Remote work seems to be all the rage, with some 70 percent of professionals working from home at least once a week. Similarly, 77 percent of people report working more productively when they work from home, and 68 percent of millennials say they would consider a company more favorably if it offered remote work options.
It seems to make sense: Technology, connectivity, and culture are setting the world up more and more for remote work. Oh, and home-brewed coffee is better than ever, too.
But here’s the stark truth: Remote work is not a panacea. Sure, it seems like hanging around at home in your jimjams, listening to your antisocial music, and sipping on buckets of coffee would be perfect, but it isn’t for everyone.
Some people need the structure of an office. Some people need the social element of an office. Some people need to get out the house. Some people lack the discipline to stay focused at home. Some people are avoiding the government knocking on their doors due to years of unpaid back taxes.
Remote work is like a muscle: It can bring enormous strength and capabilities if you train and maintain it. If you don’t, your results are going to vary.
I have worked from home for the vast majority of my career. I love it. I am more productive, happier, and more empowered when I work from home. I don’t dislike working in an office, and I enjoy the social element, but I am more in my zone when I work from home. I also love blisteringly heavy metal, which can pose a problem when the office doesn’t want to listen to After The Burial.
I have learned how I need to manage remote work, using the right balance of work routine, travel, and other elements. Here are five of my recommendations:
1. You Need Discipline and Routine (and to Understand Your ‘Waves’)
Remote work really is a muscle that needs to be trained. Just like building actual muscle, you need a clear routine and a healthy dollop of discipline.
Always get dressed (no jimjams). Set your start and end time for the day (I work 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. most days). Choose your lunch break (mine is 12 p.m.). Set your morning ritual (mine is email followed by a full review of my client needs). Decide where your main workplace will be (mine is my home office). Decide when you will exercise each day (I do it at 5 p.m. most days).
Design a realistic routine and stick to it for 66 days. It takes this long to build a habit. Try not to deviate from the routine. The more you stick to the routine, the less work it will be to keep sticking to it further down the line. By the end of the 66 days, it will feel natural.
Here’s the deal, though: We don’t live in a vacuum (cleaner, or otherwise). We all have “waves.”
A wave is when you need a change of routine to mix things up. For example, in the summer I generally want more sunlight, so I will often work outside in the garden. Near the holidays I get more distracted, so I need more structure in my day. Sometimes I just need more human contact, so I will work from coffee shops for a few weeks. Sometimes I just fancy working in the kitchen or on the couch. You need to learn your waves and listen to your body. Build your habit first, and then modify it as you learn your waves.
2. Set Expectations With Your Managers and Colleagues
Not everyone knows how to do remote work, and if your company is less familiar with it, you especially need to set expectations with colleagues. This can be pretty simple: When you have designed your routine, communicate it clearly to your managers and team. Let them know how they can get hold of you, how to contact you in an emergency, and how you will be collaborating while at home.
The communication component here is critical. There are some remote workers who are scared to leave their computers for fear that someone will send them a message while they are away. They are worried people may think they are just eating Cheetos and watching Netflix.
You need time away. You need to eat lunch without one eye on your computer. You are not a 911 emergency responder. Set expectations that sometimes you may not be immediately responsive, but you will get back to people as soon as possible.
Similarly, set expectations for your general availability. For example, I set expectations with clients that I generally work 9-6 every day. If a client needs something urgently, I am more than happy to respond outside of those hours, but as a general rule, I am usually working between those hours. This is necessary for a balanced life.
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3. Distractions Are Your Enemy, and They Need Managing
We all get distracted. It is human nature. It could be your young kid getting home and wanting to play Rescue Bots. It could be checking Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to ensure you don’t miss any unwanted political opinions or photos of people’s lunches. It could be that there is something else going on your life that is taking your attention (such as an upcoming wedding, event, or big trip.)
You need to learn what distracts you and how to manage it. For example, I know I get distracted by my email and Twitter. I check these things religiously, and every check gets me out of the zone of what I am working on. I also get distracted by grabbing coffee and water, which may turn into a snack and a YouTube video.
The digital distractions have a simple solution: Lock them out. Close down the tabs until you complete what you are doing. I do this all the time with big chunks of work: I lock out the distractions until I am done. It requires discipline, but all of this does.
The human elements are tougher. If you have a family, you need to make it clear that when you are working, you need to be left alone. This is why a home office is so important: You need to set boundaries that mum or dad is working. Come in if there is emergency, but otherwise, they need to be left alone.
There are all kinds of opportunities for locking distractions out. Put your phone on silent. Move to a different room (or building) where the distraction doesn’t exist. Again, be honest about what distracts you and how to manage it. If you don’t, you will always be at your distractions’ mercy.
4. Relationships Need In-Person Attention
Some roles are more attuned to remote work than others. For example, I have seen great work from engineering, quality assurance, support, security, and other teams typically more focused on digital collaboration. Other teams like design or marketing often struggle more in remote environments, as they are often more tactile.
With any team though, strong relationships are critical, and in-person discussion, collaboration, and socializing are essential to this. So many of our senses (such as body language) are removed in a digital environment, and these play a key role in how we build trust and relationships.
Relationship-building is especially important if you are new to a company, are new to a role, or are in a leadership position where building buy-in and engagement is a key part of your job.
The solution? A sensible mix of remote and in-person time. If your company is nearby, work from home part of the week and at the office part of the week. If your company is farther away, schedule regular trips to the office (and set expectations with your management that you need this). For example, when I worked at XPRIZE, I flew to LA every few weeks for a few days. When I worked at Canonical (based in London), we had sprints every three months.
5. Stay Focused, But Cut Yourself Some Slack
The crux of everything in this article is building a capability and developing a remote-work muscle. Doing so is as simple as building a routine, sticking to it, and having an honest view of your waves and distractions.
I see the world in a fairly specific way: Everything we do has the opportunity to be refined and improved. For example, I have been a public speaker now for more than 15 years, but I am always discovering new ways to improve and new mistakes to fix.
There is a thrill in the discovery of new ways to get better, of seeing every stumbling block and mistake as an aha moment to kick ass in new and different ways. It is no different with remote work: Look for patterns that help you unlock the ways in which you can make your remote-work time more efficient, more comfortable, and more fun.
But don’t go crazy over it. There are some people who obsesses every minute of their day about how to get better. They beat themselves up constantly for “not doing well enough,” “not getting more done,” and not meeting their unrealistic views of perfection.
We are humans. We are animals, and we are not robots. Always strive to improve, but be realistic that not everything will be perfect. You are going to have some off days or off weeks. You are going to struggle at times with stress and burnout. You are going to handle a situation poorly while working remotely that would have been easier to navigate in the office. Learn from these moments, but don’t obsess over them. Life is too damn short.
Jono Bacon is the founder of Jono Bacon Consulting and the author of People Powered: How Communities Can Supercharge Your Business, Brand, and Team. Connect with Jono on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn.