Ten rules for successful remote working
Pantera Press CEO Alison Green has extensive experience in working from home. Here, she shares her 10 rules for WFH success in a time of social distancing, explaining that ‘it’s important to think about it quite holistically and not just in terms of making sure people have access to email/files’. This piece was originally published on Alison’s website and has been republished with permission.
In 2008 I co-founded Pantera Press, which started around my family’s kitchen table. For the following three years I worked from home, and then a small office. Along the way I learnt many important lessons, the hard way, about remote working and working in isolation.
Here are my top 10 tips, and let me assure you they are in order of priority.
1. Decide your office hours in advance, and stick to them
This is critical. It is incredibly easy to fall into a pattern where you roll straight out of bed, do a ‘couple’ of work things and before you know it it’s late afternoon and you haven’t eaten or showered. This can happen at both ends of the day, and while you might feel really productive those first few days—working non-stop and beyond a regular workload is a recipe for burn-out.
And let’s not forget the flip-side, where it’s equally easy to fall down a YouTube or Netflix black hole and end up losing half the day after watching ‘one short clip’ in the morning.
When working from home you don’t have the social cues around you, like other colleagues leaving for the day or taking a lunch break, to prompt you.
- Allocate yourself set working hours (and if you have colleagues or clients, communicate those hours to them). This is also very important if you live with any of your colleagues, or your colleagues are on different time zones or just have different business hours to you.
- Set a recurring alarm on your phone for your start time and end time. Ideally a non-intrusive alarm alert; I personally like the iPhone ‘By the Seaside’ alarm tone for this purpose.
- Make a concerted effort to start work and wrap up work within 5 minutes of your alarm tone.
- If something comes up outside of work hours, ask yourself: ‘If I worked an office job, would I do this from home? Or wait until tomorrow to address it?’
- Gentle reminders are always useful. It’s good to remember that no one would ever go out of their way to make you work outside of work hours, unless there was an extenuating circumstance. Usually colleagues have just forgotten you are on a different schedule to them. A quick email to clarify never hurts. For example:
- ‘I’m just wrapping up work for the day, did you need this urgently or can I look at it tomorrow?’
- ‘Just a reminder I’m a few hours ahead of you so am knocking off for the day, I’ll get this to you tomorrow.’
- ‘Could we move our call to 4pm? That way it is in business hours for both of us.’
2. Separate work from sanctuary
When you are working from home, it is really easy for your work to spill into your down time. For example, when I originally worked from home I worked at the kitchen table. As a run-on effect I would often find myself getting ideas for work, or generally thinking about work or talking about work whenever I ate dinner at that same table.
This of course links directly back to point 1, that being strict with your work hours is really important.
But on top of that it highlights that we need to think about physical separation and also mental separation when it comes to carving out a sanctuary.
- Avoid working from your bed at all costs, and ideally avoid working from your bedroom if you can.
- If your house allows for it, set up a room (or a corner of a room) that you can call your ‘workspace’. If not, make sure you deconstruct your work area every night. For example, if you work at your dining room table—as soon as your work day ends—pack everything down properly. If you have a work laptop, this involves not just closing it but taking it off the table and ideally putting it into a designated spot like into a work briefcase or into a storage box so that it is totally out of site.
- If you live with colleagues, make sure you agree to call each other out if you try to discuss work matters outside of hours.
- TURN OFF YOUR EMAIL NOTIFICATIONS outside business hours. This was a game changer for me. For my mobile phone I actually turned my email notifications off permanently, meaning I’d only get email notifications if I was physically at my computer working (or actively chose to open my email inbox on my phone and check). This isn’t practical for everyone—but you can at least limit your notifications for business hours.
3. Use your ‘commute time’ wisely
The time between waking up and starting work is really important to your mindset and energy. When you work an office job this might include going to the gym or walking the dog, meditating, getting dressed, having breakfast and then listening to music or an interesting podcast on your way to work.
Don’t underestimate how important this time to energise truly is—as well as the physical and mental benefits of having a routine.
When you work from home there is no official commute time to aid your energy levels on route to work and help you decompress on your return from work.
- Get up at the same time each day.
- Create a weekday morning routine that suits you. Mine is to walk the dog, have a shower and then have breakfast. Yours will differ. Make a plan that suits your lifestyle and is something that you can commit to.
