March 4, 2019

How to work from home effectively

Whether you’re a practised homeworker or brand new to the joys of working from your front room, here are some secrets to help you succeed…

Get into the right mindset for work

When you work in an office, the environment has lots of cues and associations that help you get into the right frame of mind to be productive. You might not notice them when they’re there, but once you’re working at home, their absence can make it harder to get started – especially if you associate your home environment with relaxation and fun. Equally, a lack of structure can lead to overworking and forgetting those all-important screen breaks.

The answer? Develop a homeworking routine that sets you up for a day’s work, not a day snuggled up on the couch with your laptop while Netflix plays in the background, or working late into the night when you could be chilling out with loved ones.

Image credit: Pinterest

Get dressed for success

There’s no need to don a suit and shine your shoes for a day’s homeworking – although if that does the trick for you, we definitely won’t argue – but there’s a lot of power in wearing something that makes you feel energized and capable. Commit to jumping in the shower first thing and putting on an outfit that makes you feel ready for the day.

To avoid the twin homeworking pitfalls of wearing pyjamas all day and barely moving, Suzie Godfrey, Director of The Sweet Reason Company puts her gym kit on every morning: “Once it is on, I have to do some kind of exercise that day, even if it is only one short workout.”

Suzie squeezes exercise into her day whenever she can. “I run home from the school drop-off, for two reasons: for fitness, and also because it is quicker than walking, so I have more time to work. Even if it is only a win of seven minutes a day, in a week that is over half an hour. When you are running your own business, every minute counts.”

Use a ‘commute’ to section off work time

Zero commute time might seem like a benefit to working from home, but a daily pre-work journey has the advantage of getting you into ‘work-mode’. Something that can be a struggle when your home is your office.

Start your day by leaving the house and walking a mile – or however far is realistic for you. Turn around, walk back, and let yourself into your ‘office’. You’ll immediately be more efficient. At the end of the day, ‘commute’ home, which will help you switch off from work.

Keep work behind an office door

Even if yours is a ‘kitchen table firm’, create a dedicated office space, with a door that you open after your commute and close behind you at the end of the day. This physical barrier between you and your to-do list acts as a psychological barrier to your ‘business brain’ and makes it easier to bring your focus to your family and friends or even just the television after a long day.

If you are sharing your home with others, creating a space where you can be productive is even more valuable. The door to your ‘office’ indicates the start of a professional space and it needs to be treated as just that. This is important if they – and you – are to believe that despite being a homeworker you are doing a ‘proper’ job.

Tricia Dixon, Director of consultancy firm JB Medical says: “Just because you’re working from home, your work and your workspace are as valid as those of people working in a more traditional office. You have to really believe this.”

Sound the alarm when it’s time for a break

As a homeworker, you might find it easy to work long hours without taking a break. Stopping to put another load of washing on doesn’t count as rest, nor does grabbing food from the fridge and taking it back to your desk.

Marathon-working might feel productive, but it’s actually the opposite – sometimes, your time is better spent resting and recharging. If taking breaks is tough for you, try looking at it with a growth mindset. You’re planning to be successful over the long-term, so you want to work sustainably.

To help you get into the habit, set an alarm clock to go off every two hours in the room farthest from your desk. When that bell rings, get up, switch off the alarm and take a break.

Collaborate and communicate

Whether you’re a small business owner or an employee located away from the mothership of a main office, working at home puts you at a certain remove from your clients and colleagues. Fortunately, you can keep communication flowing with helpful habits and a healthy dose of communication technology.

Yahoo’s Marissa Meyer famously claimed that being present in the same place as your co-workers is critical to collaboration, and it is indeed easy to become less collaborative when homeworking.

One solution is to embrace online collaboration tools like GitHub, Slack and Trello, to share your ideas and work with colleagues and customers.

