I am a full-time remote worker for my employer. I work from my home as part of a distributed team, spread literally from one side of the (continental) US to the other. I’ve been doing this for a few years now, after about a decade and a half of the usual office / cubicle work life.
I’ve come to realize that I am, perhaps, odd about this, in a good way. Usually when someone describes remote work, they say that there are the downsides of lack of social contact and feeling hemmed in at home and such, sometimes. NOT ME, MAN. I could stay at home forever and it’d be great. I can still go where I want to, but I feel connected enough with my coworkers that the occasional trip to see everyone in person is enough. For me, that social downside is barely there.
So, having been immersed happily in remote work for some time, I can anoint myself as a minor authority on the subject, if you don’t mind. As such, I’d love to talk about tips for being an effective remote worker and loving it.
I’m not going to try to convince anyone of the merits of remote working. There’s plenty of material out there about that: studies, and real-life stories, and all that. This is for the remote worker who wants to up their remote game. Of course, I could always use tips too, so if you have them, I’m all ears.
My tips will bend towards working at home, versus at a local coworking office, because I do the former. Still, some of what I talk about will apply no matter where you physically are.
With that out of the way, here’s my first tip.
With a classic (I’ll say “legacy” with a snicker) office work environment, you go to work to work, and then you go home when you are done with work. Well, except these days, apparently, people can’t stop working even when they’re home, and have to keep answering emails and writing reports and stuff for all hours. Setting that huge problem aside, the idea at least is that at the end of the work day you go home and do all those other things in your life, you know, like eating, sleeping, and perhaps relaxing if you won’t get fired for it.
When your home is where you work, that physical separation is gone. There’s no commute either, which is super great, but that also takes away that transition time when you are either mentally preparing for the day or coming down off the day. So the temporal separation also vanishes.
Without those separations, it’s really easy to “lose track of time” and keep working. Or, have the problem I fight, which is to check back on things at, say, 10 at night, you know, because it’s all right there and maybe somebody needs something so it’s quick. This, like taking work home with you in the classic environment, is bad, for all the same reasons as the classic environment.
It’s important, when working at home, to create a semi-artificial work/non-work separation. What this means is that when you are about to start work in the morning, you say to yourself, “I’m going to work. I’m at work. Work has started,” and when you are done (and you pick that moment when you are done), you say to yourself, “I’m done with work today and I’m heading home. I’m home now. Work is over.”
It’s silly, but that doesn’t mean it’s dumb. (I joke with my family that my commute home is walking down the stairs, and the only hazard in that commute is our cat.) It keeps work from seeping into the rest of your life. Those studies about eight hours being about as much as a person can work effectively in a day aren’t irrelevant just because your work area sits inside your home.
This may sound ironic to remote work haters who figure everyone who works at home is actually lazy / slacking off / eating bon-bons and watching Dr. Phil. Well, just because those haters would do that if they were working remote doesn’t mean everyone does it. Heh heh.
Part of enforcing this separation is having a defined space for work. Sure, it’s fine to chill on the couch once in a while, but having a dedicated proper spot, just for working, is crucial to confine your work time. I’ve got a desk, set up just as it would be in an office, optimized for me getting stuff done. It’s not for gaming, or doing the bills, or anything else. When I sit there, I’m working. When I’m home, I’m not sitting there.
Your family, friends, and anyone else you live with need to help here, too. If you were working in an office, your kids wouldn’t hang all over you, or your parents call you daily, or your friends pop in unexpectedly for a few hours. Working remotely is no different. You are “on the clock” doing your job. You understand that, and they need to as well. This doesn’t mean you can’t take a break to chat with your spouse, or talk with the ‘rents once in a while. Those are benefits of working at home. But they can’t be common distractions.
Besides the physical and social separations, there’s the temporal separation, but this is tough when your commute is zero. I find it’s helpful to let myself ramp up when I’m starting to work, and also give myself time to “decompress” once I’ve declared the end of my work day. Especially with the latter, I don’t always feel present mentally, which is interesting. I guess even if a physical commute is gone, the mental one remains. Others have to help you here too, and not leap on you once you emerge from your study in the evening. You’re physically at home, but your mind needs a few minutes to catch up.
A strong work/non-work separation keeps your work life and your home life healthy. It also fosters a inner feeling and an outward impression of being a responsible employee, as dedicated as anyone back in the office. This helps keep your team cohesive, no matter where each individual is, and tells your management that you are serious about cultivating a proper remote work ethic.