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Even for Freelancers, Working From Home During Quarantine Requires a Digital Village

Working from home requires connection, collaboration and creative solutions — now more than ever.

By Julie Tremaine on April 16, 2020


“You already work from home,” I heard recently. “Your life is exactly the same.”

It’s true that in the simplest of terms, my life has technically stayed the same in the month that we’ve been living with a global pandemic. As a full-time freelance writer, I already worked remotely on my own schedule. I have solid workflow systems and time management strategies in place. I know how to work from home efficiently and comfortably. The logistics, for me, aren’t new. 

If you look at it any other way, though, everything has changed — for everyone. People are dying. People are isolated from their loved ones. People are losing their livelihoods and retirements, and struggle to find daily essentials like food and toilet paper. A general sense of fear and uncertainty loom over all of us, every day. 

There is no normal anymore. And one of the “normal” things I miss every day is the level of productivity I’m used to having. My regular work output has gone out the window, derailed by the never-ending cycle of bad news, by endless scrolling through social media, by trying to schedule (and reschedule) video chats with friends. But more than that, real brain fog has set in. I’m so used to my routine — get up, work for the morning, get dressed, leave for meetings or to work remotely for the afternoon — that I rely on having those built-in changes of scenery to keep my mind fresh and my productivity high. Taking breaks during quarantine doesn’t have that same refreshing effect for me. These days, I’m finding myself in one long workday during which I’m struggling to get anything done. 

I am intensely grateful that so far, the impact to my life has been minimal. But I’m definitely not the only person feeling this particular kind of isolation malaise. “As a freelancer, it’s easy to feel isolated in your work,” says Cheryl Rodewig, a freelance journalist and marketing consultant. “Add on the stress of being in quarantine, and human connections become even more important.”

She is one of a growing group of freelancers who have started digital co-working groups in response to quarantine isolation. Rodewig’s is for female-identifying freelance writers and editors on the East Coast. In her monthly meeting, people swap success stories and tips for finding work, which, given the restrictions on our lives right now and the resulting economic downturn, has become more challenging. “Practical advice like this can make the difference between landing a commission that will offset your electricity bill and missing out on an opportunity,” she adds.

Writing coach Suzette Mullen, founder of Your Story Finder, regularly hosts virtual co-writing dates for her clients, but has opened them up to the public during the pandemic. During these weekly 90-minute sessions, writers share their goals before doing an hour of uninterrupted writing on their own and discuss the results at the end. “Setting a specific intention and then reporting back on it has been a powerful practice,” Mullen says. “It’s useful and motivational to see that everyone is struggling and that everyone can actually feel like they’ve accomplished something in a hour.”

To stay on task, Rodewig likes to use timeboxing — setting aside blocks of time to work uninterrupted on specific tasks with no email or browsing breaks — and to take a daily lunchtime walk. Mullen uses a similar system, including moving your phone to another room to avoid temptation and using social media as a reward. “It’s really no different from before, this battle of the distractions, just more amplified,” Mullen says. Breaks, too, are crucial. “Under normal circumstances, the freelancing life has blurred boundaries,” she says. “Even more so now. Give yourself permission to take time off.”

Maintaining your productivity is especially hard when you’re sharing a house with someone who’s newly working from home. Britt Riley, the co-founder of The Coggeshall Club, a co-working space in Rhode Island that also offers fitness and childcare, suggests creating a “blue zone” in your space that is private and off-limits to others for important work moments. “What you’re looking for are the quietest, most private and secluded parts of your home to engage with calls and meetings uninterrupted,” she says. Then, make a daily schedule of who needs that privacy, and when. Riley also suggests designating individual workspaces in the house. “Even if you live in a tiny apartment, you can give everyone their own functional space.”

Her team is scattered across the country, and Riley says she uses Zapier, which is a combination of the Trello project manager, Slack communication and GSuite, to keep everyone on the same page. “It rarely feels as though we are outside of the same room. These tools help you see progress in real-time,” she adds. “When managed well, they keep everyone on task in a way which the most tight knit office would struggle to pull off.”

That sense of community is crucial these days, when even those of us who are used to working alone feel particularly isolated. “It creates a sense of normalcy and comfort when nothing is normal right now,” Rodewig says, “and that’s welcome.”

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