I have been a remote working, virtual worker, and sometimes digital nomad, for more than two decades. While I have had periodic stints “in the office”, I find I am more productive in a quiet, solitary space away from the cube-farm of Big Office. To maintain productivity, however, requires discipline and communication.
To be doing this for as long as I have has taken practice. Luckily, I had a good example in my step-father, who himself started telecommuting sometime back in the mid-1980s, and continued even into his retirement a few years ago. Yes, he was a remote worker when screechy slow modems had a dedicated telephone line in the house. DOS, Windows 3.0, O/S 2 Warp and all that.
Primarily what I adopted was that while working to maintain a space I could block interruptions. Specifically, in effect my family understood that while working I was “not at home”. Of course, there are interruptions. Just like in Big Office, there is water-cooler talk and walk-by greetings. The important part is my family understands I can, will, and do shoo them away way, and it is okay. Send me a text or email, I will get back to you later, unless it is urgent. Nevertheless, I always try to be responsive and acknowledging. I will catch up on small talk when I take a break.
One habit I have cultivated over the years is to be politely responsive. Instant messaging is a great feature for this. Unless I miss the alert, I try to reply quickly. With very rare exceptions am I so busy I lack the time or mental ability to switch trains of thought to acknowledge an ask. I may say I will get back to you later, but I try to not leave people hanging.
Why? My reasoning is in two parts.
First, I think about why I reach out to someone. I poke at someone when I am looking for information to get a job done. Without it, my job takes longer. Therefore, if I am responsive with asked-for information, my coworkers can proceed quickly and tasks move along rapidly for everyone.
Secondly is perception. As a remote worker availability during working hours is vital. My team and associates need to know I am there, reliable, and attentive. Don’t be out mowing the lawn, taking three-hour lunch breaks, or running a side-gig on company time and dime.
As advice, I can summarize this as:
- Make work-space sacred
- Be responsive
- Be dependable
What prompts me to write this? Lack of responsiveness. Recently, as I reach out to people on projects about issues causing road-blocks, “Crickets.” As one friend would say. No answer, no acknowledgement. I have submitted tickets, sent emails, and directed instant messages. I am researching a possible gap in data between multiple systems with multiple owners across multiple businesses. There is no simple ticket or one point of contact. When you don’t know what you don’t know, but you do know tugging the shirtsleeves of the three people who might know…. Assuming you get an answer.
I usually have two or three items in the queue so a delayed reply is not the end of the world. However, when I have multiple issues where people lollygag a reply to direct questions, then work grinds to a crawl.
When this happens, I draw from the FBI network; Friends, Brothers, and In-laws. Or, work acquaintances I have connected with since the previous century, most I have never met in person. Being polite and helpful (see the advice above) has long-term payoffs.
A little hauling on the chain of contacts, bordering on six degrees of separation, I got my needed information and work progresses. Tomorrow. Because the next steps require more information from people who have already gone home for the day.
As I finish work for the day and return to my family, I step out of my office and often take a moment to reframe my thoughts from work to home. The last part of the learned “telecommuter discipline” is similar to my work-from-home advice. Make home sacred, be responsive and dependable. Separation is important because my work-space is at the end of the hall. Once I leave work, I treat it mentally like a long commute, I don’t want to drive back to the office at the end of the day.