I recently had major ankle surgery. This meant that I was going to have to spend a significant amount of time working from home. The situation spurred lively debate among my friends as to the nature of telecommuting, spanning a range of vehement opinions: from “You’ll get so much done without people lurking around your desk,” to “I don’t know how you would do that and not watch Game of Thrones all day.”
I personally hadn’t ever spent an extended period of time working from home–and on top of that, I was a relatively new hire–so I was slightly worried about setting up new workflows and processes that would maintain momentum across my various projects.
All the same, the ankle business was moving forward, and I had to figure it out. Post-surgery I set up my ice machine, laptop, external monitor, and wireless mouse, and I got to work from home.
Upon further investigation, I found that I was not alone in my solitude. A Census Bureau report released last year found that some 13.4 million people (that’s 9.4% of U.S. employees) worked from home at least one day per week in 2010. The number of people working from home multiple days per week grew nearly 80% between 2005 and 2012.
The oft-cited work-from-home apocalypse that transpired at Yahoo last year highlights the crux of the telecommuting debate: Is productivity amplified or diminished when folks are working remotely in pajamas? Are they missing out on some secret creativity sauce singularly sparked by in-person interaction? Can a distributed team collaborate and communicate as effectively as one that regularly works from the same place?
Now that I’m back in action and bonking doors out of my way with my crutches, I realize that I accomplished more during my work-from-home days than I normally did at the office.
I attribute a good portion of this productivity bump to the fact that I’m a bit of an introvert. My home office was naturally introvert-friendly, devoid of various people milling about and spontaneous conversations. The home office is one extreme on the open-plan office vs. private workspace scale; physical barriers and a sense of psychological privacy are closely linked with better job performance.
At home, it was easier to design my own schedule. I was able to adhere to many trendy tenets of productivity: tackle the tough stuff first, stick to single-tasking, use the two-minute rule, and not, under any circumstances, start my day by checking email. I was knocking out assignments with unprecedented speed. I felt more energized throughout the day, even during the customary mid-afternoon zombie period.
These results are actually typical of my telecommuting compatriots’ experiences. In fact, working from home is correlated with significant performance increases and improved work satisfaction, as well as improvements in overall quality of life. The option to telecommute at least some of the time begets employees who are both happier and more productive.
The journey to becoming a member of this happy, productive, pajama-sporting group, however, is wrought with pitfalls. Here are a few strategies from a newly minted virtual worker that will help you avoid the telecommuting traps and make the most out of your situation:
I’m a big believer in setting up different contexts for different activities. Don’t wake up and start working from your bed. Go over to your desk (or your dining room table, or whatever surface you’re working with) and declare it your workspace. Then work there.
Are there certain books or quotes that spark your creative thinking? Surround your workspace with those positive triggers to generate more creative ideas.
The lack of a defined schedule at home can often be a slippery slope, and it’s wise to set specific start and end times for your workday.
That being said, use your flexible schedule to your advantage. Design a daily routine that truly enhances your productivity. Circadian rhythms are often the culprit of the dreaded mid-afternoon slump; perhaps you can designate a short break around 3 p.m. for exercise, meditation, or a nap to feel more energized.
I like to further break up my schedule to manage my mental energy, remaining cognizant of the fact that every hour of the day is not created equally.
For instance, I set aside time every morning to work on anything that requires extensive writing or creativity, and I save the more automatic tasks for after lunch. Furthermore, I’m often working with a number of different companies at once, so having a set schedule allows me to focus on one set of related tasks at a time, rather than experience the productivity-killing effects of constantly switching between projects and contexts.
Design your home workday to suit the types of tasks you’re usually working on, and stick to it! At the end of your workday, don’t forget to leave your workspace at the same time you would leave your office.
The theory behind the prototypical modern workplaces, in which desks are spread across open floors or arranged in pods, is that frequent informal interaction between colleagues results in increased creativity and subsequent breakthrough ideas. It follows that the major concern with remote workers is that ideas won’t be able to percolate effectively across a distributed team; companies often fear a loss of creativity and innovation fueled by in-person interaction.
It’s important to actively stay in the loop with your colleagues, and balance increased productivity at home with making time for in-person interaction. Can you work from the office one day a week, or even just schedule a weekly face-to-face meeting with colleagues (and follow it up with an informal lunch)?
Balancing the productivity factor, accomplishing more at home–with the creativity factor and interacting informally with colleagues every so often–is critical to optimal job performance.
I never would have considered the option to work remotely if it hadn’t been thrust upon me by a particularly persistent injury. If you do have the option to work from home consider testing the waters–you might find it to be a productive change of scene.
Enjoy the insta-commute!
—Kate Finley in growth marketing for McGoodwin James & Co., a private equity investor based in San Diego.