There was a time when I used to dream about becoming a remote worker. The thought usually arose while stuck in rush hour traffic on the 405 (note: rush hour is approximately 7am to 7pm in Southern California). I pictured myself on an outdoor chaise lounge, tropical drink in hand, as client after client called to tell me they were ready to sign on the dotted line. Pineapple slice? Don’t mind if I do.
Fast forward a couple years. I am now a remote worker, thanks in part to my wife taking a teaching job on the opposite coast, and our house is literally one block from the beach. And though we do own a chaise lounge, it gets virtually no weekday use, and nothing is quite as I pictured it (example: I still wear pants every day). Being a remote worker is not as easy I thought it would be.
According to the NY Times, the number of telecommuters rose 79% from 2005 to 2012. There’s a variety of reasons one might choose to work remotely: geographical limitations, family situation, the desire to become one’s own boss. In some respects, there’s never been a better time to work remotely. Fast internet and myriad communication tools help us to overcome the everyday inconvenience of a lack of facetime.
But there are drawbacks too. Working out of a home office can be distracting, as family (and pets) compete for your attention. Being a remote worker is psychologically taxing, as you can sometimes feel isolated and miss out on the social gatherings an office affords. On the productivity side, access to critical data and company updates are often stymied by a breakdown in the communication process.
Having experienced the highs and lows of transitioning from cubicle dweller to master of his own home office, I thought I’d share three important lessons I’ve learned along the way:
- Schedule your day tightly (and stick to that schedule)
In an office, the most important items on your to-do list are often dictated by outside forces (“Can you follow up on this lead?”, “Can you help me find a reference client?”, “We need you in this meeting”). You likely would have a schedule, but there was some fluidity to account for the needs of other team members.
As a remote employee, you must create a strict schedule for yourself and stick to it. You have to be incredibly proactive and not easily distracted. And you can’t wait for others to do things for you. It’s not exactly “out of sight, out of mind”, but it’s a lot harder to be the squeaky wheel when the oil is 3000 miles away. (side note: your mixed metaphors get less appreciation when you’re remote)
Repetition is also an important part of scheduling. For instance, I have a call with one particular client every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 12:30. I can schedule the rest of my calls and tasks around that one particular anchor task.
- You must be succinct and direct in your communication
In an office, you can iterate often. The logo is off-centered, pop over to the graphic designer’s desk. Now the logo’s too large, head on back. You wanted burnt sienna not burnt orange, one more trip.
You don’t have that luxury as a remote employee. You only get attention sporadically, so you have to be very specific in what you want. And definitely don’t be shy. If you don’t ask for something, you don’t get it.
You also must be succinct – if you write a long rambling email, you’re going to lose your audience halfway through. Plus, you want to place emphasis on only that which is important, something easier in-person via dialogue, because you don’t want your fellow employees to focus on the wrong area.
- Take advantage of online collaboration tools
The internet can be a huge time suck (thanks, Twitter). But it can also make you more effective and connected with other employees.
There are a number of different online collaboration tools out there. One company I consult with, WorkSmart.net, has a productivity suite that includes cloud-based document management, project management, and database apps. Some of the other indispensable solutions I’ve used recently: Skype, Trello, Hipchat, and join.me.
Solely relying on email can lead to information overload – plus it’s hard searching through 1000s of emails – so seek out more efficient solutions. If you use an online collaboration tool, you can effectively work with teammates while being geographically disperse. I’m able to work collaboratively with colleagues in the UK and India often without having to pick up the phone. Plus, building out these online collaboration portals helps bring new remote employees up to speed quicker after hiring.
I must confess, there’s a lot of things I miss about working in an office: lunchtime basketball, high fives, saying “goodnight” to friends/colleagues. But one thing that hasn’t changed is my productivity. Don’t let the realities of being a remote worker derail your career. Just because you’re remote doesn’t mean you have to be distant.