map with a temporarily closed stamp on it

How to Work From Home When You Didn’t Plan To. . .

7 Tips to Survive Covid 19

My sister’s two young grandchildren are staying with her, unexpectedly, for at least the next two weeks. Their mom is a hospital administrator, and their dad is a doctor, at two different hospitals. They’re both on call for the foreseeable future, and my sister will stay home from work herself . . .

A friend, who works from home, unexpectedly asked for suggestions on how to manage. Why? Because his daughter’s school closed, and his wife’s employer told her to work from home. . .

My brother’s wife is also working from home unexpectedly. His high school daughter will be at home, attending classes virtually, and his college son is coming home from campus, with a friend, to stay for the duration. . .

All over the US, employers are suddenly telling people not to come into the office, to work from home if they can. (And they’re the lucky ones.) In many other countries, the situation is worse. Italy and Spain are basically on lockdown, and France is nearly there.

I’m writing this post on Monday, March 16, 2020, and it is definitely not the one I planned for this week.

  • Walt Disney World is closed
  • Schools all over the US are closed
  • Colleges and universities have closed their campuses and are holding virtual classes instead
  • Municipal and state governments are telling restaurants and bars to close In major cities
  • Stores are empty of foods, paper goods, and cleaning supplies
  • Pharmacies are out of painkillers
  • Thousands (tens of thousands? millions?) of people who normally go to work every day are unexpectedly working from home
  • Several states have rescheduled their primary elections

Such is the face of COVID-19, now an official global pandemic according to the World Health Organization.

As someone who’s been working from home on and off for over 30 years, and exclusively for the past 10, I know how hard it can be to make the transition. It’s even harder when circumstances outside your control force it on you unexpectedly and you have no time to prepare!

It’s even more difficult when you add children who are also home all day because their schools or daycare have been shut down and/or your spouse working from home as well.

So today, instead of writing about WordPress, I’m going to talk about what you can do to make your work-from-home time more productive and less stressful. So grab a cup of coffee (or, better yet, green tea which has some good detoxifying properties), and let’s go!

#1. Set up a dedicated work space

My messy desk in my home office, with laptop, mug of green tea, and tissues.
Yes, this is my messy desk. Laptop, tissues, mug of green tea. . .

If you’re working from home for an afternoon, or a day, you can get by on the kitchen table or the couch. If you’re working from home for the foreseeable future, you need a real workspace.

It should be:

  • Out of the main traffic patterns of your home
  • Free of distractions
  • Ergonomic
  • Ideally, in a room with a door that closes

#2. Have a serious talk with the people you live with

family of giraffes
Family of giraffes discussing their new work-from-home situation

Whether that’s a spouse / partner, roommates, kids, or parents, whoever you share living space with needs to be part of the conversation. This probably won’t be easy, but it’s absolutely necessary.

It’s important to be absolutely clear with them about the difference between working at home, and being available to them at home. That involves setting boundaries, which isn’t easy for a lot of us. And it’s not just one sided. If they’re working or studying from home, they need to figure out what they’re going to need, too. For most families, this is uncharted territory.

When I had school-age kids and worked from home, I found it was easier to train the kids than it was my husband. The kids knew that when I was working, they couldn’t interrupt me unless the house was on fire or someone was bleeding.

One day my daughter came racing in. “Mom,” she announced breathlessly, “Hugh’s (my youngest son) a bloody mess.” Needless to say I leaped from my desk and ran.

My husband, on the other hand, assumed that if I was physically present, I was available to talk with him any old time. This was extremely frustrating for me. I finally adopted a strategy that worked pretty well. If he ambled in and started chatting, I would listen for a minute, then ask, “if I was working in someone else’s office, would you have called me at work to tell me this?”

If the answer was no, I would point him to the door. If it was yes, I would listen.

On the flip side, I would make periodic forays out into the house to check in with them to see if anybody needed me for anything.

Juggling a family at home when you’re working from home is complicated. If both of you are working from home suddenly, while the kids are also home instead of in their usual routine, it becomes monumentally complex.

#3. Figure out the tools you need to communicate and collaborate with coworkers


There are tons of communication and collaboration tools available, and wading through them could be a full-time job in itself. Here are the tools I’ve used and liked.


Slack is good for quick questions, comments, confirming meetings, and so on. Slack is like a grownup version of texting for a workplace environment. It’s free for limited use, and paid plans start at $6.67 per user.

