As working from home becomes more and more prevalent in our workforce, I’m confronted by my own experience with it. Big corporations tout words like work-life balance as a big reason to encourage their employees to work from home. Another might be that rather than offer free lunches, free dry-cleaning, massage chairs, or other such amenities on-site, just send them all home and let them recharge there. However, after working from quite a bit the past few years, I can tell you the switch is fraught with danger. It can be a drag on productivity. It can further blur the lines between when you’re working and when you’re not. And it’s open to abuse. Here are 6 tips to help.
1. Work space and personal space.
Something that I learned all to well in college was that if I tried to study at home, I would often waste the entire day. It’s very important to change your physical environment. It’s the same reason doctors tell us not to have TVs in our bedrooms – bedrooms should be for sleeping (and perhaps other things) – but email in the bedroom and CNN in the bedroom is just not good for our mental and physiological health. The most productive days are the ones where I wake up, get out of the house early, and get to a Starbucks, or, in college, the library. The change in physical space makes a big difference. If you refuse to do this, at least chose a different space from the one where you relax. Most important here – when you enter your work-space, your personal life ends at the door. No kids, pets, or spouses allowed during work hours. Although in Don Draper fashion, I won’t fault you for the occasional vodka martini. On the other side of this statement lies the contrapositive point – when you leave your work-space – work stays behind. We live in a connected age, and research shows that people who are constantly tethered via mobile devices – the constant buzz of emails, texts, or IMs interrupting you as you focus on whatever – be it TV, significant other, or family – can damage your overall cognitive ability to focus. http://nyti.ms/cBH6mT
2. Clothes matter
From 6th to 11th grade, I would compete to be part of the North Texas All-Region Choir. Now, we Texans take our choir music very seriously, so this was no small feat. I would spend months practicing on my own, listening to tapes, singing in my bedroom, weeknight rehearsals in the weeks leading up to the try-outs with the choir teacher at school. And then the day of the audition would arrive. That Saturday morning I would drive an hour to the audition site, usually a high school somewhere in Dallas, register, wait, sometimes for hours, until my number was called, and then go into a small room with a curtain. The curtain and number were essential, because to ensure impartiality, the 3 judges were on the other side of the curtain, and were not allowed to hear my name or see my face. This ensured that the judges – who themselves were regional choir teachers – could not favor their own students or discriminate based on a student’s race. However, this also meant that they didn’t give a damn what I was wearing – and – like on exam days later in college – a lazy teenage boy is apt to wear sweats if he can get away with it. But I will never forget what my choir teacher told me the day before the audition. She said “make sure you wear a shirt and tie to the audition – it doesn’t matter that they won’t see you in it – it matters that you see yourself.” Putting on the uniform, studies have shown, can improve a players performance. In the same way, putting on my shirt and tie that day helped remind me that this was a performance, helped to get that adrenaline flowing, helped to focus me. In the same way, it’s important to get dressed from work. We all love the idea of working in our PJs at first, but you soon realize that you feel more professional, and therefore act more professional, when you’re dressed the part.
3. Smile when you talk.
In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell states that much of how we communicate is not what we say, but how we say it. And when you’re talking on the phone, all you have is your voice. My first manager and mentor at Microsoft taught me that you really can tell when someone is smiling when they talk – and it makes a huge difference.
4. Enjoy the flexibility.
The biggest thing that working from home afforded me was flexibility. In a lot of cases, my manages was comfortable with me working not from my own home in Seattle, but from my parents’ home in Texas for sometimes a full week. This meant that I could spend real time with my family in Texas or with my girlfriend in San Francisco. Rather than arriving on a Wednesday evening, celebrating Thursday and Friday of Thanksgiving with the family, and jetting-out on Sunday evening, I could fly in 5 days before, stay a few extra days after, and work remotely those days or take a few of them off and work the rest. Working from home also allowed me to live in Belltown in downtown Seattle, rather than Redmond, without worrying about a harrowing commute 5 days a week. Whereas that commute might be daunting and a huge time-waster to do 5 days a week, I knew that I would only need to do it 3-4 days a week on average.
5. Punctuality and Professionalism.
Punctuality is probably the most important thing in the virtual-business world. In a world where we’re all over-scheduled, being 5 minutes late to a meeting is highly disrespectful, even more so considering you didn’t even have to drive over from someplace else – all you needed to do was pick up a phone on-time. But we all know that shit happens, and so professionalism comes into play. Don’t over-book yourself, leave time between meetings/calls to take notes, run to the bathroom, etc., and if you’re going to be late – send an email well-in-advance, or just schedule the meeting for 15-minutes past the hour instead. Finally, in a world where we’re all interfacing, assigning action items, and doling out deliverables, it’s very important to be clear on the outcomes and deadlines from each meeting, if for no other reason than that’s its damn hard to get someone on the phone, and you’d rather not chase them down a second time.
6. Don’t. Just don’t work from home.
I say this in jest, but the truth is that from the point of view of the company, working from home bleeds productivity and retards communication. When I worked for the Public Sector team at Microsoft, one third of the marketing team worked from Redmond, one third from Washington D.C., and fully one-third worked remotely. And therefore, in a lot of ways, there was little downside if I wanted to work from home. But on the days that many of us would come into the office I definitely noticed that work moved faster. When Jason was in the office with me, and I had a question, I could stand-up, peer over the wall of my cube, yell his name, and, if he was free, we would chat, I would get my answer, and move on. When I worked from home, time became measured in 30-minute Outlook-scheduled chunks – I had to find 30 minutes on his calendar, he was busy and would propose a new time – perhaps next week when things calmed down. I could pick-up the phone, but in our highly-scheduled world, the only free moments were often the few moments between when his 10:30 call ended (if it ended early at all), and his 11AM call began. Certainly, when I’m the CEO of my own company, working from home is going to be something that’s highly regulated. But maybe that’s just me.