Five Tips to Win at Working Remotely

Develop your remote working “muscle” by building a routine, sticking to it, and managing your waves and distractions.

by Jono Bacon
Woman working from home
Remote working isn’t for everyone. Some people need the structure or social element of an office, or lack the discipline to stay focused at home.

Remote working seems to be all the buzz. According to a global study by IWG, 70 percent of professionals work from home at least once a week. Similarly, 77 percent of people say they work more productively and 68 percent of millennials would consider a company more if they offered remote working. But here’s the truth: remote working is not a panacea.

It might seem like hanging around at home in your pajamas, listening to music and sipping on buckets of coffee is perfect, but it isn’t for everyone. Some people need the structure or social element of an office. Some people need to get out the house. Some people lack the discipline to stay focused at home. 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 will vary.

I have worked from home for the vast majority of my career. 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’ve learned how I need to manage remote work, using the right balance of work routine, travel and other elements. Here are five of my personal recommendations:

#1: Create Discipline and Routine

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. So, always get dressed (no pajamas). Set your start and end time for the day (I work 9am to 6pm most days). Choose your lunch break (mine is 12pm). Choose your morning ritual (mine is email followed by a full review of client needs). Decide where your main workplace will be, and when you will exercise each day.

Design a realistic routine and do it for 66 days. It takes this long to build a habit. 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 all have “waves”—when you need a change of routine to mix things up. For example, in summertime I generally want more sunlight and will often work outside in the garden. Near the holidays I get distracted, so I need more structure in my day. Sometimes I need more human contact, so I will work from coffee shops for a few weeks. Sometimes I just fancy working in the kitchen or on the couch. Learn your waves and listen to your body. Build your habit first, and modify it as you learn your waves.

#2: Set Expectations 

If your company is less familiar with remote working, you especially need to set expectations for your colleagues. This can be pretty simple: once you have designed your routine, communicate it clearly to management and your 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 is critical. Some remote workers are scared to leave their computer for fear that someone will send them a message while they are away (and they are worried people may think they are just eating Cheetos and watching Netflix). But you need time away. You need to eat lunch without one eye on your computer. Set expectations that sometimes you may not be immediately responsive, but you will get back to them as soon as possible. Similarly, set expectations on your general availability. For example, my clients know that I generally work from 9am to 6pm every day. If they need something urgently, I am happy to respond outside of those hours, but as a general rule I am usually working between those hours. This is necessary for a balanced life.

#3: Manage Your Distractions

We all get distracted—it’s human nature. It could be your young kid getting home and wanting to play Rescue Bots. It could be checking Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, or there may be something else that is taking your attention, such as an upcoming wedding or big trip. Learn what distracts you and how to manage it.

For example, I know I get distracted by my email and Twitter. 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 your browser tabs until you complete what you are doing. It requires discipline, but all of this does. The human elements are tougher. If you have a family, 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.

There are all kinds of opportunities to lock distractions out. Put your phone on silent. Set your status as “away.” Move to a different room (or building) with no distractions. Be honest in what distracts you and manage it. If you don’t, you will always be at their mercy.

#4: Attend to Relationships in Person

Some roles are more attuned to remote working than others. I have seen great remote work from engineering, quality assurance, support and security (typically more focused on digital collaboration). Other teams, such as design or marketing, may struggle in remote environments, as they are often more tactile. But strong relationships are critical with any team, and in-person discussion, collaboration and socializing is often essential. So many of our senses (such as body language) are removed in a digital environment, and these play a key role in how we build trust and relationships. This is especially important if: (a) you are new to a company, role or team and need to build these relationships, or (b) you are 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 company is nearby, work from home part of the week and in the office part of the week. If your company is further away, schedule regular trips to the office (and set expectations with management that you need this). 

#5: Stay Focused, but Cut Yourself Some Slack

The crux of this article is about developing your 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. Everything we do can be refined and improved, and it is no different with remote working. Look for patterns that help unlock ways in which you can make your remote working time more efficient, more comfortable and more fun—but don’t go crazy over it. Some people obsess every minute of their day about how to get better. They beat themselves up constantly for “not doing well enough,” “not getting more done,” or not meeting their internal (unrealistic) view of perfection.

We are humans, not robots. Always strive to improve, but be realistic. Not everything will be perfect—you are going to have some off-days or off-weeks. You will struggle at times with stress and burnout. You may 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 short! PM

Jono Bacon is a leading community and management strategy consultant, speaker and author of People Powered: How Communities Can Supercharge Your Business, Brand, and Team. For more information, visit jonobacon.com.

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