Canadian web behemoth, Shopify, has historically had a large percentage of its workforce as remote. Recognizing that remote work isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, Shopify ran an “experiment” a year or two ago where ALL staff were directed to work from home. The intent was to help “regular” workers experience what it was like to work remotely. The goal was for “regular” workers to develop empathy for those working from home. The experiment did achieve its purpose. Many workers realized that working remotely has its challenges. As we make our way through the current COVID-19 crisis, Shopify was one of the first companies to encourage and direct its employees to work from home. Many of us that have had no experience are now being told to work from home. Yes, it’s great that we are able to continue to try to work and earn some income. For this, we should all be very grateful as many are not quite so lucky. The number one benefit of working from home is that you are, well, working. This is something for which I’m sure we’re each deeply appreciative. The fact that our employer’s are able, with our remote contributions, to continue to service customers and maintain operations on any level is a great privilege. We’re part of the lucky ones. We all are facing real challenges and hardships, but maintaining an income is a huge relief. As a result, doing our best to be as productive as we can to help serve our customers and benefit our employer’s businesses is our goal. Many of us have been thrown into the deep end of the remote work pool in the past week. Perhaps, we’re still treading water and feeling our way for the surface?
I’ve had the good fortune of working from home on some level for the better part of the last 20 years. At least several days a week, during this period, I’ve worked remotely. The experience has had its ups and downs, yet lots has been learned to capture more of the pros and limit the cons.
- Avoid commute/reduce sunk time. This is the massive win of remote work. The commute from bedroom to work area can be steps taking seconds versus fifteen minutes to an hour each way commuting through snarled and stressful traffic. Realistic time wins of one to two hours a day can be had.
- Less time needed to prepare for work day. What’s been referred to as the Office Mullet where we only need to be prepared to dress nicely for our upper body and can sit around in shorts. All business up top and party down below, featured by Ron Burgundy in Anchorman. There are shortcuts we can get away with related to how we present ourselves for remote work. No, you don’t need to look like Joe Thornton with a playoff beard or Forrest Gump running across the US; but, yes, you can relax your personal grooming standards slightly.
- Save money (travel, hygiene, business lunches, business attire, dry cleaning). Remote workers can avoid amassing an arsenal of Armani suits or fleets of Fluevogs.
- Flexibility. Option to balance personal and business efforts.
- Freedom to plan day.
- Being out of the loop.
- Left to your own devices and distractions, tough to focus.
- Easy to slip into being too casual.
Recognizing there are challenges and opportunities for working from home, how do we make the most of the experience? How can we best navigate our way in this new world? Even our employers are not sure how to direct us. In fairness, employers not used to having staff working from home simply won’t have policies and procedures in place to manage. They’re learning on the fly with the rest of us. We’ve been cut loose to figure things out. We’ve likely received very little direction other than the instruction to work from home. We’ve set out 10 tips for working from home. These do assume that your employer has the technical resources and IT infrastructure to accommodate. We aren’t touching on E&O exposure or other challenges that are part of the remote work environment in this article. We’re also assuming that you have access to proper resources. What are the tools of the trade for remote workers? Nothing special is needed. A laptop, cell phone, pen, and paper are the essential elements. A coffee cup and a water bottle are close seconds. Anything else is a bonus. Try to keep in mind that productivity and not perfection is the goal. Approach working from home from the posture that life’s a lab, you’re an experiment of one, just try something.
- Find a quiet place to work.
- Create a schedule.
- Block your time. Ensure some time available for proactive work. Some for managing reactive/customer service inquiries/etc.
- Communicate your schedule with others who will be in your home at the same time.
- Communicate your schedule with colleagues.
- Take yourself and your role seriously.
- Manage expectations for response times (with colleagues and customers).
- Track your progress.
- Focus on Outcomes.
- Take breaks. Set a finish line and stick to it.
As working from home has become more common in recent years, the abundance of resources has flourished. Simple Google searches offer all kinds of additional advice. A book that I’ve found greatly helpful in this area is “Remote, Office Not Required” by Jason Fried and David Hansson. We’ll be making a book summary of this available in the next week or so for your reference. An endorsement of this book from the editor of Wired Magazine, Kevin Kelly, offers: “In the near future, everyone will work remotely, including those sitting across form you. You’ll need this farsighted book to prepare for this inversion.”
- Find a quiet place to work.
