Callie Enlow — In the Balance
Whether you believe remote or freelance work is essential for living your best life, or a nefarious tool stingy employers wield to cut costs on benefits and office space, these days more and more workers are ditching their daily commute.
A Gallup poll from early 2017 found that in the previous year, 43 percent of responding employees reported working remotely for some portion of their week. It’s not just the number of workers either; the amount of time we spend logged on remotely is growing too. According to Gallup, about a third of those not tethered to an office spent 80 to 100 percent of their time working remotely last year—up from 24 percent in 2012. As for freelancers, more than a third of workers are part of the “gig economy” now, with that number predicted to jump to 43 percent of all American workers by 2020.
Finishing up my own first year working 3-4 days a week remotely (which The New York Times tells me is “the sweet spot” for feeling most engaged), I’ve learned several secrets—my list of unsuspected Wi-Fi hotspots includes the ladies’ room of a luxury department store AND a park bench outside a police station. But don’t take my word for it, I also heard from over a dozen seasoned remote workers about what fuels their success.
1) Shower and Put on Clothes
If you think that the greatest joy of working from home is never taking off your pajama pants, buddy, I’ve got news: you probably need a bath. Sometimes, it’s pretty tempting to dive into work without bothering with the basics of human hygiene. Or to toil away in boxers as long as the to-do list does not include “in-person interaction.” (Although I did develop a genius, “dignity”-preserving way to answer the door in my pjs—it’s to wrap a blanket around myself and pretend I’m sick, if you must know) But I quickly realized the freedom to be gross was not making me feel great.
We’re not talking about putting on your power suit, here. “I don’t put on a suit every day—and I often work in yoga pants,” says Tara Gentile, founder and CEO of CoCommercial and an expert in home officing, “But I look put together and I could turn on my webcam or head out for a coffee meeting at any time.”
Even if last-minute meetings aren’t part of your work life, dressing up a bit can still set the tone of your workday. “I simply feel more professional when I’m wearing professional clothes, and that feeling helps me to get in my work zone,” says Jessica Swanda, a freelance copywriter and marketer.
2) Put the Office in Home Office
You can’t just nestle a laptop on a pillow and call it a desk. Some people mistakenly believe you don’t even have to get out of bed to get your work done, but this is another one of those remote work dreams that quickly dissolves when it comes up against reality. After working for months from my dining room table (thanks to my home office being a Wi-Fi dead zone), moving back into a dedicated work room has been the single biggest improvement to my productivity. Not having a consistent place to work and stash the tools of my trade made me feel disorganized, and I had to factor in a not-insignificant amount of time for shuffling my typical office materials around. Plus, hunching over a laptop on your couch, or sitting on a stiff dining room chair for most of the day, isn’t exactly ergonomic.
Maura Thomas, a productivity trainer and author of Work Without Walls: An Executive’s Guide to Attention Management, Productivity, and the Future of Work, recommends you survey your intended work area and ask yourself “is it really a work space? Do you have an appropriate amount of space to comfortably hold your computer and peripherals, to write and do work that isn’t computer-based?” She warns, “If you routinely ‘work’ squeezed into a corner of your couch, the end of the dining room table, or on some flat surface in your bedroom, then you are seriously impacting your productivity.”
3) Check In with Clients and Colleagues (Even Though Humanity Grows More Frustrating by the Day)
Working remotely is great for introverts, but sometimes it makes it a little too easy to avoid speaking to another living soul—you remember speaking? Like with your voice? And god forbid you have to actually leave your cozy little home office.
However, while Jesus said the meek will inherit the earth, they might not get a raise or promotion any time soon: the out of sight, out of mind principal still applies to remote workers. This is but one reason to make sure you’re still interacting with colleagues and supervisors on the regular.
It’s true that cloud storage and chat apps have digitized many functions of the traditional office space, but there are occasions when a simple phone call or brief in-person meeting will quickly convey what would otherwise require a frustrating digital run-around. “Our team has a rule to pick up the phone and call a customer, client, or team member after there have been three emails exchanged and folks still aren’t clear,” says Shelley Hayes, a vice president for Community Health Charities who manages a team of 20 mostly off-site workers.
“Schedule regular check-ins with your boss, peers, and, if you have one, a team,” advises Nancy Halpern, principal at KNH Partners. My remote team and I have individual check-ins and a team meeting once a week, and I also make an effort to meet with my supervisor and other department heads in person when we can. That way, I have a good sense of where the company is overall, and if there are any other areas where my skills could be useful.
4) Stick to a Schedule
“Set a schedule for yourself, no matter what the boss says about flexible work hours,” is the top advice from Angela Colley, our personal finance editor. Which is funny because I am that boss—in a deadline-driven environment, I don’t really care whether Angela gets her work done at midnight on Tuesday or 11 a.m. on Sunday as long as she’s getting it done on time. But she cares. One of the hardest things about freelance life is setting boundaries between “on” and “off” time. Plus, the National Sleep Foundation points out that erratic schedules can seriously mess with your ability to get a good night’s rest.
“If you have the whole day to get something done, it will often take the full day,” says April Weir, a business coach and owner of Sugar Five Design. She recommends “creating tension” in your schedule if you’re a freelancer with a wide-open planner in front of you. “Consider adding in structured activities away from home, such as an exercise class or networking event. Sometimes having less available time can lead to higher productivity, because it increases urgency for your tasks,” says Weir.
