More people than ever are working from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether you’re new to working remotely or just looking to level up, these tips from a remote work pro can help you stay productive and maintain balance.
Starting around March 2020, more people than ever before began working from home, and quite suddenly. Organizations and individuals didn’t have time to prepare for remote work or think about the best ways to transition teams, processes, and culture to an online-only environment. No one knew (or yet knows) how long the COVID-19 pandemic and thus mandatory remote work would last.
If you’re new to the work-from-home lifestyle, whether due to the coronavirus or because you’ve managed to find a remote-based job, you may have found that you need to change your habits and routines to make working from home a success.
I’ve worked 100 percent remotely for more than six years, long before the COVID-19 pandemic started. Several of my friends and colleagues have done it, too. We each face unique challenges, not only because of our different personalities, but also due to our various lifestyles and the type of work we do. Still, many of the core issues we face as remote workers are the same.
Everyone who works remotely has to figure out when to work, where to work, and how to create boundaries between work and personal life. What about office equipment, career development, training opportunities, and building relationships with colleagues?
1. Maintain Regular Hours
Set a schedule and stick to it…most of the time. Having clear guidelines for when to work and when to call it a day helps many remote workers maintain work-life balance.
That said, one of the best benefits of remote work is flexibility, when the job allows for it. Sometimes you need to extend your day or start early to accommodate someone else’s time zone. When you do, be sure to wrap up earlier than usual or sleep in a bit the next morning to make up for it.
Automatic time-tracking apps, such as RescueTime, let you check in on whether you’re sticking to your schedule. They can also help you figure out what times of day you’re most productive versus when you slack off. You can use that information to your advantage by protecting the hours when you’re most likely to get difficult work done. For example, if you tend to have high productivity between 9:30 and 11:30 a.m., don’t schedule meetings during that time.
2. Create a Morning Routine
Deciding you’ll sit down at your desk and start work at a certain time is one thing. Creating a routine that guides you into the chair is another.
A routine can be more powerful than a clock at helping you get started each day. What in your morning routine indicates you’re about to start work? It might be making a cup of coffee before you tackle your to-do list. It might be returning home after a jog or getting dressed. (Wearing pajamas is a work-from-home perk for some, but a bad strategy for others.) Look for an existing habit that you have, like brushing your teeth or coming in from a dog walk, to act as your signal. That way, you can tack on the new habit of kicking off your workday.
I say “morning routine,” but not everyone who works from home follows a nine-to-five schedule. Yours might be a “getting started” routine at another time of day. Nevertheless, look for an existing habit you have and try to start your work day after it.
3. Set Ground Rules With the People in Your Space
Set ground rules with other people in your home or who share your space when you work.
For example, if you have children who are learning at home or who come home from school while you’re still working, they need clear rules about what they can and cannot do during that time. If you share a space with another adult who’s working from home, you may have to negotiate quiet times, meeting times, and any shared equipment, like desks and chairs.
Additionally, just because you’re home and can let service people into the house or take care of pets doesn’t mean other family members should assume you always will. If that’s how you choose to divide up the domestic labor, that’s fine, but if you simply take it all on by default because you’re home, you may feel taken advantage of, and your productivity may suffer.
4. Schedule Breaks
If you work for an organization, know the policy on break times and take them. If you’re self-employed, give yourself adequate time during the day to walk away from the computer screen and phone. A lunch hour and two 15-minute breaks seem to be the standard for full-time US employees. For computer-based work and other sedentary work, it’s important to stand up and move to get your blood circulating every so often, at least once an hour. It also helps to move your eyes off screen regularly, even if it’s a micro-break of 10-20 seconds.
5. Take Breaks in Their Entirety
Don’t short-change yourself during breaks, especially your lunch hour or meal break.
There are apps, such as TimeOut for Mac and Smart Break for Windows, that let you set a schedule for when you’ll lock yourself out of your computer. RescueTime also has a pause feature that lets you time 15-minute and one-hour breaks. Don’t need any more apps in your life? Set an alarm or timer on your phone, or mind the time with a standard clock. No matter how you track your breaks, make sure to take them in their entirety. For example, if you plan for an hour break and return to your desk after only 40 minutes, walk away for another 20.
Working remotely, especially when working from home most of the time, means figuring out these issues and others. Here are 20 tips for leading a better and more productive remote-work life, based on my experience and what I’ve learned from others.
