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How to stay productive when you work remotely (and you don’t really want to)

Sometimes, circumstances dictate you that you work remotely even when you don’t want to. Here’s how to stay sane and productive.

How to stay productive when you work remotely (and you don’t really want to)
[Photo: Austin Distel/Unsplash]

Remote work may seem like a panacea and a dream arrangement, but it comes with many pitfalls. It’s challenging to establish boundaries when your home and your workspace is the same. You’re more likely to feel lonely and isolated, and it can be difficult to stay productive.

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The thing is, humans are social beings. Even the most introverted among us need human connections. Being in the office can help you access the best technology and be more effective with coworkers. When you can jump up to the whiteboard together and sketch your idea, you get so much more out of it than doing so over the phone or teleconference. Being in the office also allows you to get work done in a more natural way. Rather than having to schedule every interaction, you can run into a colleague in your work café and address a challenge you’re facing.

But sometimes, circumstances dictate you to work remotely. Don’t worry, productivity isn’t out of reach. Here are some ways to make remote working work best.

1. Ensure that you’re still connected

Avoid relying only on your formal meetings or scheduled conference calls to communicate with colleagues. Often, the most important conversations are in the hallways before the meeting or the break area when you’re grabbing a coffee. When you work remotely, you might have to be creative with how you have these conversations. So reach out and make these connections with spontaneous phone calls or IMs to maintain your relationships and your network.

2. Stay on the radar screen

While you don’t want to blast people with too many emails too often, when you’re working remote, you face the danger of being out of sight and out of mind. Stay relevant by getting involved in plenty of collaborative tasks, and raise your hand for new projects that emerge. It’s essential to work on efforts that keep you reliant on multiple people—and them reliant on you—to stay on the radar screen.

3. Perform brilliantly

Sometimes, coworkers can be jealous of those who work remotely, and they may assume the worst in terms of how you spend your time. So ensure that your work is beyond reproach to foster trust that you’re working, not golfing or binging your favorite shows. It’s also important to be responsive. If you take too much time to get back to an email or fail to respond to an IM, people may wonder about your whereabouts. Responsiveness reinforces the belief that you’re actively focusing on your work.

4. Be transparent

Of course, one of the benefits of remote work is that it can be easier to fit in an early morning workout or that lunchtime doctor appointment. But your colleagues are more likely to trust (and accept) you if you maintain plenty of transparency. If you’re not available, say why as much as you feel comfortable, and make your calendar viewable to close teammates. Also, be open about the projects you’re doing and the progress you’re making. Transparency is always helpful in building trust across groups but especially for team members who work remotely.

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5. Employ the Goldilocks rule

Some remote work can be a beautiful thing. Being able to work in sweatpants and avoid a commute one day a week can do wonders for your sanity. But be sure to keep remote work in proportion, and work away from the office “just enough” (that’s the Goldilocks rule). Too much of a good thing can put you at risk of losing your connections, as well as your effectiveness as an employee.

6. Establish (and stick to) boundaries

Sometimes, remote work means you’re always working—in a way that becomes too much. If you work from home, it’s tempting to be on constantly. But you’ll be more effective if you can set (and stick to) boundaries. “Go to work” every morning in your home office, and take scheduled breaks to grab another cup of tea or lunch. I have a friend who leaves her home office at the end of her day and announces to her family, “Hello, I’m home from work.” This way, she leaves her work behind and can focus on her evening activities.

There are upsides to remote work, like flexibility and being able to opt out of the morning commute that Americans hate so much. But it’s vital to manage it in a way that works best for you and your employer. So stay connected and visible, and strive to be high-performing and transparent. But don’t forget to keep a solid boundary between work and the rest of your life. These approaches will help you be successful, productive, and accomplish as much as possible, no matter where you’re working.


Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations.

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