5 tips to improve remote work productivity

As more people work from home as a result of COVID-19, employees used to the onsite work life will need to adapt to the remote work lifestyle. At first, it can seem like a welcome change but after a while, it can feel strange. Once the day-to-day proximity of others in the workplace goes away, there’s a chance that productivity will dip.

I’ve been working from home as an independent consultant for the past five years. At first I had those initial feelings of freedom that comes from the privacy of working remotely at home. But lo and behold, I saw a drop in my remote work productivity, and as a result, a drop in my bank account too. So, I had to adjust.

I learned these lessons on how to maintain and improve remote work productivity:

  1. Dress up to show up;
  2. Create a really private space;
  3. Establish a schedule and stick with it;
  4. Don’t feel guilty when your workday is over; and
  5. Unless it’s lunchtime, stay away from the refrigerator

Allow me to elaborate.

Dress up

If your daily routine involved travel for work, it was often preluded by an alarm clock, shower and commute. Working at home alters that routine and could also alter one’s productivity. One of the first things to go is dressing up. Why take the time to dress business casual when you can stay in sweats all day and work just fine. After all, you’re at home, right? What’s wrong with that?

The problem is that if someone eliminates activities from the original work routine, it corrupts the structure most need to stay productive during the workday. If someone gets up, grabs up a cup of coffee in their pajamas and sits down to begin he workday, it doesn’t set up a good runway for remote work productivity. It takes a while to get ramped up.

The trick to remote work is to try to preserve as much of the “take-off” activities as possible. One easy way to do that is to get dressed up in the same manner you would if you were to go into the office.

I know one person who literally dressed up in a suit every day before they started to work. Others take a more casual approach, but they all took the time to shower and dress in a special manner before work began. Such preparation is important to start the workday with a productive attitude.

Of course, once they are ready to work, they need a private place to go, particularly if it’s at home.

Find a quiet, private space

We all need privacy to work productively. Although most modern offices are pretty open in terms of seating and access to others, it does have some degree of implied privacy. Your desk is your domain, so to speak. When someone comes by to talk to you, they usually begin the conversation with an, “Excuse me for interrupting, but…” Or, when you need to conduct a really private conversation either by phone or in person, you can go to a conference room.

These sorts of boundaries don’t naturally exist at home. Your 5-year-old won’t ask for permission to interrupt when you’re working on a programming problem. Your building’s gardener won’t normally ask if it’s the best time to mow the lawn. When you work at home, there’s no implied wall of privacy by default. This means you need to create one.

In the best-case scenario, you’ll want a dedicated room at home that’s yours 24/7. The room should have soundproof windows, which is rather important if your job requires conference calls multiple times per day. There’s nothing more annoying than muting yourself on a call while the dumpster outside is emptied. And, there’s nothing more annoying to others in your household than listening to your heated discussion at midnight with a co-worker who is halfway around the world.

If a dedicated private office isn’t feasible, then finesse a private space. Maybe you set up a desk in the lowest-traffic area of your home or apartment and negotiate some boundaries of what to expect when you’re “at work.” For example, consider a rule that says unless there’s a major emergency, the only way to interact with you “at work” is by online communication. If your spouse wants to know what you think about sushi for dinner, that request needs to take the form of an email or SMS message.

If you’re home alone, telephone calls and video conferences shouldn’t be a problem. These conversations can be a bit more difficult with children, spouses and other people in your dwelling. I’d recommend that you invest in a headset with a good microphone and set of earphones. These will come in handy in the short term, so even if it’s a couple hundred-dollar expense, it’ll pay for itself in the long run. The increase in efficiency is worth it.

Kids will have a harder time respecting your private space, particularly if you’re the only one at home. If you can afford it and social distancing laws allow, consider hiring someone to take your kids to school, pick them up and be available to intercede at home during your “business hours.”