6. Leave Home
To the extent that it’s allowed and safe during the pandemic, get out of the house and move your body. Your body needs movement and blood circulation. Plus, the fresh air and natural light will do you good. Ideally, step outside for at least a short while before, during, and after your working hours.
This same advice applies to people who work in traditional office settings, too. Leave the building at least once a day during working hours.
In non-pandemic times, remote workers can also go to cafes, libraries, and co-working spaces to break up the monotony of being at home. That’s great, too, but the really important part is to leave your home, get some air and natural light, and move.
You don’t have to go to crowded public spaces to get away from your solo workspace (and you probably shouldn’t right now, either). Take a walk. Weed the garden. Sit on the stoop. You get the picture.
7. Don’t Hesitate to Ask for What You Need
If you’re employed by a company or organization that supports your work-from-home setup, request the equipment you need as soon as you start working from home, or within a few days of realizing you need something new.
It’s extremely important to set a precedent early that you will ask for what you need to get your job done comfortably. These items might include the right monitor, keyboard, mouse, chair, desk, printer, software, and so forth. Organizations that are accustomed to remote employees often have a budget for home office equipment. Ask what it is and how often it’s renewed. It also doesn’t hurt to ask whether there’s a loan agreement or who will pay for return shipping or disposal of outdated equipment. Some remote organizations allow employees to bring in a consultant to make sure their workspaces are set up to be ergonomic.
If you’re working from home short-term and are expected to return to an office when it’s safe, ask for what you need, but be willing to make acceptable compromises. Ordering a new office chair and desk might be off the table. Instead, a mouse, keyboard, laptop riser, and a back-supporting cushion go a long way and all together can cost less than $200. There are other cheap and easy ways to improve your home office, too.
8. Keep a Dedicated Office Space
In an ideal world, remote employees would have not only a dedicated office, but also two computers, one for work and one for personal use. It’s more secure for the employer, and it lets you do all your NSFW activities in private.
But not everyone has a spare room to use as an office in their home, and keeping two machines isn’t always realistic. Instead, dedicate a desk or table space and some peripherals that will be used only for work. For example, when your laptop is hooked up to the monitor and external keyboard, it’s work time. When it’s on your lap, that’s personal time. You may want to go as far as partitioning your hard drive and creating a separate user account for work. Making even small points of differentiation between work time and personal time helps your brain know when you’re off the clock, and that contributes to better work-life balance.
For more tips on creating a great workspace, see our story on cheap and easy ways to level up your home office. We also have tips for how to can maintain focus and productivity with our guide to keeping your desk tidy.
9. Maintain a Separate Phone Number
Set up a phone number that you only use for calls with colleagues and clients. It doesn’t have to be a landline or a second mobile phone, or even require a SIM card. It can be a VoIP service, such as Google Voice or Skype.
Similar to some of the other tips, having a separate phone number helps you manage your work-life balance.
10. Use a VPN
Use a VPN whenever you’re connected to a network that you don’t control. That includes Wi-Fi at co-working spaces, cafes, libraries, airports, hotels, and so forth. Organizations often have their own VPNs that off-site employees need to access certain servers or websites that store information meant only for internal use. In those cases, you’ll also need to use a VPN at home. It’s a good idea to get into the habit of leaving your VPN connected as often as possible because it’s always safer to have it on than not.
One more point about VPNs: When you’re connected to a company VPN, your organization could conceivably see what you’re doing. So, don’t view porn via a corporate VPN.
11. Socialize With Colleagues
Loneliness, disconnect, and isolation are common problems in remote work life, especially for extroverts. Companies with a remote work culture usually offer ways to socialize. For example, they might have channels in a team messaging app, like Slack, for talking about common interests or organizing meetups for people in the same region.
Figure out how much interaction you need to feel connected and included. Even if you’re highly introverted and don’t like socializing, give a few interactive experiences a try so that you’re familiar with them if you ever decide you want them. If you’re not at a company with a strong remote culture, you may need to be more proactive about nurturing relationships.
As much as team messaging apps are excellent venues for socializing, they tend to create distractions, too; check out these tips on how not to get overwhelmed by Slack.
12. “Show Up” to Meetings and Be Heard
Certainly, you’ll take part in video conferences and conference calls while working remotely, but it’s a good idea to attend optional meetings sometimes, too. Be sure to speak up during meetings so everyone knows you’re on the call. A simple, “Thanks, everyone. Bye!” at the close goes a long way toward making your presence known.