If you will be working at home while others will be at home, finding a place to manage your efforts while minimizing disruption is the most important thing you can do. It’s not about having a great desk, ergonomic office chair, and other technological tools at your disposal. It’s about having some quiet and ability to think and work without the cacophony of chaos echoing around. For many of us, this is not easy. We’re not looking for a perfect, professional looking spot. We’re aiming for productivity. One of my first home office set ups, years ago, was done in the closet of our home’s master bedroom. I set up a small desk in the closet. No, the closet wasn’t so massive that this made sense. It was just a place to put my head down and work without distraction. I was unlikely to be intruded upon and had a place to put my work tools. There were no wall plugs, no windows, no nothing. Fortunately, it wasn’t stuffed with clothes. I powered electronics with an extension cord to a plug in from the main room. The point being, we don’t need a nice home office. A quiet area, anywhere in the house is ideal. And, yes, my wife never tired of telling people that her husband had just come out of the closet whenever I appeared.
If we can’t find this, the next best option is finding a space in one of the public areas of our home. If we’re forced to go this route, we then need to set some boundaries with others (and ourselves). Finding a home for our laptop, phone, and notebook on the island in our kitchen or at our dining table can work as well. However, the actions we take with respect to tip 4 below will become the difference between being productive or frustrated. If we don’t have to worry about others in the home, we still need to recognize that at some point later in the day, we’re in a communal part of the house. As such, we need to commit to cleaning up our work area and giving the family back our work space. This we’ll cover in tip 10.
This really is not much different than what goes on at the office. If we’re asked where we do our best work, it’s rarely mid day at the office. If we’re doing it at the office, we’re either opting to enter the premises super early or stay late. We do our best work at home or at the office when things are quiet and we can operate without interruption. Our homes may be more similar to our offices than we may realize. Both offer non-stop opportunities for interruptions. We’re just trying to find the ability to carve out some space at home to allow us to perform our responsibilities. It doesn’t need to be pretty or perfect, just productive.
2. Create a schedule.
One of the difficulties of working from home is that you are left to your own devices. There’s no clarity or fixed program for you to follow. Left without a clear path, we wander around chasing whatever distraction presents itself. Proactively preparing a schedule for your day provides clarity, comfort, and ensures you’ll be in a position to contribute. Just like when you were a kid, being home alone can be scary. It’s your day, you must find your way. If you’re getting up, getting ready, and just sitting in front of your laptop and cell phone waiting for things to happen, you’ll be both frustrated and ineffective in no time at all. The freedom we all think we want is terrifying once we get it. Everyone knows exactly what they would do if they were in charge, until they’re in charge. We see this on the highway when buddy pushes his way through traffic to get to the head of the pack just to slow down. All of a sudden things get harder when you’re out in front leading the way.
Those that are both most comfortable and most capable at working remotely showcase the skill of initiative. They are able to decide what to do. In a prior article we discussed the value of initiative to employers. I can’t dictate your day for you. Each of us knows our job best. You can try to use as your frame of reference how you would spend your normal office day and try to mirror it as best you can in the home environment. There will, no doubt, be differences.
Your schedule isn’t about planting your posterior somewhere from 9am to 5pm. It’s not about physical time. Seek to create four blocks throughout your day to allocate to work activities. Find four blocks of between one and two hours that fit when you are your best. The freedom to pick the time when you will be productive is good for both you and your employer. Better to be busy during a time of day when you know you’re most alert and able to work than just physically sitting in a half dazed state digesting donuts.
3. Block your time. Ensure some time available for proactive work. Some for managing reactive/customer service inquiries/etc.
Try to determine what the main tasks are that encompass the lions share of your contributions. What are the three or four buckets of activity that most of your work falls into? If your job is to deal with customers, you could start by separating your efforts between new business and existing customers. You could then further separate your work between making time to respond to incoming requests and making proactive outreach efforts. This parses your work into four distinct efforts. You could allocate time for each of these. You could then set some time aside for planning your day and recording your efforts. Finally, separate time for personal development, remote meetings with your manager, and keeping in touch with colleagues would be another area for which to set aside time.
4. Communicate your schedule with others who will be in your home at the same time.
My wife mentioned something she saw online the other day that captured one of the foremost frustrations of working from home. It was a picture of a mom working calmly from the kitchen table on her laptop while across from her, three kids sat with their hands tied and duct tape across their mouths. It was a eye catching way of expressing the difficulty of distraction from having others around. This is absolutely a challenge for many of us with kids around that will only worsen as school closures and daycare programs become inaccessible for extended periods.
Balancing our responsibility to entertain and care for our children against trying to be productive and honor our work responsibilities is incredibly hard at the best of times. Doing so, under the present circumstances is a critical challenge. The saving grace here is many of us are now in the same boat. There’s no need to try to “hide” anything. There’s no need to run around frantically trying to “shush” family members while you try to have a phone call or participate in a webinar. We get it. We’re all doing the same things.
