December 09, 2015

Pants Required: Staying Productive While Working Remotely

I have spent more than half of my 15 year career as a remote employee, bravely venturing down the Lego-strewn hallway in my bare feet to my home office. Telecommuting has enabled me to live near family in a low-cost, rural area while continuing to be well compensated for interesting work from companies in major metropolitan areas.

Those hours normally lost to commuting become time with my kids or a chance to mow the lawn. I’m not distracted by conversations around me. Unnecessary meetings and walk-up interruptions are minimized. I schedule my own time and work asynchronously, answering messages during down-time rather than interrupting my focus. Need to visit Mom? Pack up the laptop and my office is now her dining room. Just don’t get water rings on the table!

But, there are challenges…

It’s not all sunshine and roses punctuated by dancing unicorns. There are unique challenges as a remote employee and here I will focus on strategies to help maintain productivity.

Staying productive

When sitting by yourself for hours on end with the Internet, family, and chores to distract you, it can be difficult to remain focused. It can slip away gradually until one day you realize that you got up at 11AM, took a 2 hour lunch and closed up shop at 3PM. In your new career as a remote worker it’s important to make rules for yourself and stick to them until you find your groove.

The strategy I advocate is to clearly delineate your work and leisure environment with demarcation points such as time, attire, space, and routine.

1. Define your business hours and stick to them

Your work day is framed by time even though the scenery (your home) hasn’t changed. This gets you up in the morning and also helps prevent 2AM from sneaking up as you continue to work on that race condition which only happens on the vernal equinox when the moon is in its waxing gibbous phase.

Re-enforce your work hours with coworkers through passive indicators such as saying “Morning” and “‘night” in the team chat room or by setting your away status. Your team will learn your patterns and (hopefully) begin to respect them. Be cognizant of critical tasks (ZOMG, SITE DOWN!!!!), but correct problematic off-hour “pingers” with responses like, “I’ll check that out when I sign on in the morning.” Just because you gained 2 hours of your life back by eliminating your commute doesn’t grant your job dominion over that time.

Because I live in the US, work for US companies, and have a family, the above assumes a typical 9-5 schedule. You might be a 3AM to noon kind of person and if that works for you and your company, go for it. The advice stands, though: define those hours and stick with them.

2. Set clear boundaries for family

These boundaries need to be both spatial and temporal. Work time is work time. Your office is an office, not a racetrack. During work hours little Johnny cannot come in to play spaceships with you every 5 minutes. Your spouse can’t be expecting you to be mowing the lawn and taking care of the dishes. You are at work, even though your office is in the same structure as your home.

3. Put on your damn pants

No, really. Do you think you’re going to do your best work while sitting around in those plaid pajama pants your wife gave you for Christmas half a decade ago? Attire reinforces positive habits and clearly delineates chill time from work time, particularly when you’re new at this. Besides, no one wants to see you wearing the same pizza stained Pearl Jam t-shirt day after day in your morning scrum. Groom yourself and shower. Pretend you’re going to a “real job” - because you are.

4. Separate your work and leisure technology

Some of us actually use our phones, tablets, and computers for purposes other than work. When you’re standing in line at the grocery store and an email notification from your boss pops up, I bet you probably read it. Boom…work just violated your work/leisure time contract.

As part of delineating your work environment, consider creating separate profiles on your devices to avoid the temptation of reading or responding to messages during leisure time. Even better: have separate devices. I was essentially forced into having a separate work phone due to company security policies and it ended up being a wonderful quality-of-life improvement. If I’m not working or on-call, the work phone sits on my desk. No more checking work email while chilling on the couch.

5. Track your time

If you’re having trouble judging your own productivity, there’s an app for that. I use RescueTime which tracks the active window (or tab in your browser) and allows you to categorize your time per application/site on a scale from “Very Distracting” to “Very Productive.” The privacy sensitive among you may not like the tracking aspects of RescueTime and may prefer an app such as Toggl which allows you to track time by project and activity. (Disclaimer: I have not used Toggl.)

6. Redefine productivity

You no longer are restricted by the idea that work has to occur while sitting in a chair, at a desk, in front of a computer. I find it challenging to perform the creative aspects of my job while chained to a desk. Without judgmental eyes upon me, I am free to stand up, go for a walk, mow the lawn, or take a bath and contemplate that new architecture that I’m trying to invent.

This may seem counter to work environment delineation, but when employed strategically, it can be effective in improving the quality of your work. You can still separate work from play with time, attire, and attitude while changing the space you are working in.

7. Be flexible

These aren’t hard rules. Perhaps playing spaceships with Johnny for a few minutes is the best possible thing you can do for your sanity or productivity. Get out of your office and work on the patio on that nice summer day. Go get a Gingerbread Latte and cream-cheese pumpkin muffin from Starbucks. You work from home. It’s awesome, so take advantage of it. Here’s a secret: I fold laundry during conference calls.

These last two points might be considered advanced strategies for after the necessary patterns of staying productive have been established. They also represent some of the biggest advantages. Be introspective and constantly ask yourself whether you could be working more effectively on a particular task by changing your environment in some way.

Key to success while working remotely is developing the skills and routines to clearly separate your work and leisure environments. Once these routines are established, you become free from the bonds of a traditional office space and can explore creative ways to improve your work performance.

In the next article, I’ll address communication strategies, equipment, and resources for remote workers.