In praise of remote work

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!


16 thoughts on “In praise of remote work

  1. Hi Laura! I love this post, because I work 100% from home in an otherwise traditional full-time job (that is, I’m not self-employed, although I used to be). I manage communications for a national scientific society headquartered in Chicago; I live in a small town in eastern Washington. I have a 22-month-old, and he goes to daycare full-time, so my “commute” consists of dropping him off to daycare and then turning around and going back home to my “home office” (which for now is just a desk in the corner of our living room)! I get the occasional raised eyebrow when people learn that my kid goes to daycare while I work from home, so thank you for emphasizing the importance of childcare even for remote workers.

    I absolutely have set work hours that I usually stick to pretty closely, rather than letting work bleed out into my evenings and weekends. I think for this it helps that my employer has provided me with a laptop, so I can shut down my work computer at the end of the work day and use my own personal computer for any non-work computer stuff I need to do in the evening, eliminating any temptation to check my work email (I do not have my work email set up on my personal computer).

    Once or twice a week I spend a few hours at a coffee shop to fend off cabin fever. I used to put a lot of pressure on myself to make absolutely sure I was working a certain number of hours each day without too much break time, so that I didn’t feel like I was “taking advantage” of my work-from-home situation, but as I’ve been in my position longer I’ve started to feel a little more relaxed about, say, taking a 30 minute break for a walk mid-afternoon when the weather is nice. My boss (our executive director) has made it clear that she’s very happy with my performance, and I’m getting all my tasks done and projects moved forward, so clearly those 30 minutes are not preventing me from doing my job at an acceptable level!

    1. @Rebecca- having the daycare pick up at the end of the day would create a natural ending – which is not a bad thing! When I worked from home before having kids I sang in a lot of choirs for this reason – I had to end the work day around 6:15/6:30 to get to 7 p.m. rehearsal.

  2. It turns out that a lot of medicine can be done remotely too. Even many surgeries can be performed robotically, and there’s no reason a surgeon needs to be physically present in the same room as the patient to do that. I even think about my job, and the frequency with which I actually have to touch the patient once induction of anesthesia is done (we do still have an anesthesia doctor or CRNA in the room the whole time with you anyway).

    1. @omdg – it will be interesting to see how this plays out over time. We’ve used a virtual doctor service for some primary care stuff (like identifying pink eye in a kid…) and you’re right that a robotic surgery could definitely be done from somewhere else.

  3. I worked remotely for a long time (4-5 years) and I agree with your advice – especially that childcare is absolutely required! Here are a few others:

    1) Set up a productive work space – two monitors, keyboard, mouse, desk, comfortable chair. Pay attention to the ergonomics. You cannot WFH long term if you’re hunching over a laptop for 8 hours a day. If you can have a separate room that’s great. It’s nice to be able to close the door when you need to. If you have a spouse who will also be WFH, think that through. Can you set up in different parts of the house for the times when both are on a conference call?

    2) Mind your written communication – it’s easier for miscommunications to happen over email or chat than in person or on the phone. Word sensitive emails carefully, editing several times and having someone else edit. Consider the phone instead when appropriate. NEVER have a sensitive conversation via chat.

    3) Time Blocking – Many people find it hard to ignore household chores when WFH. I personally don’t have this problem being naturally untidy but I hear it is a challenge for some. Set aside part of your day (maybe 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the afternoon) to attend to household chores. The hold household chores for those times. OR if you are on a conference call that doesn’t require you to be in front of your computer, do household chores while taking the call. I actually find this keeps me from getting distracted by email/computer stuff and improves my engagement on calls.

    4) Overcommunicate at first – If you are transitioning from an in-office role to a remote role (for whatever reason) some managers will struggle with this at first. I find it helps to provide extra updates about what you are doing until the comfort level improves.

    5) Childcare logistics – For long term WFH, keep in mind your childcare logistics. If you’re taking a child to daycare, it can actually be fairly long because you’re going there and back twice a day. Can a spouse take that responsibility? A nanny would be less driving time but do you have enough space to have everyone in the house all day? Consider noise levels. Etc. My recommendation is to pick a daycare as close to home as possible.

    1. @BethC- totally agree on pushing household chores to one specific window. If it’s always an option, you can be distracted. This isn’t an issue for me either, both because I’ve worked from home so long and have a separate office but I do see how people who haven’t worked from home regularly might think that, because they’re there, they should be doing their chores.

  4. I do like working from home. And I can be very productive with the desk work when I do (like emptying my inbox🤷🏼‍♀️🤷🏼‍♀️) But as a Leader, it’s very hard to motivate, energize and get the feedback loop for telecommuting workers. For this reason I am a bit old fashioned that I like for the team to be present. All for it when it’s necessary- Dr appointment, sick child, plumber- but nothing compares to pulling the team in a room and working out the plan.
    I work at a large, fast paced engineering company.
    We read all these Leadership books but most require you to be present to be effective.