Set a start time and an end time and stick to it, unless…
5) Free to Be
Having a set schedule, working in a stable environment, interacting with coworkers, putting on pants—if this is all sounding too much like the typical 9-to-5 office gig, remember that remote work includes easy release valves for the pressures of work-life balance. I often end up working a couple of hours on the weekends, but building that into my schedule allows me to make appointments and fulfill quick errands during weekdays that would otherwise be a hassle.
“If I know I have a late night of work ahead of me, I try to break up my work day and get out for an hour or so to either go work out or run errands, since I know I’ll be getting through everything I need to do for work later,” says Ashley Mercurio, a managing partner at the Anthem Group and a remote worker for 11 years.
Also, think back to your office drone days—were you firmly butt-in-chair the entire time? Be honest: probably not. And that’s OK. Most on-site jobs factor small breaks into the workday, even if they don’t mandate or regulate them. Working from home gives you the utmost freedom in how you spend those non-business moments. “If working remotely means you can sneak in an extra half hour sleep, go for it,” says Halpern, “but be sure that you match your schedule to those of your supervisor or other remote workers.”
When I need to get away from my computer screen, I’ll chop veggies for that night’s dinner or fold laundry or schedule appointments. I’ve even squeezed in quick high-impact workouts during breaks, which helps me focus and work more efficiently afterward. Basically, anything that can happen quickly, without too much brain power. With days as jam-packed as mine, every minute counts and these productive mini-breaks make all the difference.
6) Have a Distraction Action Plan
Sometimes being at home brings its own unplanned distractions: noisy pets, amorous neighbors, surprise repairs to our apartment, toddler meltdowns, internet outages, these are all things I’ve contended with while also trying to work. Before you line up client and colleague calls, make sure your space is truly quiet, stick a note on the door letting neighbors and delivery people know you’re in the zone, and remind your landlord to run any scheduled repairs or visits by you first.
“Set boundaries and let people know your dedicated office hours,” recommends Sage Singleton, a writer for the website SafeWise. “Additionally, consider establishing cues for your roommate, spouse, or other family members. Maybe a closed door means ‘do not disturb’ or certain hours are quiet hours in the home. Whatever your plan is, communicate it to others.”
Also, create a list of nearby local spots where you can work if something comes up at home, complete with hours, internet/laptop policy, and any other qualities that might be important to you.
If you have a regular distraction—little kids or pets—do yourself a favor and book a sitter or dog-walker for times that require your full attention. It will pay for itself, and if it doesn’t, consider upping your hourly rate or asking for a raise.
7) Get Out!
Now that you’ve got your routine and home office perfectly set up, it’s time to leave. “Working remotely can lead to way too much time alone,” says Halpern. “You may need to take a walk, with or without the dog, or go to the local library or community center.”
While it can seem time-consuming and inefficient to change locations, sometimes you need the jolt of switching environs to get out of a rut. “That change of pace will usually give me a jump start if I feel like the day is dragging,” says Mercurio. Research backs this up. “We know that creativity and innovation happen when people change their environment, and especially when they expose themselves to a nature-like environment, to a natural environment,” Kimberly Elsbach, a workplace psychology expert, told NPR in 2015.
Recently, I discovered some Wi-Fi-enabled public parks nearby, where I’ll sometimes sit at a picnic table with my laptop during nice weather. For phone calls where I know I don’t need to take notes, I might simultaneously stroll around the block.
8) Make Friends
If you’d prefer your social interactions a bit more curated than whoever happens to be at the park or library, ditch the public option and start cozying up to telecommuting pals. Our sustainable business editor Jed Oelbaum makes a good case for clocking in at his buddy Mike’s apartment a few days a week, which he finds cheaper and less distracting that the usual cafes he works from.
Dissertation coach and diversity/inclusion consultant Debra Guckenheimer says, “I invite colleagues over to share my work space or to meet at a coffee shop so that we work at the same time. It increases productivity and helps with the isolation on working at home.” Guckenheimer takes it a step further than just working side by side: she creates accountability partnerships. “Name your goal with your partner and check in about your progress once a day or once a week,” she advises.
9) Stay Safe
“When working from home you should invest in a VPN [virtual private network],” says Consumer Affairs’ Kelli Howard. “VPNs secure internet browsing, keeping your data safe from hackers, internet providers, and other agencies that could steal private company information.” This is crucial if you do sometimes use public Wi-Fi connections, which may not be as secure as your home or office network.
Even if you don’t have a regular employer and company-issued hardware at home, it’s important to follow best practices to keep client and personal data safe. Always work from a secure network or route through a VPN, update software and operating systems, change passwords and/or use a password manager, back up files, and encrypt any sensitive material (even if the other party also uses encryption).
10) No Sad Desk Salad, Even at Home
Make Change Digital Editor Liz Biscevic takes the familiar cubicle advice of actually enjoying a lunch break and applies it to her home office as well. The majority of American employees report skipping the midday meal break—noshing in front of their computer instead of savoring a proper meal. Not only is that pathetic and gross (mayo on your keyboard is not a good look), it’s unhealthy and unproductive to boot.
The same way switching your environment helps boost mood and creativity, stepping away from the desk for a quick bite can also give you a much-needed break from structured work. You may also keep mindless munching in check (we eat more when we’re distracted by a screen). Even when I worked from my dining room, I found it helped to get up and move to a different spot at the table to eat lunch.