Sometimes in the face of a global health crisis you realize you have a particular set of skills…*channels Liam Neeson voice*. I have been getting questions lately from friends confronted with full time remote work for the first time in their careers thanks to COVID-19, and it’s made me realize that I’ve gotten pretty good at remote work myself. And that’s because I started very, very bad at it.
My first work-from-home gig was in 2012. I was up to my eyeballs helping with a Salesforce implementation, working remotely in something brand new to me. I learned some lessons hard and fast that I’ve since used and refined in my current virtual role. There are MANY great things about working from home, but also some unique challenges, especially if you are not used to doing it full time. I’m sharing the pitfalls I’ve experienced working from home so that you can avoid them. We all have enough else to worry about right now.
Pitfall 1: Underworking.
The call of things you like to do – Instagram, TV, YouTube – can be particularly strong at home with no one watching or a lack of working atmosphere around you. Not to mention the call of things you don’t like to do but feel like you should do, like laundry, dishes, watering plants, walking the dog. If you have kids at home, this presents an even greater challenge to your time. You can avoid the underworking, over doing-everything-else pitfall by making sure some of the things we’ll discuss in a minute are in place: a dedicated work space free of distractions (including your phone!) and a schedule you more or less stick to with built in breaks. But the number one tip I have for avoiding the trap of all things not-work is to dive right in at the start of 9:00 or whatever hour marks the beginning of your workday. If you start your day on a productive note, you’re much less likely to get completely derailed later. (And even if you do, at least you have those first few hours of productivity behind you.)
Pitfall 2: Overworking.
Depending on your personality, your job, and your work style, this one can be much easier to fall into than underworking. You are a high performer, you are dedicated and passionate about your job, your job is demanding, and/or you are not always efficient at time management…one or all of these things can lead to a situation where you find yourself working from home around the clock. You wake up and immediately start checking emails from your phone, then move quickly to your laptop after brushing your teeth, you forget to eat lunch and realize it’s 2pm before you’ve even taken a breath. You stop around 530/6 or earlier to pick up kids and eat dinner at a normal time, but then start working again in the evening and the last thing you do before bed is send a final email. Sound familiar? This is way more working hours than you’d have with a commute and dedicated morning and evening time to yourself outside of the office, and it isn’t healthy. Moreover, it probably isn’t that productive. Counter-intuitively, “always working” can be a lot like pedaling hard and getting nowhere.
I have two suggestions for avoiding overworking:
1) Have a schedule you stick to that includes a start time, and end time, and dedicated breaks. Be as dedicated to the breaks as you are to the work. More on that next.
2) Stop working from your phone. I can hear you now “I can’t just put my phone away, what about slack?” You have slack on your desktop. You can manage everything from your laptop except maybe some social media apps, so communications & marketing professionals like myself get a pass on the phone rule if it’s truly job essential. For the rest of you, if you plug your phone in a different room to charge and leave it there except for when you are taking a break, I guarantee two things will happen: you’ll be more productive during the hours you are working, and you’ll stop seeing your phone as a device to work on which will lead to less off-hours emailing. You can even take this to the next level and remove slack and outlook or whatever other apps you use for work off your phone entirely— this might be an easier strategy for some than keeping the phone in another room most of the day.
Pitfall 3: Lack of dedicated working space.
A lot is already said and written about how important this is, so just let me reiterate that you can and should make this a priority even if you don’t have a dedicated office at home or a WeWork/Cove membership. I am lucky enough to have a room that is my office in my house now, but when I lived in a 700 square foot apartment with my husband who also works from home, I had to get creative. Even if it’s a corner of the dining room table that you set up and take down every morning, make sure you have everything you need to easily work at your disposal, neatly organized around you. I recommend your laptop, laptop charger, a notebook or planner if you’re into that kind of thing, pen, water bottle (gotta stay hydrated!), and maybe a plant or photo frame. It sounds over-the-top, but the more you set up a little space like an office, the more it will feel like somewhere you do work. If you’re lucky enough to have an office like me, petition work or invest yourself in a good chair and monitor or two, a keyboard and mouse, whatever you need to be comfortable and feel like you would at your actual office. It makes a big difference.
