There’s only a handful of subjects I would consider myself an expert in, without first having to look around the around the room and see who else is in attendance. For over 6 years I’ve been working from home, so I have logged my +10,000 hours to become an expert, and I can say there are some specifics needed to make working from home truly successful.
Recently, remote working, or working from home, or telecommuting, has been less fashionable than it was a few years ago. Marissa Mayer yanked the leash at Yahoo to reverse course and have everyone work within the office, and rightfully so. Communication, impromptu discussion, water cooler banter are all important components to a successful team and successful company. Additionally, reviewing log files and confirming that many of your employees are not actually working is a totally different level of productivity. The policy to disallow remote working for Yahoo is justified, considering how things had deteriorated.
However, working from home has a number of distinct advantages to companies, including increasing employee productivity, efficiency, and retention. Whatever the term being used, remote working is here to stay and will continue to make gains as the remote office environment is improved upon and that’s the goal of this article, to provide a template for creating a successful work at home environment.
From my experience, here’s what you need to be successful:
1. Quiet Zone
This refers to not only a lack of audio interference, but also for any other kind of distraction. One of the key advantages to working remote is the chance to focus without being interrupted by the passers-by or neighbors in a typical office. To expand further on this point, a quiet zone not only refers to not having co-workers distracting you, but also avoiding dogs, kids, televisions, and any other intrusion you can imagine. To put it simply, you should be able to sit in your chosen office space for a minimum of one hour without having any type of intrusion. If you can accomplish that, then you have a quiet zone.
2. Ergonomic Office Furniture
Little attention is paid to the quality of office furniture at work, but it becomes much more obvious when you have bought a cheap home office chair with no cushion or back support. Now pull that office chair up to a desk that is not the proper height, has a poorly placed pull out keyboard tray, and will wobble with the slightest bump. Low quality office furniture is easy to find, but attaining furniture where you can actually sit comfortably for hours on end, is much harder to find. I recommend carefully examining office furniture before purchasing to make sure it will stand up over time, and fits with your body. Also, expect to spend some money, because good office furniture is not cheap. If your company will not expense a new purchase, then many times good deals can be found for used office furniture in your area as companies are constantly getting rid of gently used items. Overall, if you think you can sit on a couch comfortably to work for days on end, then your back will quickly correct you.
3. Reliable and Fast Internet Connectivity
Reliable and fast internet seems like the most obvious item here, but it’s actually the most difficult. If you have used your internet on the weekends and at night with little problem, that’s fine, but using your internet 5 days a week through peak office hours is a different story. Often connections become unreliable during the day, especially when just a few second of outage is needed to drop your conference call and frustrate a key client or executive. If you do find an issue, sometimes connectivity is the most difficult issue to fix. Usually there is only one cable provider for internet per residence, so options are limited. You can find internet through satellite or phone companies, but this will usually not be fast enough to maintain a good office environment. I recommend working with your ISP to either upgrade to the highest internet speed option for your residential account, or pay the extra money for a business account. I have worked in a few cities now during my 6 year tenure, and sometimes there is no good option. Currently I have the fastest level of business tier internet in my area, and even then I’ve had my provider come out to my residence several times in the last year to fix the router, dig up and install a new cable line to the house, and install a new jack. It’s time consuming, but keep in mind, many times you are the IT department, so you need to plan for it.
This probably comes as a surprise, but it’s crucial. Offices are generally well lit environments, using windows and bright halogen lights. That’s not a coincidence, because the light reflects a daytime environment and will keep you more alert and active. Without going into brain chemistry here, if you want to test this theory, try turning out all the artificial lights at night in your home, and read a book by candle light. See how quickly you will get drowsy, even if it’s well before your bedtime. The ideal setting is to have multiple light sources, both natural and artificial to keep your senses active, and both your eyes and your mind will thank you.
5. Have A Back-Up
You never know when internet may go down, your electricity may go off, or some other unforeseen situation arises. It’s not only crucial to have your cell phone/PDA available, but also have a temporary office location when needed. The temporary location could be a coffee shop, remote office center, or just a restaurant that will allow you to concentrate and get good wi-fi.
You could also call this motivation, but to be specific, I have been asked numerous times, “How do you get yourself up in the morning and stay focused without anyone else there?” My answer is simple, “A healthy fear of losing my job.”
