For the past several years, remote work seemed to be the holy grail of the 21st-century workforce. The opportunity to work from anywhere in the world provides employees with increased work-life flexibility and broadens the talent pool from which employers can draw. Yet, it seems there’s a backlash brewing.
IBM announced in September that it was calling 5,000 remote workers back into the office because, at least for some jobs, co-location led to better productivity. Other big names such as Bank of America, Best Buy, and Reddit are also in favor of calling teams back to the office. If that trend catches on, employees could find themselves with fewer remote work options in the near future.
However, many people still crave the autonomy and flexibility that come with remote work arrangements. FlexJobs surveyed 5,500 professionals who either work remotely now or would like a remote setup in the future, and 72 percent cited work-life balance as a key factor in their career decisions. At least in theory, many people — including remote employees, freelancers, and entrepreneurs — see flexible work arrangements as the best of both worlds. It allows them to excel at their jobs without sacrificing important personal milestones like reading their kids bedtime stories.
But working from home requires more than a good coffee mug.
Navigating the challenges of working from home
Unless you’re exceptionally good at setting boundaries, remote work can disrupt your work-life balance and productivity. It can be difficult to draw clear lines between “work” and “life” when they happen in the same place. You might technically be off the clock, but you’ll often be tempted to check just one more email or finish just one more assignment before you turn off to be with your family. Or you might allow yourself more time on social media during the workday than you would at the office, justifying your endless scrolling by thinking, “My co-workers are on here, and I need to know what they’re up to.”
When working from home works well, it’s a win-win for everyone. When it doesn’t, it can lead to decreased productivity, lost profits, and even employer-employee disputes. Fortunately, young professionals hoping to maximize both their freedom and their jobs can use these three strategies to combat common pitfalls and make the most of the work-at-home lifestyle:
1. Create office hours, and stick to them
When you work from home, the allure of distractions is strong. Hit a mental block while writing a business plan? Taking out the trash never sounded so exciting. Drafting marketing materials for your new freelance business? Suddenly that pile of laundry that’s been accumulating for two weeks can’t wait another day. There are a million ways to avoid doing work by immersing yourself in chores and other distractions.
The only way working from home works is to set office hours. Decide when you’re going to work, and don’t do any other tasks during that time. But take advantage of your work-from-home flexibility when setting these hours. If you need to get the kids to school at 8, don’t start your workday until 8:30 or 9. Or if you need to reach co-workers throughout the day, make sure you’re working when they’re in the office. Apps like Asana and Google Now will help you get a sense of what your prime working hours should be so that you’re not constantly compensating by using your downtime to finish projects.
2. Set boundaries
Ideally, you want some physical separation between your work and living environments, so look for ways to distinguish these two areas. Get dressed in the morning like you’re going to work, or keep a button-down shirt near you to slip over your pajamas if you have an unexpected video call. If possible, create a designated office space or use separate computers for work and personal correspondence. When you do need to use the same laptop, establish hard limits for how often you can be on Facebook, Twitter, and other non-work sites. Self-imposed deadlines are also useful for forcing yourself to focus, and timing tools like Toggl are great ways to tangibly monitor how much time you actually spend working.
Also, let family and friends know when you’re in work mode. Explain that you work between certain hours, so even if you’re sitting at the kitchen table, you’re not necessarily free to talk. But make yourself available to them when you say you will be. Consistency makes it easier for them and for you to distinguish between work and downtime.
3. Switch up your environment
No matter how optimal your work-at-home situation, everyone goes stir crazy from time to time. Instead of doing a massive, procrastination-fueled decluttering to keep from freaking out, grab your laptop and head to a coffee shop or co-working space. Finding a cafe that doubles as an office — with plenty of seating, speedy Wi-Fi, and potable coffee — can be made simpler by checking the iOS app Work Hard Anywhere or consulting the Yelp-for-remote-work option Workfrom.co.
A simple change of scenery can spur creativity and make you feel more productive. And chance encounters with other people can help, too. Co-working spaces are often filled with other entrepreneurs and remote workers, and talking shop with them might spark a great new idea or insight you wouldn’t have come to on your own.
Know when to call it
Although working from home sounds like a dream come true, it’s not for everyone. Whether you’re an independent consultant, you own your own business, you’re a remote employee, or you recently scored the privilege to work from home, employers that are happy to accommodate demands for flexibility do so only if those demands benefit the company. If you’ve tried setting boundaries and working to deadlines but your productivity is still crashing, then maybe you work better in office environments.
But if you’re committed to the work-at-home lifestyle, take it seriously. Create the environment you need in order to thrive both in business and in your personal life.
Ari Rabban is the CEO of Phone.com and a veteran of the IP communications industry. Phone.com’s virtual phone service builds on the digital VoIP industry experience of its founders to deliver a complete suite of enterprise-grade unified communication services at an SMB price. Ari was named among the Top 20 Most Influential People in VoIP 2012 and currently serves on several boards, including the New Jersey Tech Council. You can follow him on Twitter @arabban.