Stick to a schedule

After you’re dressed and in a private space, you might notice that it’s noon. There weren’t any morning meetings to attend online and you stayed up late the previous night to binge-watch old episodes of Game of Thrones. Naturally, you took the opportunity to sleep in. You hunker down to work, but the next thing you know, it’s 5 p.m. and everyone’s home.

It happens all the time.

The way to get around this is to create a schedule and stick with it no matter what. Set a concrete start, lunch and finish time for your workday. For example, I’m at my desk at 8 a.m. and do email and research for an hour. I dedicate 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. as my hardcore tech writing time. I spend an hour during lunch watching videos about some interesting technology or with colleagues. From 2 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. I work on some more creative things, such as programming or technical illustrations. Also, I try to schedule meetings between 8-9 a.m. when possible, or after lunch.

This schedule might not work for everyone, but the most important thing is that my schedule works for me, and I follow it on most days. Sometimes I might go to the dentist or be somewhere special, but this would also be true if I had to commute to work. A predictable schedule creates a structure that promotes productive work.

Not only is a schedule good for you, but it’s also good for those who live with you. Kids understand the notion of playtime, time to do homework and time to go to bed. Once a predictable routine is set, children often understand that their parents’ worktime needs to be respected.

Where things can get strange is when worktime is never over or when their parents are always at work. There’s no longer a natural transition from the end of the workday to personal life like a commute home. Instead, the two blend together and can result in some problems with work-life balance.

When work is done, it’s done

When you work onsite, a commute home represents a clear boundary that the workday is over.

When you’re at home, that boundary goes way unless you make a conscious effort to enforce one. Without a sense of transition of worktime to leisure time, work can go on forever.

As many people around the world start to work from home with more regularity due to the coronavirus, this problem can become far too commonplace. We intermix work with the other aspects of our lives throughout the day. There is no clear line of delineation between work and play. In many cases, we end up playing catch up at night to make up for the work we failed to do during the day.

For many, this can go on for only so long. Even with the aforementioned work schedule, once 6 p.m. rolls around and the workday comes to a close, the transition to personal life from work can generate some feelings of guilt. We feel as though we ought to be working. It’s an eerie feeling. I felt this way mostly because the physical space where work and leisure took place was so close in proximity. I defined work more by where I was than what time it was.

In the old days when I was onsite, I was simply “at work,” so I should be working. When I was home I shouldn’t be working. But, working remotely changed all that. There was one place where I did everything. I had to change my definition of “being at work” to be about time and not about a place.

In most cases, unless there’s a special deadline when 6 p.m. rolls around, my workday is over. I don’t feel guilty about it because there will be work to do tomorrow and I’ll get to it within the time my schedule allows.

Resist those food urges

Eating feels good. At the workplace, we would wait until lunch to do it. At home, we don’t.

All the stuff we like to eat is just a few steps away. It’s easy to go to the refrigerator and grab a snack whenever. In the beginning of the remote work life, it’s a natural thing to do. But, in no time at all, it can turn into a habit that can affect remote work productivity. Procrastination due to continuous snacking is a real impediment to productivity.

A good rule of thumb is this: when you work at home and it’s not lunchtime, stay away from the refrigerator. Get up from your workspace and go for a walk, or something like what you would do in the office. Don’t move from your couch/bed/office chair or whatever remote work location and go to the fridge because it’s there.

For remote workers, random eating is a big problem that’s difficult to avoid, but doable. Stay away from the refrigerator, you’ll be glad you did.

Put it all together

Many of us will return to work after the stay-at-home mandates expire. However, it’s entirely possible that many companies and workers alike will find remote work preferable than all employees on-site all the time.

Companies that support work-from-home policies incur fewer overhead costs in terms of office space and parking. Also reducing, if not eliminating the grind of commuting can significantly increase worker productivity.

However, these remote work productivity increases assume that the workforce is acclimated to it. Employees will probably need to change their behavior to achieve these productivity goals. Hopefully these five tips will serve as a good guide to make the changes needed and maintain or increase remote work productivity.

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