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The comprehensive guide to working remotely and not feeling miserable about it (Part 3)

This is part 3 of the working remotely guide (and how not to feel miserable about it). If you missed the previous parts, see part 1, and part 2.

Table of Contents

The small things matter: tune out the world and set your course

Now that we’ve covered what remote work and Working from Home are, defined proper equipment, accessories, and had a look at productivity and ergonomics it’s time to focus on the small things. They matter, too.

Let’s start by tuning out the world. It’s crucial for your productivity and wellbeing to be able to focus. A key insight here is that you must not be pulled into a world of endless meetings and email or chat threads, that seem to take you nowhere closer to the goals you’ve set. It’s then all too easy to blame that remote work doesn’t work when you get very little done.

I once delivered a one-day training for a global Fortune 500 company. The purpose was for me to train a few hundred employees on some new productivity tools they’d just started using. I arrived on the scene, and was given a corporate laptop – a type of laptop you might refer to as “robust and has seen some tough love.” I logged in and opened the webinar tool that was used to broadcast the content. My session was just 3 hours, so I delivered that twice during the day. While I was taking my lunch break in-between, someone tapped me on the shoulder and told me to check my emails. Corporate IT, that sourced the laptop for me, also provisioned a corporate email account, so even if a bit perplexed, I fired up Outlook.

I had 27 unread emails. About 10 of those were welcome and introductory emails, congratulating me on joining the company. The rest, about 15, were emails from the attendees to my 3-hour webinar. There were questions, long email threads of previous issues that I was pulled in to troubleshoot, and meeting invitations for different workgroups and team meetings where I could be useful.

Hold on, let’s park here for a moment. I had a new corporate email account? This was some time ago, and perhaps it was more customary to embrace a strategic client’s email and IT policies, but today – I would find this cumbersome, as your email is often your true identity for authenticating and accessing a plethora of services. The fewer auxiliary emails you have, the better.

This was a good reminder that I’ve reflected later on. It’s important to set your course and focus on your mission. That might not be one that gets you pulled into endless meetings in windowless offices or neverending email threads about an issue that you have little – if any – to do. I’m usually very frank about this, but more often than not, nothing that resembles productivity happens in those weekly meetings that do not have an agenda, minutes, action points, roles, responsibilities, or goals defined. They are an easy and convenient way to fill up one’s calendar, as a way of distracting you from doing what is actually needed to be done. Define your focal goals.

By tuning out the world – and I don’t mean literally 100% of the time – you gain clarity to focus on the things that matter. If you have a project, and it’s a priority, focus on that for longer periods of time. Pushing ten things forward one inch at a time is just busywork. Focusing on that one big task for three hours brings tangible results, and guarantees that you accomplish things while working remotely. And let’s be honest here – you can really only have one priority at a time. If you have five, none of them are priorities – they are demoted to just tasks of equal importance.

Carve out time each week, where you can ensure that real work gets done. For some, this means a specific day, for others, it might mean several days – or multiple afternoons each week. The challenge here stems from having open calendars, and while I approve a lot that I can peek at my colleague’s calendar, I also feel that it’s too easy to ‘steal’ time from other people by setting up a meeting.

And those emails at that one corporate customers? I politely declined for all the meeting requests, and opened up a separate discussion with my contact to expand our agreement from online trainings to consulting and support.

Measure output, not input

I’ve struggled with this – as an employee, employer, and consultant. To put this succinctly, you should probably work the time you get paid to work. But measure what the output of your work is, rather than the input. Too often you can burn several hours on something that should take you 15-minutes. Ask for help, and be vocal about what you need to get your goals accomplished.

Having worked in consulting, where you usually bill by the hour, the thought sometimes occurs that the slower you work, the more you can bill. Let’s not delve too deep into this controversial thought, but I wanted to highlight the fact that you should consistently provide quality results (output), with proper input. This is what I often find people meaning when they mention they’ve been productive.

Sometimes I set aside a day to work on a given task. I might finalize that in less time, perhaps in three hours. I then have lunch and figure out what to spend the rest of the day. It could be managerial tasks (email, chats, random meetings), or starting to tackle the next big thing. I often opt for the latter, assuming I have enough cognitive willpower left for the day. If I don’t, I might take a walk outside to regain some of my focus and energy – and then choose again what I should work on for the rest of the day.

Aim to set goals for the day, and for the week. Managing your time, calendar, commitments and ad-hoc elements of the week are crucial – and it’s fine to say “Sorry, my day is full, can we book 15 minutes for this tomorrow at 10 am? I would have time and capacity then” for that random meeting invitation that lands at 2 pm for a meeting that takes place at 5 pm that same day.

What about <insert-thing-here>?

The following is a list of questions and ideas that didn’t really fit anywhere else in this guide.

Q: I have a webcam on my laptop and it should be enough. I don’t want to pay extra for an external webcam. Why should I?

I understand this well. For quite some time I worked with just my laptop’s webcam. When I now join a meeting and I see someone is sitting in a dimly-lit room in front of a window, and the webcam is poor at best, it just makes your appearance less inviting. Why not spend a bit of effort on this, and make your online persona seem more approachable, warm and friendly?

Q: It’s easy for you to say to just decline ‘useless’ meetings! I cannot, I’m expected to be there.

You can, and should still advocate for better meetings. I often decline a meeting politely just for the fact that it lacks an agenda and any desirable outcomes that we are supposed to drive. If I’m in a meeting, and it seems to be going nowhere – or someone hijacks the airspace of the meeting for their personal tasks – I might politely ask if I’m still needed in the meeting. If you’re not managing your own time, focus, results, and energy, who is? And to be brutally honest again – often people don’t even realize you’re not there – we’re all too preoccupied with our own universes ;-).

Q: I work 8 hours, and at the end of the day I feel I still haven’t accomplished much – so I continue working until late in the evening.

No, stop doing that! While you should measure your output, it’s also important to maintain a healthy balance with work and life. There are probably dozens of tools to aid you in this, but as is often the case a simple approach works just great: list down the 3-5 goals you need to achieve for the day. Cross them over once completed. When you’re supposed to stop working (dinner time with the family, taking kids to soccer practice, etc.) check the list. It’s a great reminder that you did get stuff done, and can put the laptop away and focus on other things.

Q: I frequently work with people in multiple time zones, and I cannot avoid meetings early in the morning, late in the evening and in-between.

This is tricky but still solvable. I sometimes get meeting requests for 10 pm Friday from someone in a time zone where that time would make more sense. I politely decline and write that I’m off from work by then. I might propose a better time for me (which by contract is possibly a horrible time for the other participant), but this gentle approach also often reminds the other people that we do not all work in a single time zone. If the meeting is important – perhaps a planning meeting for an upcoming product launch or similar – I will go out of my way to be available. But I then consciously take that effort back the next day, or during that day by taking it easy on some other tasks.

Sometimes it also makes sense to suggest that perhaps an asynchronous email thread works better. Few of us are highly productive at 10 pm, having worked for 8 hours already by then.

A useful calendar trick that I employ is to block time between 5 pm to 8 am for each week day. This way when people are booking a meeting and including you, they immediately see that you are not available at 10 pm, for example.

In closing

Writing this guide has been a cathartic experience, as much of the content outlined in these posts has been lingering in my mind for several years. I’ll aim to update relevant bits and pieces in the coming months, and if you have anything you would add or change, don’t hesitate to contact me!