I’ve been working remotely for more than 15 years. I thought that with so many people working remotely in response to the novel coronavirus it may be useful to share some of the things I’ve learned that help me make remote working productive and useful.
First step: Define your time
It is way too easy to end up working too hard when you work from home. In part this is because it is also too easy to let your thoughts drift during the day, only to find you need to work all night to reach that morning deadline.
You need to be hard on yourself and make sure to define your time, creating clear and consistent boundaries between working and domestic time.
Of course, this is also an opportunity to work with your employer to see if it’s possible to define working hours that coalesce with your most personally productive times: some people work best late at night while others prefer the early morning, for example.
There is also a need to agree on that time with management and your teams. I have worked with some remote employers who insist you maintain an instant messaging conversation of some kind while at work in order that they can check you are there. This works if you like it. I don’t, and prefer to define working times and agree on working targets.
Remote working without such agreed boundaries very quickly leaks into your personal life, generating personal and relationship stress. Time and task tracking tools such as Slack, Trello and others can deliver great results here, giving employers good insight into what you do and giving you a clear set of targets to try to meet. One more thing: You must work with your family to ensure they understand and respect when you are in ‘work mode.’
Use the Pomodoro Technique
It’s very easy to lose yourself in thought.
When you work from home this becomes more challenging in the absence of distraction to help remind you time is passing by.
One of the more effective ways I deal with this is to use the Pomodoro Technique, a highly effective working method in which you focus on your projects for short bursts of time, take a break and then focus once again. It’s effective because the rests make it easier to maintain concentration.
My approach to this is to list the tasks I need to get done each day and then use the technique to rotate between them until they are completed. I find this approach helps me improve my focus, whether I’m in a high distraction environment such as a coffee shop or sitting alone and lost in thought at my desk. Focus is a free app that will teach help you use this technique and is available for iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple Watch.
Employers tend to think that because you are working remotely from home they have the right to make contact with you via instant messaging at any time of the day or night.
This is why it is so important to set boundaries early on (see above) in order to ensure you maintain a sanity-protecting division between work time and personal time.
The thing is, this kind of IM-based control freakery can also get in the way of getting things done, as can the expectation that you will always be available using every available communication tool used at your company.
Here are three suggestions to help you cope:
- Coalesce teams on using one form of immediate communication: Slack, email, FaceTime? It’s important to be consistent and to ensure everyone you work with is using the same solution, or you end up spending your day rotating between multiple conversations in multiple applications, which many impact concentration.
- Whatever communication tools you use, put them on a diet. You may want to switch off push email in order to only check for new messages at specific times, or use presence indicators in the instant messaging software you use to make it clear when you are working at something and when you are picking up.
- This only works if you make sure to check communications at consistent times. The easiest way to do this is to use the Reminders app on your Apple device to tell you to pick up messages first thing in the morning, just before lunch and again at the end of the day.
Finally, it makes sense to engage in a short daily video conferencing meeting with the rest of your (temporary or permanent) project team — it helps stave off feelings of isolation and boost feelings of collaboration.
Remember the Pomodoro Technique I discussed earlier?
Task management matters a great deal when you work remotely. You are more prone to be distracted by domestic arrangements such as partners and kids, for example. (Don’t forget, switching between distractions can reduce productivity by 40%, according to the American Psychological Association).
It makes sense to schedule specific parts of the day for your different tasks. Set times for writing, researching, communications, meetings and so on. An additional benefit to this approach is that it helps you identify if you are becoming over-committed before it becomes a problem. Recommended app: Things, by Cultured Code — it’s clear, integrates with Calendar and is available across Apple’s platforms.
Manage your applications
Do you have a tendency to become lost on social media?
I know I do, and it’s insanely easy to lose valuable chunks of time when you know you should be focusing on getting work done.
That’s human nature, I’m afraid.
Fortunately there’s a solution to this problem that is built inside every Mac or iOS device, Screen Time App Limits. (I wrote a little on how this works here). Use App Limits to schedule which apps you can access (or for how long) during your day. Doing so will help you help yourself avoid digital distraction. While you’re at it, delete Facebook.
Share your load
I find Trello to be an invaluable tool when working in teams. I’m a fan of its card-based task management interface. What’s best about this is that it makes it very easy to share your goals across the rest of your project team and provides all involved with a good insight into project scheduling.
Sharing your target goals with others (even virtually) can help you meet the schedule you set yourself, and also makes it easier to identify when people are slipping behind and may need help. It’s much less invasive than that employer hassling you with endless IM calls guaranteed to wreck your concentration.
Make a good workspace
Of course, the biggest step to take is to define where in your home you work.
Most home workers say they benefit from having a defined workspace, which is why it matters so much. It helps create a psychological support to help you differentiate between your own time and work time.
Some take this further — I have heard of some who wear a suit during their remote workday as they believe it helps them focus. This may work for you if you find it difficult to get into “work mode” when working from home.
The workspace you define in your home should be a relatively tranquil area where you won’t be interrupted by the hubbub of home life.
It is very important to choose a chair and work surface (desk, table, or otherwise) that are the correct height for you — there is a useful tool to help you get this right here. Not doing so will give you back pain and may also generate other physical problems.
Don’t sit down all day
One of the risks of remote working is how easy it becomes to sit down all day as you are no longer interrupted by your busy office environment.
There is plenty of research to show that sitting down for extensive lengths of time can generate significant physical problems. One report recently claimed 70% of U.S. workers suffer from posture-related back pain as a result of doing so.
If you have an Apple Watch, the Stand Reminder is an invaluable way homeworkers (and everyone else) can alleviate this problem.
Activate this in the Watch app on your iPhone in MyWatch > Activity > toggle Stand Reminder to on. Your watch will then remind you to stand up for a couple of minutes every hour.
Your Apple Watch will also help you stay active during your day, as you should, as exercise is known to boost focus and productivity levels while enhancing feelings of personal wellbeing.
Take breaks, stretch and exercise
As well as getting up regularly, it is important to take regular breaks, just as if you were at the office. Achieving this isn’t hard, but remembering to do so might as well be.
You should set regular break reminders using the timer on your iPhone, or a dedicated break reminder application like Take a Break, Please.
Another tip I find useful is to make time to stretch with simple yoga exercises each day, using Yoga for Beginners. Do also perform these daily hand exercises.
When you work alone no one hears you… dictate…
Have you noticed that no one can hear you when you speak to yourself now you work remotely? This makes it the perfect opportunity to learn how to use the built-in dictation tools you’ll find on iOS devices and on your Mac. Using dictation will drastically reduce the quantity of typing you need to do, giving your poor hands a rest. Here’s a downloadable list of dictation commands you can use on iOS and for Mac that you can keep nearby. Writing letters, emails, memos all get much easier once you use dictation.
I hope these ideas help you thrive when you work remotely from home. I’m very interested in any further advice that we can share here, so please do share your remote working tips with me.
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