You will also want to take time to consider who else will be around as you work from home. There will be some give and take. It may make sense to get certain work done when you know kids may be napping or outside playing. There may be times when you can do less mentally intensive tasks when you recognize distractions may be close by. Scheduling phone meetings while the house is jam packed with others is a recipe for conflict and stress. Give yourself a chance and properly plan your efforts.
Coordinate your work day plan with those that will be at home. Try to ensure that when you need peace and quiet to do productive or creative work that others in the home won’t be running around uncontrollably making noise. Ensure they are either out of the house, having a nap, or engaged in their own quieter pursuits. This will create less pressure and stress for everyone sharing the same space.
5. Communicate your schedule with colleagues.
Remote work makes us feel like we’re on the outside looking in. It’s easy to fall into the trap of being outside the loop. Yes, we’re counting on our employer’s leadership to keep us informed. If we remember that communication is a two way street, we can do our part to contribute. Does your work utilize a shared calendar system? If not encourage your manager and colleagues to set up a group calendar with Google or other online option. If this isn’t feasible, make the effort of communicating your daily plan created in Tip 2 to your manager via email. With many of us having little to no experience working remotely, taking the time to inform colleagues and your manager of what your plan is while working from home demonstrates leadership. You’re leading your efforts. You’re open to feedback and suggestions to learn from other’s experiences. And, you’re offering a path others may benefit from following as well.
Reaching out to inform others of what you have been and are working on is helpful. This keeps others informed and helps your hold yourself accountable. If you’re communicating this to your team, your demonstrating that you’re doing your part. Others will want to follow.
Keep others abreast of what you’ll be doing and when. A by-product of this effort will be that having called your shot, you’ll seek to hold yourself accountable to delivering on your day. Doing this is an example of the next Tip.
6. Take yourself and your role seriously.
Being at home isn’t an excuse to stay in bed. Nor is it an excuse to take the day off and entertain yourself. The “good news” of our current climate is that there is little ability to sneak off to the ski hill, golf course, movie theatre, mall, gym, or pretty much anywhere. We are landlocked. The temptations are less. We’re not suggesting styling yourself perfectly and throwing on a business suit all day. Enjoy being relaxed in your home. This is a benefit of the remote experience worth soaking in.
If you’ve followed tips 1 through 5, you’re well on your way to succeeding at tip 6.
Even with being fortunate enough to have the ability to work from home and earn an income, the workload has the potential to be a little less. Between lighter demand, less time in meetings, and more time from avoiding commute, you will have some extra space in your day. This is not the time to mire yourself in the misery of the media. You have the choice to use any extra time as either alive time or dead time. We’ll be offering a separate post breaking out this concept in the near future.
Craft weekly progress updates and send to your Manager (and/or colleagues). What you are contributing matters. Communicate your wins. Relay your struggles. Be clear about asking for help where needed.
7. Manage expectations for response times (with colleagues and customers).
This is an extension of Tips 4 and 5. Setting blocks of time to be responsive and communicating your schedule to colleagues will help manage mutual expectations. One of the advantages (and disadvantages) of office work is that most people with whom we do business are on the same schedule. We’re sitting at our desks from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday each week. People know where we are and when we’ll be there. They know that when they reach out, they have a good chance of getting a hold of us. As nice as knowing that we can reach out and get in touch may be, it may also be a bit limiting. Does most of what we do imply immediate real-time responses? If it works for us to work from 6am to 9am, then take a few hours break, then get back to it for another three hour go, then why not? Working at what may seem like odd hours is no issue when working remotely. Work when it works. Just be sure to let your colleagues and customers know so that they aren’t sitting by expecting immediate responses to inquiries. Help manage their expectations by proactively letting them know what service standard you’re seeking to deliver. Just like professors tell their students their office hours, do the same for your constituents. I am available for scheduled phone calls between 2-4pm weekdays, for example. I will respond to emails received each morning between 1pm and 1:30pm ET.
8. Track your progress.
One of the main obstacles for accepting remote work for employers is that the ability to “supervise” becomes more difficult. We’re so used to managing by attendance as opposed to contribution. This is not the vulnerability of remote work but illustrates the fallibility of how the regular work environment is managed. Work has become an extension of school where we’re marked for attendance over accomplishment. Nowadays, many university classes have students purchase personal clickers which they use to “participate” in class lectures. The clicker is unique to the student and allows professors to track attendance. Physical presence is deemed more important than other standards. One of the main reasons attendance continues to be a focal point is that it is easy to measure. Other aspects of our efforts may not be so easy to measure.
