REMOTE WORKING is one of the most popular employee perks. Employers should be fans of it, too, since it does wonders for performance. One study (Pitt-Catsouphes, Marchetta) found that productivity increased 10% to 30% for those working from home offices.
That’s a big payoff and a compelling reason to do more of it. More companies are doing just that. Some 37% of Americans (Gallup) are now working at least some of the workweek at home. Contrary to the image, though, of teleworkers slacking around the house, they actually work more than their colleagues at the corporate office. It’s adding up to a growing downside for virtual workers, whose work-life balance dreams are not always paying off the way they thought.
Remote staff have been shown to work 50-75 hours per week (Doherty et al, Pratt), averaging consistently longer days than their coworkers at headquarters.
THE PROXIMITY FACTOR
And therein lies the irony of telecommuting. As much as remote workers like the increased freedom, lack of commute, and fewer interruptions, a practice chosen for better work-life balance can make it worse. A Center for Work and Family study found that only 24% of telecommuters rated their work-life balance as very good, compared to 38% of those who worked at the office but used daily flex time.
It’s not the remote option itself that’s driving long hours and a trip down the burnout track. The culprits are the lack of boundaries and self-management skills and the proximity factor. You can’t drive away from the office at the end of the day when it’s in your house. The three priorities you didn’t get to today are feet away from handling. Why not go back to the desk and polish off one more task?
Remote workers have a problem knowing when to say when in an unstructured environment in which there is added pressure to make it known you are getting the job done even though no one can physically see you. An affliction known as guilt enters into the equation, a need to prove worth from afar by going the next several miles beyond to compensate for the lack of face time.
I recently led a work-life balance training for a remote team at a medical laboratory firm. The company was happy to retain top talent by giving them the option to work from their homes across the U. S. As much as they liked the autonomy that virtual work provided, the group was finding it difficult to shut off the workday, get the mental detachment necessary at the end of office hours, and were too accessible to technology that followed some of them straight into bed at night.
VOTE OF CONFIDENCE
We zeroed in on the importance of time management, boundaries, and setting the terms of engagement with technology. Companies that allow employees to work remotely are providing a vote of confidence in the ability of their virtual staff to self-manage their day. The responsibility is on the individual to structure the day in an effective way and utilize technology so that it supports, not overwhelms, the chief productivity tool—attention.
Let’s take a look at nine habits that can turn remote work into what it was designed for, a flexible route to a better work-life fit:
1. Keep office hours.
It's the same work, just in a different space. Turn your unstructured home office into a structured schedule for yourself and family members to respect. Working at home gives you the ability to go off schedule to take care of personal or family issues. Just make sure you don’t get sidetracked for too long and that you come back to where you left off. Leave at the same time of day you would at the office, even if leaving means you wander a couple of feet to your living room.
2. Make your workspace all work.
It’s easier to separate work and home if all the working emanates from one dedicated space. Set up a desk in a space removed from the eating and entertaining areas and potential distractions. Don’t do anything else there but work. This area tells you when you are at work and when you aren’t. That goes for work thoughts as well. They end when you get up from the desk after the day’s work.
3. Plan and prioritize.
Avoid falling into a pattern of random reaction, just responding to things coming your way all day. Be proactive with planning and prioritizing. Take 10 minutes at the start of the day to identify your main to-do’s for the day. Qualify tasks by their urgency. Does it have to be done today? If so, do it. If it can wait, identify a time when you will get to it. Create a next physical action for items on the to-do list.
4. Cut distractions.
Clutter, intrusions and procrastination pile up at home. We normally don’t have the discipline that we have at the office, and we let stuff go. You can’t when you are working remotely. You are the boss of your virtual domain, and only you can create the conditions that promote attention and focus. Clean up your desk and workspace and remove all distractions from view. Turn off browsers and social media, close curtains, or put on headphones to screen out background noise.
5. Create your own water cooler.
Working by yourself can get lonely and disconnected from the team. Make a habit of having regular chats with your teammates through a virtual water cooler. Reach out to them on virtual breaks during the week in which you can share work and life issues.
6. Set boundaries on technology.
You have to resist the temptation of being plugged in to the outside world at all hours. That means having a strategy to deal with unbounded technology is essential. Check devices manually at set times. Try hourly checks and wean down from there. Turn off visual notifications on your screens. Do not take your phone to bed. The light from the screen keeps you up longer.
7. Take breaks and get exercise.
This is an area that is tailor-made for remote work, so it's important to utilize it. You have been left to make your own schedule. That means you can create one that allows your brain and body to get the daily recharging they need. It's easy to put the head down and barrel ahead for 10 straight hours, but the work and your health will suffer as a result.
Researchers say we need to give the brain a break every 90 minutes to two hours. Set times you can step back for a 10- or 15-minute reboot. Use your breaks to build in exercise, take a walk, do some stretching, or make your lunch break an exercise break. Studies show that 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at lunch increases productivity.
8. Start a hobby.
When we don’t have an identity outside work, we default to what we know. It’s important to find an interest or affinity that can help you develop another side of your identity, one that play scholars call the central life interest or true self. What have you always wanted to learn? Pick a hobby that will help you learn a skill. Or sharpen one. This pays off your mastery need, which is one of the most effective ways to reduce stress and build esteem. If you need ideas, I wrote a whole book on this topic, Don’t Miss Your Life. The times of your life await.
9. Set stop times.
The work is not all going to get done by the end of the day, but you can finish yourself off by chronically going on too long. Long hours have been shown to dramatically increase strain and the stress that results from it. What is a reasonable stop time for you? You are not always going to be able to stop on a dime, but aim for consistent, regular closing hours. Set an alarm as a reminder. You're going home now. Wait a second, you're already there.
Going from the corporate office to the home office can be a tough adjustment, one that we aren’t really prepared for. Yet the autonomy can pay powerful dividends for those who get organized and prioritized—more opportunity to take care of personal and family issues, easier access to refueling breaks, more concentration, and best of all, gratification of one of our core psychological needs. We all have a need to feel autonomous and to chart our course.
Remote working offers a choice to take on more responsibility, and when we do, our brain neurons like it, and pay it off in the form of job and life satisfaction. As long as we can resist the digital, self-interruptive, and caloric temptations.
If you would like to learn more strategies for your team to work smarter, improve time management, cut stress and burnout, and increase job and life satisfaction, click below for details on our work-life balance employee training program, Work Smarter, Live Better.