing my guitar, making endless cups of tea and then, only once I’d exhausted all my procrastination activities, finally doing some actual work.

Things have changed, though. For the past 13 years, I have run a successful consulting business from my home office. During that time, I have learned some key rules that have helped me to improve my productivity and provide strategy, coaching and consultancy support to market-leading clients, including, among others, Dunelm, DFS, TD Ameritrade and Greene King.

These five rules can not only help you make the most of your home-working, but could also step-change the way you work once you return to the office:

Rule 1: As far as possible, create your ideal working environment

At home, you have some constraints, but also some extra possibilities. I’m lucky in that I have a dedicated office for my work. You may need to find space in your kitchen or take over a spare bedroom, but at least you’re not limited to the rules and limitations that are imposed on your working environment that in your office!

So, if you’re going to be working from home for an extended period, I recommend that you do your best to make your environment as comfortable, inspiring and productive as you can. As you can see from the photo, I have a pretty big desk (usually covered in papers) with a large screen for my laptop, a printer just behind me and, on the wall, a utenstilo – a beautiful bit of 1960s design for my office supplies, including my calculator, stapler, scissors, pens and pencils, tape and various other bits and pieces!

The important thing is to have an environment that you look forward to working in and where you can do your best work. Given that you might be working from home for several months, it’s worth spending time up front to create an environment that will work best for you.

Rule 2: Turn off emails and social media

I find it easy to be distracted by emails and social media and so have created a couple of self-imposed rules to keep my focus on my work. First, I turn off my emails and only review them four times each day: first thing in the morning; mid-morning break; lunchtime; and close of play. Each time, I might need 10-15 minutes to reply to the incoming emails, but I can generally be more efficient by doing them in one go.

Second, I also turn off my social media accounts, although I sometimes turn them on periodically once I’ve finished a particular task. My rule, though, social media is for social time, not work time.

Rule 3: Put work tasks and activities into your calendar

I know that you’re probably used to having your diary full of meetings – and that you will still have phone calls and Teams meetings lined up over the coming weeks – but the chances are that you’re going to have more time to do your own work than you would generally get in the office.

Use that time wisely.

I put my activities for each day in my calendar so that I can focus on specific tasks at specific times, rather than aimlessly going from one mini-task to another. And when I complete that task I then give myself a small reward. It might be a bit of time on social media or a quick noodle on my guitar, but I find that this kind of reward helps me to stay focused and get things done.

Rule 4: Allocate time for big ideas

Newton created the principles of calculus when an outbreak of the bubonic plague forced him to move away from Cambridge for two years and back to his family home in Lincolnshire.

If the changes in your work mean that you have fewer ‘urgent’ deadlines, this gives you the perfect opportunity to work on the ‘important’ stuff. So, if you’ve always wanted to find the time to develop a big, new business idea, or think through how your team could work together more effectively, this could be your opportunity to make it happen.

I put an hour aside each week to think through new ideas and concepts, which I then use in my writing and with my clients. I generally do this alone, but with the technology you’re likely to have to hand you could easily work with a small group of colleagues to develop your thoughts and plans.

Rule 5: Finish work by 2 pm

It took me about six months from starting my consulting business to realise that I didn’t have to work by ‘normal’ office hours. Sometimes, of course, I have to work with my clients until late into the evening, schedule evening calls, or have a deadline that cannot be avoided, but generally when I work from home I find that I can finish work earlier when I’m away from the distractions of office life.

My own target is to finish by 2 pm. This gives me the incentive to work hard in the morning (I’ve generally started by 7.30 am) and focus on that day’s priorities. Once done, though, I’m done, which then allows me to enjoy the rest of the day, either by doing some exercise, playing some music or spending time with my family.

Working from home need not be a period of inactivity where you’re simply treading corporate water. Instead, by following these five rules, you might just find that you are more productive, achieve more than normal and, at the same time, have more time to enjoy yourself.

© Stuart Cross 2020. All rights reserved.