Remote/flexible work strategies — let me know yours!

Thank you so much to everyone who’s listened to my new podcast, The New Corner Office. The podcast — which shares strategies for thriving in the new world of work, where location and hours are more flexible than in the past — is two weeks old today.

I’m now working on a longer written project on a similar topic. This will be a manual for succeeding in self-directed work. Plenty of people are working from home for the first time in this era of social distancing. While life will eventually return to normal, it will be hard to argue that occasional remote/flexible work is simply not an option. It is! And so people can use it as a tool toward achieving their career ambitions.

I really do think that in many cases, structuring work to be flexible (and in some cases remote) is not just about work/life balance. It’s actually a strategic advantage. Organizations are more nimble. People are happier. Lots of time is wasted driving places just to email and call people in other places. Face-to-face work is great, but like all things, there is a point of diminishing returns.

I’ve got my own ideas from running a business out of my home office for decades. For instance:

*I almost always go on a run or a walk in mid-afternoon. This is the time when my energy is flagging, and by getting some exercise, I’m then able to put in another hour or two.

*Perhaps this is a little thing, but still — I pay attention to what’s outside my window; we planted skip laurels so I no longer see the neighbors’ garage. A green view makes me happier and (I think) more productive.

*I have a Regus account and (in normal times) go work there when my home office can’t work (a home demolition happening nearby, a Wifi problem…)

In any case, I want to include lots of other people’s tips as well. If you were working flexibly/remotely pre-Covid, or (even better!) managing a remote team, I’d love to hear your strategies. How do you plan your days? How do you structure employees’ work? Any networking tips? As always, you can email me at laura at lauravanderkam dot com. Thank you!

18 thoughts on “Remote/flexible work strategies — let me know yours!

  1. I’ve worked on a global team for the past 5 years, and wfh 2 days per week. So I generally don’t see most of my larger team in person as they are located outside of the US, and see my immediate team only 3 days per week in person. Honestly, I’m hoping after all this we all go full time wfh. My #1 tip is to actually have a dedicated home office. I tend to roll my eyes at the people with “office” setups on dining room tables and ironing boards that then wallow in the inefficiency of it all. My home office is a replica of my corporate one, at my own expense. Two monitors from Amazon can be had for under $200, a wireless keyboard and mouse for $20 and a basic headset for calls around $20. Put this stuff in a room with a door and you can now be productive.

    1. @Alexandra- definitely in agreement with this one. I can trace one of the low points of my career to the few months when I was working on the floor of my apartment. Truly, the floor. I wasn’t worth a desk? I have a very strong tendency to “make do” but that was ridiculous.

      When my husband started working from home more regularly we outfitted the guest bedroom to be his office with a real desk, desk chair, and reading chair + lamp. A good move now that he’s working from there 100 percent of the time!

  2. I worked from home for 13 years. The two most important things: you must have a dedicated work space, it doesn’t have to be a home office but should not be in your bedroom or the room where your kids play after school. And you need to have a schedule/structure to your day so you have time dedicated to work and time dedicated to home/family/personal time, or the two will start to blend and you will never be off work.

    1. @Cathy – I’ve learned to make myself daily task lists, and when the list is done, I can be done. Theoretically that could happen at 10 a.m., though it never does, because I also know roughly how many tasks fill a normal work day.

  3. I find changing venue every so often really helpful for my productivity. Some days I work in my “office” in the basement, sometimes at the kitchen table, sometimes on my bed, sometimes on the couch. Pre-covid Id also go to a coworking place which was nice from time to time. I also don’t do well with firm demarcations to my time. Sometimes my brain just doesn’t work, and it’s stupid to sit there trying to force it, if what you really need is a nap. I was give the advice to exercise regularly because even then if you accomplish nothing else, then at least you did that. And finally, sometimes you have to accept that you’re not going to get as much done as you think you should. Berating yourself is counterproductive and will only make the problem worse. Take care of yourself, and generally quality work flows from that.

    1. @omdg- definitely agree that sometimes you are just done. If you can’t do any work, exercise or take a nap. Those are both more productive uses of time than staring at the screen and then winding up reading headlines or checking social media.

  4. I have worked from home 90 percent of the time In a different city than my office for the last few years. A few things that have worked for me: Making sure to connect in person with people in the office when I go. I try my best to schedule breakfast, coffee, lunch, dinner with different colleagues when I am in the office. Calling colleagues after meetings to replicate the chatting and discussion that happens when people leave meetings at the same time. Recognizing that colleagues in the office may have a greater share of annoying tasks that pop up throughout the day – volunteering for some more difficult tasks, clients preemptively. Finally, I think it is really important to understand whether work from home and working flexible hours means the same thing at your particular workplace. If it doesn’t, observing the regular work day and being available for calls, urgent work during those times will go along way.

    1. @Natalie – this is smart to call people after meetings, just like you’d talk with each other in the hall on the way to the ladies room! You get a lot of the best intel this way…

  5. I started working flexibly about 4 months back, to keep an eye on my 6 year old son, who had just restarted school post a month long medical leave. I’m a project manager and hence have to constantly be interacting with my team members or leadership.
    The things that kept me as productive if not more productive were:

    1. Have a list of atleast 1 Big Picture item (an important task or project for you and your career, not urgent)

    2. Have the minor/ urgent follow-ups listed out clearly with people and action/questions for them. Makes you move faster.

