The first time I worked remotely was back in 1994 during the original advent of email communications and the Internet. I’d started a small company called Environs whose clients included a fitness company, a real estate management company, a pair of newspaper companies, and a few other clients.
Communicating via the web was not too slick back then. My nifty new Powerbook 540c laptop had dialup capabilities, but the connection process as you might recall was slow, noisy (that dialup tone was classic) and bandwidth was limited.
But to me, it all still felt like magic. I could communicate with clients far away, send and receive proofs of creative work and writing, and seldom feel alone.
Because while I’ve never been a tech device geek or software coder, I’ve always loved what new technology can do. Clearly, I was not alone in that realm, as Apple products appealed to people like me who found the IBM/Microsoft world offensive in its lack of intuitive traits and its often cloying yet clunky interface. If I could have obliterated that paper clip character when using Word on client computers, I surely would have.
The arc from the early days of Apple through the Macintosh years to the melding of compatible software with Microsoft pushed the world toward increased efficiency, and it has all been remarkable. Now many of us are working from home thanks to the enhanced speed of computer performance and Internet accessibility.
While I’ve worked as a full-time employee in marketing, communications, and public relations for thirty years, I’ve also always worked from home in some capacity. So the Coronavirus demand for social distancing and WFH mandates is nothing new. It’s just a matter of plugging into another new reality. Some people find it easy while others struggle with a sense of isolation.
The multi-tasking debate
The first question everyone has to ask themselves when working from home is how much multi-tasking they can or should try to handle. Some efficiency experts insist that multi-tasking is the absolute bane of productivity. “Don’t do it!” they’ll insist. “You can only do one thing well at a time.”
Well, the parents of children working from home can’t afford that luxury. So people adapt to circumstance as need be. As a person that was once a caregiver to three people simultaneously while holding down a full-time job, I learned how important it is to build a solid foundation of self-affirmations.
I was looking after a mother with cancer, a father with a stroke, and a wife with cancer, so I learned quickly to give myself credit for things accomplished. I also learned that multitasking isn’t a luxury at all. It is oftentimes a necessity. People working from home have to juggle multiple worlds. That means learning how to compartmentalize the daily task list, putting things into groups, and doing things in segments. It can be a great feeling to see a chunk of work through.
There is no real reason you can’t shift gears, do some other things in groups and segments, all while keeping a line open for unexpected calls and unanticipated emergencies. It might seem more stressful than working in a contained office space, but learning how to cope in different environments is, over the long term, a quite valuable skill.
The drama in your head
Here’s a ‘dirty’ little secret about working from home. The world outside often can really wait. It’s the drama in your head that is the real traumatizer when you’re working from home. Granted, some companies are measuring every moment spent and every keystroke logged. So let’s not be naive. If that’s their measure of true productivity, it may well be the case that any day-to-day functions need to rest outside working hours.
But for many of us, it’s a question of how well we get the job done, not how many keystrokes we’re plinking away during the day. If the kids need attention or the dogs need a walk, go do it. You may well solve a problem in your head during those activities. Almost all the solutions to problems that I conceive are the result of going out for a run or a walk. It works miracles.
Through success and failure while working remotely, learn to take a breather and step away if you need to. Working out at noon can be a great way to break up a day. Sitting at the same desk in the same office you’re occupying 8-to-5 or longer can be physically and mentally exhausting. Go outside and walk around for even five minutes if the pressure builds up or you grow frustrated. It’s a great way to find perspective.
There are some practical measures you can take to quell any productivity drama that builds up in your head. Take a moment to document what you’re doing and develop the instinct to be tactically sparse and ‘remotely confident’ when communicating your progress. If something isn’t getting done, or you need answers and can’t make progress until you get them, be honest and even-keeled about it. Many times the people with whom you are communicating are also juggling tasks and just want to know when to pick up the next task. Amusing fact: they may even be relieved that you’re not outworking them. But where there are genuine deadlines to be met, don’t hedge bets. Prioritize those first and don’t let distractions get in the way.
Doing things right
At one of the agencies where I worked as a creative director, our graphics department had a saying that went like this: “We always have time to get things done in a hurry, but never time to do them right the first time.”
That’s a hard thing to remember when communicating remotely. We all make mistakes of passing things along just to get them out of our inbox and “done.” So remote work requires us to take one extra look at the things that we and our associates do. It never hurts to enlist a partner in that process. Having a champion alongside you in project management helps to confirm the importance of what you’re doing and can provide important reminders of when things need to be done. And how to do them right.
Look for consensus
Working remotely is increasingly reliant on group conferencing calls through Zoom, Teamworks, Google Meetups, and the like. All these apps are scrambling now to improve their capabilities and win the market for remote conferencing. Yet it all comes down to one thing: providing a platform where people can build consensus around ideas, projects, and plans.
To be a successful conferencing user, look for opportunities to be a leader in building consensus. We don’t know how long this WFH world may last, so you’re a valuable team member if you help people come to an agreement and even inspire and motivate others. It’s entirely possible for you to be that person.
Want to know the easiest way to lead in this world? Be prepared to ask questions. Make up a list of smart and necessary questions before any conferencing call, or issue one good question per session to contribute in the best way you can.
And when communicating via email, chat or any other channel, ask questions quickly if you’re going to ask them at all. We can all make the mistake of waiting too long to get clarity. That leaves the impression that 1) you’re not on the ball 2) don’t care 3) don’t understand the project as a whole 4) are unsure of yourself.
Being quick or attentive to potential problems may be the most important “rule” of all, but it’s not always easy to do when working remotely. Just like the “real” office, people aren’t always available.
In that case, make a point of considering genuine solutions. That value is even greater when you’re directing projects for multiple clients, as freelancers often do.
At all points, people need to learn to prioritize, and we all know pleasing everyone can be tough. No client or partner likes to think they’re playing second fiddle to what you’re doing while working remotely.
Surely that holds true in working for bosses and collaborating with teams or other partners. It all comes down to focusing attention where it is needed most. That’s the base principle behind all successful remote workers. Give full attention to whatever is in front of you, ask questions early and to fully understand the goal, and multi-task by prioritizing at all times.
Most of all, take pride in your work no matter where you’re doing it. That’s the right kind of pride.
Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride: Character, Caregving, and Community. Available on Amazon.com.