We’re not worried about satisfying big brother looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re adding value to the business. We’re encouraging you to track your efforts primarily out of personal pride and self-respect. It feels good to know that our efforts are making a difference. We should look forward to wanting to share our efforts with colleagues and management. Here’s what I’ve been able to accomplish. I responded to x inquiries. I prepared y number of quotes for new business today. This is helpful information not just to validate your efforts, but also to relay updates of what is going on in the real world. You are likely to be closest to customers. Feedback from your experiences is incredibly valuable (especially in these uncertain times) to your employer.
9. Focus on Outcomes.
Try to keep yourself on track by focusing efforts on outcomes. Avoid just doing busywork. It’s not just about inbox management. Outcomes to track are specific to your particular role. Perhaps, track the number of customer contacts you have daily. Consider separating incoming from outgoing. Were they through phone or email? What kinds of inquiries/issues are you facing? How many policies did you bind today? Seek outcomes which reflect constructive activity for your business. These are the areas you want to focus your attention towards.
You’re no longer being marked for attendance. No one is checking when you fire up that laptop. No one is looking over your shoulder seeing what browser tabs you have open. The only thing you’re going to be evaluated on is the work. What did you actually do today? It’s no longer when did Johnny arrive at the office this morning? Or how late did Suzie stay?
Part of this is being realistic. We are in unknown territory. We are learning a new way of working and have our personal worries front of mind. We have others in our households we’re trying to accommodate. We need to recognize (as I’m sure our employers do) that we’re following Teddy Roosevelt’s advice of “do the best you can, where you are, with what you have.” Our productivity and available time to devote to our work may be less than normal. What many of us may know deep down, working from home will surface, that much of our workday has been spent in meetings. If this time has been cut out, we have much more time to seek actually doing work or servicing customers. It’s reasonable that we could be more productive in less time. This is a wonderful bonus of remote work. We’re not tracking time (unless that’s your job to bill by the hour), but tracking results. Measure your objective contributions. Not just to communicate to your boss, but for your own peace of mind and reassurance.
10. Take breaks. Set a finish line and stick to it.
In our always on world, 24/7/365 becomes all too real. Our connected world with email, text, social media, and internet accessible constantly, pulls us into the blackhole of business. Even those of us who have been desk jockeys at the office have felt the tug of technology after hours. It is essential to escape email and other work related contact for at least some of every day. Yes, staying in touch is important. Yes, staying updated with work communication is relevant. Yes, you want to be useful and do your part to help your business move forward and serve. Nonetheless, your family and your personal mental health needs to step away and refresh. Daily.
One of the ironies of remote work is that many companies are reluctant to give it a try as they fear the loss of control over their workforce. If we can’t see you or direct you, we doubt that you will work productively. This is fundamentally a lack of trust. The sad reality is that with today’s technology keeping us in touch 24/7, the risk is that we’re over working and doing more. We work longer hours. We get more done.
Schedule daily breaks and consider checking in with colleagues regularly. Try setting up a face time or skype call every few days with between one and three other colleagues. Try having a coffee at home together via these types of video chats. You can chat about how you’re each managing from home. What’s working? What’s not? What’s frustrating? What are you each enjoying? What are your hurdles? What advice are you looking for? From collaborating about how to make your respective remote work environments better, go ahead and commiserate about the challenges that are out there. Don’t dwell on these for any more than you need. Set a time limit of fifteen minutes. Then try to chat about something you can each celebrate. What good is coming from this experience? How have your priorities changed? Are certain things more important to you today than they were a week ago? Finally, close with a chuckle. Tell a joke, laugh a little, and get back to sailing solo.
Separate from scheduling breaks into your remote work day, set a time at which you will call it a day. Maybe this is a physical time. Maybe it is when certain volume of work has been attained. You decide. If we come back to Tip 2, you have set a schedule, then perhaps, you have a sense of what you will be accomplishing daily. If so, look at your progress throughout the day and ask yourself “have I done what I set out to do?” If so, this is a fine time to call it a day. This is the time where you may need to “disassemble” your work station and relinquish your work space to the rest of the family. If you don’t need to tidy up your work space, great. Still take the time to close the laptop, make a few notes in your notebook with respect to where you’re leaving things and what you may want to get after tomorrow. Once done, be done. Leave your work area and work behind. Get back to enjoying your family, a hobby, or just some relaxation.
If you take the time to follow some of these tips, your time at home, whether it be for a little or long duration, will be both more fruitful and fulfilling.