Tips for Living and Working From Home Alone in the Virus Era
A worker uses a desktop computer whilst working from home in Stow Maries, U.K., on Wednesday, April 8, 2020. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

Tips for Living and Working From Home Alone in the Virus Era

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- In the early days of London’s lockdown, while queuing for sourdough bread at a bakery near my flat, I started chatting with a couple standing two meters behind me. When I told them I was living on my own, they looked sweetly at each other, then turned to me and said, “We’re just so glad we’re not alone.”

I said I’m happy with my situation—it’s nice to have the place to myself and no difficult flatmates to contend with—but seven weeks on, I reconsidered and recently moved in with my parents, who live elsewhere in London. I needed the company.

Still, while parents around the world unite in their struggles to look after their children and hold down a full-time job, it can seem peevish for people living solo to complain. But I learned a few things. Being alone in the time of coronavirus brings a unique set of challenges that would make even the most committed introvert crave a crowded room.

With no one else around to help structure the day, it can be difficult to set boundaries on everything from when to finish work and what to have for lunch to knowing when you’ve binged too many episodes of Queer Eye. And it’s hard to acknowledge feeling lonely. For me it took weeks, and while talking about it with friends and colleagues helped, it wasn’t easy.

“Loneliness is a killer, there’s still a stigma about it,” says Ros Toynbee, a career coach. “To use the ‘L’ word can be a source of profound shame.” She says she struggled with a lack of adult conversation when she set up her own business from home 14 years ago, going for days speaking with no one but the supermarket checkout clerk.

Managers should assume that employees living alone are struggling with that, even if they say they’re fine, says Toynbee. But don’t push them on the point. Instead, ask what kind of contact they’d like to have, such as more regular short check-ins.

For employees, Toynbee suggests a few strategies:

  • Find a buddy who can act as a reality check. This could be a colleague or friend you can reach on short notice to discuss problems or just shoot the breeze.
  • If you miss the buzz of the office, turning on the radio or television in the background can create an illusion of activity.
  • Zoom fatigue”–burning out on videoconferencing–is real, so try to find a balance in your interactions and speak to people with whom you have a real connection. Keep calls to half an hour or less.

I was grateful when a friend set up a WhatsApp group for 10 of us living alone. We sometimes just exchange silly goat-bleating voice messages, but we’re also a support network. I asked them about their experiences of working from home. Two said they spent the first few weeks of lockdown working from dawn till dusk and struggled to switch off.

In that situation, it’s important to bookend each workday and take regular breaks. Give yourself a reason to finish, such as a yoga session or a socially distanced walk with a friend, and keep to those times. If you can’t trust yourself to do it, ask a friend to call at a particular time, and when she rings, switch off your computer, says Toynbee.

On the flip side, another friend said she felt like she wasn’t working hard enough, and she felt guilty because—unlike many colleagues—children weren’t sucking away her attention. But she kept putting off tasks she knew she had to get done or found herself attending to administrative minutiae rather than focusing on what’s really important.

“With procrastination there’s a mistaken belief that you will feel better tomorrow,” says Toynbee. She recommends breaking down a task, setting a 15-minute timer, and getting started. When the timer dings, you’re either in full flow and you carry on, or you give yourself a reward.

She suggests taking note of how you procrastinate—and managing it. If you’re constantly distracted by your personal email, check it at specific intervals, no more than a few times daily. If your weakness is chocolate, set aside a bar as a reward for finishing a difficult task rather than a diversion at the beginning. If you’re a compulsive cleaner (or you become one when faced with a deadline), designate a specific time each week for tidying up.

Lastly, cut yourself some slack. Remember that distractions are inevitable, and you don’t have to be at 110% all the time. And if chatting with strangers in a breadline isn’t enough in-person interaction, that’s OK, too.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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