These tools are multi-faceted, with some platforms including voice call, video call and screen-sharing options to help you collaborate while working from home. They’re popular across many different businesses and sectors and have their own communities, allowing you to build your network and connect with new people.

Sometimes though, there’s just no substitute for a face-to-face meeting. For example, if you’re meeting a potential new client or attending an annual review with your manager, being in the same room can really make a difference. In these situations, the kitchen table won’t cut it. Instead, you could try booking a meeting room at a coworking space. This is a great compromise that doesn’t carry the same overheads of renting your own office.

When you’re working remotely, it’s important to establish boundaries and set expectations, both for you and your colleagues or clients. When you need to juggle deadlines in an office, it’s easy enough to walk over to someone’s desk and rearrange things. When you work remotely, not so much. That’s why it’s really important to be clear and proactive about communicating what you will do and when you will do it.

Don’t rely on someone seeing an email about a change of status – follow up with an IM or phone call to make sure they’ve got the message.

Establishing consistent practices like these will help build trust and cooperation with people on your team, as they’ll know they can rely on you to do what you say you’ll do and be there when you’re needed. That’s essential for any working relationship, but more than ever when you’re working remotely.

The same goes for making sure you’re clear on your hours and availability, especially if you or others on your team work part-time or across different time-zones. Make sure people know when your ‘desk hours’ are. One option is to add them to your email signature so the information is always at hand for them.

Another helpful step is adding an auto-reply to your email, IM, voicemail and other communication channels so that people know when you’re not picking up their communications. Doing this can help you switch off and enjoy a good work-life balance – even if your workplace is under the same roof as your leisure time.

Defeat distraction and stay focused

When you work from home, knowing how to make effective use of your time is even more crucial than it is in the workplace. You’re up against a home full of potential distractions, and you’re on your own with the challenge. Daunting? Maybe. Doable? Absolutely – when you have the right tools and techniques at hand.

Here’s a little bit of comfort too – according to The Muse, 23% of wasted time at work comes from socializing with coworkers. At least you don’t have that problem to contend with.

Some common distraction-factors for homeworkers include:

Smartphones and tablets

Smartphones, tablets and other devices that travel on your person can become a real productivity-sucker – especially if you’re someone who routinely reaches for their phone during the day. On average, we touch our phones more than 2,500 times a day, so it’s easy to see how the habit can eat into your work time.

It might sound obvious, but placing devices out of your reach can reduce their power to lure you away from your desk. Try throwing your phone in a drawer or leaving it in another room for a set period while you’re concentrating on a task.

If you’re reluctant to be parted from your phone, for example because you need it to check facts or make calls as you work, you can reduce its tendency to ‘ping!’ at the wrong moment. Set up your smartphone’s ‘do not disturb’ mode so you only get essential work-related notifications during working hours.

TV and media

You can’t really throw a TV into a drawer, but you can put a barrier between it and you if you find that Netflix, Hulur or ESPN are calling to you during the work day.

It could be physical, in the form of a closed office door, or behavioral, where you use psychological barriers to make it tougher to indulge in a mid-morning episode or two. Try unplugging your TV set during the day, so you have to take the extra step of reconnecting it before you can flop down on the couch for a binge-watch.

Household tasks

Under normal circumstances, jobs like washing dishes, laundry or vacuuming might not be go-to activities, but they can suddenly get tempting when your alternative is preparing for a big meeting.

Out of sight, out of mind is a great rule of thumb here. Close the office door so you can’t see housework tasks waiting to be done, or if that’s not an option, put laundry baskets and vacuum cleaners in a closet where they can’t absorb your attention.

Pets and family members

They’re adorable, and there’s no denying that they can also be demanding. Although there’s no off-switch, you can try enlisting the help of friends and relatives to take pets and small people off your hands for a few hours, and prioritize your most brain-taxing work tasks for times when they’re not around.

If you’re part of a family or shared household, it can help to establish rules about distracting you during the working day – that earlier tip about having an office door could come in handy here.