    3. Allocate minimum of 60 mins time for deep work, first thing in the morning to work on that Big Picture item. Even better if this time is before the “normal” start of the day. This gives you a headstart.
    My teams typically came in about 10:30, so I got a solid 75 mins of time to do this, as I started my day at 9.

    With my schools closed due to lockdown, I have a list of simple activities for my son that I can keep him busy with while I do the sync ups with my team.

    1. @Shruti- I love the idea of starting a day with a win. I’ve been trying to do this working from 6:30-7:30 or so. Then I feel less frantic when I lose 9-10:30 daily with the Zoom craziness.

  6. I’ve always been quite resistant to WFH despite it being super common in academia but the current crisis has necessitated working from home (with a toddler and no childcare, no less). I’m currently working 1-5:30 everyday and 7:30-8:30 or so. What’s key for me is to use that evening block for planning – I outline what I need to write the following day and when I get to my desk at 1, I am ready to write. I also do no admin or emails during that 1-5:30 block, just pure writing and research. I can normally grab a few minutes for email or admin on the weekends or when my son is occupied in play during the morning and I’ve found that protecting that time is really helpful.

    Obviously this doesn’t work for everyone but for work that requires sustained intellectual engagement, it seems to help.

    1. @CBS – very much yes to this- planning out limited time is so important. As is recognizing the email and admin can be done in little chunks of time while you’re distracted. It’s all about matching the right work to the right time.

  7. I find it incredibly helpful to have a couple of rituals that can help me get into the right mindset for certain types of work. I have a playlist of inoffensive jazz piano music which I play through headphones when I really need to do a couple of hours focused creative work. Typically, I’d also go to a coffee shop for that as well, but that’s not an option at the moment, so I’ve taken to using YouTube livestreams of music that have coffee shop sounds in them as well.

    1. @Katie – I love the idea of creating your own coffee shop. I’m experimenting with working from places other than my desk for different types of work. In the past I sometimes went to a library for creative work.

  8. A few things that work for me:
    – Have a primary and secondary workspace. My primary workspace is a desk in a spare bedroom, which is set up much like my office at work. My secondary workspace is a comfortable armchair that I can take conference calls from. My husband’s secondary workspace is an ironing board, so he can stand during conference calls!
    – Have some really easy meals for lunch — my go-to these days is stir-fried frozen veggies over frozen brown rice. Takes 10 min to prepare, is warm and tasty, and relatively healthy.
    – Go out for a walk during a break between conference calls that you would otherwise struggle to use productively. A half-hour break between calls rarely yields meaningful work for me, so why not get some exercise and sun then?

  9. I’ve worked from home full time for 4 years as an RN Data Analyst now after 10+ years as an inpatient nurse. Majorly different schedule and job entirely! I am a huge, HUGE fan of the pomodoro technique. I tweak it a little from the standard 25 minute blocks and usually divide my focused work hours into 30 minute blocks. However I oftentimes will set a timer for 60 minutes now that I have developed better focus over the years (so I check off 2 30 minute blocks at once). Once I started using the timer method it was a total game changer for me. Once I set the timer, it’s like I have signed a pact with myself to do nothing but work until the timer is up. If the timer isn’t going, I feel a strange freedom to google things or just do non-work related tasks when I should not! It has worked extremely well for me, overall!

  10. One tip…mash up of your two recent posts… track your time! Some days working from home are exhausting and I feel like I was working “all day”, but I look at my time log and it was only 8 hours, not bad. Was just in different chunks or had multiple kid breaks. Other days I’ve felt super behind and when I look and see a day was only 6 hours, I realize partly why. Other days are ~10 hours, and then I remember to be grateful for the time I saved commuting and getting ready which would have made that a much longer day otherwise. Huge fan of time tracking (thanks to you!) but it’s been especially helpful this last month.

  11. I’ve been working remotely for most of the last 6 years and just gave a couple of talks at work about this topic now that everyone’s suddenly been thrown into remote work. I love the tip above about having a “secondary workspace”. We’ve been homeschooling one of our kids (age 10) for almost 18 months, and my husband also works remotely and it’s never been a problem getting things done. We realize now it’s because she is very self-directed and almost never interrupts us to ask a question (which is good and bad sometimes!). My 7yo is very much the opposite and now that school is out, she wants interaction so is coming by just to chat, or to ask a zillion questions, etc. A lot is because she’s an extrovert and used to being surrounded by a classroom full of kids all day. This is making “remote work” hugely stressful for me, and it’s clearly because of the context switching and interruptions. So I took the generous leave policy my company offered for COVID-19 and dropped back to half-time until my kids go back to school (August, fingers crossed!). I can trade off with my husband and get a decent 4 uninterrupted hours this way and am surprisingly productive. I’ve communicated to my team that my work hours are 10 to 3 but that I’d still check email and respond to urgent things outside of that time and it’s working really well. My other tip is to take a real lunch – get outside or just eat sitting down at the table. It’s a nice break.

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