Work from home policies have long been a hot button topic, way before Marissa Mayer’s Yahoo announcement last year.
IT departments and software firms were the early adopters to embrace the new wave of remote access technology. Who remembers their dial up modem from the 199os?
In those days it was a privilege to receive a laptop and an RSA id. Today, my middle schooler performs 90% of his work on his laptop. He may be smart, but he is by no means special.
My county in Virginia and many others across the country offer laptops to all middle school students. Students write and submit reports online; part of their curriculum (and grade) includes commenting on their teacher’s blog. Clearly, even public schools are rethinking education in the 21st century.
So why is there an ongoing debate about whether companies should allow their employees to work from home?
Clearly, the stigma associated with working from home is not simply about where work is performed. It has more to do with developing trust and resilient processes that will allow individuals to deliver their best work irrespective of their geographical location.
In Remote: Office Not Required, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson explore many of the challenges and benefits of working from home. I won’t repeat their arguments for work from home advocacy. And they are not the only ones speaking up for professionals who seek a better work-life balance.
We can’t erase the negative impressions associated with remote working. However, we can mitigate the challenges perceived by most companies in allowing their employees to work from home.
Here are some tips on how you can work from home successfully.
1) Designate a home office
Working from home doesn’t mean crashing on the couch all day. Whether you set up shop in your dining room or repurpose your guest room, you need a space allocated specifically for work. A well-defined office area will create a professional mindset and inspire you to get more done.
Also, imagine how polished you will appear when you have Skype meetings or Google hangouts with your team!
2) Get organized
When you work from home, staying organized is extremely important to maintain focus (not to mention your sanity)! It is important to have the same tools as you would in an office environment to stay on top of your work deliverables and expenses.
A few items you might want to invest in:
- A large desk with adequate surface area to spread out
- Cabinets, bookcases and shelving units to contain your clutter
- Your very own stapler amongst other essential office supplies. One can never have too many post-it notes!
- Your own whiteboard – this one is a splurge, but totally worth it if you are creative visualizer/facilitator like me
- Great planners to stay organized. As much as I love planning apps on my phone, I invariably turn to pen and paper tools to get the ideas flowing.
3) Get equipped
You will want to outfit your home office with the right technology tools to be as efficient as possible. You can justify many of these expenses as an offset against savings you will recoup from telecommuting.
You will need a laptop or PC with a recent version of its native OS. You will also need a reliable Wi-Fi or LAN connection. It is worth learning to troubleshoot any technical issues, don’t depend entirely on your spouse or your Internet provider!
Here are a few other items I find indispensable in my own home office:
- Peripherals – speakers, headphones etc. to manage the sound quality. These are important especially if you record training videos or conduct web conferences.
- Bluetooth headset for making sure you stay active while you are on calls
- Essential software for collaboration, project management, communications, and creative work. There are way too many to list individually!
- Printer for scanning and printing your creative work
- Hardware and cords – iPhone cords, iPad cords, laptop power cord, surge protector and a reliable external hard drive
4) Develop a routine
One of the perks of working from home is to break free of the 9 to 5 schedule. But working without a set routine can hurt productivity.
Jason and David recommend dividing the workday into three sessions:
- Catch up time to review emails and read the news,
- Collaboration period when you work with colleagues on projects or conduct planning sessions with your manager, and
- Serious work time set aside for the most difficult assignments of the day.
Remember, it is also important to take breaks throughout the day. Developing a consistent work schedule won’t just make you a more effective remote worker; it will also help you balance your professional and personal lives.
6) Deliver on your commitments
One of the pitfalls of working from home is that your workday can extend beyond 8 hours. It may sound counterintuitive, but extended work hours can affect your productivity negatively.
Combat this issue by using a technique from Agile methodology – timeboxing. Timeboxing is a technique wherein a fixed time period, called a time box, is allocated to each planned activity. A variant of timeboxing is the pomodoro technique, which organizes work around a 25 minute time box. Try various techniques to see which one works best for your work and your personality.
Lastly stay on track by clearly defining the objectives for your work and tracking progress on a daily basis in a project management tool. I prefer Mind maps and work breakdown structures to define my project objectives and recommend a tool such as Basecamp for project tracking.
7) Set boundaries
One of the biggest challenges of working from home is setting boundaries with your family and friends – your spouse, children, friends and other peers. It is important to set expectations for yourself and for others right at the outset.
- What is your work schedule?
- How do you handle days when your spouse also works from home? My husband and I have completely different personalities and work styles, so on days when we are both at home working, we have clearly defined boundaries – who gets to occupy the home office (me) and who uses the phone line for conference calls (him) and interruptions and disturbances (if I am writing or have a coaching call he won’t interrupt me, but otherwise he is allowed to enter the home office as needed).
- How do you handle sick days? Being a workaholic I have often struggled with whether or not I should work when I am sick. It may seem like a minor topic to reflect upon, but working while you are sick even if is from home can be detrimental to your well being, not to mention your professional image. No one wants to be on a conference call with you if you are hacking and coughing or have lost your voice. So, make an agreement with yourself on how you will handle working on sick days.
- Who handles daycare, transporting children and other activities? Wouldn’t it be great if all we had to do from 9 to 5 was work and not have to deal with other things? But the reality is that life goes on even during a busy workday. You may need to recruit help to be able to balance caring for your children and achieving your goals at work.
- How do you juggle multiple roles? Most of us have a number of roles in life. For example, you may work as a project manager or designer, but also act as mentor or be on the board of a volunteer organization. It will save a lot of heartache if you delineate specific blocks of time during the week for your other responsibilities. Outside of that time, be firm; have no qualms pushing back on requests.
As you can tell I have reflected on this particular issue quite a bit! In fact I might have to write an entire post about it.
8) Recruit help
Help comes in many shapes and forms. If you work in a traditional corporate job from home you may consider enrolling your kids in a daycare. However, if you are a freelancer or a consultant and have the flexibility, you may decide to hire help as needed to care for your younger children at home.
Hiring a cleaning crew and maybe even a virtual assistant can help you stay organized. To be effective at your work, it is worth investing in services that bring you peace of mind.
9) Stay fit
Aetna, the health insurance company, has found that on average remote workers are heavier than their office counterparts. Working from home may pad our wallets and our guts!
One way to stay in shape is by building breaks into your day for moving around and getting the recommended 10,000 steps per day.
You may be avoiding the temptation of vending machines, but it is still easy to snack at your desk. Build healthier eating habits. Eat fresh, natural foods and drink plenty of water.
10) Get out of the house
Even though solitude is essential for deep thinking and creative work, we humans are social creatures. That is why it is crucial to get out of the house at least once a day.
In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain narrates how the social yet casual environment of a coffee shop was beneficial even to an introvert such as her to establish a deliberate writing practice.
The idea behind leaving your home office is not just to break away from the monotony of working on your own, but it is to connect with the real world. We may find purpose through our work, but it is the quality and quantity of human interactions that improve our sense of well-being and happiness.
So, make the time to meet a friend or colleague for the occasional lunch. Stop by for a chat with a neighbor.
Work will always be there when you get back home.
Which of these tips did you find the most helpful? In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge of working from home? What processes or strategies have helped you overcome challenges and work from home successfully?