Four Critical Tips for Working Remotely Successfully - Confessions of a Former Homeaholic

By Peter Bernstein June 12, 2012

It is easy to come up with generalities about things. Categorization is what helps us all make some sense of our world, especially given the accelerating pace of change. However, categorization of activities has downsides. It can cause us to miss or avoid the “white spaces” which is where much of what we belatedly recognize as innovation is generated. It is also how we miss the importance of nuance. This can be overcome by sub-categorization. However, at some point increased precision in description leads to an inability to put things in context. Over-description can cause loss of relevance or meaning. Such is the case with the blossoming category of “remote workers,” aka “virtual workers.” I will explain.

Home alone/on the road again

I will start with some background. I spent the first two decades of my professional career in offices and never worked from home. In 1994, thanks in large part to AOL, I moved into my house. Despite a heavy travel load, I ran a successful single person consulting business for years. What followed were stints in corporations where I traveled a lot but did not work from home, more consulting where worked from home and barely traveled, and finally I have found a happy home in an office that is less than 15 minutes from where I live. I can work from home when necessary, but enjoy being in an office and rarely partake of the opportunity. 

I say all of this as a prolog for my perspectives on what I believe it takes to successfully work at home. What my experience has taught me is that there is a huge distinction between virtual workers who are remote because they are nomadic and those whose office is in their home. I also say this because reality is that the “success” of any virtual worker, be they nomads or home bodies, is based on a complex series of variables that include but are by no means limited to:

  • The nature of the work
  • Proximity to headquarters
  • Career aspirations (yes there can be consequences)
  • Corporate culture
  • Compensation
  • Tools used
  • Acceptance of independence and/or monitoring
  • Family circumstances
  • Basic personality —need for context-intensive validation, loner versus social animal, etc.

In short, it is complicated. 

I also would say that it is hard to predict the productivity of anybody, whether they are traveling a lot and working remotely or working at home, until they are put in a remote working situation and have to perform. It is much like parenting. Book knowledge cannot prepare you for that day when you become totally responsible for the health and happiness of your child. 

Based on the expansiveness of working remotely, especially in a world where so much of work is going online and the nature of work necessitates being available in terms of time, time zone insensitivity and being capable of being a contributor in real-time, the rest of this piece contains a few lessons I learned from years of working remotely at home. I leave the “road warrior” challenges for another day although some of what follows is applicable.

@Home: Optimizing the situation

In no particular order, here are some thoughts for those of you currently or contemplating working at home either by choice or because it is part of the job you have taken.

Have a separate workspace

 We all get distracted, some of us more easily than others.  If you are cut off from the realities of your personal life—family, ambient noises, visual distractions (I include big screen TVs), the “to-do” list of household projects, etc. — you will create an environment where you can focus on the job. Even if you live in a one-bedroom apartment, you need to segment a “workspace.”  To the best of your ability make it inviolate during “working hours.”  This means to anyone or anything that can create a distraction. Good fences do make good neighbors. Without them It is easy to succumb to work procrastination. Plus, the boundaries need to be understood by your loved ones. When I worked from home I had a separate office from the rest of our house. Except for emergencies, and we all knew what constituted one, my family contacted me during my work time via phone, email or chat. Trust me this is critical. 

Create a work routine

I am not going to go through an exercise that has been the subject of numerous books on the lessons to be learned from highly productive people.  What I can say is that without a work routine it is easy to either stay in bed for a bit more shut eye (maybe not such a bad idea considering the new studies that say we don’t get enough and it is destroying our ability to perform and our long-term health prospects). I will not go through my old routine except to say that by 7:00AM, because I had several overseas clients, I had shaved, showered, had my coffee, watched the early news and read at least five publications. Plus, I politely let my clients know what my working hours were. For those of you working from home as part of your job from a larger organization, you need to mimic what you would do if you were going to an office. That means looking the part when the bell rings. 

This is also about the establishment of policies and rules. Set aside time for personal activities during the day, including face-to-face time with family. Send personal calls during work hours to voicemail. Always make sure your fixed line phone is forwarded to your personal device after a certain number of rings. The last point is important because we are all in a service industry, and we want to give the impression of availability to the outside world on work stuff (thank goodness for caller ID) and provide great responsiveness based on how we have decided to handle incoming contacts. 

