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Working Remotely – The new frontier

June 10, 2020

For almost 20 years I worked in an office setting.  The routine was structured and set.  Once my family came into the picture, we became a well-oiled machine.  My husband and I had our routine to get ourselves and our girls up and out the door. As I headed to the office, I would have my laptop, coffee mug, lunch bag, and even a gym bag with me.  Once I dropped our two youngest girls off at childcare, the next 8 – 9 hours of the day were mine.  All mine.

Once I was at work, the only interruptions to my day were the casual ‘pop-overs’ from a neighboring co-worker where we would discuss the latest news, various work topics, or other random conversation pieces.  There was a starting time, a specified lunch time (or for me, a workout time), and a specific ending time.  When it was time to go home, everything was shut down, closed up and I could go home, putting my work aside until the next day.

Then five years ago, that all changed.  We moved out of state and my office became located in the basement of our new home. No more leaving the home to work in an office.  For the first time in almost 20 years, I was working remotely.

There was the initial excitement that comes when you are ‘free’ of going into the office.  I could now send my kids off to school each morning and enjoy the stillness of a quiet home.  There was a sense of relaxation knowing that I didn’t have to get dressed up, didn’t have to wear make-up and could take a quick break here or there to start a load of laundry.  The freedom that unfolded before me was exciting.

That initial excitement wore off quickly, however, as I soon realized that I missed the social interaction and face-to-face conversations with my co-workers.  I missed the routine of my day and I even missed getting dressed and fully ready for the day.  It also became apparent that I was developing a sense of guilt if I was not putting forth every last minute of time available for my tasks.  Rather than slacking off with my work because I was out of the office, it became quite the opposite.  I was eating my lunch at my desk while working on emails or other tasks.  I wasn’t taking a break to toss in a load of laundry, or to even stretch. I wasn’t shutting down at night. I was finding it harder and harder to work with an established set of “office hours” and I could see the time “in the office” greatly outweighing the time I was spending anywhere else.

Thankfully this is not the end of the story and, as so many people are now working remotely, I felt I could share some of what I chose to do to achieve balance and success in all the various aspects of my life when working in a remote environment. Please understand though, that everyone’s situation will be different, and it is important for each of us to find what works best individually. I will be the first to acknowledge that working remotely is a continuously evolving process.  Life will continue to throw curveballs and we will be faced with the need to adapt in order to continue to achieve optimal results.

Establish your schedule…. And stick to it!

It sounds like a no-brainer, but this is one of the most important things you can do.  Just like we had a schedule when physically going to the office building, we need to have a schedule at home.  What time are you starting?  What time are you done?  When will you take lunch?  Write it down and commit to it.  I work in a different time zone than many of my co-workers, so keep that in mind too, when possible.  Now, I fully understand that things come up like a meeting that is scheduled late in the day, or there is an issue that you really need to wrap up before the end of the day and you have to work late, but try to keep that in check.  More often than not, when I start working beyond the schedule, I find that I become more irritable and frustrated.  Keeping the schedule provides me and those around me with a concise line in the sand.

Here’s an interesting spin on the whole topic of working within your schedule or routine.  After a while, I found myself moving along quite well and it felt like I was ‘in the groove’.  It was then that various bumps would appear in the road.  It could be the school calling saying one of the girls was sick and I had to bring her home. Or it was when my mom got sick and then there were more personal phone calls to check in on her after a treatment or the like.  I found myself getting frustrated at the fact that I was being interrupted, but these are legitimate things.  It was during those times that I had to remember that this is life.  Sure, having a schedule is good, but no matter how hard we plan and try to control our little universe, life is bigger than us.  There will be interruptions during the day, and we need to account for that, and more importantly, roll with it.

Share your schedule

Once you’ve established your schedule, it is just as important to communicate and share the schedule.  First, you should let your co-workers know.  Most likely, your schedule will not be exactly what the schedule looks like for any of your other co-workers.  Perhaps they start earlier or work later.  Even just having a different lunch hour can mess things up if you’re not careful and you find yourself working a lot longer than 8 hours, maybe never really leaving your chair.

