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INSIGHT: Teleworking Tips During a Crisis—Know When to Walk Away

March 19, 2020, 8:00 AM

In the wake of current events, many companies and law firms are encouraging their employees to work from home. Hundreds of thousands of “office” people are now facing the prospect of teleworking for an extended, and unknown period of time.

Some law firms, like Baker McKenzie, are closing offices and requiring their attorneys to work remotely.

As a long-time teleworker, I wanted to share my experience and provide some tips to those new to working from home.

In 2001, I worked as a lawyers’ malpractice claims specialist for an insurance carrier in Chicago. After surviving five Chicago winters, my husband and I decided to move to Maryland to be closer to family. Although my husband’s employer transferred him to Baltimore, my company had no local offices.

Reluctantly, I told my manager that I would have to resign. Rather than accepting my resignation, he asked if I wanted to telework from Maryland. I immediately accepted, packed up my bulky LCD monitor and CPU tower and headed to the East Coast. Secretly, I thought it would never work in the long run. I figured there would be too many obstacles—technological, social, corporate—to keep my job as a remote employee long-term.

Nineteen years later, I continue to work as a full-time teleworker in Maryland with most of my colleagues in Chicago and Kansas City. Remarkably, I have had only one day when I was unable to work due to technology issues. Over the years, many people have asked how I have managed to telework and keep a work-life balance.

These are my tips for making it work.

Designated Workspace: I have a small office in my basement that I use solely for business. I do all my work here. I have tried to work in Starbucks, the library, my couch, etc., for a change of scenery but I have difficulty focusing. I work best at a desk with my company-provided ergonomic chair. Your experiences may vary.

Communication: Visibility is a major challenge for long-term teleworkers. With email, skype, IM, facetime, etc., it is easy to stay connected with coworkers. But, don’t isolate yourself and be out of sight, out of mind. Try not to limit your communications to just emails and texts. Schedule regular conference calls with your team members to touch base. Make sure your boss and coworkers know that you are working and engaged.

Starting Up: As tempting as it is to just roll out of bed and start working in your pjs, try to follow the routine as if going to the office: exercise, shower, eat breakfast, get dressed, etc. I had a short-lived attempt to wear business attire while working from home to feel more professional but that quickly fell by the wayside.

Regardless, give yourself some time to ease into your workday. Not having a mental break can cause burnout and unhappiness in the long-term.

Children: My company has a policy that children under 12 must be supervised by another adult. Personally, I never would have been able to get work done if my three young kids had been home. I didn’t think it would be fair to them (or my company) if I tried to do two things at once. Consequently, I always made sure we had childcare lined up. While there are exceptions, if you plan to telework full-time, childcare is a must.

Distractions: Treat teleworking as a day in the office. That means no Netflix, no laundry, no yard work. Do your errands during your lunch break or at the end of the day, just like you would normally. A teleworking day is not a vacation day. Those who treat it as such are sure to have performance issues.

Breaks: On the other hand, make sure that you have some short breaks throughout the day. Sitting and staring at a computer monitor for more than eight hours can be brutal. Stand up, stretch, get the mail, etc. I try to eat lunch away from my desk, for the sake of both my keyboard and my sanity.

Food: I’m not going to lie—there is so much temptation when I know there is a full refrigerator and pantry just a few steps away. But I purposely stay out of the kitchen unless it’s lunch time, and I keep junk food to a minimum. Preparing my lunch before my workday begins is a big help.

Walk Away: Knowing when to walk away is one of the toughest parts about teleworking. For engaged employees, shutting down at the end of the day is a challenge. I stick to an end time and turn off the laptop.

Contrary to the myth that teleworkers may slack off, one of the biggest dangers from teleworking is that employees get burned out from working too many hours.

As the current situation continues to unfold, no one knows how long employees may need to work from home. But try to use this time of uncertainty to your benefit—get yourself organized and plan out your day. Stay in touch with your coworkers and continue to work hard. While long-term teleworking may not be for everyone, be grateful that you have the flexibility and make the most of it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Ellen McCarthy (CPCU, RPLU) is vice president and senior risk management & product underwriter for the lawyer’s professional liability program with Swiss Re Corporate Solutions. She previously served as a claims expert adjudicating complex legal malpractice and insurance agent E&O claims across the U.S., and as an underwriter for the LPL program. She is a licensed Maryland attorney and former associate at an insurance defense firm in suburban Washington, D.C.

This article contains the personal views, thoughts, and opinions of the author. It is not endorsed by Swiss Re nor does it constitute any official communication of Swiss Re.