  5. My husband and I both work from home 75% of the time (although he travels 40% of the time, but that is generally for meetings/conferences – not to be in an office space with colleagues). We are both able to set most of our own hours (we own our own business, but do subcontracting work that comes with certain deadlines/expectations).

    My husband LOVES working from home and is extremely productive. I find it harder to power through while laundry is sitting nearby waiting.

    A few things that help me:

    1) Have the right equipment. Someone else mentioned this, but a multi-monitor setup (I have 2, my husband has 3) is a HUGE productivity boost. I know I get more done in less time because of it. My husband also has a standing desk with one of the ergonomic mats which he swears by. I have an exercise ball chair recommended by my family doctor (whose I always admired!); I love it! I can bounce, it helps me sit up straighter. Awesome.

    2) Focus on performance, not hours. Because I am productive when working, I try to cut myself more slack when it comes to the actual number of hours worked. One of the blessings from working at home (for my role/responsibilities at least) is the flexibility. If I get all my tasks done in 5 hours, it may be I was just more productive than others would have been in 8 hours. If I want to do laundry and put out the garbage at 9 AM, and there is no pressing work that is getting missed…and then work through a traditional lunch hour…that’s okay!

    3) Also, I try to recognize that if I get up at 5:30 to work on a project, it’s okay to take an hour for lunch or go for a walk. There is a sense that I must work 8 full hours, without distraction, at home – where that wouldn’t in reality be happening in most working environments where there are chats, unexpected meetings, lunch breaks etc.

    4) Get out of the house, but not always just for work. If you’re like me and struggle to work AND relax in the same environment, prioritize getting away and setting sacred places just for relaxing or hobbies. I actually have a coffee shop where I go to do creative writing work. I don’t write at home, or I’d feel like I always “could” be doing it and it would lose its joy and become just another to-do on my list. Likewise, I don’t take paid work to the coffee shop, because then it feels like another extension of the office.

    1. @Elisabeth – I agree on this separation – for a while I’d go to the library to write fiction because when I was sitting at my desk I felt like I should work on my (paying) non fiction stuff. I seem to have broken through that block now, but for a while it was helpful.

  6. When I’m not traveling I work from home. At first, my family perceived travel as work and didn’t see my time at home the same way – my husband would ask, “Are you working this week?” Yes! I work every week! That has finally shifted, but it took a long time. Using the door of my home office as a signal really helps – if it’s open, my husband and kids (now ages 17-22, so no need for child care) are welcome to stick their heads in and say hello, or to ask me a quick question. If it’s closed, they need to wait. And I absolutely agree about planning/time blocking. Housework will expand to fill the time allotted, and so will email.

    1. @September – ah yes, the closed door. I may be availing myself of that signal today as everyone is home with school closures…

  7. As my employer looks to more remote work in the coming weeks, this is all extremely valuable and relevant. My biggest concern is daycare closing, and how my husband and I will work and parent a 15 month old simultaneously in a pretty small space if this happens. I suspect that we’ll need to switch off AM and PM, like you suggested, but I’m now feeling inspired to get creative on work space so the toddler can’t see me when it’s my work time (and I’m assuming it won’t be recommended to be in coffee shops, etc. given where we live and the virus). Thank you for addressing this!

  8. These are all great tips. My kids are also teens so I don’t need childcare. I think the most important thing for me is taking breaks. I teach online, so the ending of a lesson reminds me to take a break, but on days when I’m planning/grading, I have to set a timer to get up and move. I also think doing something totally different from your work for your breaks is important. And now that the weather is nice, I really like the benefit of being able to sit in my backyard and listen to the birds for a break. Actually taking advantage of the benefit of being able to work anywhere and switching things up at a coffee shop is fun too.

  9. I work for a large financial institution and they moved away from allowing people to WFH in the last year or so. You can do it on an as-needed basis, but not on a regular recurrence (like once a week, for example). They are more permissive of WFH right now and have asked all Manhattan associates to WFH. But in general, they are against it. Rumor has it that they audited people who were working from home and the # of hours people were actually on their laptops working were pretty bad… But instead of addressing those situations, they just made a ban on all WFH arrangements… I will say that my industry is not super conducive to working from home as we have a lot of individuals who trade securities and need access to multiple monitors, extra high speed internet, etc. My job can be done from home but it’s definitely not optimal as I work on a trading floor and it’s really hard to replicate that dialogue that happens. All that said, I’m glad I have the ability to work from home since it’s pretty likely that we will be encouraged to if the virus cases start to increase.

  10. I’ve worked from home full-time for 8 years – since my kids were quite young – and there are still aspects and boundaries that I struggle with!

    My best advice echos many others – have a dedicated workspace and two monitors, have set times for chores, close the door, etc.

    Most of all, make sure your space is comfortable – I have a space heater, plants, always at least two drinks, my calendar, and everything I need within arms reach. Being organized and having that dedicated comfortable space makes my work much more productive!

    1. @Jamie – I need to get better about the drinks. I get thirsty and then have to leave my office and…

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