As a society, we learned something as the world slid into the 2020s. Well, we learned a lot of things, actually, but perhaps one of the most impactful in an era of radical changes was that a lot of the jobs we had been working for the last hundred years didn’t have to be done the way they had always been done.
In early 2019, I started work on a new book about what I saw as the inevitable shift to a society that embraced remote work. The book would detail the benefits that both employees and employers saw in remote work and how to properly and gracefully make the shift in mentality that would allow for a successful remote workforce.
By May 2020, the unfinished manuscript had been shelved, possibly never to be finished. The world had changed forever in early 2020, and it had happened so rapidly that we still haven’t wrapped our heads around it.
In my manuscript, I predicted a slow and gradual shift of technical and office jobs to work-from-home arrangements over the coming decades. In 2019, 9 million Americans worked from home full time (US Census Bureau 2021 survey); by 2021 that number had tripled to nearly 28 million (roughly 20% of the workforce). Early job numbers from 2022 are indicating that 26% of Americans now work remotely, with even more working a hybrid schedule, with some days in an office and some remote.
But there was a problem with this sudden change: No one taught all those newly remote employees how to actually work remotely.
There is no doubt that many saw a productivity increase. Not having a 27-minute commute (the average commute time in 2019) twice a day helps! Time saved in the morning preparing for that commute adds even more. Being more comfortable in the work environment, having fewer co-worker and office distractions, not being as likely to go out for lunch, and lots of other small factors all boost productivity as well.
But are people really more productive, or do they just have more time to devote to work? As many have learned over the last few years, working from home and working from an office require different mentalities — for the company, for the manager, and most importantly for the worker.
I have been working remotely and managing remote workforces for nearly two decades, since before the time of video calls, Slack, VOIP, free long distance, Monday.com, and collaborative software like Jira and Figma. In that time, there has been more trial and error than I can even begin to calculate, but over the years I have pinpointed several rules, tips, tricks — whatever you would like to call them — to being successful while working from home.
Whether you just landed a new remote job or you want to excel at your current one, I hope that you will take away something new and valuable from this list.
Be visible. This is easier said than done. When you are working remotely, it’s crucial for your success that you be visible to your clients, your coworkers, and your managers. In a traditional office, the motto was “butts in seats,” so managers could see who was working and who wasn’t. That adage doesn’t work very well in a remote workplace — and, arguably, is a terrible management methodology even in a traditional office setting.
As a remote worker, you need to be a constant and unrelenting advocate for yourself. As ugly as it sounds, if you aren’t making noise in a remote workplace, you will disappear into the background. Collaborating with coworkers makes you seem more present, and your coworkers will talk more highly of you. Reporting progress and status to managers gives you the first chance to position how your work is being received and lets everyone know things are getting done. Making yourself seen by clients and stakeholders forces them to think about you when they are looking at promotions, raises, and calling people out.
It’s easy to sink back and just get your work done, especially since remote work often appeals most to introverts and others who just want to be left alone to do their thing. But in a remote workplace, sinking back means you won’t be seen, and if you aren’t being seen, eventually, someone somewhere will start asking what value you are adding to the team. If you aren’t out there advocating your value every day, you will get drowned out by those who do.
Make rules and create a routine. There is nothing easier than getting distracted while working from home. After all, you are surrounded by all the things you do when you are relaxing. You need to create your own rules and stick to them like there is a boss watching over your shoulder every day.
If you are working remotely, you are one of the lucky people who not only has a job that allows for it but also has a company that treats you with the respect and trust it requires. You are, by all accounts, an adult, and you can determine what rules you need to put in place to make sure you are staying productive.
No social media during office time. Lunch at 11:30 sharp. A gym break at noon. Walk the dog at 2:00. No personal phone calls, emails, or tasks. Whatever rules you come up with, make sure to stick to them. Not that you can’t drop rules or add rules as time goes on — but when a plan is in effect, make sure to stick with it.
Treat your office like your office and your house like your house. If at all possible, have a dedicated office space, whether it’s a spare bedroom, a basement, garage, public library, coffee shop, or, failing all else, the corner of a room. Your office should be your office. You should strive to get up in the morning and “commute” there, and when you are in that space, don’t think of it as your home; think of it as your workplace.
The flip side to this is even harder: You shouldn’t be doing anything fun or home related in that space after work hours. If you play video games, don’t do it in your office. If you fight with people on message boards on the weekend, don’t do it there. Don’t use the space for hobbies, games, or anything else not directly related to work.
Once you start confusing your brain about whether a space is for work or play, you will find yourself frequently distracted. Likewise, try not to leave your office during the day. When you start walking by the laundry machine or kitchen, it gets too tempting to just do a quick chore, which can quickly turn into hours of lost productivity.
If you live with kids, a spouse, roommates, or parents, make sure they are aware of this boundary as well. No one should be knocking on your office door asking you to take the trash out in the middle of the work day. Everyone needs to treat your home office as they would your company’s building downtown. My significant other knows not to knock on my office door during the day and will text me with anything important instead. Having this mental barrier makes it easier to separate out the work from the home when the location is one and the same.
Having said that …
Understand and use flextime properly. Often (but not always) flextime — the ability to define your own work schedule — goes hand in hand with remote work. You may find yourself lucky enough to work in an environment that allows you to take time during the business day to run errands or attend appointments. While it may seem like being able to attend your kid’s soccer game on a Tuesday afternoon is a direct conflict with what I just said about not leaving your office during the day, they can, in fact, be compatible.
