It’s March 2020 as I write this and the world is changing as I type. Hospitals are crying out for masks, ventilators and other essential services. There is talk about having to pick and choose who dies soon, normally bustling cities are ghost towns and we’re not allowed to touch anyone anymore. It truly is an odd time to be alive.
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Due to Coronavirus governmental mandates and common sense, many companies are forcing employees to work from home (WFH). This new mandate took a lot of people off guard and has come as a shock to many. Employees now are free of that annoying “Hey, got a minute?” coworker but are now forced to deal with something much, much worse....toddlers!
Whether you’re forced to somehow merge corporate spreadsheets with parenting or struggle with simple home distractions, don’t worry. You can manage working from home. And, believe it or not, you can excel at it regardless of the circumstances. I’m here to show you how.
You’re Talking to a Professional Introvert, WFH Guru Here
Vendors and media publications are jumping on the WFH bandwagon. I can’t blame them. Millions more people are now struggling with trying to make this new situation work. There are lots more eyeballs which equals more page views! More information is great but not at the expense of real, actionable steps that actually work!
Most people are used to going into an office every day. They have no context of what it’s like working from home yet they write articles telling other people what to do.
I wasn’t going to write a blog post like this because I’m not one to jump onto the bandwagon but I saw a need. People needed real tips that work that have been tested, honed and modified over many years. No one can give you this advice unless they’ve been there done that themselves. And I feel with over 10+ years of 90%+ full-time remote work, I’m uniquely qualified to weigh in on this topic.
In this blog post, I intend to convey all of the tips you should and shouldn’t do to get the most out of your own remote work circumstance.
Please note that all of the tips and advice covered in this blog post will be from the individual contributor side of remote work. I have no experience being a manager coordinating a global, remote workforce. All tips I provide here are for knowledge workers working as individual contributors.
Remote Work is not “Working from Home”
Before I get into the individual tips, I want to first eradicate the stereotype that remote work is “working from home” in air quotes.
You know what I’m talking about. Before COVID-19, your coworker requests a Friday to “work from home” with a wink. “Working from home” was always a euphemism for getting paid to work but not actually doing a damn thing.
Sure, there were people that abused the privilege and managers that didn’t have the skills to measure the results these people. There are always going to be people that hate their jobs and will do everything they can to get out of it. Similarly, there will always be managers that hate the idea of remote work. These managers are used to managing the “butts in seats” method because they lack the expertise to measure employee output.
Believe it or not, there are lots of us out there that enjoy our work and will actually work harder at home. I know; crazy, right?
This post isn’t going to be my thoughts on changing the WFH mentality. I could go on and on but I will save that for another day.
Enough chatter, let's get into the tips!
Don’t Expect to be Productive Right out of the Gate
First and foremost, don't expect to hit the ground running just as if it were another day at the office. It's not. Even though you're still working with laptop in hand doesn't mean everything is the same. Your entire routine is off, your family is around, you will have the temptation to do home things, etc.
Give yourself time to adjust to your new surroundings. You will eventually get into another routine. It won't be near the same as it once was but you will get there. Give yourself a break for a little while and be patient while you get into this new groove.
Don't Try to Replicate the Office Experience
Many people know an office environment. They know going to work, sitting down at a desk, socializing with coworkers and having meetings. You may see the same screens on your desktop at home doesn't mean WFH is being in an office. Things are different.
Sure, you could try to replicate the office experience but you'd soon find a lot of disgruntled employees. Why? Once everyone starts working from home, everyone's environment is different. You no longer have the common playing ground of a physical location.
Joe may 10 kids his wife chases around all day with 2-3 barging in on him at any given time. Jose might be single and have all the time in the world to get work done. Sheri might have to work later in the day because her husband works early and can't watch the kids.
There are so many different environments people can be in. Don't expect everyone to immediately respond as if they were sitting right next to you.
Expect everyone is on a different schedule.
Ditch Unnecessary Meetings
This statement goes with working in an office or remote work but don't require meetings without some thought. Try to let everyone be on their own schedule and don't require unnecessary times when people have to get together.
Worthless meetings are time drains anyway but are especially bad when employees have to ensure they are "work ready" at a specific time and day.
Learn to Work Asynchronously
This tip closely relates to not replicating the office experience. One of the hardest parts of remote work is asynchronous timing. When working remotely, people are expected to get work done in many different environments. Work can still get done but not on a strict 9-5 schedule.
As co-workers and, more importantly, managers, everyone needs to understand not everyone can sit quietly for 8 hours straight. Distractions abound when working remotely. Everyone must get used to everyone else's schedules.
Don't randomly ping a coworker for something that can wait until next week. Batch all of your requests for that person and schedule a time that works for them to discuss. Work together to come up with a schedule that works for everyone.
