Working remotely? What you need to know

New research shows that open-plan offices often likely fail to produce the collaborative efforts they were intended to, and many workers might benefit from quieter, more comfortable workspaces. Is working from home the answer? Maybe, but remote work brings its own challenges. Here are a few tips on staying productive when working from home.

Working remotely, for many, conjures up an image of a relaxed software developer or writer settling into the day’s work in a quiet home-office, coffee mug in hand. To the harried commuter rushing to catch a connecting train, or sitting in traffic, working remotely can seem ideal. Is it really, though? To be sure, working remotely comes with its perks, but also requires greater discipline – especially in time management – and can create a sense of isolation.

For anyone who is considering working from home, or who is already a remote worker or part of a distributed workforce, here are some things to think about:

Time and space management

The average commuter spends 105 hours in traffic each year. Working from home can give them that time back – not to mention the energy lost due to the stress and hassle, but distractions around the house can sap valuable work hours as well. Children, dogs, the ever-present cell phone, and more can all be as distracting as a busy office.

Remember that your home office is just that – an office. Make sure your work area is single-purpose; it doesn’t help if other family members or housemates are coming in and out throughout the workday. A separate room makes the ideal space. Many productivity experts might harp on time management, but in my experience as a remote worker – in fact, I work for “Advisors Magazine” from my home and various cafes in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – space management naturally improves efficiency. Dedicating a separate, orderly space for work naturally reduces the temptation to do something else during the work day.

Stay reachable, but be selective

Distributed teams still need to communicate frequently, but take care to avoid allowing technology to interrupt you at every turn. Open-plan offices have taken a beating in recent studies, with employees (61 percent in one report published by Harvard Business Review) describing loud coworkers as a major distraction, and others turning to email, chat, and text to avoid interrupting people at their desks. Video chat, tools like Slack, and other technologies can keep you reachable at home, but make judicious use of away messages and the “ignore” feature these apps come with.

Next time you check your email inbox, do yourself a favor and actually consider which incoming messages need – really need – an immediate response. The answer is probably very few. The same goes for phone calls, text messages, and carrier pigeons (or drones). Use your calendar to block off “high productivity” time where your notifications are off. Schedule your calls, meetings, and email response times around these blocks. But don’t forget to feed the pigeon immediately, he’s probably tired.

Double check company policies (and have a back-up plan)

A friend of mine works remotely several days per week due to the distance between his home and office. His company, however, maintains a policy that, if his power goes out for more than an hour and he’s unable to work, then he has to use up a vacation day or drive to the office. In Massachusetts, where he lives, that can be a problem given that power usually goes out when driving to the office is impractical (during a blizzard, for example).

Make sure you’re aware of how your company handles emergencies faced by remote workers. And, finally, if you can, have a second workspace that you can retreat to in the event your home internet goes down, or bad weather cuts the power. Cafes can sometimes make good second options (depending on whether you handle sensitive data) but they can be too loud for conference calls. The house of a friend or relative or local university or library might be a better choice.


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