Working from home might seem like a tempting concept, but its pitfalls are many. If you don’t draw a clear line between your work and domestic routines, this arrangement can turn from a dream job into a productivity nightmare.

Last week I suggested that companies might benefit from a fluid workspace arrangement, wherein employees would have more flexibility in where and how they get their work done. The implication was, that one of the places you work from, is your home. While many of us try to get the odd tasks done from the comfort of our house, these days the ideas of home offices and remote working are spreading fast.

When you consider the fact that working from home does away with the stressful rush-hour commutes (and the sometimes stressful and crowded office environment), you’d probably be willing to trash your shoes right now, slip into that comfortable bath robe and snuggle up with your favourite neck pillow.

Stop.

Right. Now.

Before you consider setting up your home as a workplace, you have to read through the rulebook. If you don’t understand the rules of working from home, your productivity will slip into chaos very, very quickly. Take this example here – a while ago we had Ian Wright do a guest post on how and why his first home business failed. The list of what went wrong is long, but does have a clear common theme – the home business failed because of his lack of distinction between work and domestic spaces.

This brings us to rule number one of working from home:

1. Separate your workspace and domestic space.

Drawing a line between your work and home tasks is absolutely crucial. The home demands our attention. Dishes pile up, clothes need washing, surfaces need dusting. On top of everything, you have the TV sitting nearby, daring you to turn it on to check the news for “just a second”. The home is full of distractions, but you need to tell yourself this: working time is for work tasks, not chores or entertainment.

Essentially this means…

2. You still need “office hours”

The bottom line is, we need discipline. I do not think work time or office hours should follow a strict schedule (I have explained this here), but you absolutely have to respect work time as a general concept. This is what I use Toggl for when I’m working from home – I track my time to see how much am I really spending on working, and how many breaks am I taking. And while breaks are necessary, they cannot evolve to pick up tasks and activities from the home space. So I analyse my time and make sure the minutes are ticking away on the right thing.

But having “home office hours” is not just about setting time aside for work – you need to adopt a whole work routine, complete with breaks. Your brain still needs breaks to avoid burnout. So remember to stretch, or go for a walk every now and then.

3. You also still need an “office space”.

This advice is somewhat more subjective, as people might have different preferences on how they like to position themselves to get work done (this is one of the ideas behind the Herman Miller “Living Office” concept). One thing is certain, though – as with sticking to “office hours”, you need to define your workspace. The idea is to minimise interference from the domestic space. Ideally, pick out a room that has a door. A closed door goes a long way in keeping distractions out.

If you’re like me and you don’t enjoy the luxury of many doors at your place (hello fellow studio dwellers!), designate a work corner and set it up to be as comfortable as possible (but try to avoid the couch).

Also, there’s one more crucial thing about creating a workspace. Namely, you must…

4. Keep your work zone clean and clutter free.

This goes for the office too. Clutter induces stress – that’s a cold fact. Trying to get some work done next to a pile of unsorted laundry or having your elbow stick to the coffee spills will distract you and drag down your productivity. The problem with clutter is not just in its negative psychological effect – it will also distract you by pulling you away from work to deal with cleaning up. That is a big time sink.

So keep your home clean – and clean it only outside your “home office hours”, never during.

5. Communicate

One thing you cannot afford to forget – unless you’re working strictly solo – is that communication is crucial in any organisation. Might sound simple, but when you’re working from home it’s easy to miss the tiny communicational cues that help keep teams on track. And it’s not just about missing out on important information – not having the possibility to chat with colleagues can make you feel isolated.

We use Slack to keep people talking to each other, but feel free to pick any tool that best suits your needs and preferences. But remember this – you need to seriously and consciously commit to using those online communication channels – having a chat client idle in the background for hours is not particularly helpful.

Make use of the advantages

Once you properly understand and follow the rules of working from home, you can start enjoying its perks. The overarching advatage is that at a home office, you have considerable freedom with how you handle your work stuff. So…

Work flexibly.

As I said in the beginning, while you need to have a clear distinction between work time and home time, there is no objective reason to work on a strict 9-to-5 schedule. If you feel like working four hours in the morning and four in the evening, arrange your work time accordingly. The only thing you really need to keep in mind is that when you’re on work time, you avoid tasks and activities that aren’t work related. Basically, you can cut work time up into blocks, but make sure you respect and stick to these blocks. At the end of the day, you have to remember that you’re still at work, and not on vacation.

Save your homebound buddies and share this advice on Twitter!

Working in a small apartment? Here’s some great advice on how to manage work when your home lacks space.

Got any other tips for working from home? Share them in the comments below!