Starting around March 2020, more people than ever before began working from home, and quite suddenly. Organizations and individuals didn’t have time to prepare for remote work or think about the best ways to transition teams, processes, and culture to an online-only environment. No one knew (or yet knows) how long the COVID-19 pandemic and thus mandatory remote work would last.
If you’re new to the work-from-home lifestyle, whether due to the coronavirus or because you’ve managed to find a remote-based job, you may have found that you need to change your habits and routines to make working from home a success.
I’ve worked 100 percent remotely for more than six years, long before the COVID-19 pandemic started. Several of my friends and colleagues have done it, too. We each face unique challenges, not only because of our different personalities, but also due to our various lifestyles and the type of work we do. Still, many of the core issues we face as remote workers are the same.
Everyone who works remotely has to figure out when to work, where to work, and how to create boundaries between work and personal life. What about office equipment, career development, training opportunities, and building relationships with colleagues?
Working remotely, especially when working from home most of the time, means figuring out these issues and others. Here are 10 tips for leading a better and more productive remote-work life, based on my experience and what I’ve learned from others.
1. Maintain Regular Hours
Set a schedule and stick to it…most of the time. Having clear guidelines for when to work and when to call it a day helps many remote workers maintain work-life balance.
That said, one of the best benefits of remote work is flexibility, when the job allows for it. Sometimes you need to extend your day or start early to accommodate someone else’s time zone. When you do, be sure to wrap up earlier than usual or sleep in a bit the next morning to make up for it.
2. Create a Morning Routine
Deciding you’ll sit down at your desk and start work at a certain time is one thing. Creating a routine that guides you into the chair is another.
A routine can be more powerful than a clock at helping you get started each day. What in your morning routine indicates you’re about to start work? It might be making a cup of coffee before you tackle your to-do list. It might be returning home after a jog or getting dressed. (Wearing pajamas is a work-from-home perk for some, but a bad strategy for others.) Look for an existing habit that you have, like brushing your teeth or coming in from a dog walk, to act as your signal. That way, you can tack on the new habit of kicking off your workday.
I say “morning routine,” but not everyone who works from home follows a nine-to-five schedule. Yours might be a “getting started” routine at another time of day. Nevertheless, look for an existing habit you have and try to start your work day after it.
3. Schedule Breaks
If you work for an organization, know the policy on break times and take them. If you’re self-employed, give yourself adequate time during the day to walk away from the computer screen and phone. A lunch hour and two 15-minute breaks seem to be the standard for full-time US employees. For computer-based work and other sedentary work, it’s important to stand up and move to get your blood circulating every so often, at least once an hour. It also helps to move your eyes off screen regularly, even if it’s a micro-break of 10-20 seconds.
4. Keep a Dedicated Office Space
In an ideal world, remote employees would have not only a dedicated office, but also two computers, one for work and one for personal use. It’s more secure for the employer, and it lets you do all your NSFW activities in private.
But not everyone has a spare room to use as an office in their home, and keeping two machines isn’t always realistic. Instead, dedicate a desk or table space and some peripherals that will be used only for work. For example, when your laptop is hooked up to the monitor and external keyboard, it’s work time. When it’s on your lap, that’s personal time. You may want to go as far as partitioning your hard drive and creating a separate user account for work. Making even small points of differentiation between work time and personal time helps your brain know when you’re off the clock, and that contributes to better work-life balance.
5. Socialize With Colleagues
Loneliness, disconnect, and isolation are common problems in remote work life, especially for extroverts. Companies with a remote work culture usually offer ways to socialize. For example, they might have channels in a team messaging app, like Slack, for talking about common interests or organizing meetups for people in the same region.
Figure out how much interaction you need to feel connected and included. Even if you’re highly introverted and don’t like socializing, give a few interactive experiences a try so that you’re familiar with them if you ever decide you want them. If you’re not at a company with a strong remote culture, you may need to be more proactive about nurturing relationships.
6. “Show Up” to Meetings and Be Heard
Certainly, you’ll take part in video conferences and conference calls while working remotely, but it’s a good idea to attend optional meetings sometimes, too. Be sure to speak up during meetings so everyone knows you’re on the call. A simple, “Thanks, everyone. Bye!” at the close goes a long way toward making your presence known.
7. Look for Training and Learning Opportunities
When you’re not in an office with your fellow employees, you might miss out on training and skills development courses that are taught in person. Your company might even forget to add you to its online training courses. It can be tempting to regard this as a dodged bullet, but you might be missing out on an opportunity to learn something useful. Speak up and make sure you’re included.
In addition to top-down training, you can request online or in-person courses, training, and coaching if you need it. There are also plenty of online learning sites that teach business soft skills, programming, software skills, and other courses. Remote companies often have a budget for learning and skills training. If your organization doesn’t, ask if they might add it.
In non-pandemic times, people who work 100 percent remotely might seek out learning opportunities that are taught at the organization’s headquarters or nearby. That way, you get training and face time with colleagues in one go.
8. Be Positive
Reading tone in written messages is really difficult in all-remote settings. The less face time you have with people, the more an intentionally concise message can come off as terse and short-tempered.
In remote work settings, everyone must be positive, to the point where it may feel like you’re being overly positive, gushy even. Otherwise, you risk sounding like a jerk. It’s unfortunate, but true. So embrace the exclamation point! Find your favorite emoji. You’re going to need them.
9. Don’t Be Too Hard on Yourself or Others
Successful remote employees have a reputation for being extremely disciplined. After all, it takes serious focus to do any full-time job from an unconventional space.
That said, everyone lets their attention drift sometimes. If you find yourself working one minute and researching vacation house rentals the next, don’t reprimand yourself too harshly. Instead, ask yourself whether people in an office setting do the same thing. If the answer is yes, cut yourself some slack, then get back to work. Above all, remember, you need to balance productivity with self-care; otherwise, you risk burning out.
During the COVID-19 pandemic—but really all the time—we need to extend this same kindness and forgiving attitude to our co-workers, clients, and bosses. There is an extraordinary amount of stress and anxiety during a global pandemic. Keep in mind that you may not know what another person is going through not only in life, but also in their home work environment. Cut them some slack.
10. End Your Day With a Routine
Just as you should start your day with a routine, create a habit that signals the close of the workday. It might be a sign-off on a business messaging app, an evening dog walk, or an at-home yoga class. Something as simple as shutting down your computer and turning on a favorite podcast will do. Whatever you choose, do it consistently to mark the end of working hours.
Make It Personal
Above all else, figure out what works best for you. Sometimes the answer is apparent, but other times you might need some inspiration from other remote workers who are in the same boat. A supportive community does exist, whether you find them in your organization’s Slack channel or online through blogs or Twitter. Consider, too, that you might need to shake up your routine once in a while, lest it gets too…routine.