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The golden rules to working productively from home (without testing your sanity)

Remote working is on the rise, nowhere more so than in the tech sector. Here’s how to do it smartly.

We all know how we’re supposed to work remotely — on a yacht overlooking an unfeasibly beautiful beach; in an elegantly transformed home office in the garden; in a contemporary coffee shop, mingling with other remote workers and eating croissants, hot as anything.

But the reality for many of us is that we’re at home, fielding multiple Slack messages while trying to put a wash on, battling myriad other distractions. And the number of us living this existence is growing.

Working remotely is becoming vastly more common, with the tech sector currently ranking second in industries embracing it. The BBC recently reported a 74% jump in people working from home in the UK between 2008 and 2018. Those figures are going in one direction only — meaning, if it isn’t part of your working life already, chances are it will be at some point very soon.

That’s why it pays to know how to do it smartly. Journalist and remote worker Mike Rampton sets out some golden rules for making the most of working from home sweet home.

Structure and delineate

“Having rules and structures in place is key,” says science and tech journalist Becca Caddy. “If I don’t add structure, no one else will.”

While having no fixed start and finish time might feel incredibly freeing, it can also be maddening, with home and work life bleeding endlessly into one another. Setting strict parameters, whether time based or physical, can help keep the two distinct.

You can go as far as having different user profiles on your computers, one for business hours and one for pleasure. Others might bookend their day with a walk around the block or a gear-shifting drink: a coffee says ‘let’s do this’ while a beer says ‘I’m done’. Whatever works to ensure you don’t feel like you’re always at work, go for it.

Have a virtual coffee break

Just because you aren’t in an office, doesn’t mean you can’t have colleagues. If you can work remotely, you can goof about remotely, and chat Avengers: Endgame fan theories remotely.

Why not follow the path of Happyforce founder and CEO, Alex Ríos who — with a large team of remote workers — established a twice-a-day 15-minute ‘virtual coffee’ to connect with others on the team.

“These video calls help to establish rapport with other team members you may not work directly with and build a strong sense of belonging to a community,” says Ríos on his Medium blog.

“We talk about the things we care about, no matter if it’s sports, health, cooking, cryptocurrency or work-related issues.”

Ríos found that despite the coffee break not being mandatory, most team members would show up. And when someone didn’t for a few days in a row, it proved an effective employee engagement gauge.

Work with your own rhythms

Being liberated from the nine-to-five model means you can plan your day around when you are at your most productive. Working according to your own internal clock lets you tailor your schedule based on your own circadian and ultradian rhythms. There’s even an Evernote template for establishing when you’re at your best.

As for the science? Work flat out in the morning, have a really long lunch, and that’s pretty much you done for the day. That’s according to researchers who studied 509 million tweets from 2.4 million people in 84 countries and found just about everyone’s mood and productivity followed the same daily rhythm.

Find a coworking buddy

Working every single weekday with the same person is not exactly healthy. The statistics have it that you may end up either marrying them or wanting to kill them, possibly both. The remote worker has the option of a more productive middle ground, one to get you out of the house but not under each other’s skin.

 

Take this account from Tigran Hakobyan who roped in his friend and Buffer CTO Dan Farrelly for regular and highly productive coworking sessions. “We started to co-work a couple of times a week,” says Tigran on the freeCodeCamp blog. “We have lunch together and discuss a variety of topics including our work at Buffer. As of now, we do it two or three times a week in New York City and the rest of the week we work from home.”

Pick up the phone

Technology is glorious: tools like Slack, G Suite and Dropbox Paper make collaborative remote working a joy. But sometimes it’s still best to act like it’s 1989 and make a call.

The mental health charity Mind recently raised concerns about the increase in remote working, and the isolation and loneliness that can come with it. “There’s a group of us that call each other regularly throughout the day. It can literally just be a two-minute hello about nothing,” says Joe Barnes, a freelancer for Google and other tech firms. “I find it busts through any feelings of isolation, and you come out the other side much more productive.”

However, when things get complex, it’s best to switch on the video. Ríos says, “When you start hearing things that feel wrong or out of place [in a message thread], it’s time to jump over to video. Five minutes of face to face is worth a hundred chat messages.”

Procrastinate productively

“The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one,” says Dr Rich Perry in his book The Art of Procrastination — pretty much the bible for the home worker. “The psychological principle is this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”

Dr Rich’s solution? Game your to-do list. Put a couple of challenging, if not impossible, tasks at the very top, ones that sound hugely important (but aren’t really) and with seemingly pressing deadlines (that aren’t actually that pressing). Then, further down the list, the doable stuff that really matters.

“Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list,” Dr Rich writes, a man who now claims to have a reputation for getting a lot done, despite a strong tendency to get side-tracked sharpening pencils when he gets particularly stacked with work.

Make your space work for you

If you work from home full time, you spend more waking hours in your house on business than you do on leisure. Mike Griggs is a digital content creation consultant who has been freelance for seven years, and freely acknowledges that bits of it suck. He’s found it much easier since creating a space to work in.

“I end up having months of hating working from home,” he says. “One of the biggest things I’ve learned, weirdly, is to try to put yourself first. I’ve refurbished my shed into a dedicated office, which makes a massive difference in terms of my productivity and mental wellbeing.”

Spend a heavy sum on a chair

‘Sitting is the new smoking’ might be the sort of phrase thrown around by the worst people in the world, but there’s something to it. The remote worker knows that being hunched over a laptop for eight hours at a time can be akin to being strung up in a medieval torture device, with the longterm effects of bad posture causing everything from sleep problems to constipation.

The answer is investing in your chair. Is six grand for an Eames masterpiece too much? Possibly, but if you’re sitting in it every single working day over the course of a year, it’s not that much to ask to spare your back (in considerable style) and improve your productivity. Sit on it for 10 years and you’re spending two pounds a day, which is almost a bargain.

Cash in that bonus time

The average worker in the UK spends 58 minutes a day travelling to and from work — the figure is an hour and 21 minutes in London — so anyone working from home has, over the course of a year, saved hundreds of hours of travel time.

Consider cashing some of that time in every so often for the benefit of your mental health, giving yourself a few hours off to do absolutely nothing. No aims, no goals, no plans, nothing at all — glorious. Just be prepared for it to take a while to adapt to this new more zen way of living. Scientists at the University of Virginia found that students preferred to self-administer electric shocks rather than spend just 15 minutes with their own thoughts.

Do you work remotely or manage a remote team? Let us know the challenges you’ve had and the strategies you’ve used to overcome them.

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