If this drives you crazy and there’s not a great spot at home, have your dedicated public spot. A regular rotation of cafes with WiFi where you can work some days or all days is great, but plan where you intend to be each day at the beginning of the week. Don’t leave it up to chance every morning. (And maybe stick to the house during COVID.)
Pitfall 4: Lack of schedule and routine.
This one is probably the most problematic pitfall on this list, because if you fall into this one, you are almost definitely either underworking or overworking. Maybe even both, depending on the given day. A schedule comes naturally when you leave for work at a certain time and catch a bus or pick up kids at a certain time at the end of the day. Without built in markers for beginning and end of your workday, you run the risk of working all the time or not starting your workday until your first meeting…or never.
Decide what your working hours are and stick to them as closely as possible, regardless of what you have scheduled for the day. Make sure your routine includes getting ready for work, even if your morning routine is minimal. In my job we make sure we always use the video on zoom calls (highly recommend this practice for connectedness too) and so you are still “seeing” people- keep that in mind before you decide to forego showering or brushing your hair. Your hours should include time off for lunch and at least two more breaks. Make sure at least one break everyday involves a change of scenery. These breaks are built into an office environment –people come over and chat, you might walk somewhere nearby to buy food. You must make them yourself at home. Call or text friends/family, read a book, make some tea…do something you enjoy separate from work. Then when break time is over, get back to work. There is no perfect amount of work vs break time; some people swear the rule of 52 minutes on, 17 minutes off. The important thing is consistency: that you make a schedule and follow it.
Pitfall 5: Lacking the right tools and technology.
This should be on your company to provide, if you work for a company. But many people working from home don’t work for a company, and many companies might not be using enough of the right tools, especially those that have been recently forced into remote work by the COVID-19 outbreak. The online tools that I’ve learned to love using for remote work are primarily Zoom and Slack. Zoom is a video conferencing app that makes those camera-on meetings so easy (all you do with participants is share a link, no logging in and call numbers, passcodes, etc. necessary), and Slack is a messaging app that also makes it easy to create channels for teams and share documents and photos. Having a quality camera and microphone is important but in most cases your laptop’s equipment will be enough. If you take a lot of calls especially with clients, I would recommend high quality Bluetooth headphones. Worth the investment if you’re using them every day, and especially true if your work space is typically a shared one.
Pitfall 6: Disconnectedness from colleagues.
Socially, this may or may not be a concern for you depending on your personality. However, keeping up with colleagues is about more than staying socially connected. It is also about your visibility at work. Working in your own bubble is never a good idea, but in a virtual setting it can be extra detrimental. Make sure you regularly communicate and collaborate with colleagues using the technology and tools at your disposal, even if it isn’t something that comes second nature to you. It’s important for your professional advancement and keeping trust from the people you work with. What you are doing and what you’ve accomplished has to be communicated a lot differently (and sometimes more obviously) in a virtual setting.
So what can you do to socially and professionally stay connected to those you work with? Technology is a huge help here. For one, turn on your cameras when making calls. You’ll be reminded you’re speaking to an actual person. Schedule some virtual coffee dates with people and use your cameras. At my organization, we use Slack to help us stay social and communicate. We have a “Watercooler” channel that is not about work, it’s strictly a place to share photos of kids and dogs and vacations. We also use a Slack add-on app called Donut that randomly pairs you with another person at your organization to set up a virtual coffee or snack date. Also, in non-COVID times, don’t forget that just because you work virtually doesn’t mean you can’t meet up with people in person, too. And in COVID times, don’t forget about virtual happy hours…one of those happened to spark the idea for this blog!
Those are the pitfalls I’ve experienced and would caution against, what about you? I’d love to hear how people new to remote work, especially full time remote work, are faring in this new world. What are the biggest challenges for you? Feel free to comment & share.
If you are responsible for managing a remote team or staff and are looking for resources, check out this blog by my colleague and this course from Humentum and Nomadic Learning: The Remote Work Bootcamp Program.
Also check out The Suddenly Remote Playbook from an organization that, like Humentum, has been remote from the start: Toptal.