The PeopleCap Playbook

Timely insights and actionable people strategies for leaders.

I Used to Be a Crappy Telecommuter!

I started working remotely about 12 years ago when we moved to Memphis. Working remotely full-time was not as easy as I’d imagined. And I stunk at it for a while. Probably for too long. I was productive in sporadic spurts. I struggled with time management even though I sat at my desk all day. I was distracted and frequently had trouble prioritizing. I didn’t check in with my team, all based in ATL, frequently enough for them or for me. And it all meant I failed to follow through on my own work and on theirs.

Now, years later, I’m quite good at working remotely. I can happily maintain energy, motivation, and focus for extended periods. I keep myself plugged into my colleagues and clients. And I’m confident enough in my productivity that I allow myself to take the breaks I need during the day without guilt.

Here are a few things I learned along the way that have helped me improve:

Environment counts.

Set up your space in a way that helps you focus and maintain some energy. If you need natural light, set up in space that offers some. If your family is also home, claim a spot that limits interruptions. Or claim multiple spots. I have itchy energy – so while I can be incredibly focused, I also need to get up and move to a new spot from time to time. So, I have chargers and other accessories set up in a couple of spots around my house.

Background noise matters.

With all of us stuck at home with partners, roommates, and/or children you will have noise. What’s your ideal noise level? I learned that I work beautifully at coffee shops where there is a low level of consistent noise. Some like music, some like quiet. Experiment to find the right amount of background stimulation for your brain to function best.

Set your routine.

I know you keep hearing this one – that’s because it’s true. A consistent routine will keep you rolling. Your brain will more readily focus when it knows “this is work time” and that there will be “lunch time” or “break time” later.

Map your work to your energy cycles.

Plan your day and to-do list around when you have the most energy for work. Those tasks that require you to focus should be checked off the list during the hours you are most motivated to work. If you’re juggling work with kids at home, like I am, schedule the most important work for when they will be most occupied (or your partner is on a parenting shift).

Reach out to colleagues more than you would in the office.

There is no watercooler chat at home. You don’t bump into colleagues on the way to your next meeting or on the elevator. It’s amazing how important those moments of connection are for communicating about work, but also for connecting us with our work, our team and helping us source energy for the rest of the day (even for less extraverted people). You have to be intentional about reaching out to colleagues during this time.

Discover what motivates you.

We’re all motivated by different things. You’ll need to find your own motivation for work now more than ever. Perhaps you want to do your part to serve those in need, or to keep your organization thriving through this crisis, or to prove to your boss that you can do this remote thing so well she’ll make it permanent. Whatever it is that drives you, identify it, write it down, and post it somewhere you can refer to it when you lose energy. We all need energy and purpose to get through this crisis. Define how your work can be a source of energy and purpose for you rather than a drain.

Let others know when you’re stuck.

I am a big picture thinker, strategically minded, and very independent person. I love to work on my own, but I need to connect with others enough to keep my mind flowing. When I’m stuck, I have learned to check in with my thought partners and ask them to think something through with me.

Take breaks.

It is not productive to sit at a computer or on the phone all day. When you’re at the office, people drop by your work station, you bump into others on the way to the copier, you chat over the coffee pot. You’re not doing that at home. So, go out and get sunlight; sit and enjoy your coffee; call your mother. And then get back to work knowing another break will be coming along soon.

Cut yourself some slack.

I used to be so stressed that I wasn’t productive enough. And I think that anxiety consumed me and actually did decrease my productivity. Give yourself some credit. Working from home is a big adjustment. You’ll know you have hit your sweet-spot when your day has gone by quickly, you’ve accomplished a lot, and you feel energized to start again tomorrow.

Be well. You’ve got this.