Back in 2010, Inc. magazine undertook what was a unique project at the time; they published an entire issue of their magazine without ever coming to the office. Now, many businesses are choosing to move to remote work out of necessity. While this may initially be challenging for some, a greater focus on telework has the potential to improve the function of organizations in ways that will last long into the future. Our proposition is that the ability to work effectively without being colocated is a skill that is mastered through practice; organizations or individuals who view it merely as a stopgap measure will not realize the full benefits.
To set the stage for long term success, organizations should eliminate any biases about people who work outside of the office. People who call it "work from home" (WFH) may already operating on preconceived notions, a constrained perspective. We prefer to think of it as “work from anywhere” (WFx), as there are (usually) many other places to work; libraries, coffee shops, public parks, moving trains, the beach, laundromat, and even parking lots (or self driving cars) are all places where work can be done effectively in a way that fits employee needs.
Individual ownership and balance
Much discussion of WFx tends to focus on the employer side of the arrangement. However, individual employees both can and should take a proactive role in developing this capability, in shaping the experience into one that is sustainable, effective, and enjoyable.
Even if this shift is temporary for many, organizations and individuals that build their capacity for WFx will see benefits that persist. They’ll be more communicative, delivery-centric, and inclusive of people who aren’t present. Hopefully, organizations and individuals decide to keep practicing remote work, recognizing that it is a core competency. Used in tandem with colocated work, it provides maximum benefit to both employer and employee.
Optimizing work environments for employers and employees—both in and out of the office—is core to PLASTARC’s purpose. We’ve compiled some suggestions to guide WFx novices and veterans alike toward a successful and sustainable experience:
We often do not realize how much we interact with colleagues when we share space. Maintaining a similar level of communication is key to keeping work moving and eliminating any misunderstandings that may arise. Set and articulate clear expectations. Pick up the phone a little more often than you otherwise might. Send status reports, even when you think everyone already knows how things are going. Leverage new channels like Slack or even WhatsApp to share status and content.
2. Define boundaries
Mark the beginning and end of the workday in time and space. Take a ‘walk to work’ by going around the block and re-entering the home as a place of work. Start your day with a ‘commute’ during which you might listen to a favorite podcast, read, or take the time to enjoy your morning coffee. The point is to mentally prepare just as you might when you go to the office. Take time to compress when the work day is over, be mindful of any tendency for work stress or tasks to bleed into the rest of your life.
3. Produce results
Don’t hesitate to share work in progress. Because communicating at a distance is inherently more challenging, it is important to produce something to which colleagues can react. Whereas ideas brought up for discussion can easily vanish into the digital ether when the conversation is over, shareable materials provide a jumping-off point for future improvement.
4. Take breaks
Every workday, no matter how busy, has a few breaks and transitions—five minutes before a meeting starts, or the time it takes to walk to a lunch spot, or a chat on the way to the rest rooms. Preserving precious opportunities to recharge and reflect is key to keeping telework sustainable. No one can or should maintain 100% focus on work all of the time, and the most productive people actually take more breaks than you might think. Get up from your seat at least once per hour. Take a longer break every few hours, and go somewhere other than the fridge!
5. Stay social
Social interactions and friendships at work are important; they are a critical component of mental health. When people go virtual, the non-work parts of their interactions tend to fall by the wayside. Consider grabbing a coffee or adult beverage just as you usually would, but over video chat. Find ways to enjoy time together by making explicitly social/non-work plans, even when apart. Play a video game while chatting. Send a snapshot of your lunch.
6. Connect creatively
When remote, people tend to become even more reliant on email and phone. Make use of any and all available tools to maximize the fidelity of communication. If describing something isn’t working, take a photo and send it. Sketch an idea and scan it. Share screens or leverage social media. Many surveys of our clients show that staff wish there was more use of video and chat and less focus on phone and email, even when they are in the office.