Remove All Reasons to Combine Work Mode and Home Mode
You may be used to going to the office every day. Please continue that. Our brains are habit-making machines. Previously, when you left the house you were in "work mode". When you got home, you were in "home mode". These modes are completely different. They instill a different feeling and that feeling affects how you act.
It's important you replicate "work mode" to provide your brain with a similar environment where you can still get work done. The last thing you want is "work mode" bleeding over into "home mode". If you combine the two modes, both suffer.
This tip needs a few sub-tips.
Create a Physical Office Space
Whether you have an entire room you can dedicate to an office or just a partition, have a space for work and a space for home. Don't work from the kitchen table one day, lay on the couch with your laptop the next and sit at your desk next week. Try to create a physical space to separate work mode from home mode.
A room with a door is obviously the best option but some may not have that luxury. Unless you live in a tiny NYC apartment, chances are you have some space in your home you can dedicate to only working.
Build an Office Canteen
This tip goes for those lucky enough to have a physical room with a door. If you have a home office, create a little work canteen with mini-fridge, coffee-maker and snacks.
Keeping snacks and drinks inside of your office helps you separate work from home mode. If you have a family home with you, have you ever tried to sneak to the fridge for a drink before you're guilt-tripped into playing or completing a honey-do checklist item? You'll get trapped!
Keep all of the necessities that encourage you to come out of work mode inside of your office so you don't have to leave.
Buy a Comfortable Chair
We sit in chairs for hours at a time typing away at computers in the office. If you're doing the same at home, why not invest in a nice chair? It doesn't matter if it's one of those Herman Miller ergonomic chairs or a soft living room chair I have in my office.
Be comfortable. If the cushy chair you see above ends up hurting your back, sit at a desk or invest in a standing desk too. It doesn't matter where you're at, just be comfortable.
Keep a Work Routine
Humans love routines. We have our morning routines, evening routines and bedtime routines. When you went into the office, you had a "go to work" routine. Keep that even if you no longer have an office to go to.
This tip relates to creating an office area. It's important to keep the two separate and to continue a working routine. If not, you and your boss are bound to get frustrated because you're not available or missing deadlines because you're doing home activities. Work life is so much easier if you have a specific schedule to follow.
Establish a rough schedule that works for you, your boss and your family. Sure, there will be times when you have to deviate from it but you and others in your household know what to expect things will go much smoother.
Take breaks around the same time every day, eat lunch with your family around the same time, have your morning and afternoon snack at regular intervals. It doesn't matter what you do, just get in the habit of sticking to a work schedule.
If you work from home, it's tempting not to care about your appearance. You're not going into the office anymore so who cares what you look like, right? Wrong.
Dress like you would going into work. I'm not saying to put on a suit and tie if you're a banker or lawyer but at least change out of your jammies! Pretend like that's casual Friday at the office and wear that every day.
When you change clothes, it has a mental effect on you whether you realize it or not. If you're still in your pajamas at 3 PM in the afternoon, your brain thinks it's still time to lie around and be lazy. Although you can continue to be as productive as usual, it's harder. I've found that it's more of a struggle to convince myself it's time to work when I'm in my boxers vs. in a pair of nice jeans and an untucked polo shirt.
It goes without saying, working from home can challenge your productivity levels. Combining the two worlds is bound to affect your work at least initially. Those that take purposeful action to remain productive can escape from that slump after a few weeks of being at home. How?
One of the most useful strategies I've used over the years is time blocking or time batching. Typically, we work on projects (the big rocks) and fill in small tasks around the big rocks. This method can work for the projects but what about all of those little tasks you have to do?
If you're like me, you have a tendency to knock out all of those little tasks when they come up. When you stop what you're doing to shift focus though, that can be a major drain on your productivity. Those little tasks shift your attention this way and that. You lose momentum as you switch and it always takes a lot longer than you expected to focus on your important project again.
Instead of knocking out small tasks as they come up, record them somewhere and schedule a time on your calendar to complete them at a certain time. Batch all of those related tasks and knock them out at one time.
- Do you have a bunch of email to catch up on? Batch it.
- How about issues to bring up with a coworker? Batch it.
- Maybe you have some phone calls to make. Batch it.
Block off time on your calendar to work on related tasks that don't require you to switch context so much. Time blocking or batching comes in handy especially when you may have different schedules than your peers.
If you'd like to read more about time blocking, you can find an excellent article on the SkedPal blog.
The productivity guru, David Allen, has a book called Getting Things Done (GTD). If you haven't picked up this book yet, you need to right now. In GTD, David teaches a habit to keep things out of your head and capture them. The moment you think of an "I need to do that" or "I can't forget to..." and you think you'll remember to do it, you won't.
Have a no-brainer way to capture your thoughts. It doesn't matter if it's a Moleskine notebook, notepad on Windows or task management software, just get one. I, personally, use Todoist because I'm on my laptop all day. If I hold Cmd-Shift-Space down at the same time, it brings up a window on top of all my other windows to quickly capture ideas.
