How many of us have tried to work at home and not been productive — or think it’s a challenge to be productive?
The things I usually hear as challenges for working at home are all those seductive things you could be doing other than working. Television, laundry & other personal activities, exercise, going outside and just enjoying the day, eating (a beckoning refrigerator) and noise or interruptions from others who may be home (kids, spouse, etc.). Joel and I have learned several things about working at home effectively and we’d like to share them with you — and get your ideas!
Joel is excellent at working at home — he’s been doing so for about 6 years now. Somehow, he is able to really focus throughout his workday and get everything done. Much of his success was due to having a great office and really quiet house (no kids and a spouse who left the house for work each day). I was great at working at home when I was in corporate, but had a tough transition being effective as an entrepreneur. Since using my time effectively is important to me, I learned new ways of working and took steps to change this. I’ll share these tips for working from home below.
To make matters even worse, when we sold our big house — with plenty of extra office space — and moved into smaller spaces, we had to get serious about planning our home office and work strategies. This took a lot of planning, but it was well worth it. We both immediately noticed how effective & productive we became once we implemented our new office & work strategies.
Tips for Working Effectively At Home — For Remote Corporate Workers & Entrepreneurs
- Create Your Ideal Space – look at the options you have for office space. Find a place that is quiet, preferably with a door that you can close for private conversations. Joel has a whole bedroom in both our Caribbean & US houses. He works in the “control center” with all of the technology and peripherals (printer, scanner, router, etc.). For his work, he identified what type of space and equipment he needed. Sometimes this means visualizing your office in your company and replicating it as best you can at home.
- Create a Plan for Ease – your office should be easy. Offices tend to get messy with papers from projects, whether in your company or at home. Clutter removal is good for your effectiveness no matter where you work. Consider things you’ll need in your home office to control clutter: file system, in/out box, hanging files, shelves, pen/pencil holder, desk organizer, etc. Keep it simple — sometimes you end up with so many organizers that you don’t use them effectively. Visualize yourself in a typical workday — close your eyes if it helps. What are you doing? What would support you most effectively in your day? What would make your work and organization easy?
- Equip Your Space – consider the technology and tools you’ll need to be productive. Paper, pens & pencils on hand, stapler & staples, paper clips, tape, scanner, fax, printer (color?), etc. Have the right equipment so that you won’t be frustrated by not being able to complete a task. If you work for a company, many of them have programs where you can equip your office with technology products. Some companies even have desks, chairs and other office furniture you can use at home.
- Comfort is Key – Select office furniture that is comfortable and adjustable. Who wants to have a sore neck and shoulders or carpal tunnel from bad posture? Before selecting a desk and chair, test them out for height and comfort. Imagine yourself doing the activities you do normally in a day. Try some of them repetitively at the desk while testing it out. Joel and I had a desk chair that was uncomfortable for a couple of years. We were pretty much guaranteed to have a sore back or shoulders after sitting in it, which made work very unpleasant. When we fixed up our home office, we invested in good chairs and it made all the difference.
- Internet – Do you have high speed Internet? If you need to use the Internet for work, which most of us do, high speed Internet is critical. When we moved to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, our requirement for purchasing the home was the ability to get high speed Internet via DSL, cable or satellite. The same was true for our move to the Caribbean — we tested the DSL in multiple ways with our PCs, Skype and other Voice Over IP technologies.
- Phone & Headset– Invest in a good phone. Both a grounded phone (not cordless) and a brand new cordless phone that is minimum 2 Megahertz.Have a Mute Button — background noise is distracting in any office situation, but it can be worse when you are working at home. Dogs barking, noisy children, neighborhood noise, etc. can make you sound less professional.
- Speakerphone – I also like to have a speakerphone, which I use when I can put the phone on mute (volume controls are a must!). This way, I can type notes during a group meeting. I never use speakerphone for one-on-one conversations. I also do not use speakerphone when I’m talking to people in a meeting. Speakerphone has delays, no matter how good your phone is. It also picks up background noise like papers rattling, which is distracting. Having a “professional” phone presence means coming in loud & clear, with no distractions.
- Headsets — excellent for hands-free phone calls. They give you a more personal presence on one-on-one and group meetings, while allowing you to take notes or review paperwork pertinent to the meeting. Consider a headset that covers both ears (it takes less energy to listen from both ears vs. from just one ear) and has a noise-canceling microphone to minimize distractions. Make sure you pick a headset that is comfortable — test them out.
