The Coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed so much about our home and work lives. Because of the need for social distancing, many more people are working at home, some for the first time. While some excel in adapting to this new setting, others struggle to remain productive. My husband Eric began working remotely in 1998, well before it was so commonplace. Over twenty years of experience with remote work has given him valuable insights that can help those who are still settling into this new normal. For this article, I asked Eric some questions about how to work effectively from home.
You started working from home before it was widely utilized. How and why did your remote work begin?
While we were living in Atlanta in 1998, Seattle-based RealNetworks offered me a job, but I didn’t want to live on the West Coast because of family ties in Kingsport. After telling them I wanted to work for them but didn’t want to live any further from Kingsport, they offered to let me work remotely, and I have been working remotely ever since then. I worked for RealNetworks from 1998-2013 and have worked for Groupon since 2013.
What are your top strategies for productively working at home?
- The most important one in 22 years of remote work is to have a regular start time and end time every day.
- I’ve always insisted on a dedicated space for work. When our daughters were young, I worked in an office built into a detached garage. Being in a completely separate space was very helpful. Even now in a small loft apartment, I don’t just work from the kitchen table. I have a desk that’s specifically for work.
- I always dress for work. Working at a tech company is fairly casual, so I don’t have to dress up. But I still dress as if I were going into the office.
- I over communicate to my employer. For example, I have a worklog in a Google doc that I share with my manager. At any time, he can see what I’ve been working on every day.
How has the practice of working remotely changed over the years? How has your own practice changed over the years?
- The biggest change has been technology. I have so many more tools to stay in touch with my colleagues than when I started.
- When I first started, I decided to be very rigid with my schedule. I worked 8-5 and didn’t do anything else during those hours. Later I relaxed a little bit and would occasionally trade a few minutes of running an errand for a few minutes of extra work at the end of the day.
What are your biggest distractions?
It’s easy to start reading the news and suddenly find that an hour has gone by, so I try not to open any news while I’m working. Of course social media like Facebook and Twitter are “weapons of mass distraction”, so I almost never open those while working. But really just the normal activities around the house are the biggest distraction – packages being delivered, laundry needing to get done, contractors dropping in for home repairs, travel planning, online shopping, etc. Really, my personal to do list is my biggest distraction.
What do you see as the biggest advantages and disadvantages of working from home?
Advantages: When you work in an office setting, there’s always a social expectation that if someone drops by, you’ll stop to talk. This is built-in wasted time. You get that time back when working from home. Another advantage is that there is no wasted time commuting.
Disadvantages: It’s hard to remain socially connected to coworkers. You really have to work at it. You don’t know any of the scuttlebutt or water cooler talk around an office. That talking time isn’t all bad. Sometimes that kind of talk can lead to useful technical discussions. You have to plan those kinds of conversations when you work remotely. Another disadvantage is that work life balance is much harder. You’re tempted to work all the time.
Do you find that you are more productive or less productive when you travel to the Groupon offices as compared to working at home?
I am much more productive at home, mainly because at the office, I feel the need to have scheduled time with many different people plus some general social time.
Do you find that people are respectful of your time, or do you often have requests to do non work-related tasks during work time? How do you handle these requests?
Early on, I started applying what I called the “Eastman Rule” not only to myself but to others. When I was deciding whether or not to do a household job/task/errand in the middle of the work day, I would first ask myself: “If I was working from an office at Eastman, would I do this now?” If my answer was no, I wouldn’t do it. I applied the same rule to family and friends. When I got requests, I would say, “If I were working at Eastman right now, would you ask me to do this? If not, I’m not going to do it.
What advice would you give to people just beginning to work from home?
- Be as rigid as you possibly can with your schedule at the beginning. You can always ease up later.
- If possible, have a dedicated room for work. If that’s not possible, have a dedicated desk or space that you only use for work.
- If there are young children at home, you need clear signals for when you’re working and when you’re not, and you need to communicate clear expectations for your family and friends.