Working from home has become a popular option for many Americans. About 43% of workers regularly telework at least part of the time. An additional 25 – 30% of employees have had to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are obvious benefits to working from home. One of those is increased productivity. A recent study found that remote employees work 1.4 more days per month than their office-based peers, resulting in more than three additional work weeks annually. Telework also reduces or eliminates commuting time and associated expenses. It also can allow workers more flexibility throughout the day, possibly fewer distractions, and a healthier lifestyle. In this article, we take a closer look at how employees who are new to teleworking can adapt to this working model, as well as how managers can make sure that their employees’ work stays on track.
Some of the more obvious factors that contribute to success and productivity in a work-from-home setting include:
- identifying an appropriate space that is quiet, distraction-free, and technology-enabled (g., access to high-speed Internet connection);
- establishing a routine as one would working in an office;
- abiding by employer telework polices, including availability during set work hours;
- and communicating with customers, suppliers, co-workers, and management using agreed upon communication channels like phone, email, instant messages,
Most importantly, employees need to understand that telework is work. Expectations for productivity, project deadlines, availability for meetings (both virtual and face-to-face), and work “crises” will occur. A work-from-home arrangement should not be an enabler for things like childcare, pet-sitting, chores, and errands. Some remote positions may allow more flexibility than others, but the employee’s first responsibility is to the employer when at “virtual” work. Teleworkers need to have ground rules in place with themselves, their family, friends, and neighbors concerning what is a justifiable interruption. Other matters can wait. Some organizations have comprehensive telework policies and even telework agreements that remote employees sign. These will help set the ground rules.
The home work environment should be distraction free. There are many ways to do this. Many teleworkers find that playing music helps to increase focus. There is scientific research behind this notion, too. For example, Brain.fm is an artificial intelligence-driven music app designed to help people concentrate. When work demands intense focus, it is wise break up your work by taking breaks. To-do lists are important, too. These should include not only work-related matters, but personal matters too. To-do lists work best when “calendarized” on paper or electronically. Calendaring helps teleworkers to think about, plan, and organize activities efficiently and meet obligations and deadlines. While many people use calendars at work, teleworkers should think about including personal matters in their calendars, too.
Another suggestion is to establish a routine as if you were going to an office or worksite. Get out of bed. Get dressed. Establish work hours and designate time for lunch. If possible, get out of the house. A short walk over lunch can help you refocus. If you can, designate a home office space with a door to keep external distractions at bay. Consider posting work hours on the door and using the home office only when you are working. Stay out of that space when you are not. Furnish your home office with the same equipment as you would have in your company office space to deepen your sense of work time. Other suggestions include task batching where you handle one task completely (e.g., returning all phone calls or responding to all emails) and turning off your personal cell phone to avoid being distracted by social media and non-work calls.
Of course, the responsibility for successful telework is a shared one. Managers have a role, too. They need to communicate expectations, set up processes, provide tools for documenting and sharing information, and ensure that no remote or internal worker feels isolated. Technology can enable work communication in several ways. One of the most important is through document sharing so that team members can view, retrieve, and comment on projects and assignments. Managers should let staff know when they can be reached, and they should be in contact with employees regularly by phone. Phone conversations can be more effective and efficient in communicating project details than written instructions because employees can get answers to questions faster, and because phone calls help to build personal rapport. However, managers should not call so often that the employee feels micromanaged or wrongly senses that the manager doesn’t trust his workers.
Humans are pack creatures, clearly social, and dependent upon cooperation and solidarity in modern society. Relationships are a “biological need” and vital to human well-being and survival. “Face time” is valuable especially for team members who rarely see each other in person or do not typically collaborate on projects. In person meetings give employees a sense of each other’s tone and communication styles and sense of humor. If it isn’t possible to meet face-to-face, video conferencing is a good alternative. Regular meetings of the whole team can build comradery and morale. Teleworkers need recognition of their work, too. A meeting may be an appropriate time for that. Finally, managers must respect work-life balance. Telework is a great “perk,” but it could lead top performers and creative workers to become workaholics. To the extent possible, managers and line staff should set start and stop times, refrain from contacting each other outside working hours, and not expect a response when the other is offline.
Ultimately, successful telework is all about establishing expectations and maintaining “connectivity.” Most experts agree that the future of work will include more distributed teams and contract workers, so a successful framework for working and managing remotely is essential.