Social media

It’s right there on your laptop, and it’s actively designed to absorb hours of your time. Nightmare! So what can you do about it?

Job 1 is to delete any desktop apps you have on your work laptop, as these make it easy to check and update social media, and they can also produce notifications that actively disrupt your concentration.

Another strategy is to work on your browser tab discipline, especially if you’re prone to having your social accounts, webmail and favorite websites open in background tabs all day long. For some people, that means doing away with browser tabs altogether. For others, remembering to close every tab apart from the one you’re actively working on can do the trick.

Finally, you can try using social media as a reward for getting unappetising tasks done. Answer 5 emails, and allow yourself 5 minutes perusing Instagram. Make sure it’s only 5 minutes though – set a timer if you need to.

Having a ‘busy brain’

If your mind is wandering even without outside distractions, mindfulness meditation can help you strengthen your concentration skills and return your attention to the task at hand. Even if you’re not a spiritual person, meditation can benefit your homeworking mojo, as it  trains your brain to focus and filter out distraction. There’s even an academic study that’s shown meditation benefiting productivity, concentration and memory in workers.

Stay accountable and stick to your goals

Let’s be honest – peer pressure and management oversight both play a role in driving our motivation at work. It’s easy enough to knuckle down and get on with a work project when the boss can walk by and check out what’s on your screen at any moment. Working at home, those checks and balances simply aren’t there to keep you on track. It’s the same story with over-work too – the structure of a working day in the office automatically gives you a degree of work-life balance that’s harder to achieve at home.

The same goes for bigger goals and plans related to your career or small business. Keeping your eye on the big picture in terms of your targets and objectives is harder when you’re outside the office environment. It could be getting promoted, acquiring new skills, developing new products and services or mentoring others. Whatever the case, your strategic goals can fall by the wayside and get eclipsed by day-to-day activities when there’s nobody else around to help adjust your perspective.  

Ben Blomerley, Co-Founder of AskHerFriends feels that “working at home can be really undermining of your focus. “You don’t have colleagues and bosses around to see whether you’re cruising Facebook or Netflix all day. And you’re often aiming for a large and indeterminate goal (‘I want to make this business succeed’) rather than a specific target (‘make 50 calls today’).”

In ensuring he focuses on what matters, Ben “breaks tasks down into really narrow and clear portions”, a strategy also employed by Karolina Sieler, Founder/Owner at FBIZZ Women Entrepreneurs Hub. The best way to do this, advises Karolina, is to “prepare your own job description and divide the tasks into administrative ones and the more creative ones.

“You then have to identify a way of monitoring them to make sure that you stay on the right track. I use tailor-made spreadsheets, as well as a combination of online tools such as Asana and Toggl.”

Another idea is to give yourself a quarterly review. Sit down with a notebook or laptop and look at what you’ve achieved in the last 3 months, what you could have done better, and what you plan to do in the 3 months ahead. This can be really helpful for self-employed workers.

If you’re part of a company, you may have the luxury of a manager who can do this with you, but there’s no harm in developing your own ways to keep yourself accountable too. After all, you never know when the opportunity to work for yourself might drop into your lap.

If your challenges relate more to distractions and concentration, consider trying out a co-working space. It’s a way of getting the feel of an office environment and some low-key company while you get your work done. There’s nobody who will stop you browsing social media all day, but you might find that being around others who are in productivity mode rubs off on you positively.

Finally, you can build accountability by involving other people in your work tasks. If you’re an employee, working on a team project with people in the office can help you feel more connected to your goals and motivated to achieve more. Try setting up regular meetings via phone or video call to give you some structure and a deadline to work towards. For self-employed workers, regular contact with clients and a weekly or monthly check-in call can give you the nudge you need to stay focused on projects.

Working at home can be the best thing you ever did for your career, but it often comes with challenges too. Here’s how you can stay motivated when you need to be your own boss

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