Remote working seems to be all the buzz. Apparently, 70% of professionals work from home at least once a week. Similarly, 77% of people work more productively and 68% of millennials would consider a company more if they offered remote working. It seems to make sense: technology, connectivity, and culture seem to be setting the world up more and more for remote working. Oh, and home-brewed coffee is better than ever too.
Here’s the stark truth: remote working is not a panacea. Sure, it seems like hanging around at home in your jimjams, listening to your antisocial music, and sipping on buckets of coffee is perfect, but it isn’t for everyone.
Some people need the structure of an office. Some people need the social element of an office. Some people need to get out the house. Some people lack the discipline to stay focused at home. Some people are avoiding the government coming and knocking on the door due to years of unpaid back taxes.
Remote working is like a muscle: it can bring enormous strength and capabilities IF you train and maintain it. If you don’t, your results are going to vary.
I have worked from home for the vast majority of my career. I love it. I am more productive, happier, and empowered when I work from home. I don’t dislike working in an office, and I enjoy the social element, but I am more in my “zone” when I work from home. I also love blisteringly heavy metal, which can pose a problem when the office doesn’t want to listen to After The Burial.
I have learned how I need to manage remote work, using the right balance of work routine, travel, and other elements, and here are five of my recommendations:
- You need discipline and routine (and to understand your “waves”)
Remote work really is a muscle that needs to be trained. Just like building actual muscle, there needs to be a clear routine and a healthy dollop of discipline mixed in.
Always get dressed (no jimjams). Set your start and end time for your day (I work 9am – 6pm most days). Choose your lunch break (mine is 12pm). Choose your morning ritual (mine is email followed by a full review of my client needs). Decide where your main workplace will be (mine is my home office). Decide when you will exercise each day (I do it at 5pm most days).Design a realistic routine and do it for 66 days. It takes this long to build a habit. Try not to deviate from the routine. The more you stick the routine, the less work it will seem further down the line. By the end of the 66 days it will feel natural and you won’t have to think about it.
Here’s the deal though, we don’t live in a vacuum (cleaner, or otherwise). We all have waves.
A wave is when you need a change of routine to mix things up. For example, in summertime I generally want more sunlight. I will often work outside in the garden. Near the holidays I get more distracted, so I need more structure in my day. Sometimes I just need more human contact, so I will work from coffee shops for a few weeks. Sometimes I just fancy working in the kitchen or on the couch. You need to learn your waves and listen to your body. Build your habit first, and then modify it as you learn your waves.
- Set expectations with your management and colleagues
Not everyone knows how to do remote working, and if your company is less familiar with remote working, you especially need to set expectations with colleagues.
This can be pretty simple: when you have designed your routine, communicate it clearly to your management and team. Let them know how they can get hold of you, how to contact you in an emergency, and how you will be collaborating while at home.The communication component here is critical. There are some remote workers who are scared to leave their computer for fear that someone will send them a message while they are away (and they are worried people may think they are just eating Cheetos and watching Netflix).
You need time away. You need to eat lunch without one eye on your computer. You are not a 911 emergency responder. Set expectations that sometimes you may not be immediately responsive, but you will get back to them as soon as possible.
Similarly, set expectations on your general availability. For example, I set expectations with clients that I generally work from 9am – 6pm every day. Sure, if a client needs something urgently, I am more than happy to respond outside of those hours, but as a general rule I am usually working between those hours. This is necessary for a balanced life.
- Distractions are your enemy and they need managing
We all get distracted. It is human nature. It could be your young kid getting home and wanting to play Rescue Bots. It could be checking Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to ensure you don’t miss any unwanted political opinions or photos of people’s lunches. It could be that there is something else going on your life that is taking your attention (such as an upcoming wedding, event, or big trip.)You need to learn what distracts you and how to manage it. For example, I know I get distracted by my email and Twitter. I check it religiously and every check gets me out of the zone of what I am working on. I also get distracted by grabbing coffee and water, which then may turn into a snack and a YouTube video.
The digital distractions have a simple solution: lock them out. Close down the tabs until you complete what you are doing. I do this all the time with big chunks of work: I lock out the distractions until I am done. It requires discipline, but all of this does.
The human elements are tougher. If you have a family you need to make it clear that when you are work, you need to be generally left alone. This is why a home office is so important: you need to set boundaries that mum or dad is working. Come in if there is emergency, but otherwise they need to be left alone.
There are all kinds of opportunities for locking these distractions out. Put your phone on silent. Set yourself as away. Move to a different room (or building) where the distraction isn’t there. Again, be honest in what distracts you and manage it. If you don’t, you will always be at their mercy.
- Relationships need in-person attention
Some roles are more attuned to remote working than others. For example, I have seen great work from engineering, quality assurance, support, security, and other teams (typically more focused on digital collaboration). Other teams such as design or marketing often struggle more in remote environments (as they are often more tactile.)
With any team though, having strong relationship is critical, and in-person discussion, collaboration, and socializing is essential to this. So many of our senses (such as body language) are removed in a digital environment, and these play a key role in how we build trust and relationships.This is especially important if (a) you are new a company and need to build these relationships, (b) are new to a role and need to build relationships with your team, or (c) are in a leadership position where building buy-in and engagement is a key part of your job.
The solution? A sensible mix of remote and in-person time. If your company is nearby, work from home part of the week and at the office part of the week. If your company is further a away, schedule regular trips to the office (and set expectations with your management that you need this). For example, when I worked at XPRIZE I flew to LA every few weeks for a few days. When I worked at Canonical (who were based in London), we had sprints every three months.
- Stay focused, but cut yourself some slack
The crux of everything in this article is about building a capability, and developing a remote working muscle. This is as simple as building a routine, sticking to it, and having an honest view of your “waves” and distractions and how to manage them.I see the world in a fairly specific way: everything we do has the opportunity to be refined and improved. For example, I have been public speaking now for over 15 years, but I am always discovering new ways to improve, and new mistakes to fix.
There is a thrill in the discovery of new ways to get better, and to see every stumbling block and mistake as an “aha!” moment to kick ass in new and different ways. It is no different with remote working: look for patterns that help to unlock ways in which you can make your remote working time more efficient, more comfortable, and more fun.
…but don’t go crazy over it. There are some people who obsesses every minute of their day about how to get better. They beat themselves up constantly for “not doing well enough”, “not getting more done”, and not meeting their internal unrealistic view of perfection.
We are humans. We are animals, and we are not robots. Always strive to improve, but be realistic that not everything will be perfect. You are going to have some off-days or off-weeks. You are going to struggle at times with stress and burnout. You are going to handle a situation poorly remotely that would have been easier in the office. Learn from these moments but don’t obsess over them. Life is too damn short.
Have you read?
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The World’s Safest Cities Ranking, 2019.
The World’s Best Countries For Business Expats, 2019.