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COVID: Retrenched and freelancing? Set up your home office like this

By Isabelle Coetzee

With the Covid-19 pandemic forcing the majority of South Africans to be in lockdown, many have now turned to working from home – either because of being retrenched and having to freelance now, or to accommodate their current role under lockdown regulations.

So, how can you ensure you maintain your productivity in your new work environment? JustMoney got in touch with freelancers and found out what’s worked for them over the years.

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Taking the leap to work from home – lockdown or not

Deon Binneman, the Reputation Go-to Guy, who has been working from home for 24 years, says that he started his consulting practice in 1996, and he considers it the best thing he’s ever done.

“I have saved myself commuting costs, and it has given me flexibility to work if and when I want to,” says Binneman.

“Luckily, I am a self-disciplined individual, so the transition from corporate to home was not too difficult. But not everyone’s like me, and for many it’s now become a required activity because of the Covid-19 lockdown,” says Binneman.

He explains that there are signs that this will become the new normal for many of us. In fact, he believes that there are many professions and workers who could work from home. Studies now reveal that there is an increase in productivity when people work from home.

“It was not plain sailing when I started. Over the years I’ve accumulated many tips and hacks on how to do things quicker and more elegantly,” says Binneman.

“You need rules for working from home, such as your household members respecting when the door is closed – or you hang a sock on the handle so your family knows you’re working,” he explains.

Tips from 24 years of experience  

Binneman has learned the following lessons from working from home over the last two decades:

Tip 1: Always consider your reputation

“Reputation matters. It’s an asset and a risk, and how you portray yourself while working from home will add or subtract from your reputation,” says Binneman.

He adds that you need to pay attention to communication, materials, how you work, and the image that you portray. You will need to set yourself up with tools and equipment that will assist the transition, make you productive, help you to communicate and keep contact, and – most importantly – deliver the performance you promised your company or clients.

“Some people believe that you need an office and will be trusted more, but I think that's old school,” says Binneman.

Tip 2: Set up an ideal workspace

“Where will you work from? Your bed? It seems cool, but let me tell you: to have a dedicated workspace is crucial. Ideally it should be a separate room from your living room and bedroom (also for SARS tax purposes). It makes sense keeping your work and personal relationships separate,” says Binneman.

Tip 3: Take regular breaks

Binneman points out that when you work in an office, you can get up and visit another person's workspace, go for a smoke break, or just go to the watercooler.

At home, being isolated might get to you. He suggests checking out the following:

  • The Pomodoro Technique: This is a method of time management, which was developed in the 1980s. In short, the idea is to set a timer and take short breaks when it goes off.
  • Check in with colleagues: If you’re working as part of a team, reach out to team members for advice and bounce new ideas off them through online calls.
  • Phone someone you love and care for: If you’re feeling isolated and overworked, don’t hesitate to reach out to someone dear to you. It will likely help improve your productivity.
  • Never forget your pets: They need love, care, and attention too. Nothing lifts someone’s mood like spending time with a furry friend.

Tip 4: Set physical and psychological boundaries

“This was one of my biggest mistakes. Now that my kids have grown up, I realise how many movies I did not watch with them. Why? Because I always felt guilty walking past my office, thinking about that unfinished project. I was misguided and equated activities with outcomes,” says Binneman.

Today he sets himself boundaries and routines that help a lot with this, such as managing whether his office door should remain open, using headphones, setting strict times, and getting up earlier.

The 7 S’s for surviving working from home

According to Bradley Woolridge, the managing director of Burns Acutt Accountants, you need to consider seven things when working from home:

  • Structure: Consider the physical set up of the home office – comfort (health), functionality (networks and technology quality), and the availability of practical tools (printers, scanners, and multi screens). Also think about your surroundings, ambience, and distraction management. Think ahead when it comes to tax planning and note the difference between employer versus employee responsibilities.
  • Style: Which hours should you work? Do you plan to follow a traditional approach or not? Do you plan to work formally or informally, and what will your turnaround times be?
  • Software: Here you should think about the tools for efficiency and practicality, video software, sound management tools, task software, your digital profile (marketing and business cards), and cyber security.
  • Strategy: Consider setting up a defined career plan, think about your academic and personal development, holding or growth pattern employment, and maintain a professional vision for yourself.
  • Sharing: Maintain traditional human relationships, prioritise people time (catch ups, check ins, and follow ups), and share freely. The online world is large, you can’t monetise everything you know but you can commercialise everything you are in your area of expertise.
  • Success: Have a measurement in mind and recognise your progress as you transition, and maintain a disposition of gratitude. Think differently about what this looks like if you feel that the traditional measurements (remuneration, reward, recognition, and promotion) are less applicable.
  • Sleep: Rest during the day and take refreshers, ensure you have days with zero work activity and periods where you take off completely. You might work from home, but you still have a life – don’t lose focus of your passions and family.

“Working from home is not the same as working at home. A defined space that promotes focus and limits distractions is essential,” says Woolridge.

He recommends maintaining personal relationships and not getting lost in your work to the detriment of your personal life. He believes you should manage your time well.

“Without travel, parking, social distractions, and the like, you actually have more time available to get your work done but also to enjoy your life. Find the balance,” advises Woolridge.

Common mistakes made when first working from home

According to Yolandi de Wet, who’s been working from home as a PR consultant since 2011, you often forget to consider your body posture when working.

She says you should set up a space where you have good body posture to prevent head- and body aches. For example, using home furniture, rather than a proper office chair.

It takes time to work out the kinks of working from home. De Wet points out the following mistakes that are often made when you first start working from home:

  • People set up their office in a leisure area and don’t distinguish between work and rest.
  • It’s nice to work from your bed now and then, but it also creates a habit of not getting up and getting ready for your day. This can lead to demotivation and bad sleeping patterns.
  • You shouldn’t work anywhere near your kitchen or fridge. We associate home with eating and chilling – as it should be – but you have to discipline yourself.
  • Get up, dress up, and have a routine. This helps a lot and prevents you from working late into the night. Remember, once everything returns to normal you will have to adapt quickly.

Lize Hayward, owner of Clear Communications, advises those who have started freelancing to join the South African Freelancers’ Association (SAFREA) for support. They offer resources and advice to local freelancers, as well as standardised rates to use as a general guideline for your own rate card.

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