British actor and satirist John Bird at the typewriter at his home in Chiswick, London,

    British actor and satirist John Bird at the typewriter at his home in Chiswick, London (Getty)

    An expert’s guide to working from home

    17 March 2020

    As many former office workers decide to self-isolate and work from home, to avoid being eliminated in the group stages, a small cottage industry has sprung up in the form of useful advice columns written by those with experience of the mode. You may regard this piece as an example of the genre.

    I am a comedian by trade, or by inclination at any rate, and for the last twenty four years I have spent most of my days either in cars, on mass transport of one kind or another or sitting at home and in cafes, “working”. I am thus in a perfect position to be able to offer my two penn’orth on remaining Economically Viable in Time of Plague. I’ll consider it my act of public service to help you dodge such pitfalls as loneliness, despair and Sudden Onset Fridge Raiding Disorder. It really needn’t be difficult.

    Banish distractions

    Some years ago, I posted what became my first viral tweet…

    It later emerged that I had nicked that tweet, though quite accidentally. But that is another story.

    I mention it, now that the entire country has gone viral in another and entirely less welcome sense, because we are about to see a surge in home working. That tweet obviously struck a note with Twitter’s home workers. If you think it’s easy to get distracted at work, you have no idea the level of procrastination you are capable of, when left to – and with – your own devices. In your own space, no one can see your screen.

    Not all home workers are “writers” of course. Though certainly half of Twitter self-ID as writers, mostly of the kind understood by Peter Cook and Willie Rushton: “I’m writing a book” “Neither am I.”

    But even if you aren’t a “writer” per se it’s a fair bet that writing is what you are meant to be doing when you are at your computer, looking at twitter.

    So, my first piece of advice –based on the timeless principle, do as I say, not as I do, is: stop reading articles on how to work at home. Just, you know, work.

    In fact, whatever platform you have discovered this on, close it now, and all the other tabs you opened from it, put a timed digital lock on it if necessary – I use 1Focus for Mac, which I think was free, and is at any rate worth at least £50 a day –  and get back to work. Just as soon as you have finished this article, obviously.

    Get out of bed

    The second rule, and in a pinch the only other one you need, is “Get up.” And by “up” I mean right out of bed. Both feet.

    Thousands of film goers will have watched Winston Churchill deal effectively with the last great emergency to face the British public while merely sitting up in bed, or occasionally in his bath, with a folding table across his lap for his correspondence and a cigar clamped between his teeth. This works fine if you are a bulldog CEO, whether of the UK or some lesser entity, and have a loyal secretary to dictate to. But unless you have a broken teenager at home, you won’t have that luxury. And even then, Winston sank almost catastrophically into depression, very probably as a result of this physical inactivity, as much as the prospect of having to make peace with the Nazis. Don’t fall into this trap.

    Next step – cold shower. One downside of the very sensible advice that we wash our hands thoroughly after coming into contact with shared surfaces outside the home, is the temptation to think that if we remain within our own homes we can neglect such basic hygiene. But washing has a powerful psychological effect, even if you aren’t contaminated. It signals a break with the puppy-nestworld of sleepytime, a brisk determination to engage with the world of work. Cold showers are worth at least three espressos, of the kind you will no longer be able to enjoy on your commute back up to the spare room.

    Wear clothes

    The next step is to Get Dressed. If you are likely to be Skyping the boss at some point you have already factored this in of course, but even if not, don’t try and get by in sleep wear. Try to recreate workplace conditions.  This should include everything you’d normally wear for work, except perhaps your lanyard.  Proper shoes too.  Avoid anything you can’t imagine wearing to an appraisal.

    It is important to have a uniform that triggers worky feelings. As a writer of jokes, this is the hardest thing to get right. I have long wished that there was a proper outfit for it, maybe an apron with some tools in the pocket, and perhaps a visor.

    Preparing to go on stage, we have all kinds of triggers that let us know we have Entered the Zone. Lights, music, intro. I still can’t hear the opening bars of  Robbie Williams’ Let Me Entertain You without mentally cueing up my opening routine. But at home, I can never tell when the day is supposed to have started.

    Use a stopwatch

    And finally, use a timer, the home worker’s equivalent of Logos, to define the endless yawning chasm before you, or at least between you and school pick up. 25 minutes – the Pomodoro – is the standard unit of work now, and one of those buys you ONE five minute break. DO NOT GO BACK ON TWITTER. Try finishing the Spectator crossword, sketching a robin, or completing fifty full burpees. Four Pomodoros buys you a full twenty minute break. Time to call your Mum.

    Arm yourself with tea and snacks

    The only other note I have is, take your snacks up with you, a jug of water and ideally a thermos flask of tea. Then padlock your kitchen door shut as firmly as the front door. Perhaps install a wicked witch on the landing to keep you prisoner.

    Optional extras – have a radio on, quietly, by all means, but ideally you want something as dull as test match cricket. Music is fine in principle but nothing you like or you will end up listening to it. Some people have music on in the background when they work. I find music tends to move up into the foreground and work slides into the back ground. Close your email server and switch off your phone for the full duration of each and every Pomodoro and crack on.

    And good luck out there.