It doesn't matter how you capture your thoughts, just don't keep stuff in your head and get distracted by all of the shiny objects at home!
Find a time to work that works for you and your family. Unless you're mandated to, there's nothing stopping you from working odd hours like 4 AM to 6 AM before the kids get up, catch a couple of hours in the afternoon and then finish your time at night. The time doesn't matter, just be sure it's roughly the same time every day.
If you're a night-person, crank out the work at night. if you have kids, take care of all your important tasks in the early morning before they wake up. Find the schedule and groove that's right for you.
Whether you have a family with crazy kids, an annoying spouse or just can't manage to tear yourself way from the the Xbox, we all have distractions. Just like the office, you must learn to deal with distractions at home too.
Invest in Noise-Canceling Headphones
First, I suggest buying some nice noise-canceling headphones. Other than an office door you can shut, noise-canceling headphones have been, by far, well worth the investment. I've used both the Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless headphones and the Bose QC35 headphones. Either pair is not cheap by any means but I can personally vouch for both pairs' effectiveness.
Set Housemate Expectations
If you have others living with you, have a meeting ASAP. Explain to them that even though you're home, you're "at work". Convey that work time isn't the time to do honey-do tasks, help the kids with homework, take out the trash or fix that leaky faucet.
Setting housemate expectations upfront will prevent problems in the future. Trust me. Don't try to combine home life and work life. It doesn't work. Come up with a system to notify others that you're busy. Below is an awesome example I recently saw by Todd Klindt on Twitter.
Nip family distractions in the bud now before you get in a fight about not being responsive. Not that I learned that from experience or anything.
Stay Connected with Your Team
When everyone is in the office staying connected is near impossible not to do. You can't get away from that annoying coworker right across from your desk if you tried! Working from home will help you escape the annoying ones at work but it will also disconnect you from everyone else.
Once you communicate your personal schedule, be sure you stay available to your team when they need you. Use online collaboration software like Slack or Microsoft Teams and use these tools' presence features. When you're out, update your status. If you're head down in an important project and don't want to be disturbed, let your team know.
Sometimes when we're remote, our accomplishments also go unnoticed. Be sure to routinely check in with your manager and perhaps send them an email every week with accomplishments and todos. You don't have to hold weekly status meetings. Just make it a point to routinely check in to provide todos and todones.
Stay Connected with Your Systems
Although sounding like a no-brainer, stay connected with your employer's systems. Use the online collaboration tools available. Many organizations use VPNs to connect to the office. Nowadays, many services are cloud-based not requiring a connection to the office data center at all.
If you don't know how to use the tools your employer uses, learn now! You don't want to be the one holding up every meeting because you can't figure out how to turn off the potato filter (see below).
If you still have a desktop at work, ask your employer if you can use remote desktop software like TeamViewer, VNC or similar software. Remote desktop software is a program you can install on your desktop at work to remotely view and control it just like you were in front of it at home.
Communicate with Third Parties and Mute Yourself!
Nowadays, it's commonplace to work from home but once upon a time, it was a rarity. I still remember profusely apologizing to important clients that my dog wouldn't shut up or my kids would come busting in my office. Although family distractions like these are to be expected now doesn't mean you shouldn't warn those unfamiliar with your WFH situation.
It's polite to quickly warn everyone on the call that they may hear some background noises while you're speaking. The majority of the time, everyone will understand.
Also, please mute yourself if you're not speaking! I can't stress this behavior enough. There's no reason the entire company in a staff meeting needs to hear Fido barking his head off at the cat next door while Charlie in Accounting covers Q3 expenses.
Last and definitely not least, stay healthy! Whether you're quarantined from a pandemic or are jut an introverted recluse, be sure you stay active. It's so easy to get in the routine of rolling out of bed, sitting at your desk, eating lunch and dinner and just going to bed. It's so easy to sit all day. According to some, sitting is the new smoking.
Get a Standing Desk
Try to stand as much as possible. I bought an Ikea standing desk not too long ago and love it. I can adjust it up and down depending on how I'm feeling. You don't have to spend $600 on a new desk though. Put your laptop on some books or stand at your bar. Find a place where you can stand and type.
Get Out a Little
Try to make it a habit to, you know, actually leave your house every now and then. Just because you're mandated by a government stay-at-home order doesn't mean you can't actually leave your house! Take a stroll around the neighborhood. Get out during your lunch break. Make a walk or run part of your daily routine as an excuse to catch up on your podcasts.
You don't have to run a marathon per week; just try to stay active.
I've been working remotely for a long time now and have learned a ton along the way. I've managed to survive this long by learning from my mistakes and spending time to make my home my "office". I hope you will do the same.
Here in 2020, many of you are now in the same boat I've been for a long time now. Welcome! I hope this blog post provides some tips you may not have been aware of or at least sparked some action on your part. I know remote work isn't for everyone but if you follow these tips and listen to other WFH old-timers, you will surely make the most of it!
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