Before COVID-19 sent us all into lockdown, working remotely was already gaining significant currency among the modern workforce.
In fact, a recent Gallup poll found that 43% of employees in the US work outside the office from time to time.
Now that we’re undertaking the greatest experiment in remote work the world has even known, we can expect to see a great transformation in the way we work once the crisis has passed. Many of us will continue to work, at least part of the time.
Given the nature of my work as a financial writer, I’ve been working remotely for most of the past ten years, both as a full-time employee of a major investment manager and now as a partner in a financial communications firm. Based on my long experience, I can offer a few suggestions to make the remote experience more successful.
Create a space conducive to work
This means a lot more than making sure you have room to set up your laptop on the kitchen table. The beauty of working remotely is that (hopefully) you have peace, quiet and freedom from distractions. For those of you working at home with kids in the house, that might be a challenge. I don’t have kids so I’m afraid I can’t offer any helpful advice in dealing with that issue. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the children are peacefully glued to their own screens or confined to the attic.
While it’s vital to have a designated desk or table to set up your workstation, the location of this workspace is also very important. The luckiest among us have dedicated home offices, but if you don’t your work area should at least be located in a less trafficked area of the house. We all have different work styles, but I find that it’s important to avoid the distraction of disorder and clutter. Clutter has been found to be a significant source of stress, and messy workspaces can create anxiety. An orderly work area leads to an orderly mind.
Invest in an ergonomic chair
If you’re going to be working remotely for the long haul, comfort matters. The first year I worked at home I had a small desk and a standard kitchen chair. Even worse, I used my laptop without a stand. The combination of the straight-backed chair with the height of the screen ensured that my back ached after an hour, and my head throbbed after two. I’d spent a mint on massages before a sensible friend explained that I needed a proper ergonomic chair and computer stand to elevate the laptop screen to eye level. I’d wager that those two improvements increased my productivity by 30% or more, and certainly alleviated considerable physical suffering.
When I first began working at home, I made what is a classic mistake. I allowed work to take over my life. Since I never left my “office,” I was always on the clock. Some days I’d start sending emails before breakfast, only to look up and discover lunchtime was nearing and I was still in my pajamas.
Get up, get dressed properly – no sweats, no bathrobes – put on pants, for heaven’s sake. It’s hard to feel like a serious professional when you’re not wearing pants. Establish a schedule, with a time to start work, a time for lunch, and a fixed time to end the day. While it may be necessary to work late, just like when you’re in the office and you have a project due, try to adhere to a schedule insofar as possible.
If you don’t set a time for a standard day to end, you’ll never disengage fully and relax, which in my experience leads to constant, nagging anxiety. It’s a bit like being in grad school and feeling guilty for any time away from the books. You have to disengage so you can start each new day refreshed. It’s easy to let work creep deeper and deeper into personal time, and it takes discipline to guard against it.
Communicate . . . and be proactive
Companies have many tools to keep distributed teams connected, and some companies even depend on them in the office as well. When I worked for the investment management company, even employees at company headquarters often held meetings via Skype rather than meet in person. When communication is all virtual, it can be isolating. Both employees and managers need to make a greater effort to build relationships.
When people work in physical proximity to one another, they chat while they microwave their lunches and go for Starbucks mid-afternoon. In the virtual workplace, it takes effort to replace the informal communication of the office environment. It’s important to allow some time for social interaction, whether it be a quick chat before a video conference or regular check-in calls with colleagues as well as your manager.
And when it comes to communicating with your manager, be proactive. It’s standard practice to have regular catch-up calls but keep your manager in the loop. Don’t wait for them to ask for updates about projects and deadlines, and make sure they are aware of your productivity. Sometimes out of sight means out of mind, and that is never a career boosting position to be in.
Prepare for the Unexpected
The worst thing about working remotely is the lack of office infrastructure. If the printer jams, there’s no one to fix it. If the computer goes haywire, there’s no IT department down the hall. Working remotely gives you the gift of self-reliance. And there are some things that you can prepare for. For example, make sure you have extra power cords and chargers. I learned that one the hard way. I had just adopted a kitten who turned out to have a penchant for chewing computer power cords. When you’re down to 5% and you’re on a deadline, that’s not a great time to discover you can’t recharge.
There are certain disasters you can’t prepare for; you lose power due to a windstorm, for example. In pre-COVID days, I had a backup list of cafes with Wifi in three surrounding towns for just this eventuality. Maybe the power is still on, but you’ve lost your Wifi connection. It’s wise to have a backup just in case – a phone with a wireless hotspot, or a mobile internet connection.
There are undoubtedly many other factors that can make working remotely a success. These, however, are the tried and true principles that have made my decade of working at home both successful and rewarding.