If your company uses Zoom Meetings for its video conferencing, you can quickly master its ins and outs with our story: Top Zoom Tips for a Locked-Down World.
13. Get Face Time
If your employer is lax about getting you in a room with other employees, ask to have an annual or semi-annual trip in your contract. It could be for annual planning, training, or team building. Or, tack it onto some other business event, such as a yearly fiscal meeting, nearby conference, or office holiday party. Don’t wait around for someone to invite you to the office or an event. Be proactive.
For those unexpectedly working from home who are also trying to reduce face-to-face contact, set up a video call with your colleagues or manager once a week to check in. Don’t be afraid to let check-in meetings be as short as they need to be. Sometimes a five-minute conversation is all it takes to stay connected.
14. Take Sick Days
When you’re not well, take time off. If sick days are part of your compensation package, take the time off that you need. Not taking it is like throwing away money!
If you’re freelance or self-employed without paid sick time, it can be tempting to power through illnesses and keep working. Remember that for your long-term wellness and productivity, it’s best to rest and get better so that you can get back to work at full capacity.
15. Look for Training and Learning Opportunities
When you’re not in an office with your fellow employees, you might miss out on training and skills development courses that are taught in person. Your company might even forget to add you to its online training courses. It can be tempting to regard this as a dodged bullet, but you might be missing out on an opportunity to learn something useful. Speak up and make sure you’re included.
In addition to top-down training, you can request online or in-person courses, training, and coaching if you need it. There are also plenty of online learning sites that teach business soft skills, programming, software skills, and other courses. Remote companies often have a budget for learning and skills training. If your organization doesn’t, ask if they might add it.
In non-pandemic times, people who work 100 percent remotely might seek out learning opportunities that are taught at the organization’s headquarters or nearby. That way, you get training and face time with colleagues in one go.
Working remotely requires that everyone overcommunicate.
Tell everyone who needs to know about your schedule and availability often. Don’t assume they’ll remember. When you finish a project or important task, say so. Overcommunicating doesn’t necessarily mean you have to write a five-paragraph essay to explain your every move, but it does mean repeating yourself. Joke about how you must have mentioned your upcoming vacation six times already, then mention it again.
17. Be Positive
Reading tone in written messages is really difficult in all-remote settings. The less face time you have with people, the more an intentionally concise message can come off as terse and short-tempered.
In remote work settings, everyone must be positive, to the point where it may feel like you’re being overly positive, gushy even. Otherwise, you risk sounding like a jerk. It’s unfortunate, but true. So embrace the exclamation point! Find your favorite emoji. You’re going to need them 😀
18. Take Advantage of Your Perks
For two years, I baked a loaf of bread nearly every week. Why? Because I was home and I could. I love baking bread, but you need to be home to tend to it once an hour or so to punch down the dough, shape the loaf, and let it bake. It doesn’t take a lot of hands-on time, but you need to be there. When I worked in an office full-time, I struggled to find half a day when I was home to bake.
Working remotely comes with unique perks. Take advantage of them. You deserve it
19. Don’t Be Too Hard on Yourself or Others
Successful remote employees have a reputation for being extremely disciplined. After all, it takes serious focus to do any full-time job from an unconventional space.
That said, everyone lets their attention drift sometimes. If you find yourself working one minute and researching vacation house rentals the next, don’t reprimand yourself too harshly. Instead, ask yourself whether people in an office setting do the same thing. If the answer is yes, cut yourself some slack, then get back to work. Above all, remember, you need to balance productivity with self-care; otherwise, you risk burning out.
During the COVID-19 pandemic—but really all the time—we need to extend this same kindness and forgiving attitude to our co-workers, clients, and bosses. There is an extraordinary amount of stress and anxiety during a global pandemic. Keep in mind that you may not know what another person is going through not only in life, but also in their home work environment. Cut them some slack.
20. End Your Day With a Routine
Just as you should start your day with a routine, create a habit that signals the close of the workday. It might be a sign-off on a business messaging app, an evening dog walk, or an at-home yoga class. Something as simple as shutting down your computer and turning on a favorite podcast will do. Whatever you choose, do it consistently to mark the end of working hours.
Make It Personal
Above all else, figure out what works best for you. Sometimes the answer is apparent, but other times you might need some inspiration from other remote workers who are in the same boat. A supportive community does exist, whether you find them in your organization’s Slack channel or online through blogs or Twitter. Consider, too, that you might need to shake up your routine once in a while, lest it gets too…routine.