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Seven Tips for Being a Productive, Professional Remote Worker

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My first taste of telecommuting was in 1999 as part of my former professional life as a technical recruiter in the Boston area.  My husband and I were relocating to Raleigh NC for his new job and my company didn’t want me to leave, so they set me up to continue working for them from the comfort of my new home.

It was great to work from home.  At first.  But I had gone from an office full of colleagues and chats over coffee to relatively isolated days broken only by the occasional brief phone call.  I struggled to feel connected to my coworkers.  I didn’t have the resources I needed.  Minor issues became major issues.  It was not the idyllic situation that I had imagined it would be.

I learned a great deal from the experience.  Since then, I have worked remotely off and on for over twenty years, and I’ve gotten better at it.  I’ve learned how to maintain a positive, productive remote work life that meets my professional obligations and nicely balances with my personal and family life.

If you’re new to remote work, you’re not alone!  Here are seven tips that may help you in your efforts to stay on an even keel in these rocky times.

1.    Get ready for work each day

It’s very tempting to stay in pajamas all day, but it can have a significant impact on how you feel about yourself and, by extension, your work.  The simple act of getting dressed for work will wake you up and help you feel more ready to take on the day.  You don’t need to wear a suit, of course.  Just be clean and neatly dressed.  You’ll feel better and sharper, which will help you to be more productive throughout the day.

2.    Replace the value of your commute

When I drive to and from work, I often spend that 20-30 minutes listening to my favorite music or a good audiobook.  When I work from home, I miss that dedicated “me” time.  You might use your driving time to listen to sports radio, or maybe you take the bus and you read during the ride.  When you become a remote worker, you might be tempted to start working right away each day, and you might lose that dedicated “you” time.  Think about what you’ve lost, recognize the value it added to the quality of your day, and replace it.  Spend the first 20 minutes of your morning listening to sports radio while you drink coffee and watch birds out the window.  Or do 15 minutes on the treadmill with an audiobook.  It doesn’t cut into your workday in any meaningful way, and it’s an invaluable self-care activity that can put you in a positive frame of mind for the rest of the day.

3.    Structure your workday

If your office life was full of scheduled meetings, regular calls, opening the mail, the normal group lunch, etc., that routine helped to keep you moving.  When you work from home, those office-life events drop off sharply and you may find yourself wandering aimlessly through your day, which can severely undermine your motivation.  Create a structured routine that moves you purposefully through your workday.  Schedule daily events such as a morning strategy session with yourself to review your schedule and set priorities for that day, regular videoconferences and phone calls, your own lunch time, an afternoon break to snuggle your furry 4-footed “coworker,” a specific time to check and open your mail, etc.  Having regular activities and approaching each day with intentionality can help you to stay focused and be productive throughout the day.

4.    Connect with coworkers, customers, or clients by voice every day

Emails and text messages are great, but they can’t take the place of live personal contact.  Chatting with a colleague or client over the phone, even just to exchange social pleasantries and light jokes, can really brighten your mood.  Make it a point to speak to a real person every day, preferably multiple times a day.  This is especially valuable when you are struggling with a difficult issue, like how to handle an unhappy client or a tricky business transaction.  Phone a friend!  Talking through issues by brainstorming and problem-solving with a colleague has a near-magical tendency to help you identify better options and solutions than you would on your own.

5.    Avoid social media during your work hours

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.  They can be a great way to connect with people, but they can be huge time-sinks.  The immediacy of posting and responding on social media can create a false sense of urgency, leading people to think that they have to take time RIGHT NOW to respond to comments.  YouTube and TikTok can be sensational!  It’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole and lose hours of productivity.  When you are working remotely, treat social media as a break-time activity.  Limit yourself to lunch time or set break times.  Also, avoid posting on social media about your non-work activity during working hours.  “At the groomer with Rex! Doesn’t he look handsome?!?”  Your colleagues, who thought you were working, are likely to squint loudly and grumble.  It creates a negative impression of your work ethic and professionalism, even if unwarranted.

6.    Have a dedicated workspace

It’s old news that eating or watching TV in bed can make it more difficult for you to get restful sleep.  Your brain needs to associate your bed with sleep rather than with waking activity.  Similarly, if you work in bed, on your living room couch, and everywhere else in your home, then your brain will associate everywhere in your home with work, and you will have more difficulty relaxing and enjoying your personal and family time.  When you aren’t relaxed and rested, you have difficulty concentrating and become less productive at work.  It’s important to create a dedicated workspace in your home, even if it’s just a specific corner of the dining room table. For attorneys and medical providers, it is also important to choose a space with privacy for speaking with clients/patients and protecting confidential/health information.  A dedicated physical workspace enables you to make that mental shift into “work mode” during working hours.  You will reduce distractions and increase productivity.  You’ll also be able to “leave the office” at the end of your workday by shutting down the computer, turning off the light, and leaving the workspace.  The rest of your home then remains associated with personal and family time rather than work.

7.    Leave the office

Once you dedicate a physical space for your work, make sure you leave work every day!  Because they work from home, remote workers are often tempted to continue working during their off-hours.  Maybe you get an email from a client at 9:00pm.  Maybe your boss emails you on your day off.  Whatever the cause, it’s easy to think “I’ll just log in for a few minutes,” and then spend hours working when you’re supposed to be relaxing.  This doesn’t hurt occasionally, but be careful not to make this a regular practice.  Working long hours can increase risk of depression and illness, and lead to serious negative effects on family life.  It can also impair cognitive function and decrease productivity. The brain needs to rest.  So, at the end of your workday, log off and leave the office.

Working from home is a new challenge for many companies and employees, adding to the rest of the challenges we face during the COVID-19 pandemic.  When the pandemic passes, this experiment with remote work might end up changing how some companies do business.  Now is the time to create your own routines and procedures to maintain your productivity, meet your professional obligations, and enjoy a personal life.  You might find this to be a useful experience in the future!