Laura Vanderkam, author and TEDTalk veteran whose writing we’ve enjoyed at Verily, has a unique way of taking on the ever-present work-life balance question. For the person struggling to carry work and home obligations gracefully, Vanderkam responds by completely dismantling all you ever thought about the building blocks of work-life balance. In her 2010 book, 168 Hours, Vanderkam reminds readers about the many hours each week one has at their disposal if they closely examine how they’re spending them. And in her 2015 book, I Know How She Does It, Vanderkam shares secrets from the time logs of busy working women, elucidating how they reach their goals at work, while also prizing their time spent with husbands, kids, friends, and personal hobbies. (It sounds too good to be true, until you read it!)
Now, our favorite time management author is offering some fresh insight on the topic of working from home. The New Corner Office: How the Most Successful People Work from Home is available on e-book and audiobook. “Whether you're an introvert or an extrovert, a self-starter or someone who prefers detailed directions,” the book promises, “you can do your clearest thinking and deepest work at home—and have more energy left over to achieve personal goals or fuel bigger professional ambitions.”
I spoke with Vanderkam by phone to discuss this latest book, and how some of us just may start enjoying a self-made corner office.
Mary Rose Somarriba: In The New Corner Office, you talk about the importance of reorienting our approach to work in terms of task instead of time. How does that help?
Laura Vanderkam: Since time is hard to measure these days, we have a lot to gain from looking at our work in terms of task instead of time.
Working from home is different from working at an office because those group time norms are just less a part of daily life. If you work from an office there’s always a certain time when people show up, and a certain time when it’s acceptable to leave, so you have a good sense of “I’ve put in a good day’s labor” if you’ve been there. Who knows what’s actually been done.
When you remove those work-time norms, people can feel adrift. And so people can wonder, “How do I know if I’ve been productive?” One way to start measuring is instead of asking yourself, “Have I done a day’s work?” ask, “What have I done?”Come up with challenging but sustainable goals for one day, and when you’ve gotten through those, you’re done. Of course for full-time work, it should still fill in about eight hours (not just one hour of the workday!), but overall thinking in terms of task and not time can help people feel more productive.
MRS: Do you think using a time-tracking app is helpful?
LV: It depends on what the purpose is. If you want to ask yourself, “When am I working, when am I on task?” or “When am I drifting?” It can be useful. But, some employers have installed these devices on people’s computers since COVID, and I think that’s amiss. There’s no point. If you have to do that to ensure your employees are productive, you’ve lost the game.
People are productive when they are engaged with the work entrusted to them and feel connected to getting it done. Time-tracking tools are just software—what does that tell you? They could be staring at their screen or on Facebook on another device. For personal knowledge purposes, though, it might be helpful. I track my time. It helps me know when I am more productive, and when I am less productive.
MRS: What tips do you have about making a good workspace in the home?
LV: One of the best things to keep in mind is you have the opportunity to have a corner office in your home. Even if it’s not a full-fledged home office, at home, you have a way to customize your place of work in a way you can’t in a corporate office. You can have a desk by a window. Often employees have to be senior to do that, but you can just put a desk by a window. You may even have control over what you see outside the window. Do you like roses or hydrangeas? Plant them. Make it something you want to see.
You can also adjust the physical environment. A lot of women have the experience of jobs in which we are freezing all summer long, because of the air conditioning being on full blast. You don't have to deal with that at home; you can put the temperature at a level you’re happy with. If there are smells that make you happy, you can add that too; you can’t burn a cinnamon candle at corporate, but you can at home. Customize your space to be your best self, and it just might help you be more productive.
MRS: Do you have any self-care tips for the WFH employee?
LV: One of the best things you can do is limit your consumption of news. At certain points, you’re just wallowing in it. If you cannot personally do anything about the rising COVID-19 caseloads in Texas, there’s very little benefit from spending much time on it.
I recommend people check the news at one point in the day for about 10 to 15 minutes. Get headlines, be an informed citizen, know what’s happening for elections, and so on. Do it at a time when you are best able to handle it. Additionally, you can do something else before or after reading the news that is a known mood lifter; check headlines for 10 minutes, then go for a walk, or chat with a friend. Pairing the news with something uplifting after can really help reduce your likelihood of feeling paralyzed by it.
MRS: Do you think for many of us, working from home is here to stay?
LV: This won’t last forever, but a lot of people are going to land in a hybrid later. We’re all experiencing working from home now, and many will realize they like it. Many may end up working from an office two to three days a week, and from home two to three days a week.
The upside of a hybrid between home and office is you’re going to be able to spend those times in the office in a very collaborative mode and a more social mode, knowing you can buckle down during those work from home days. You can afford to be more collaborative on face-to-face days that otherwise sometimes people think can be distracting and hard to focus for deep work. If you know you have the WFH days to do the more focused work, you can be more relaxed on in-office days.
MRS: When I told my daughter about this interview, she said she hopes you don’t tell me the best way to work from home is to do less playing with kids. How have you found parents working from home make time for kids?
LV: It’s interesting, because in the past those working from home were a more mom-oriented workforce: accept less money to work a day or two a week from home. Working from home was more a way of taking your foot off the gas of your career, and a perk was getting to spend more time with your kids. Now everyone’s doing it.
But everyone can get more of the work-life-balance upsides of working from home. One of those is taking the commute out of your life. When you’re neither with your family nor working, it’s 100 percent wasted time.
I've always told people when you work from home, you need childcare only during the hours you’re working. It does not work long-term to be the adult in charge with small kids while you are working from home. It doesn’t mean you have to send them to daycare; you could switch off with your partner, and many people use school as their childcare when working from home (although we’re realizing that isn’t 100 percent secure). But it’s not like you can avoid the issue of childcare. You still need it. It’s not sustainable to try to care for young kids and do your work from home.
MRS: What questions would you recommend someone ask themselves if they’re not sure if they should get childcare?
LV: The first question is, do you want to keep your job? Employers have been understanding of the challenges of working parents for the first few months of COVID because we are all in a crisis. I’m not saying your employer is going to fire you, but some people think they can continue without childcare. You can't keep doing this forever. It’s just not sustainable.
Next, what would be the most impactful hours for work you can get in the week? Maybe you just need someone in the morning. If your partner is also working from home, what times could you swap kid-watching?
Is there money you could take from another bucket for 2020? If you had budgeted for a family trip, or gas for the car, or eating out, my guess is you are not using as much of those budgeted funds as you planned. Can you find money from other categories that are not being spent as much in order to make life doable now?
It would be great if everything went back to normal tomorrow so it’s probably wisest to assume it won’t. So if you’re working from home, ask yourself what you can do to make life sustainable and what resources you can use to make that happen.
MRS: Do you have any last words to readers on how to make working from home work for them?
LV: I think, long term, this is a real opportunity. It’s unfortunate many people’s first experience working from home is coming from a real crisis situation. Women with kids, who are the most likely to get the benefit from WFH arrangements, are getting the lion’s share of the crisis.
We have to manage the crisis aspect of this right now but, by keeping that in mind, we can keep the upsides moving forward. First, we need to manage some of the downsides to make daily life more doable now.
It’s imperative to manage your energy. Do what you can to make daily life feel more doable. One of the best things you can do is to schedule little adventures or little things you’re going to look forward to doing. Have more conversations with meaningful people in your life. Make things stand out; have a picnic breakfast, or see a friend you haven't seen in six months.
Put something you can look forward to into your day; it’s very important to have that self-care aspect to manage your energy.
You can order The New Corner Office: How the Most Successful People Work from Home for Kindle or Audiobook from Amazon.