- Make sure getting dressed is part of your plan. Totally fine if you want to get changed into fresh ‘daytime’ pyjamas! Whatever you decide to wear for work, make sure it’s a fresh outfit for the day. Getting dressed surprisingly makes a big difference.
- Don’t forget about the end of the day! It’s just as important to decompress at the end of the day to help separate work from home life. Make an end of workday plan just like you did for the start of each day. This is about creating a moment or activity that signals to your body and mind that work is over. This could be as simple as spending 20 minutes scrolling through social media and drinking a glass of wine, or going to the gym, or reading a book. If possible, it is good to do something before flopping on the couch to watch TV to really separate that work and relax time with a signalling event.
- When possible, go outside and get some sunshine.
4. Plan out the day
This sounds quite intuitive, but actually having a written plan for how you’re going to attack the day makes a big difference. I found it helped me refocus and get the tasks done that I needed to—not just the easy ones.
- Don’t wake up and jump straight onto emails. Think about the priority items for the day and write them down in a list.
- Identify when you have the most energy and brain capacity in a day (for me, it’s the morning) and plan to do the tasks that require deeper thinking during that time.
- Allocate several email/admin windows of time throughout your day, so that you aren’t constantly getting distracted from the deeper thinking tasks by responding to emails as they pop up. Perhaps you check and respond to emails at 9am, 1pm and 4.30pm for example.
- Try to schedule meetings that require brainstorming for when you have peak energy and all other meetings for when your energy levels would typically start to fade with regular day-to-day tasks.
- Plan for a lunch break, and ideally a mid-morning and mid-afternoon break to stretch your legs. I always tie in drinking a few glasses of water as part of my break routine, in case I forgot to hydrate while working.
- Where possible, it’s also good to pre-plan your lunch, ensuring you have all the ingredients for quick assembly.
It’s really important that you are set up to work in a safe environment. A few key things to note are as follows:
- Good lighting
- No loose cables to trip over
- Ideally a proper desk, although a table can suffice
- Ergonomic chair at the correct height.
Check out this link here for a more comprehensive full government checklist.
6. Be social
When working remotely it is very easy to go a full 24 hours without speaking IRL to another human (aside from via text/email). Social connection is really important for mental health and wellbeing.
- While it is important to find a balance to ensure you’re not having so many meetings that you can’t be otherwise productive—in times of social distancing, I do recommend planning one or two video (or phone) meetings each day to connect with the outside world.
- Especially if you live alone, make sure you have regular social outings planned (I used to opt for dinner with a friend or a phone chat as I went for a morning walk). In times of social distancing, a video chat with a mate can go a long way. FaceTime and Zoom are my go to video chat apps.
7. Don’t be too available
In an office you’ll often see people close their office door, or pop on a set of headphones, to signal that they should not be disturbed. The same goes for remote working. It is OK to have periods of time where you are focused on a task and unresponsive to anything else.
Remember, if someone needs to get hold of you urgently they will call or find other ways to get your attention. So you do not have to have your email inbox open and respond to everything as it comes in. In fact, it’s distracting and detrimental to work productivity to do that. As above, I suggest setting allocated times in the day to check and respond to emails.
8. Have regular water breaks
It is important you stay hydrated during the day.
- Keep a bottle of water on your desk.
- Make drinking water part of your mid-morning, lunch and afternoon break routine.
- Or set an alarm to remind yourself to have a few sips of water every hour.
9. Take sick leave
Just because you are working from home doesn’t mean you should continue to power through when you are unwell.
If you find yourself feeling sickly, think to yourself, ‘If I worked in an office with co-workers, would I call in sick today?’ If the answer is yes, then working remotely shouldn’t change that. Sometimes we need a day or few of rest and recovery. It’s important to listen to your body.
10. Set alerts/alarms for meeting reminders
In an office environment you would likely take social cues for meetings (that is, watching your colleagues get up to go to a meeting room or even having someone tap you on the shoulder to grab you for a meeting). Working remotely doesn’t offer this. It is important that you keep track of your phone/video and in-person meetings. As well as keeping track of your breaks and start/finish times.
- At the end of each day, review your calendar for the following day and set alarms in your phone for all scheduled activities you want to remember (ideally with a non-intrusive sounding alarm).
- Another alternative is to set calendar reminders on your computer (with reminders). This only works well if you are at your computer the entire time which may or may not be a reality.