Working Remotely: Part 1, How do we work?
Updated: Jun 25, 2020
You are now working remotely. Perhaps the change was caused by the current pandemic, maybe you had to move to a new place and your employer agreed to let you continue working remote, perhaps remote work is your preference. How you got here doesn’t matter, but for now, you are working from home.
In this blog, I plan to share some of the lessons that we have obtained as remote workers. I’ll share the best practices from an individual perspective. In later articles, I’ll share lessons learned from an organizational perspective.
When working remotely, you have a lot of freedom. A problem you may encounter is that freedom makes you flounder. If you are not the A-type that keeps lists, have routines, firm habits, etc., you probably have to work on your methods. A couple of things that help are to answer two crucial questions:
Where are you working (where are you physically going to sit when you work)?
When are your hours of work?
Where do you sit when you work?
I know it sounds like a non-issue, but it isn't. With remote work, you can sit outside, go to a coffee shop, grab your laptop while in bed, or perhaps some other favorite spot that you have. Yes, you can, but until you are a seasoned remote worker, you will probably find this to be suboptimal. A breakthrough for me personally was that I established a fixed place to work. When I'm in this place, I work. In my case, I dedicate a room in my house as my office, but it doesn't have to be a room. It can be a spot at the dining table, your favorite chair with the laptop on your lap, it can be a coffee-shop, and even for some, they use shared office space. Of course, in these pandemic times, the two last options are probably not available.
The reason it is important is to establish a routine and to send clear signals to anyone around you that I'm Working Now.
Personally, I go to my office and close the door. The closed door is a sign to those around me that I'm working and don't want to be disturbed. Kids and spouse are now careful not to disturb me when the door is closed (not that they always stay away... try to explain to a 3-year-old why what I do is more important than the wheel that just came off his favorite toy... but over time, even the 3-year-old figured out that some things can wait). It is also where I keep my work items, and I try not to drag them around the house.
When do you work?
When you work from home, you may fall into one of these traps:
You keep pushing tasks because you convince yourself you can always do them later. You can, but it may be midnight or later before you get to it. Procrastination is not good for your family life (you just missed watching your favorite TV show with your spouse), your health (sleeping at night is supposedly healthy), and usually not very productive either.
You work ALL the time. There is no need to go home, the office is right there, and your dinner interrupted a thought/flow/process/.... Try to use the same principles as you would if you left office. One of my colleagues even make it a point of stopping 45 minutes before dinner where he isolated himself, listen to music, or reads a newspaper before he emerges from his office. All to separate the workday from his family time. I have to say I'm writing this with some degree of hesitation as I'm not very good at it, but those that do are seemingly happier!!!
Try to get a routine where you get up at a specific time, eat breakfast, have a cup of coffee with your spouse, get ready for work, and THEN work. Also, take breaks. Make it a point to break for lunch. And when the day is over, let it be over. Research shows that working ridiculous hours does not improve your performance.
You can now take advantage of the time you saved commuting to work. If you want to give 50% of that time back to your employer, great, but don't give them 200%.
It's not easy at first, but it gets better.
In the beginning, establishing the routines above may be painful, but it gets easier. I would recommend that you work on getting a firm routine, THEN start relaxing it and take advantage of your new situation.
Here are some things that I do to break up the routine.
Sit by the pool and read reports and research papers. For some reason, the sound of water running makes me concentrate better. I love to sit out by the pool and read reports, review documents, etc. However, I never bring my computer because I found that programming or authoring doesn’t work as well (probably because of the bright sun in Texas making the screen hard to read.
Change the location occasionally. Yes, I know I recommended having one place to work, but as you get routines down, sometimes a change of venue helps stimulate your mind. I live in Austin, TX, which has a very active academic.area. Before the pandemic, I used to love going to the coffee shops the students gather and have the buzz around me of students collaborating on various projects. Perhaps it reminded me of my time as a student; perhaps there is some symbiotic influence that allowed me to focus better. Anyway, when I wrote presentations, courses, white-papers, etc., it always seemed to increase my productivity.
Take advantage of your flexible schedule (if applicable). Say yes to your spouse when he/she wants you to come with him/her somewhere. You can break up your schedule. Enjoy it!
Another important thing is to figure out what motivates you and mix these things into your routine. You can quickly get cabin fever and find yourself losing motivation. It's common and not something you should stress over or blame yourself.
Find out what makes you tick in your work. You may need to get some help from your colleagues or your family to discover what it is, but I found that most people have triggers. For me, it is the feeling of having learned something new and having improved on the way I work. Luckily, many of my colleagues have the same trigger, so we dedicate some time to ensuring that we do learn some new things. I also schedule some time to spend on it.
Although it is not related to remote working, I feel like mentioning it here. A wise man once told me that you have to learn how to use four days to do your five days of work. This so that you can spend the fifth day improving yourself. I don't set aside a day, but I do set aside at least an hour a day. I find that this is MORE important when I'm working remotely.
In this blog article, I've tried to share some of the things that are important to me working remotely. I've been working from home for 20 years (most of my work is consulting and teaching, so I do get out often enough :)), and I can't imagine having it any other way.