- Schedule Your Day – When you work at home, you save time spent on getting ready for work and commuting. You also save time in typical office chat that comes up when you work with other people. This means you tend to be more productive — but it also means that the natural rhythm of how you do work changes. Make a plan for your day and schedule in some time for your laundry, meals and relaxation. Reward yourself with a break and go outside or do something fun for a set time period. Taking a rest during the day often recharges you and you end up being more productive than if you did not take a break. Get up and stretch or exercise. Celebrate your freedom from the usual office experience! This doesn’t mean slack off — it just means that you schedule in your slacking off. That way you can get the job done well and still have delicious time for yourself.
- Be Available — Be available when people try to reach you.
- IM, Pagers, e-Mail, Voicemail — Whatever technology your company uses to find each other, watch for people trying to reach you. This doesn’t mean that you are hyper alert to people needing you — you’re working at home to concentrate on getting a job done. It means that you set times to check in to e-mail and voicemail. It means you return calls promptly — preferably the same day when you are working at home, especially until people trust that you are a solid “work at home” performer.
- Communicate Proactively — Let people know if you’ll be away from your desk. If you’re working for a company that is skeptical about a work at home situation, this will go a long way in making people feel better. If you scheduled a haircut, laundry or a meal at an odd time (e.g., not during the typical 12:00 noon – 2:00 pm time frame) or if you are working a different schedule than is typical, let people know you’ll be away from your desk. Let them know how to reach you in case of an emergency (cell phone, pager, Blackberry, etc.). This way, if an emergency does come up, people can reach you. Sometimes all it takes to blow a work at home arrangement is one time when someone can’t reach you in an emergency. In reality, you could have been at the office that day, but out getting lunch — none of this matters to a “work at home skeptic.” Once they get used to knowing you’re reliable from home, this will not be a big issue.
The thing about working at home is that no one cares what you’re doing as long as the goals get met & you are accessible. Problems can occur if people can’t get in touch with you, if your work isn’t getting done (or not getting done well) or if your technology & telecom situation is a limiting factor.
Small Space Tip
If you have a limited amount of space and need a place for the office, look around and find the space that would be most conducive for you to work. Set up an office that will work for you & the space — without impinging on your life after work. Here are examples in my own life.
Joel and I moved to a 2-bedroom apartment before we bought our log home in the US. We were only there for 3 months prior to moving into our house and with the furniture situation, there was no room for an office in the master bedroom. Joel used the second bedroom for his office and I used a space in the living room. At first, this was terrible — I worked at a table in the living room, but did not have a good office set up. I also didn’t want to clutter up the living room at the end of the day.
I ended up creating a temporary, moveable office. I had a moveable system of files, laptop, phone and office supplies (pens, pencils, paper clips, etc.) that I could pack up easily at the end of the day. Once I did this, I started to be more productive with my day. Keep in mind that your living space, if filled with clutter, will drag down your energy. No one wants to look at work-related things at the end of a workday! It’s important to have a system that is moveable, yet easy to set up and break down.
Since we downshifted to small houses with only 2 bedrooms, I ended up using the master bedroom for my office. My office furniture allows me to have a small corner desk, phone, headset and supplies. My filing and organization system is created to take up little space and eliminate clutter.
When you have a bedroom office, it’s important to separate your workspace from your sleeping space. This is a principle of Feng Shui (pronounced fung schway), which is an ancient Chinese art of placement and design, allowing for optimal flow of energy. I tried this with my bedroom office & it works! If you have trouble sleeping at night, try it out and see what you think. Separate your bedroom office from your bedroom space with a screen, bookshelves or curtain. I use a screen in NH and a curtain in the Caribbean. Our bedroom in the Caribbean is tiny, but the small laptop cart and table that I use are perfect. I have plenty of space to work and at night, I just close the curtain the work disappears until the next day.
Working at home does work — and it’s a fantastic way to save time and money spent on commuting, parking, dry cleaning, lunch, etc. You’d be surprised at how much you can save. It also saves the stress of hurrying through the morning to get to work, sitting in traffic and commuting home in rush hour. Try it for yourself — and remember to share your tips & ideas for successfully working at home!
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