This is where the Yahoo employees went wrong, and what is needed to succeed when working by yourself. The fear doesn’t have to be of losing a job, however, it could also be a fear of finishing in 2nd place, fear of underachieving, fear of having the company fail. Psychologically people tend to be more motivated by loss than by gain, so that’s where fear comes in handy instead of just wanting to succeed. The fear can come from many places, but the key is there needs to be a motivating factor when there’s not a stimulus coming from other people. Typically there is no one to praise you, or high-five you, or joke with you to keep you going. In short, the motivation and the actuation needs to come from within. Naturally l lean toward being introverted and self reliant, so these are also good traits in a home work environment. However, the overall traits don’t matter, what does matter is that you will not have parents, or teachers, or bosses to keep you directed.
7. Keep A Set Schedule
Finally, without the coming and going of other people, it’s too easy to simply keep on working. That’s right, the biggest problem to solve after making sure motivation is there, is to know when to back-off. Many people use others as a litmus test to know when they have worked enough. If everyone else in the office has gone home, then it’s OK to do the same. However when working remote it’s very easy to work late into the night, and start early in the morning, and over time, this will result in burn-out. By keeping a set schedule and staying focused during that schedule, it becomes easier to walk away, disconnect, and then come back energized for the next day.
Additionally there are some other quick items I would recommend. These are not essential, but to have the best and most successful experience possible, I highly recommend the below.
A. Get Out
Speaking of having a place to go to, make sure to get out of the house. It’s too easy to go days…DAYS…without actually leaving the house. If you have heard the phrase “cabin fever”, then you know what staying inside constantly will do to you. Humans are social animals and we require more interaction than is provided by the internet alone. Usually I don’t enjoy working away from the office because of the distractions (crowded, noisy coffee house with wobbly tables), but I do recognize the advantages in getting out. I recommend at least once every 1-2 weeks to spend a few hours working from a new location or comfortable location outside of your typical office. Having a weekly lunch meet-up with other professionals is a great excuse to get moving, it will force you to leave the house behind.
B. Get a Stand Up Desk
Admittedly, this is the advice I have not taken, but listen to what I say: sitting is the most dangerous thing you will do all day. There are many variations here, including a tread mill desk, a stand up desk, or just plain standing while talking on a conference call. I do the latter, which is every time I am presenting a webinar or conducting a meeting where I don’t need to make an intricate live presentation, I stand up. Not only does this help your overall cardiovascular health, it also creates a more energetic thought and speaking pattern, providing your teammates and clients a better version of you.
C. Use Video Conferencing
Words are powerful, but body language and eye contact are also a key components of human communication. Regardless of how adept you are at using the right words, in the right tone, at the right pace, visual communication also plays a role. However, using video can be tricky for several reasons. Not only are some people uncomfortable being on camera, but many times the camera is in an odd position or everyone can’t be viewed. For example, how many times have you been looking up someone’s nostrils, because they are using their laptop camera? Additionally, when speaking on a conference call, many times only one camera is on where several team members are gathered, so only one of a group can be seen on video. Instead, take advantage of new technology where a camera can be set up to view an entire team, and then individuals located by themselves can opt in on their personal cameras (hopefully at eye level). In terms of hardware, many companies specialize in communication systems including a new offering by Google, but for even less investment, a stand alone webcam (that views the whole room for team meetings) and a projection screen can be set up as well. For software, there are also many options including GoToMeeting, Microsoft’s Lync, Google Hangout, etc. Overall, this makes for a much more dynamic environment where the disconnect is nearly eliminated between attendees, uniting both audio and visual components.
Overall there are a number of tips and tricks that can be used, but this list should provide a valuable guide to producing the best telecommuting environment possible. In my time working at home, the best people I have seen who eventually go back to the office, went back because they lacked the social stimulus of working in an office with others. Working at home is not for everyone, and it’s a mistake to think anyone can do it. Many times I wonder how I ended up with both the privilege and the burden of my situation, but I’ve found ways to make it a net positive in my professional life. I’ve learned many valuable lessons being on my island, and also had the chance to experience my children’s first steps, first words, and first day leaving for school. Working at home is a unique situation born from modern technology, and with the right structure, it can bear great fruit as well.