Working from home and working remotely have been getting more attention from companies in the past years, as can be seen from articles published in business magazines like Harvard Business Review and Forbes1. Among others benefits of having remote workers, executives mention the posibility to seek for talent globally, regardless of location; improvement in retention rates; increase in productivity; and reduced office space costs2.
Another interesting question is why do employees want to work from home. According to Microsoft’s Work Without Walls Survey (2011), the main reasons of information workers across several industries for working from home are: less commuting; better balancing work/home priorities; the need to finish work that can’t get done at the office; they are more productive at home than in the office; and, working in a less stressful environment.
Whether you work for a company that allows some kind of remote working, or are a freelancer or entrepreneur who works from home, be aware that while some people thrive working remotely, not everybody is able to work effectively from home or enjoys it.
For example, some people miss office chit-chat, and the physical interaction with their colleagues. They find it difficult to work as a team without face-to-face interactions. Others get nervous because the fear of losing “visibility”, or being left out of office politics, or that their bosses3 will judge them negatively because an unconscious –or not so unconscious– bias against remote workers.
Can you be effective working from home?
An adequate place to work
If you search the internet for requisites for working from home, you’ll find articles that focus on infrastructure. Having a separate room at home with a closed door to use as an office is ideal. You’ll also need ample desk space with good lightning –best if it allows to alternate between sitting and standing. Of course, since you’ll be spending an important part of your time at your desk, the best chair in the world or some of its clones is a must. Also, know that several studies show the benefits in having a window looking to an open place.
Don’t let those articles fool you: none of those things are indispensable. If you work full time from home, it may make sense to make some investment in your home office. But your focus should be first on doing outstanding work. In many cases you can start with what you have, and invest in furniture and equipment only when you’ve acquired some experience working from remotely.
For starters, you will only need a desk or a table that you can call your own during your working hours, in a place where you won’t get interrupted just because you are in the middle of the house’s traffic or activity. And of course, a decent-speed internet connection and your laptop.
You will also need a backup place.
Be realistic. Interruptions at the office can be a problem. But if your children are having their friends coming home to play in the afternoon, chances are you won’t get any work done during those hours. So, you’ll have to either decide that you’re not working that afternoon because you’re playing with your kids, or head to your favorite coffee shop for some hours to get your work done.
Other times, you’ll just get tired of the same four walls and having a backup place helps a lot. A nearby coffee shop, or a coworking space will do.
Acquire the necessary habits
The real key to working effectively from home –or elsewhere, for that matter– lies in your working habits and skills. Are you a self-starter, or do you need the pressure of a boss behind your back to get work done?
The ethos of someone working from home can be summarized in what Steven Pressfield, in his book Turning Pro, calls the pro mindset :
The pro mindset is a discipline that we use to overcome resistance. To defeat the self-sabotaging habits of procrastination, self-doubt, susceptibility to distraction, perfectionism, and shallowness, we enlist the self-strengthening habits of order, regularity, discipline, and a constant striving after excellence.
For example, having a personal schedule is indispensable. You need to decide beforehand not only at what time you’ll start to work every day (if you work for a company, probably they have some policies about this), but how you structure your day, and stick to that schedule.
Keep track of what you do during your working hours, and make a review at the end of the day. There a bunch of free or nearly free apps for your smartphone that can help you track your activities. (See Resources at the endo of this article.)
There is lot written about routines and rituals –see, for example Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work is a good recompilation of the habits of several artists– and how important they are for doing meaningful work. (More in a moment about how to structure your time.) The good news is that acquiring an habit is within the reach of everyone. Start small, but be consistent. According to some studies, the average time to acquire an habit is around 22 days, depending on your previous habits and difficult level of the habit itself.
Be clear on what you expect to achieve every day
Any coach on time management will tell you that having a clear understanding of your priorities and then blocking out time daily to accomplish the most important tasks is critical.
Defining your priorities, filtering what’s important from what’s just landed in your email inbox, is crucial for being productive. As Shawn Blanc explains, _decisiveness brings motivation for action. Action brings clarity. Clarity helps us make future decisions_4:
Keep in mind that a big part of setting a goal is to be decisive for the sake of boosting your motivation and sparking action. And it’s in the place of doing where we so often find the additional clarity we had been waiting for all along.
Oftentimes the clarity we’re waiting for comes after we start making progress. Because what we needed was experiential knowledge, not just head knowledge. There are times when, yes, we do need more information. But sometimes we just need to pick a direction and start moving.
You could start your work day by defining the most important action for that day, and deciding when are you going to do it. Or you could ask yourself everyday what Gary Keller, in his excellent book The ONE Thing, calls the Focusing Question:
What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?
Allocate blocks of interruption-free time for Deep Work
Cal Newport, author of the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, coined the concept of Deep Work: cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve. This is the kind of work that matters.
But as Newport explains, deep work is not part of most knowledge worker’s diet:
Knowledge workers dedicate too much time to shallow work — tasks that almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish (e-mail replies, logistical planning, tinkering with social media, and so on). This work is attractive because it’s easy, which makes use feel productive, and it’s rich in personal interaction, which we enjoy (there’s something oddly compelling in responding to a question; even if the topic is unimportant).
Paul Graham, founder of YC Combinator, wrote a great article some years ago titled Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. Understanding this different modes of working is key for being effective and doing deep work.
