The nature of work is changing. Every year more people work remotely and for longer periods of time, and in looking ahead, remote work will almost certainly become even more commonplace. With this shift comes the necessity to rethink how we work, communicate, and maintain vital social connections as we spend more time out of the office.
In my personal experience, I have found there is no secret to successfully working remotely. It may be stating the obvious, but it truly depends on one’s personality, environment, type of work they are doing, and the technology available to perform that work. In other words, people, place, & tools– the three elements vital to every organization that we espouse in our work. Everyone has unique tasks and differ in their ability to focus and motivate in order to carry out those tasks or collaborate with coworkers.
When I started at OPX in 2009 I was a resident of the DC area and commuted into the office daily, only working from home on a rare occasion. During those instances, though, I was never able to match my in-office productivity levels, as it took more time and effort to get set up and in a comfortable work environment than it was worth. When my wife and I relocated to Philadelphia a couple years ago and I decided to work remotely a few days a week, I was forced to rethink what I needed to change about my space and work habits in order to maintain the level of productivity I enjoyed in the office. The first year was a bit of trial and error and had its fair share of challenges. We were renting a 1-bedroom apartment, and I set up a sit-to-stand desk with a desktop computer in our living room where I worked two days a week (commuting down to DC and working in the office on the other days). It did not take long for me to realize this was a less than ideal work environment, so after one year, I decided to take a step back to reflect on how I worked best and what changes would be necessary for me to succeed.
Entering the second year of working from home, my schedule changed slightly, going from two days remote to three. I knew this meant that I needed to make some significant changes, so I self-imposed a lessons learned evaluation, and the benefits have been dramatic. I strongly encourage anyone who works remotely, even part of the time, to periodically review how your situation (people, places, & tools) is working for you personally and professionally, as well as how it is affecting those working around you. This will allow you the opportunity to look at the bigger picture and make adjustments that will increase your efficiency and overall satisfaction. It is very easy to fall into a pattern and becoming stuck in a routine that isn’t ideal can lead to unhappiness, frustration, and ineffectiveness. In my evaluation, I noted four key components, which are highlighted below, that needed to be improved in order to be as efficient and productive as possible in my remote work setting. These items may not apply to everyone and every situation, but hopefully you can learn something useful from my experiences.
One of the biggest challenges I needed to hurdle was the ineffectual technology I was using. Previously I used only a desktop computer, which limited me to only one workspace – a monotonous and restrictive routine. By introducing a laptop, I am now able to vary my workspace, whether it be a different location within my apartment, the business center within the building, or a coffee shop. Working remotely can be lonesome, so human interaction – even if it’s just being around other people without engaging them – can do wonders for motivation and mindset. Additionally, there were times when I would be so focused on work, it would be several days before I realized I hadn’t left the apartment. After a while of being indoors, I would get stir crazy, making it more difficult to focus. The ability to change scenery is vitally important to staying sharp and motivated.
Another key to my successful remote work experience has been staying connected and involved with the office. The use of instant messaging has been an integral part of that, as I can engage in informal collaborations with co-workers while still maintaining a personal relationship with people that I consider good friends. Having video conferencing abilities for meetings is hugely important as well. Many people, particularly in the design industry, are visually dependent, so seeing someone, if even on a screen, makes them seem more present than if they were simply on the phone. Additionally, I have tried to stay involved and engaged in work-related activities in the days I am at the office, such as sports teams or functional groups.
I found that having a physical separation between work areas and living spaces is especially critical to successfully working from home. As I mentioned, my desk was initially in the living room of my apartment, so I found myself in the same room for long periods of time. It was as if I was stuck in the same conference room for 12 hours a day, which I’m sure is enough to make some people cringe. In order to create more of this sanity-saving separation, we moved to a new apartment that had a second bedroom that now serves as my office. As a bonus, the building offered a business center, so I am now able to remove myself from the living space completely and have a change of scenery.
Finally, the most important aspect of working from home is the ability to stay self-motivated, which is something that a lot of people struggle with, both professionally and personally. I equate the self-motivation required for remote work to the difference between high school and college; in high school parents and teachers constantly monitor you and provide motivation, but in college you’re on your own to get your work completed. Working remotely provides a plethora of distractions, so it is up to the individual to ensure they block out those distractions and remain focused. Personally, I become more distracted when things are repetitive or monotonous, so changing my work environment has helped to strengthen my sense of motivation and focus.
Since implementing these concepts into my remote work schedule, I have been much more satisfied and my work has not suffered. It’s also allotted new and different opportunities, like being able to network in a different market and taking on more individual tasks that I may not have been afforded otherwise. Working from home may seem simple and convenient, but in my experience there are also a lot of obstacles. If you take the time to evaluate how you work as an individual and as a team/office, and look for innovative ways to achieve your goals, you will find that there are solutions that will allow you to succeed.