It’s platform agnostic, available for Mac, Windows, and Android. Depending on your plan, you can also share files, and make calls through Slack if you need to bump up a conversation to an actual conversation with one or many coworkers.


Zoom is great for videoconferencing, with coworkers, clients, customers. . . You can start for free.

Your free plan includes one-on-one Zoom meetings, but if you want to meet with three or more people you should upgrade to a paid plan, starting at $12.49/month (paid annually).


I love Trello as a collaborative project planner. I’ve used plenty of others, but I like the fact that it’s very visual. I use it with all my WordPress clients.

Trello is a visual system based on Kanban — that’s the process Toyota introduced as part of its “just-in-time” manufacturing efforts. Kanban (Japanese for “visual signal” or “card”) has since found its way into the world of software development, but it’s useful in a wide range of settings.

Trello took the Kanban concept and organized it into a system based on boardslists, and cards. It’s extremely visual, and shows at a glance what you need to do, what you’re currently working on, and what you’ve completed.

Use it to share files as well.

If you’re using it for work, you could also add a family board to help coordinate family activities. I’ve used it for everything from planning WordPress and writing projects to house hunting and planning moves.

It’s free to start, and the free account might work perfectly for you forever. If you want to add a few extras, there’s Trello Gold, at $5/month or $45/year. After that, a Business plan is $9.99 per user per month.

Other Project Management Tools

Other tools include the popular Asana, Basecamp, and Teamwork.

Teamwork lets you start with a free plan that accommodates two projects and up to five team members. Or go Pro for $9 per user per month.

Basecamp offers a 30-day free trial, but after that it’s a flat fee of $99/month for a team of unlimited users.

Asana lets you start free with up to 15 team members. Pricing starts at $10.99 per user per month.

There are pros and cons to each of these. I’ve personally found Teamwork pretty easy to use. Basecamp and Asana never really resonated with me. Given their popularity, I suspect I’m in a minority.

The project manager that will work for you will depend on the types of projects you’re working on, and the size of the team you need to collaborate with.

#4. Develop habits that train your brain, “I’m at work now”

traffic jam

When you commute to a physical office outside the house, you have an established routine. It’s easy to separate “home” and “work.”

When you commute to another room in your house, or even a corner of your bedroom, it’s important to establish new routines that get you mentally ready to put on the “work” hat.

When they start working from home, some people will crow about the fact that they can work in their pajamas.

But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

In fact, a lot of the pj wearers admit that after a while their motivation slips and they may even start getting depressed. You don’t need to put on a suit and tie, or pantyhose and high heels, but put on presentable clothes. (Especially important if you’re doing any kind of videoconferencing anyway!)

I strongly recommended establishing a morning routine that includes getting dressed, and also incorporates some sort of a physical transition to “work mode.” It can be as simple as walking down the hall with a cup of coffee in your favorite work mug before you settle into your chair at your desk.

#5. Take regular breaks, and get out into the sun

You’ll likely need to establish a new working rhythm, one that’s different from what you were used to when you were at the office.

Whatever that looks like for you, build in some short breaks to get some fresh air and sun — even if it’s only for a couple of minutes standing on your front lawn, on your terrace, or in your front doorway — a couple times a day.

It will do wonders for your state of mind!

#6. Make yourself undistractable

Unless you’re a social media manager, do yourself a favor and stay off Facebook, Twitter, etc., during working hours. Also, shut off your computer’s and phone’s notifications for everything that isn’t mission critical for getting your work done.

Use a timer or a tool like Pomodoro Tracker to help you work in short, intense bursts, with short breaks in between. If you’re not familiar with the Pomodoro technique, you can read about it here.

#7. Remember to eat!

fruits and vegetables

I have a bad habit of getting engrossed in something, and then suddenly realizing I’m absolutely starving because I blew right through lunch time.

That doesn’t happen as much when you work in an office, because people around you are getting food, or talking about it, and the activity level in your environment changes.

Besides using a Pomodoro timer, set an alarm on your phone if you need to, to remind you that it’s lunch time. Take an appropriate lunch break and feed yourself something. During these stressful times, it’s tempting to load up on comfort foods, but you’ll feel better (and work more productively) if you choose more plant-based meals.

And don’t eat at your desk. Keep your workspace for working.

I’m sure there are plenty of other things you can do to get into the work-from-home groove. If you have a strategy, tactic, or tool that works well for you, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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