The manager’s schedule follows the appointment book, where the day is cut into one hour or half hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if needed, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour. This is the time for meetings, making phone calls, reviewing reports, doing follow-up tasks, answering mails and the like. Interruptions during this time may be annoying or not, but don’t have a great toll on your productivity.
There are other tasks, however, that require a longer time span and great attention. An hour for this kind of task is barely enough time to get started. This is the maker’s schedule. Knowledge workers in particular need this kind of time. It is in this kind of uninterrupted work where you find relationships between ideas, get to the root cause of a problem, or where you are able to synthesize complex reasoning into simple and clear statements. You enter a state of flow, where you produce great stuff through absolute concentration.
Awareness is key here. Your more meaningful work requires, with high probability, to work in the maker’s schedule. Time-block your schedule so you can work on the most important things. There are no guarantees that there won’t be interruptions, but at least you are fighting hard against self-interruptions and dispersion. (This, too, is an habit that can be acquired.)
There is abundant literature on how to run effective meetings. Sorry to tell you, but very few people know how to do it.
People in managerial positions tend to view meetings a the way to resolve things. Meetings are the natural way managers have for dealing with anything of some importance.
Without pretending to be exhaustive, some tips that may help to better run meetings:
- Show respect to others: Arrive some minutes before the meeting. Silence your phone. If you are expecting a call, say so before starting the meeting. Otherwise, do not answer phone calls.
- If there is no agenda set, always ask for the agenda. Everybody knows and has read about the importance of the agenda, so nobody will disagree with you about this point. (That is, nobody except the person who scheduled the meeting and forgot to send the agenda.)
- Take notes. I take notes of every meeting that I attend, not only because I find it indispensable for later reference, but because it helps me greatly to be focused on the topic at hand.
- Don’t speak your opinion about every topic discussed. (It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt5.)
- That said, learn to disagree and make your points clear when needed.
Learn to use the proper tools
I prefer to favor process over tools. That said, knowing how to use tools effective spare you lots of time. Which tools you use will depend greatly on whether you work on your own or work for a company.
For example, consider email. Even if there are some great tools that partially substitute email (for example, Slack), email is here to stay and the preferred method for communications on most organizations.
- Choose clear and informative subjects. If you change the topic of the conversation, change the mail’s subject.
- Be succinct, write with precision, don’t be overly verbose. Avoid open or ambiguous questions.
- Email is not an instant messenger, so don’t expect instant answers. For instant answers… use an instant messenger or the phone.
- For emails with lot’s of questions, reply inline to make it easier to read. “You’ll find my answers in blue in your text below.”
- Use cc: sparingly. Some people feel their bosses need to be informed of every single mail they send, so they cc: them everything. Please don’t.
- If the sender does not expect a reply, do not send a reply. For example: “The meeting has been cancelled.” Don’t reply: “Thanks!”.
If you are going to work from home, better get good at staying at the top of your inbox, or whatever technology will be your primary communication channel with coworkers and clients.
Interaction with others
Most work requires interaction ith others, be it clients, coworkers, or your boss. You’ll need to share information that is complex or personal.
From Sean Graber’s article Why Remote Work Thrives in Some Companies and Fails in Others (HBR March 2015):
Successful remote work is based on three core principles: communication, coordination, and culture. Broadly speaking, communication is the ability to exchange information, coordination is the ability to work toward a common goal, and culture is a shared set of customs that foster trust and engagement. In order for remote work to be successful, companies (and teams within them) must create clear processes that support each of these principles.
An important part of culture, Graber continues, is developing trust. Cognitive trust (based on competence and reliablity) can be developed remotely. Affective trust, however, is based on feeling, and is trickier to build virtually.
The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. I find it very appropriate for doing deep work, i.e., working in the maker’s schedule.
The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. These intervals are known as “pomodoros”, the plural in English of the Italian word pomodoro meaning “tomato”. The method is based on the idea that frequent breaks can improve mental agility.
Some useful apps I’ve used and I can recommend.
|Freedom, an app that blocks Internet access for a defined period of time you define so you can focus on the work at hand. (The only way to re-enable internet access before the timer ends is to reboot your machine.) Available for Mac, Windows, iPhone, iPad, and Android.|
|Hours. A time tracker for iOS with a nice user interface, and customizable notifications. Free for a limited time. You can see it in action here.|
|Coach.me. A free app for iOS and Android that let's you track personal improvement toward goals. Very useful for building habits.|
Update 2018-08-06: Although I didn’t include them in the original article, working remotely requires, more than ever, caring for on-line security. Check The Remote Worker’s Guide to Privacy and Security for recommendations about security tools and practices.
|Pomodoro Technique Illustrated by Staffan Noteberg|
|Remote. Office not Required. Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.|
|(||Influencing Virtual Teams, by Hassan Osman.|
cfr Lessons Learned From 3 Companies That Have Long Embraced Remote Work, by Sara Sutton Fell. Also see Top 100 Companies to Watch for Remote Jobs. ↩
Microsoft’s Work Without Walls Survey (2011) mentions as a problem for remote workers that “business leaders assume employees who work remotely and take advantage of the policy are not really working. This is because of the loss of control. Employers lose direct oversight and cannot witness productivity firsthand.” cfr also Krauthammer’s Out of sight does not mean out of mind. ↩