When you work in a flextime environment, you can “trade” a couple of hours one day for a longer day the next. The real trick of flextime is keeping track of your debt/gain and making sure that you balance them out later in the week (or month, if that works for your employer). To make this work, you should have a feeling for what a full, productive work week feels like, and once you hit that amount, that’s your week. In the past, we called this a “results-only work environment,” but that term has been fading from popularity.
Flextime is another layer of trust between everyone involved, because it moves even further away from the traditional work model where you were expected to be at your desk for 8 hours a day. Flextime assumes that you will perform your job to expectations without such a rigid schedule, so it requires a certain level of maturity and understanding of the larger business needs. If there are meetings you need to attend, time you need to overlap with coworkers, or other important fixed-time items, you need to prioritize those in your flexible schedule.
In a flextime environment, it’s up to every individual to have a clear understanding of their role and how everything comes together. Flextime might seem like an invitation to make it all about you, but a successful flextime arrangement means being sensitive to how your schedule affects your coworkers. If you find you are inconveniencing everyone around you and everyone else is working harder to accommodate your schedule, then you are probably the person who is going to get flextime taken off the table for everyone.
Be consistent and vocal in your schedule. Even if it’s not a true flextime arrangement, many of us who work remotely are lucky enough to have at least some flexibility in our schedule. The downside of this is that it’s easy to fall out of a productive schedule.
Whether you get up and go to work at 6:00 or 11:00, make sure that you are consistent day to day. When you step away for lunch, make sure that people realize you are unavailable through either a consistent schedule, an AFK message, or an out-of-office reply.
And, for your own sanity, try to wrap up the workday around the same time each day. It’s just as easy to overwork yourself as it is to underwork yourself when working remotely. We could spend the better part of a day debating which is worse, but certainly neither is good.
So consistency is the ideal — but, of course, life isn’t always consistent. When something does happen to change your usual schedule, you never want a coworker or manager wondering where you are or when you will be back. This goes back to being visible: If it looks like you aren’t there, people are going to assume that you aren’t. So if you need to run out for an errand, appointment, or emergency, let people know. Besides just letting them know where you are and when you’ll be back, this also lets your coworkers be more respectful of your time and not pester you with a quick question or meeting request while you are out.
Get comfortable! It’s shocking how many people I see who have home office setups that they aren’t comfortable in. Figure out what you want in an office and go for it!
Do you want a standing desk, a gaming chair, a treadmill desk, or one of those bouncy balls? What kind of computer setup do you need to get work done? Do you want a crazy sound system or just a good pair of headphones? How many monitors is too many? Mood lighting? Go for it.
Your home office should be comfortable enough to sit in for 8 hours a day and be happy about it. You aren’t shackled to whatever crappy office chairs your company buys or terrible beige cubicle walls available in packs of 5,000. If you are at your desk for 2,000 hours a year, is that $1,500 office chair really too much?
Take a look at some of our work from home setups to get a feel for how unique, diverse, and cozy they are:
- Rich Wardwell’s Work from Home Setup
- Tyler Sasek’s Work from Home Setup
- Tyler Browning’s Work from Home Setup
- Daniel Sharp’s Work from Home Setup
- Cory Bohon’s Work from Home Setup
- Richard Turton’s Work from Home Setup
Forge personal bonds with your teammates. Many, though not all, of us have suffered from not interacting with coworkers in person since the beginning of the pandemic. But there are some introverts out there who have enjoyed the isolation and social downtime over the last few years — the same folks who, in an office, would never hang out with their team and would avoid personal interactions at work as much as possible. The bad news for these folks is that social avoidance is a problem for remote workers.
There is a growing movement of people who want to have no social connections at work whatsoever: a “come in, do the job, and go home” mentality. This is a dangerous way to approach remote work because you miss out on growth opportunities and so much more.
The good news is that being social is so much easier when you work remotely. There are no happy hours or birthday parties to attend; you just need to talk with people from time to time. About what? Hobbies, video games, new movies, news — whatever is interesting to you. Many folks have struggled with the lack of office social interaction; if nothing else, consider social outreach a kindness to them. After all, we could all use some mental health boosts these days.
Try to set aside even just a few minutes in each work day to interact with your team about things that are not work related. I think you will find yourself feeling better, and you will certainly find that you are treated better by everyone around you. As someone who calculates team contributions for performance bonuses and raises, I think you would be surprised at how much “cultural fit” plays into those numbers.
And if you are struggling with a lack of social interaction in the workplace, remember that you can always turn to other sources. Try community centers, churches, meetups, team sports, or other hobbies and groups that involve interacting with people.
Don’t break the bond of trust. Remote work is new for a lot of businesses, and it’s a hard pill to swallow for most of them. Every day the news is filled with companies trying to force workers back into the office because having remote workers is not working for them. It’s fair to say that the whole concept of remote work is on probation right now.
There is always a bond of trust that goes both ways between any employee and employer. Sometimes maintaining that trust is a fragile balance; sometimes the trust is more one way than it should be; sometimes the bond is harder than stone.
As an all-remote company for the last two decades, we are very aware that we need to trust that our employees are working and performing their duties fairly for their compensation. When someone ends up working overlapping jobs, drinking at work, playing games, or disappearing without cause, it breaks that trust — and it is virtually impossible to get back.
If there is no trust between companies and remote workers, then the system falls apart. So while I don’t want to sound like the grumpy teacher in the room, please don’t ruin it for everyone else.
Working in a remote workplace is a fun and enjoyable experience, if it is approached correctly. The world will continue to move toward remote work — as long as we, the remote workers, prove that it is viable. Approach it with the right mindset, and you will find yourself happier and more fulfilled, with extra time in your day and extra gas in your tank.