7. Stay safe, be alert
If you or your organization are not accustomed to working remotely, it’s a good idea to brush up on security risks, policies, and best practices. When virtual connection is the only option, everyone is more vulnerable to hackers, phishing, and scams. It only takes one incident to grind business to halt.
Even if it is the proverbial kitchen table, make sure there is a suitable space for your work. Just like at the office, it is best if you have more than one work point. This should include multiple positions and postures, such as a spot on the couch to read and a high table for working at standing height.. Don’t hesitate to experiment; a closet or a car may actually be a great place for a conference call.
9. Build trust
Without the natural relationship building that occurs when people are in close proximity, teams need to work to devolp and maintain trust and transparency. Keep people up to date, delivering when you say you will and reporting back when you can't. Check in and consider what is and isn't working about the model—be explicit—and make adjustments. Always assume positive intent.
10. Get out doors
Nature therapy is a thing. Research has shown that even brief periods of exposure to natural environments have beneficial impacts on blood pressure stress levels. Lamentably, the commute or lunch break may be the only outdoor time for many office workers. After moving to WFx, you might suddenly realize that you haven’t left home in three days! Make a point of scheduling outdoor time to take a conference call.
The above tips were initially created for Real Estate Weekly and can be found here.
Practice makes more perfect
This outbreak will push companies to view WFx as a skill that should be continuously developed. Organizations that have already been practicing it for a large portion of their employees are going to have an easier time ramping up quickly, and they will lose less in the process. They have already developed the communication skills and habits needed to deliver results no matter where their people happen to be located.
Far too many WFx policies still barely hide management’s suspicion that work is not really happening if people aren’t physically present. Assume positive intent. Start from the assumption that any worker who is engaged with their company and wants to make most of their role will continue to do so no matter where they are.
Expectations about the nature of remote work can form a barrier to positive experience. Either implicit or explicit, there is often a sense that people who are working from home should make that environment function exactly like an office; they shouldn’t let colleagues hear pets or children, their spouse shouldn’t enter the work space during office hours, and no one should see an image of a domestic space.
While it is necessary to keep home life from interfering in work, it is just as important that the emotional condition of being at work shouldn’t seep into home life. For instance, maybe kids would feel uncomfortable overhearing heated negotiations between adversarial parties. The ideal boundaries between work and life might best be described as semi-permeable.
Once people have learned to thrive in a WFx environment, they can integrate their work and life more fully. When people are trusted to work where they want and need to, they gain time to exercise and eat right, to be with their families, and to engage in activities they enjoy. We’ve spoken to more than one person who credits remote work with triggering a transformation in workplace health and satisfaction. That’s something that we can all endorse.
We’d like to hear more about your experiences working from outside the office. What tools and practice help you to be effective?
Though it is entirely possible to work from anywhere using nothing but free software and a laptop, there are a few products that can make the experience more productive, comfortable, and enjoyable.
Working on the couch might be fun for a few hours, but poor posture is a path to long-term discomfort or even injury. Adjustable height desks, like these from Fully, come in a range of sizes suitable for any environment.
While most laptops come with a decent camera—and there are plenty of after-market USB cameras as well—computer audio is often lacking. For the next conference-on-the-go, consider a portable speaker like the Jabra Speak 510.
Even with so much work happening virtually, sometimes printing on paper is still a necessity. A suitcase-sized portable printer like this one from Epson can get you out a jam, so to speak. There’s also a portable scanner from the same product line. For a set-up with a little more space, a single unit like this one from HP can do it all.
Home lighting is often quite different from work lighting. Depending on how often you might be reading and referencing paper materials, some new fixtures might be a worthwhile investment. Whether it’s a modern dimmable LED or a classic design, the right light in the right place can make a big difference in the quality of your work day.
If there is a lot of sitting in your future, a better chair might be the best investment you can make. Ergonomic injuries are extremely common, and poorly designed seating is a major cause. While not everyone can spring for a designer office chair, there are more affordable options available. One place to look: Design Within Reach (our favorite at the moment is HM’s Setu chair).