Lessons Learned: Working Remotely for Those Who Are New to It

I feel fortunate in these unprecedented times that I’ve had the luxury and privilege of working remotely for over 12 years now.  Not long after I began working at home, my wife also moved from an office job to a remote contractor. There have even been times when we worked from home, and our children were homeschooled, so we felt particularity prepared for this new normal we are all working through. It definitely was not easy at first, but through trial and error, I feel we have been able to find a great balance in our family. Some of this may be information you already heard, but even so, it may help to hear shared experiences to help us all feel connected in a socially distancing time. Here’s my tips for working remotely successfully.

Lesson 1: Dedicated space

When I first started out, I thought the couch was the perfect place to work. It was comfortable, close to the kitchen, and it felt like a casual workday every day.

And it might be a viable option if you live alone, but for me there were too many distractions and interruptions. The next move was to set up an office. Setting up an office was a great start. I had a dedicated space on the main floor that was much larger than a cubicle, but still smaller than an executive office. I loved that it was a fully functioning office: desk, monitor, keyboard, mouse, printer, phone, and even office supplies. The dedicated space helped so much with focus, and I was able to get a lot more done. There was only one problem: conference calls.

Lesson 2: A door

Any time I was on the phone, the entire house had to go into lockdown. Kids be quiet, someone grab the dog, who is ringing my doorbell this early in the morning? The solution, and the most significant piece of advice I can give for working remotely, have a door. A door not only isolates the noise, it removes you from the “home” part of working at home. I soon started to regard my office as a physical office that was just a much shorter commute than normal. The other benefit of having a door is it sets a nonverbal sign for everyone else for what you can and can’t do. For instance, open door: come on in. Closed-door: I’m on a call and need privacy or quiet. Locked door: it’s an important call or task, and I can’t be interrupted.

It will be different with each family, but I strongly suggest setting guidelines, so everyone is on the same page and no one gets upset. For example, if the door is locked and someone urgently needs me, I have a rule to text me as a workaround. In some cases, such as taking a proctored certification exam, I will put sticky notes on the door explaining why I’m unavailable and what time I will be done.

Lesson 3: When working from remotely, be available

This should go without saying, but everyone gets tempted to take care of personal errands when working remotely. If you work somewhere with flex hours, it may not be as big of a deal, but plan carefully as your level of attention will be affected based on the situation. My preferred method for this is comparing it to breaks in an office environment. Running out to the DMV to renew my license on a lunch break is usually pretty standard, but a 3-hour shopping trip looking for a new car is probably not. The key here is to understand commitments and plan accordingly. As I try to pack as much time as possible into my day, I have to make compromises. So if I have calls that are all conversational, and I don’t need to be at my desk, then being away is perfectly fine, and it is actually recommended for 1:1 type calls so that I don’t get distracted. There are even some situations where I can find work areas while performing errands (not advisable in the current situation, obviously).

For example, many automotive service centers provide office spaces now so that I can schedule an early morning oil change, then use their facilities for as long as I need (as a bonus they almost always have free coffee!), tying back to having a dedicated space. I also have to do a fair amount of calls in the car, but it is important to ensure the organizer knows this as it limits my ability to interact.

Another note on this topic is connectivity. At home, I know my internet connection is ready and steady. At other places, I run the risk of poor cell phone connectivity, transitioning cell towers, or a risky free Wi-Fi connection—something to keep in mind as you find new work areas.

Lesson 4: Keep the calendar up to date

I try to let people know what I’m doing, and it greatly improves my mood for conference calls. There are an endless number of examples I could give for this one. We all get stressed at the amount of things we have to do; taking control of the calendar can reduce it. Tired of missing lunch? I put lunchtime on my calendar. Can’t find time to focus? I put focus time on my calendar (this comes from Insights in Outlook, which is great). Issues with calls while on the road? I put air travel, hotel, driving time, on-site time, etc. on my calendar (okay, the travel doesn’t really apply at the moment, but you get it).

Lesson 5: Communication

This one is crucial in a team environment. One benefit to working remote is not losing time with any “water cooler” talk. I honestly think it’s the biggest gain in remote work, but it has to be balanced with making appearances. I have to ensure I’m not too siloed and distant. This varies greatly by role, but I try to ensure I’m signed into my communication software (Outlook, Teams, Skype, etc.). I also make sure I’m responding to emails, IMs, reaching out to coworkers, and generally engaged in team communications. I always try to include auto-responses when I will be away or even if my communications will be delayed for any reason.

Lesson 6: Set boundaries

It wouldn’t be a fair take on working remotely if I didn’t talk about some of the downsides I’ve seen as well. The main issue I have seen is there is no 5 o’clock whistle, no loved one asking when you will be home, no lights out, no cleaning personnel coming in for the nightly run. Being focused on work can quickly become time consuming, especially if I’m working across time zones as many us of are. The first change we made actually came from before remote work, when getting out of the office was more difficult than it should have been. We set a standard dinner time whether food was ready or not, family wide.  Regardless of the work, we all know that we get together to start dinner at the same time each day, which signals the end of our work day. Okay, realistically it sometimes becomes a “dinner break” or has to be moved, but knowing the time is set means we communicate when things change.

Another feature I’ve found useful is setting my phone to only alert me of emails during working hours (Outlook App, which is also great). Sure, I still check it, but it’s on my schedule during the nights and weekends and isn’t begging for my attention each time an email comes through. I try to watch my time off, not only for vacations but for weekends. For me, if I have to work on the weekend, I set time boxes so I can focus, and my family knows exactly how long I’ll be tied up. For example, if I need to catch up on work and it will take roughly two hours, I’ll schedule 2-5PM on Saturday afternoon to focus and get it done.

Lesson 7: Unplug

No really, unplug, period. No one wants burnout, especially my coworkers, bosses, family, or friends. When I’m unavailable, I make it clear, even remind people beforehand. I set my calendar to away, put on auto-responses that explain I’m away, and when I’ll will be back, and disable my notifications. The point is to try to treat my time away just as I would my time working. I don’t want my time off to be interrupted or stolen. I even find this helpful in daily life when working remotely. Do I need a thirty-minute break to clear my head? If so, I set a private meeting and take a walk (this is a really good point actually; I have to be careful that I do not burn out by not getting out of the house enough; when safe to do so, of course).

I know every situation is unique, but I hope these lessons help anyone transition to working from home. Not only am I fortunate in my long tenure of working remotely, and in having a family that has embraced it, but also in working for a great company that fosters the remote experience for its employees and its customers. As we look to deal with the current COVID-19 situation, I’m glad I work at Sikich and get to share our years of remote experience to help our customers keep their businesses running.

Any questions about working from home? Please reach out to one of our experts at any time!

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