Second, let those outside the office know your schedule. For me, there are two parts to this, for two very different reasons.  It is really helpful for me to have my husband aware of my schedule because he can help me stay accountable.  He checks in on me at times and lovingly gives me grief if I am starting to get sucked back into working longer and longer hours.  He can be that simple voice of reason reminding me that I cannot give all my time to work.  He can also be a buffer when he saw the kids approaching the office.  He stops and redirects them, minimizing interruptions.

Speaking of children, they truly are the ones who can sabotage my workflow in an instant. Too many times, I would have one or more popping into the office with a request to make a meal, find a snack, or to play with them.  It pulls at the heart strings to tell them, “No,” but I cannot stress enough the importance to do so, or at least to have specific times when you are ok breaking away to assist them.

Educate your children about why you are working and why it is important for you to not be interrupted.  Establish your boundaries so they learn that when on the phone, or in a meeting with my headphones, or simply if office doors are closed, that you are not be interrupted.  When possible, plan ahead and make them aware of any upcoming big meetings or phone calls.  There have been times ahead of them coming home from school when I would put up a note on my closed office doors.  The note would announce that I am in a meeting, what their choices were for a snack and what to do first for homework.  It was a simple way to communicate with them while ensuring that I would not be interrupted.  Another way I found to minimize the interruptions was to create a schedule/checklist of their own to follow, especially once the kids were home from school for a long break or for summer vacation.  This gave them a routine that didn’t have to involve me, and once they got the hang of it, things flowed throughout the house more smoothly.

Stay focused during the workday

The throes of life keep us on our toes, and when working from home this is oh, so true.  Having a schedule is only helpful when it is followed.  When at home, it is important to treat it like you are in the office.  Make sure your office space is quiet, away from TVs and personal computers, away from other people when at all possible.  If you like having some background noise, find a radio or something similar to use, but be aware of the proximity of any personal devices.

I have found it best to keep any personal device away from my view on my desk.  Otherwise there is the temptation to check it whenever there is any little notification pop up, or to answer every phone call or text message.  It requires some extra discipline at first but will reap benefits at keeping you on track within your schedule.  Take advantage of the fact that you are remote, however and occasionally, when possible, take your laptop outside and work from your deck or porch.  Enjoy the change of scenery and fresh air.

Balance the rest of your life with your work schedule

Once you’ve established your work schedule, then you can establish how the rest of the day integrates into it.  Personally, I feel more professional, even when working from home, when I am actually dressed for the day, and not just wearing the pajamas in which I just rolled out of bed.  I make sure there is time allocated for that ahead of turning on the laptop.  I also enjoy working out.  When at the office, I used my lunch break for that.  However, since working from home, that hasn’t been as easy.  I would keep telling myself that I would do it after this meeting or that issue.  Then, 9 times out of 10, it would not happen, which would bring such frustration.  What has worked the best for me is to work out before I start work for the day. Then I can shower and be clean at the start of the workday.

Stay in touch with your team

Technologically, we have never had more functionality at our fingertips to make working remotely succeed, and to stay in touch with our co-workers.  When situations arise where you need to reach out to someone, and when in the office you would have stopped by their desk, ping them quick with a message out of Skype or Teams.  If it’s going to be a longer discussion, set up a Zoom, Skype or Teams meeting, or whatever other similar applications might be available to you.  It’s so simple and allows screen sharing while talking, video conferencing so you can see one or more of your co-workers or clients face-to-face, and to even cross physical barriers like location.  I currently conduct daily meetings with co-workers across the globe. It’s so fascinating!

Working remotely… The new frontier

While not perfect on any given day, I would say that overall, my family has once-again become a fairly well-oiled machine, this time with me working remotely.  In fact, I may even be so bold to say that I can get more accomplished working in this new setting than I did previously sitting in my cubicle at the office.  It just required learning what worked best for me and my situation.

The same will be true for you.  Remember that what works well for one may be completely the opposite for another.  If you find something isn’t working as you hoped, be willing to explore and try different approaches.

The day I learned that I was going to have four children going through e-learning while I was supposed to be working at the same time caused a serious initial panic in me.  But my family and I worked through the challenge, adjusted our schedules and successfully cleared that hurdle.  As more and more of us find ourselves in this new frontier of working remotely, remember to set yourself up for success. Set your schedule and boundaries, commit to them and then be flexible as life happens.