I never thought that I was the type of person who could work from home. While my job had its ups and downs, I actually enjoyed getting up every morning and going to an office. Mostly it was the interaction with others, the feeling that I was “in the know” on things as they happened, the sense community, and being surrounded by the things I needed to do my job that allowed me to feel connected, productive and engaged in my work. So how could anyone possibly have the same experience working from home and on their own?
Recently, I made the leap from cubicle dweller to “solopreneur” and had a chance to find out. Turns out that working from home, or at least having the flexibility to work outside of a regular office environment, does wonders for engagement. Here’s how.
Improving focus. I consider myself to be a very organized person, married to my calendar and to-do list, but working from home requires a whole new level of discipline. With so many distractions, from morning talk shows to the constant snacking, and even the urge to do laundry or take a nap anytime I want, it’s even more important to remain focused. I still set an alarm for the same time as I always have. I get dressed as if I’m going out, because pajamas are even more motivation to go back to sleep, and I sit at a dedicated work space away from the couch. Taking advantage of my short commute to the dining room table allows me to get things done before my clients and colleagues arrive at their offices. The same is true for quitting time – while we’re never really “offline,” I try to keep to a regular end-of-day schedule in order to have some semblance of work-life balance. Adhering to this daily routine and maintaining some boundaries allows me to stay focused on work when I’m not “at work.”
Working lean. During my cubicle days, I relied on a lot of “stuff” to feel productive. My clunky desktop computer, my filing cabinets filled with past projects and reference materials, and countless Post-it notes and notebooks to record all of my big ideas. If I needed to review something, I’d print it out and mark it up. If I went to a meeting, I’d take my notebook, pen, phone, ID badge, water bottle and other “must haves” with me. Now I work from one lightweight laptop that houses a suite of online, cloud-based, and free! tools that allow me to take notes, look up information, track my time, and have face-to-face video meetings at a moment's notice. It’s my very own mission control. I never feel unprepared and I haven’t printed a piece of paper in months. While it was difficult to adjust to this lean work style, I realized that all that physical stuff was creating a false sense of productivity, not to mention a lot of waste. It’s pretty freeing to declutter my work life and know that I can set up shop wherever I go.
Building connections. Going into this, what I feared most was losing that sense of connection to colleagues and my company. After all, out of sight, out of mind, right? Would they know I still worked there? Would they take me seriously when I participated via phone or video? The truth is that I work with many colleagues and clients, some who work in an office and others who work from home, who I've never even met in person. Yet we work well together because we make the extra investment in getting to know each other on a more personal level. I remember walking into conference room meetings and launching right into the agenda and project updates. Now when I have a phone or video meeting with another remote colleague, we discuss where they're working from that day, what the weather is like, and all the different projects we’re involved in. We participate in virtual brainstorms and share resources and referrals. Technology certainly helps with this – from text messages to video conferences to Slack, there’s no lack of instant communication. Of course, there’s no denying the value of in-person relationships and collaboration, which is why I try to balance working from home with in-person meetings when it makes sense.
Most of all, developing appreciation. Not only do I appreciate the flexibility that working from home offers, I appreciate the colleagues and clients who value my work and trust me to do a good job regardless of where I am. This is what keeps me engaged and motivated to do my best every day. And I'm not alone. In fact, Gallup has found that employee engagement improves when people spend at least some time working remotely. Companies are taking note, as 60 percent of companies in a recent survey say they offer some remote work options, a threefold increase from 1996.
All that said, working from home is not all sunshine and roses. And it’s not for everyone. Perhaps one day I’ll write about the downside. Personally, I don’t know if I’ll continue to work on my own from home for the long-term, but if I do return to an office environment I know that having some level of flexibility will be an important factor I’ll consider.