In addition, “turn the electronics off.” The funny thing about work is that it does not go away, and most urgent matters can “wait until morning.” To be productive at home, you have to set boundaries between personal and professional. I realize this sounds good in theory and is hard to practice. However, you can’t perform well on no sleep. Even when you turn the stimuli off your brain is going to keep functioning for while. Relationships matter. This means your family deserves not “quality time,” because in their eyes your time with them is all quality time. 

Finally, make sure that at least once a day you leave the house. Exercise, get involved in book club, climb a tree, take up a sport, or even take a power nap. You need to do this for medical reasons. You need to do it for physic reasons. You need to do it so you do not become a hermit.   

Don’t wimp out on technology

For years, I suffered from the cobbler’s children syndrome, i.e., the cobbler’s children had no shoes. This was a huge mistake. I was an independent entrepreneur. I needed to communicate with my clients according to their preferences and not mine. By the time I stopped working from home last year, table stakes were:

  • A mobile handset for my fixed line phone so I could move around during a conversation.
  •  A quality headset
  •  Lightweight but high-powered PC (and now I would add a tablet) 
    -Full suite of office collaboration tools
    - WebEx or other account
    - SIP phones to leverage things like unified communications
    - Quality camera and microphone
  • Fax machine (don’t laugh and might as well have an all-in-one device that is a good printer and scanner as well since you will need both capabilities).
  •  Smartphone 
  • Social media and email accounts. This includes the usual suspects Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. The important point here is you need multiple ones. Networks do not mediate your personal and professional online personas so you must and should to keep your sanity and to avoid embarrassing mistakes. (Think about the consequences of “reply to all” on the email that gets sent from a consolidated account to understand how to spell disaster). 
  • Skype or other account 
  • All of the bells and whistles from your voice services provider to insure you never miss a contact and have a record of activity. This is where unified communications makes sense, again whether you are a sole-practitioner or just working from home for a larger entity.

I could go on and on if you are running a business from your house. Backup and offsite storage is a must. Taking advantage of dashboards from critical suppliers like delivery services and the post office is essential. Making sure you have the latest business software not just for doing the job but for such things as paying bills, doing taxes, invoicing, compliance with a variety of insurance and government regulations, etc. 

The point is that the penalty for not have the right tools is you can’t perform well. End of discussion.

The “Water Cooler” Challenge

As my colleague Brooke Neuman pointed out in her piece, The Misunderstood Couch Potato: Disadvantages of Being a Virtual Worker, the loneliness of the virtual worker, be they home or on the road can hurt your ability to work.  We are all hopefully social beings who thrive to greater or lesser extent on close proximity human interaction. Organization theorists have categorized this as the “Water Cooler” effect. Most of us take emotional sustenance and gain valuable insights from our conversations that in the workplace used to take place around the water cooler. 

Reality is we are fast becoming personally disconnected because of all the connectivity available to us. Walk into any office these days and what do you see? Much of what you see are knowledge workers in front of screen with headsets on whose interaction of choice, even to people sitting next to them is via a screen. Indeed, offices are a lot more quiet these days as voice has become a communications vehicle of necessity and not necessarily first choice. This personal disconnect in an age of connectivity is one of the great paradoxes of the Internet age.     

I suggest that the last place you look for social gratification is social media. These are friends without benefits during critical hours of the day. I have already mentioned the necessity of getting out at least once a day for any reason other than work. I forgot to add it should involve interaction with others.

 I also might suggest that technology can help. The reason having a camera on your laptop is so important, or a using the one on your smartphone or tablet for that matter, is tied to that Skype or other account. That Internet connection should be used for video conferencing. 

It should be used whenever possible in a work context with colleagues since I believe research shows it promotes collegiality. I would also suggest, that rather than posting something on some ones wall or sending emails or text back and forth, Skype them. If they have the time to chat, than they have the time to video chat. In fact, you might wish to experiment and put together a list of people you have not have “seen” in a while. Make it a point of every day to try and figure out a time when you can interact with them via video. 

At the end of the day, so much of whether you will succeed in being a virtual worker, particularly from home, is about who you are and what you do and not about where you do it. That said, if you think through the points above, especially making sure that you have the right technology working for you instead of against you, I can tell you as someone who did it for years that the rewards can be categorized as invaluable. That is a categorization we can all understand and would like to live with.




Edited by Stefania Viscusi
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