Certain kinds of work have to be done on-site. Medical procedures, construction… But a lot of modern knowledge work is done by communicating with other people in various ways. Modern technology means these ways do not need to be in person. Yet many organizations are still set up to have people drive (in gas-guzzling cars by themselves, in maddening traffic) to physical headquarters, where they they proceed to email and call people in other places.
I’m continually amazed at how many business leaders have a mental block about this. I was talking with one executive about remote work, which he was studying as part of future trends his organization needed to be aware of, and then he mentioned “of course, it would never work for us.” Trust me, there is nothing this organization did that could not happen remotely. But in his mind, work was work, and work needed to happen in the office where he could see it being done.
Needless to say, all this is being reconsidered in light of recent news. A number of organizations that have tiptoed into the waters of remote work are now wading in.
While the circumstances are non-ideal to say the least, in the long run it is wise for organizations to figure out options.
I’ve worked in home offices for 18 years now. I’ve done solo work and been part of teams and managed teams. I think there are a few best practices for both workers and managers to keep in mind.
First, it helps to keep regular hours. No, not so the boss can make sure that people are putting in a “real” work day. I’ve found that the more common problem for remote workers is that there is zero separation between work and everything else, which means that there is no shut down signal in the way that you eventually need to leave the office and drive home. People feel they can’t take breaks, or need to multi-task work all evening. When you work for yourself, work can definitely expand to fill the available space, so it helps to give it a specific space. Before my pseudo-maternity leave, I generally considered my work day to be 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Not coincidentally, these are the hours between when the bus picks up my elementary school aged kids and when they come home. I will often do some stuff outside that window (and would occasionally do personal stuff during that window), but that is the one I plan for.
Speaking of which…I plan! You’d think this would be obvious, but when you go to an office, you feel like you’ve done something by going there and then leaving at the end of the day, even if you really haven’t. A nebulous remote work day can feel really unproductive. So, I give myself a list of, say, 5 things that need to happen before quitting time. Once they’re done, I know I’ve had a good work day. If that happens at 10 a.m., great! I usually do keep going, but progress is very motivational. So set yourself up to see progress.
I also get dressed. Heels aren’t necessary, but it’s good to shower and such because when in doubt choose video calls. I resisted this for a long time but now that almost everyone has high speed internet access and there are a lot of offerings (I have a Zoom pro account; Best of Both Worlds is recorded on Squadcast), it is really the way to go. With multi-person audio-only conference calls, it’s hard to read cues and people talk on top of each other or tune out and multi-task. When you can all see each other, the conversation can be much more orderly. Plus, video conferencing solves almost all the problems of not feeling connected to each other. The human brain doesn’t understand that someone you see on a screen isn’t there with you; that’s why people feel they “know” actors they see on TV when they happen to see them in real life. I find it helps to build in a few minutes for socializing at the beginning of video calls. You feel somewhat like you’re at the water cooler.
When people are working for you remotely, you also need to get in this habit: manage by tasks (not time), set clear deadlines, and give lots of feedback. A lot of managers are still in the mindset that you manage by walking around, stopping by cubicles to check how people are doing. This, curiously, leads to people making sure they look busy even if they aren’t. With remote work, you might instead have a quick video chat on Friday about deliverables for the following week, with feedback on previous work products sent in. Yes, you need to trust people to be self-directed, but you can still provide a fair amount of guidance. You can have conversations about the right amount of work to assign, and to expect the person to propose. I think some number of managers think “well, what if people just watch movies all day?” If you haven’t worked together to figure out good ways for them to spend their time, then that’s your fault! (But side note: I have never seen a time log from someone working from home that featured extensive TV/movie time during the day. This is just so much less of an issue than people think it is, though given that working from home is more self-selected at this point I guess it could become more so when it’s more broadly employed).
And, finally, yes, remote workers need childcare for any kids that are not old enough to watch themselves. This is going to be the wrinkle in all this; if offices and schools/daycares are closed simultaneously, then plenty of people’s maiden work-from-home experiences are going to involve multi-tasking childcare. This is not ideal (of course, nothing about the current situation is ideal…) But there are ways to still get focused time. If there are two adults in the household they can switch off shifts. One party works 6 a.m. to noon, the other noon to 6 p.m. and both get almost a full day (probably more than a full day if they’re actually focused — offices are distracting places!) Or the schedule I’ve found feasible for snow days is to get the kids outside and running around for the morning, and spend a little time with them then. Then, after lunch, everyone gets nap/quiet/screen time and that can be work time. Coupled with some early morning and late evening time you can log close to a full work day too.
If you work remotely or from home, I’d love to hear your strategies!