What I’ve Learned From 20 Productive Years Working From Home

March 27, 2020

The Coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a huge and unexpected increase in the number of people who work from home. This is expected to last for the next few months, if not longer. For most people, a change in established working routines is disruptive under the best of circumstances, let alone under what are state of emergency conditions. Even those who work from home regularly will find it challenging.

I’ve been working productively in virtual mode for 20 years. I’m lucky that both the work I do, and my personality/work style, are well-suited to a remote environment. My job involves leading business research projects in collaboration with colleagues and clients located across the globe. Much of my work is done solo and the rest is easily facilitated through technology. I don’t expect all my recommendations will be helpful to everyone, especially to those of you with much different jobs and personal circumstances than me.

Working from home successfully requires a special blend of discipline and ability to focus. While all of the suggestions that follow are considered good practice regardless of work location, they are especially important to keep in mind when transitioning to full-time remote work for the first time.

If you are new to remote working, I hope that some of the following recommendations will prove useful and help you to more quickly establish a productive work-from-home routine. For those of you that are old hands, I hope these tips resonate and look forward to hearing other suggestions that work well for you.

  1. Don’t obsess (too much) about your work space: There is no doubt that working from home full time will require a significant adjustment for many. In the current circumstances, many are having to make do with far from perfect working quarters. If you’re lucky, it may not be any worse than the office, just a different set of distractions. Within this constraint, find that best work space possible and consistently use it. For those fortunate enough to have multiple work space options – pick the area of your home conducive to a particular task, e.g., a quiet, comfortable place for reading or thinking or a suitable spot for conducting important calls. Lastly, don’t forget that even though your productivity will take a hit during your adjustment period, you will likely have 1-2 extra hours a day not commuting to make some of it up.
  2. Organize and plan your work daily: This is obvious but really critical when shifting to new environs where distractions may be rife. Keep a weekly and daily checklist of objectives and tasks. Set goals at the beginning of the day and review accomplishments at the end. Organize reminders and activities for the following day before shutting down.
  3. Maintain a regular schedule: Keeping up a routine will speed acclimation to a new working environment. Schedules help you to get and stay in work mode. They can also smooth transition to personal time. This will be especially important in the beginning when separating work and home life may be at its most difficult.
  4. Break up work into digestible bits – Keeping up productivity of work output amid an abrupt change in your work environment is more likely if you employ a disciplined approach to organizing the day’s activities. Structure the day based on different kinds of activities such as calls, analytical work, planning, etc. Where possible, carve up projects into smaller, quickly achievable chunks. Set realistic goals that can be achieved in the time allotted.
  5. Schedule breaks – This will help you to re-energize and shift focus from one type of task to another. I take breaks mid-morning and mid-afternoon, as well as at midday. At each, I eat something to keep my energy up (dark chocolate at 3 is my restorative go to!). I also go for a walk or run at mid-day. Some might consider this a break from work. I see it as “thinking and reflection time”, which is in short supply for most people. Running often helps me to think through problems and tap into the creative parts of my brain.
  6. Track activities –There are lots of different tools you can use to plan and track activities. I just use my Outlook calendar. At the beginning of the week, I block out time for different color-coded tasks around regularly scheduled activities such as team calls. While I try to stick to the plan, interruptions arise requiring action and tasks don’t always take the time allotted. So, each day, I periodically update the calendar to reflect the actual time spent on an activity. The MyAnalytics feature in Outlook keeps track of calendar and e-mail entries but, as far as I know, it can’t be customized or provide granular levels of tracking. You may not want or need to be as precise as me in accounting for your time. But at whatever level you track activities, it will help you see how much time you are spending productively, and hopefully better prevent/manage unwanted disruptions.
  7. Take time to connect: If you are like me, stay in touch by scheduling regular check in calls with key co-workers, customers and managers. If you prefer to communicate spontaneously then reach out via the communication vehicle of your choice. Plan to have more frequent conversations than normal at least during your home working transition period. Isolation is one of the top downsides for remote workers, even introverts like me need to socialize, so make sure you are reaching out to colleagues and friends as much as needed to stay same in this incredibly stressful time.