The Truth about Working Remotely
Here’s the stark truth: Remote working may be all the buzz but it is not a panacea.
Sure, it seems like hanging around at home in your jimjams, listening to your antisocial music, and sipping buckets of coffee is perfect. But it isn’t for everyone. Some people need the structure of an office. Some people need a social element. Some people need to get out of the house. Some lack the discipline to stay focused at home. Some are avoiding the government 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.
Five Tips for Managing Yourself as a Remote Worker
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 in the office.)
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.
1. You need discipline and routine
A capability for 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. Choose your lunch break. Establish your morning ritual. (Mine is email followed by a full review of my clients’ needs.) Decide where your main workplace will be. (Mine is my home office.) Decide when you will exercise each day.
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 to 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. We all have waves.
A wave is when you need a change of routine to mix things up. For example, in the 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 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.
2. Set expectations with your management and colleagues
Not everyone knows how to do remote working. If your firm is less familiar with remote working, you will need to set expectations with colleagues.
This can be pretty simple: Once 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 that 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 may be a lawyer or work with lawyers, but you are not a 911 emergency responder.
Set expectations that sometimes you may not be immediately responsive, but you will get back to people as soon as possible. (Just make sure you get back to people!)
Similarly, set expectations on your general availability. For example, I set expectations with clients that I generally work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. 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. Setting boundaries is necessary for a balanced life.
3. 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 something else happening in your life is taking your attention (such as an upcoming wedding 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 family there, you need to make it clear that when you are working, you need to be generally left alone. This is why a home office is so important: You need to set boundaries. Come in if there is an emergency, but otherwise, mom or dad needs to be left alone when working.
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 its mercy.
4. Relationships need in-person attention
Some roles are more attuned to remote working than others. With any team, though, having a strong relationship is critical, and in-person discussion, collaboration and socializing is essential to this. So many of our senses (meaning our body language, too) are removed in a digital environment, and these play a key role in how we build trust and relationships.
This is especially important if you are:
New to a firm and need to build these relationships.
New to a role and need to build relationships with your team.
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 firm is nearby, work from home part of the week and at the office part of the week. If your company is further away, schedule regular trips to the office. For example, when I worked at XPRIZE I flew to LA every few weeks for a few days. When I worked at Canonical (based in London), we had sprints every three months.
5. Stay focused, but cut yourself some slack
The crux of everything mentioned so far 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. There is a thrill in the discovery of new ways to get better, and to see every stumbling block and mistake as an a-ha! moment to kick ass in new ways.
Remote working is no different: Look for patterns that help to unlock ways 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 obsess every minute about how to get better. They beat themselves up constantly for “not doing well enough” or “not getting more done” and not meeting their internal unrealistic view of perfection.
We are humans, 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.